Aisha Saeed Talks “Amal Unbound,” Aladdin and Finding Desi Magical Realism

"I was one of the few [Muslim authors in young adult and middle grade] in the beginning, and now there are more and more, but you have to remember and honor those people around us. We stand on their shoulders, and so I think that's just really important to read the works of those who came before."

Author Aisha Saeed
Author Aisha Saeed discusses writing process, where she dervies inspiration and much more.

Fann’s “Fall Into Reading” series spotlights Muslim authors changing the game in children’s literature. Each week, we’ll sit down with a different author to discuss storytelling, representation and what it means to be Muslim in the world of publishing.

Aisha Saeed has published books in the young adult (YA), middle grade and picture book age ranges. She writes creative nonfiction, magical realism and even fantasy. Saeed’s first novel "Written in the Stars" was published in 2015 and tells the story of a girl who was forced into an arranged marriage but still clings on to hope. Saeed’s middle-grade novel "Amal Unbound" was published in 2020 to critical acclaim, and it tells the story of a young girl forced into indentured servitude to pay off her family’s debts. Many of Saeed’s books tackle problems that impact young girls in the South Asian and Muslim communities, although several of her books also explore the joys of being South Asians and Muslim, like "Bilal Cooks Daal" and “"Once Upon an Eid," which she co-edited alongside author S. K. Ali. Saaed spoke to Fann about her work as a writer, her most recently published novel "Forty Words for Love" and the joy she takes in writing about her community. 

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Fann Staff: What inspired you to become an author?

Aisha Saeed: I feel like I've been writing for as long as I can remember. I'm sure that's the case with a lot of [fellow authors]: a lot of us have grown up loving to read and loving to put our thoughts down on paper. I think that's why I became a writer — [because] I loved to read as a kid. The more you read, the more you get inspired to think of your own stories.

Fann Staff: Was there a first story that you distinctly remember really enjoying writing?

Aisha Saeed: It's silly, but the very first story that I remember writing was in fifth grade. I was 10. Our teacher gave us an assignment to do a retelling of a classic children's fairy tale. So I chose the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” … I took that story and I wrote basically a sequel. I wrote about [the bears] catching Goldilocks and making her fix what she had done [when she ate their food and broke their beds], and I had all these spreads I had illustrated. My teacher helped us do revisions, and after we were all done, we laminated the books and [made it so we] could check each other's books out from the school library. I always say, especially when I'm talking to young readers in elementary or middle school, that that's when I became an author because I wrote a whole book from start to finish. That's also when I really saw the power of connecting through storytelling, because I got to see kids taking my book and checking it out in the library, reading, laughing at parts and then returning the book. I was like, ‘This is so neat that I could write something for me, but then it could connect with other people.’ That's around the time when I decided that I wanted to try to be an author one day.

I was one of the few [Muslim authors in young adult and middle grade] in the beginning, and now there are more and more, but you have to remember and honor those people around us. We stand on their shoulders, and so I think that's just really important to read the works of those who came before.

Fann Staff: You have experience as a teacher and an attorney as well. Was there anything from those specific backgrounds that you brought into your own writing?

Aisha Saeed: I taught second grade, and I was a public interest lawyer. I represented kids in the school system who had disabilities or chronic illnesses and I think I bring both of those skills into my writing in different ways. As a teacher, I was working with young people, and as a writer, I write for young people. I write middle grade, young adult and picture books. A big part when you're writing for children is school visits. I go to classrooms around the country and talk about writing. Having that background [as a teacher] really helps me because I know I've learned the skills of how to connect with kids. It's funny because a lot of times teachers don't know that I was a teacher, but they can tell [as soon as] I get up there. They can tell by the way that I talk, and the way I project. I didn't practice law for very long, but I feel like law school really helps your brain get trained in how to think critically. Also, as a writer, I have to sign lots of contracts, so for the not so fun parts of being a writer, the lawyer background definitely helps.

Fann Staff: You've written for various age levels. In a picture book, you only have so many words to tell a story, as opposed to a middle grade novel or even a young adult novel. Could you tell me a little bit about how you navigate writing for those different age groups and what challenges you face?

Aisha Saeed: Picture books are the hardest. They're so hard. I have a picture book my editor wants to see but I don't want to write it because like you said, with middle grade and young adult, you can take your time; you can use all the words you want. But with a picture book, you have to get it down to about 600 or 700 words maximum. And you have to capture character, character arc, emotion; there is so much you have to convey and you just don't have a lot of space for it. I would say of all the age categories I write for, that is my hardest, but the way that I choose a story to tell is based on voice. 

For example, “Amal Unbound” was my second book and it's a middle grade. But the only other book I’d ever written was my debut “Written in the Stars,” which was a young adult book. When I started writing it, I thought, ‘Okay, well I write young adult and my next book will be young adult too, because it's what I do.’ “Amal Unbound” is a story about this girl in Pakistan and a landlord who is ruling their village by fear. I was writing this story as a 17-year-old girl. I sent it to my editor and I said, ‘Something feels off but here it is, what do you think?’ She wrote me back after she read it and said, ‘You wrote a middle grade book.’ The voice was young. A 17-year-old has a different worldview; they see their parents differently, their future is almost here. A 12-year-old is different in the way they see the world, the way they see their parents. The way I had written [it], that voice was younger. I had to go back and rewrite the entire book, but it was so much better because the voice was younger. So I try to follow the voice. With my latest book “Forty Words for Love,” I really wanted to write it [for] middle grade, but there was a love story in it. I tried to write out the love story thinking, ‘Maybe I can just make them friends,’ but I couldn't because it just needed to be a young adult book. I don't set about saying I will write a middle grade or I will write a young adult novel. It's more like, ‘Here's this person who I'm hearing in my head. What voice is going to make this the best story it can be?’ I feel really lucky that I get to do that, and that I get to do all different types. I get to really stretch my creativity. 

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Fann Staff: I can see why reading “Amal Unbound” with Amal as a 17-year-old would have been different because I feel like there's something about Amal that is so specific to that age, specifically her naivete but also her hopefulness. This book is so based in Pakistan,in the culture and even in the language — there was mention of Allama Iqbal and Benazir Bhutto, who were Urdu writers. What was it like writing in English while trying to translate those things that are so specific to Urdu and the culture of Pakistan?

Aisha Saeed: It’s tricky, because the whole book is really in Urdu — that's what they're speaking, but it's written in English. So basically what I had to do — and it was a very conscious choice on my part — was to write it the way I speak. Some people were like, ‘Oh, she's saying things in an American way.’ I was like, ‘Yes, because she’s in Pakistan and she's living there. She's speaking in her own comfortable way. She's not going to speak formally.’ I wanted to make her accessible for young people so that they could relate to her. 

I think it's getting better, but when I was much younger and I read a book about somebody set in a different country, they would have different dialects and different accents, but that's not how they think. It was a really conscious effort [for me to not do the same]. I had to change things in my head as I was writing. There's one part where they were saying somebody's congratulating someone, and I put mubarak, but then my editor asked, ‘Wait, why is that mubarak but everything else is in English?’ So I had to change it to congratulations. It's weird if you don't translate everything, but I kept some things. I think I have Inshallah in there … [and] I think that's fine, because that has its own meaning. Even if you live in the United States, you should know what that means. You could quickly look up what that means, but it was different. It was complicated. 

It's interesting because I chose not to have a glossary either. I have things like shalwar kameez and things like that, but I did not [put a glossary]. For my very first book, I was told to put a glossary and I was brand new, so I did a glossary, but then I felt funny about it because these things are not that hard to understand. You should figure out what this is from the context. If I say my shalwar kameez is hanging in the closet and I say I ironed it, you should know that it is an outfit. A lot of thought goes into this. I put charpai in there, and I didn't really know how to translate that, but I didn't want to define it in the back of the book because I figured if I'm telling you she's going to sleep on the charpai, you should know [what it is].

Fann Staff: “Forty Words for Love” was your first foray into magical realism. What was it like writing in that specific style when it is a specific thing that’s a little bit different from the rest of your work?

Aisha Saeed: It was kind of an experiment to try something different. It's a story that I've been thinking about for years and years. It's interesting because magical realism as it's understood in the West is said to have its roots in Latin America. I really thought about whether it was okay for me to write this. I talked to a lot of Pakistani and Indian writers. My editor for “Forty Words for Love,” Zareen Jaffery, is Pakistani. I talked to her about it, and I talked to magical realism writers from Latin America as well. Ultimately, I realized [that] we in Pakistan have our own magical realism going on. They may not call it that, but that's how I'm interpreting it. I remember the stories we would tell each other when I was little, like, ‘Oh, if you walk underneath this tree at night, there's a jinn that will follow you home’ and how you can't have [surgical] operations on Thursdays because it's the day before Jumah. There are so many different things that are kind of magical in our culture, and magical realism as I've understood it is how people make sense of trauma. That's why in South America, there were disappearances happening due to the government and [magical realism] was how people were coping with the trauma.

“Forty Words for Love” is a story about a town where a boy drowns. They have these beautiful magical oceans that suddenly go dim, and the economy crumbles and so that's a lot of trauma, a lot of pain. I thought instead of writing it as a contemporary, I wanted to write it with just a touch of magic — it's still our world, just a little bit different — so that I can access different things. It was interesting. It took a long time to write. I started writing it in 2016, and it just came out this year, so it took about seven years. 

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Fann Staff: Personally, I cannot imagine spending seven years on anything. When you started out writing, did you understand how long it would take?

Aisha Saeed: My debut took 10 years from the time I had the idea to the time it was published. I had the idea for “Amal Unbound” in 2011, and it was published in 2018. It does take me a while [to write]. That includes brainstorming, outlining, drafting and revising, and then the copy edits and marketing. I've done "Wonder Woman" books and those are where people have hired me to do something. Those usually come out a little bit faster. But with my own work, I like to take my time because once the book is out, it's out and then it's done. I do write a lot of books; this year alone, I have three books coming out. I'm working in different stages. Right now, I have a picture book coming out in June 2024. That's kind of done and now all I'm doing is looking at the art, but then I have two other books that are in the revision stages. I'm just fixing things in them and sending them back to my editor, and then I have another book that's in the idea stage where I'm just brainstorming. So I have one in brainstorming, one I'm revising and one that I'm just tweaking with final touches. That's kind of how you do it. If I was writing one book every seven years, that would not be very many books. I'm in different stages with the different books, and so that's why I feel like it's okay that it takes me a while, because there's other stuff ahead of it.

Fann Staff: I also wanted to ask about “Bilal Cooks Daal” because I just love that a lot of it is shaped around how long daal takes to cook, whether you want to use a pressure cooker or not. What was it like coming up with that story of sharing that particular thing which is a basic staple for all of us South Asians?

Aisha Saeed: I get a lot of playful trolling about [how long it takes] and why Bilal does not have an Instant Pot because it doesn't need to take that long. I came up with the story before Instant Pot [became a thing]. Okay, yes, he could have used an Instant Pot too, but he uses a slow cooker. That was my first picture book and it came to me because of my middle son. He came home [from nursery school] when he was around 3 years old. He was like, ‘We did morning circle time and we talked about our favorite food and nobody knew what daal was!’ He was just stunned. I reached out to the teacher and I was like, ‘Can I come in and show all our different daals?’ and I did. We went in and I did a show and tell. The kids touched the different daals, and then I brought daal and they had it and it was such a fun experience. I started thinking about how in South Asia we eat daal, [and] it’s a staple. It's nutritious. It's affordable. A lot of people don't know about it, so I thought I would write a book about it. 

I feel like it's the one book desis like the most. It's funny because I go to high schools and I don't talk about “Bilal Cooks Daal,” but when I show all my books on the slides, it’s always the desis in the class who [recognize it]. It's kind of cool. I get pictures from students (desi and non-desi) who are making it in their class as part of an activity. I've gotten emails and letters from parents who are like, ‘My kid is such a picky eater, but they were like, fine, Bilal made it so I'll make it too.’ That's been really, really special. The recipe in the back of the book is my mom's recipe, the recipe that I grew up eating, so it's kind of neat to see people in the world eating the recipe that I grew up eating and still eat at my house. 

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Fann Staff: You've been a part of a lot of organizations' efforts towards making it easier for marginalized authors to be published — you’re a founding member of We Need Diverse Books, and “Bilal Cooks Daal” was published under the Salaam Reads imprint. Could you tell me a little bit about how it's been to see these things evolve over time?

Aisha Saeed: We Need Diverse Books started in 2014. It was something very organic. It was just a group of authors chatting online on Twitter, at the right time in the right place. We took it off Twitter and started emailing each other. We came up with this hashtag [#WeNeedDiverseBooks], and we asked our friends to participate, as well as editors. We thought it would just be a three day campaign of just a hashtag. We had no idea it was going to go so viral. Once it did, and we started getting invited to speak, we were like, ‘We need to be more than that. We need to probably become a nonprofit so we can keep doing the work.’ I'm still a member of We Need Diverse Books, but I'm no longer on the foundation committee. I stepped down years ago, but I'm still so supportive. 

I couldn't have imagined a decade ago that there would be things like the Highlights Foundation fellowships and the Muslim scholarships for writers at We Need Diverse Books. It's incredible, even taking it out beyond books like with television, but there's more we need. I feel really strongly [that] we need female Muslim representation, as I feel like there are a lot of desi men who get a lot of love in the media, as far as television shows and movies. I'd like to see more women, but I see a lot of progress.

But I also see a pushback coming. “Bilal Cooks Daal” was one of the books that was banned alongside a lot of other books in York County, Pennsylvania. I just got an email a few days ago from We Need Diverse Books that there was a school that won a grant to get “Amal Unbound” and the school has banned it. 

I used to get invited to speak lots of places, and I still am getting invited, but all of us have noticed that school visits have dropped because there's a push back to it. A lot of the elders within the We Need Diverse Books movement — people who are older than us, who've been in the fight longer — said to us that there'll be a push back, and we were like, ‘No, we're changing the world, it’s going to be great!’ But there's a push back, and I hope that it will be short lived. We're the majority; it's the minority that are pushing against it. It's just so amazing to see that my kids just take it for granted. They're like, ‘Oh, yeah, there's Ms. Marvel. Of course, there's a Muslim superhero.’ 

I'm really grateful that I've been able to write — at this point, 13 — books so I can share a diversity within my own collection of the desi or the Muslim experience.

Fann Staff:  There are definitely not a lot of Muslim women in TV and film, but there are a lot of women in the children's and middle grade spheres. 

Aisha Saeed: I feel like just children's literature in general is dominated by women. Women do write more kidlit in general. For me as a mom of three kids, I can't go to Hollywood and write scripts, I just don't have that ability. I wonder if there's that gendered aspect to just the accessibility of being an author over film and TV and the extra hoops you have to work through. You need someone to be able to fund you to go — just taking coffee to your boss, you're not making much, and so you have to have some kind of parental inheritance or something to enable you to do that. I always loved editing, I love doing that kind of work, but I didn't become an editor because I couldn't afford to go to New York City. I honestly wouldn't have been allowed; my parents were a little bit strict. Back when I was growing up in the 80s, and 90s, my parents wouldn't have let me, so I think there are those kinds of hurdles to that. You might see more Muslim women in books, but those are just my guesses. 

Fann Staff: I also want to ask about “Once Upon an Eid” because that was not a book that I would have imagined to have growing up. Could you tell me how you and S. K. Ali came up with the selection of stories and what the process was?

Aisha Saeed: S. K. Ali and I are friends and we write books ourselves that deal with real issues and pain — “Written in the Stars” is a book about a forced marriage, and S. K. Ali wrote an assault throughline in her first book. I think those stories are important, but we thought we also need happy and non-triggering stories just to celebrate. We should be allowed to have all kinds of stories, so that's where the idea for “Once Upon an Eid” came from. We could just write happy, fluffy stories for kids to read, but we also wanted it to be a diverse array so that even reluctant readers could get into it. G. Willow Wilson wrote a comic for it, Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow wrote a poem and Hanna Alkaf wrote a novel in verse. We had regular short stories, we had a comic, we had all these different things. We wanted it to be something that a kid could pick up and find something they connected with; even if they didn't like every story, they would find one that fit them. 

We also wanted to capture the diversity of the Muslim community, because I feel like in children's literature, most of us authors are desi. There should be more Black Muslim authors, so I feel like we wanted this short story collection to have [more diversity] — [we have] Black Muslim authors, we have an Iraqi Muslim author, [we have] a Malaysian Muslim author. One thing that was really tricky to find was a Shia author. We could not find any Shia existing children's literature authors. Writing “Once Upon an Eid” without reflecting the Shia community just felt like an erasure. So we ended up recruiting Huda Al-Marashi — who's a friend who I love, who writes for adults — and she wrote a beautiful story. It's one that people love. It's called “Not An Only” about being the only Muslim kid in a small town. We wanted Muslim kids to find themselves within the story and we also wanted to challenge the stereotypes that people have about Muslims that we're all just from one place or we're all immigrants. There are kids who are immigrants, but there are kids who have been here for generations. I’m really grateful for how [the book has] resonated with kids.

Fann Staff: I also wanted to ask about “Grounded.” I thought it was such a cool concept for a story, but I can't imagine writing a book with three other authors. How did you all construct that story?

Aisha Saeed: One day, I was delayed for a flight and I did not have an adventure, I was just sitting there. As I was just sitting there and there was a storm, I was thinking about how if I was a kid, this could be a different experience. I just need to get home and I need to get to my family. But a kid could maybe even see an airport as this magical place. So I had this idea of four kids stuck in an airport on a stormy night. But I wanted it told from four different points of view. Similar to “Once Upon an Eid,” I wanted to have a little bit of diversity of the Muslim experience. I thought, ‘How could four Muslim kids team up for a story?’ and [then] I was like, ‘ISNA!’ We renamed it to a different name, but it's basically the Islamic Society of North America conference that happens on Labor Day every year. And we thought, ‘Oh, what if all these people are coming back from ISNA flying through different places and there's a storm?’ I was telling S. K. Ali about the story idea, and she thought it sounded great. We [then] asked Jamilah Thompins-Bigelow and Huda Al-Marashi. Writing with three other people is a big undertaking. We had lots of Zoom meetings, and we used Google Docs a lot so [that] we could work together at the same time in the documents. You do have to be careful when you're co-writing that you're all seeing eye-to-eye, that you have the same vision, and we talked about all that. It was really fun because I could not write about the Black Muslim experience, but Jamilah was able to delve into that and Huda’s character is Lebanese and so she could dive into that. It was really neat to be able to write all those different characters and make it a single story, but it definitely was a lot of work.

Fann Staff: Were there any challenges in making sure you all had a similar tone or writing style?

Aisha Saeed: No, all of our voices were different, but then we did have to match up. Basically what happened was in my chapter, even though I have my own voice and style, I still have Jamilah’s character Feek and Sajidah’s character Hanna, and so I would do my best to put those [together]. I felt like we were all pretty tuned in to each other's characters. But then we could go back in and fix it if I didn’t think my character would say [something] like that. So you know, I think each character had their own writing style, but then for wherever there were the other characters, we could just go in and fix it. It wasn't really much of an issue. 

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Fann Staff: I also wanted to ask about your work for hire, specifically for “Wonder Woman.” What is your favorite trait of Diana’s and what did you enjoy about writing for her?

Aisha Saeed: I didn't know much about Wonder Woman when they asked me to write and so I asked, ‘Are you sure?’ Literally when they told me it was going to be Wonder Woman, I was like, ‘Oh, you mean Ms. Marvel?’ They were like, ‘No.’ They said, ‘Well, we don't want you to know much about her because you're writing about her before she knows she's Wonder Woman. So you're kind of creating a new story.’ I’d say my favorite thing about her was how she’s a superhero but she's misunderstood, and her mom is trying to get her to be what she [doesn’t] want to be because her mom's worried for her and about the responsibility Diana will have one day. [That] was really fun to write. Yes, it's a fantasy, but the emotions are not fantasy. In a way, they're very similar to Amal, with Amal wanting to do things she wants to and her family trying to hold her back. Similarly, Diana wants to do things and her mom's trying to hold her back. I loved writing about how powerful and brave she is; things I'll never be able to do but I can do it in my book. 

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Fann Staff:  I also want to ask about your book with Aladdin [“Far from Agrabah”], because I feel like Aladdin for us desi, or Arab and MENA people, is such an interesting character. I feel like we all find something in him, but we don't actually know if Aladdin or Jasmine are South Asian or Muslim or not. What was it like writing for that? Did you have any trepidation going into it?

Aisha Saeed: I grew up on Aladdin, and I loved Aladdin because it was the only representation I had. When I went back to it as an adult, I was horrified. It's so offensive and insulting, so when I was approached about it, I was able to [see the] script and I was able to see slides that they had studied about representation and problematic representation. When I read the script, I was like, ‘Okay, they're kind of trying to right their wrongs here.’ Jasmine has a lot more agency. That opening song which is really bad, about how Arabs are barbarians [is gone]. I felt like this was my chance to take that story and tell it the way I want to tell it. I had to make sure, though. I didn't want to be tied to something that was problematic. 

I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't read the script. I wrote it and it was really nice. There's a chase scene when they hide, and there's a spider that covers up the cave that they're hiding and it just magically appears. For any Muslim, they probably know about the cave where the Prophet hid and there was a spider web and [the people looking for him] thought that there was nobody there. I got to put little Easter eggs that Muslims could recognize as part of our storytelling and culture and hadith, and that was really neat to be able to to put those into the story. As far as what [Aladdin’s] culture is, I don't know! They're wearing desi clothes, but there are camels and then there's desert. I don't know what's happening there, but it was really fun to write, because no matter what, desi culture and Arab culture is all kind of intermixed in it. It was kind of nice to be able to be part of that, to be part of the storytelling that's taking out the harm that was in the original version. 

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Fann Staff: You talked a little bit about the issues with Aladdin and its problematic representation, but I feel like it can get very daunting when you're writing something and thinking, ‘Oh, what if this doesn't represent someone the way they want to be represented?’ Do you find you struggle with that at all? How do you navigate it? 

Aisha Saeed: It’s really, really hard. Especially when I was writing my first book “Written in the Stars,” that story was inspired by people I knew growing up in my community in Miami. I had friends who were forced into getting married, and I watched it happen. It didn't happen to me, I went to college. While I was getting my degree, I saw my friends leaving really abusive situations and crying, calling me at night. That novel was written as a way to process what I had experienced; how does somebody who loves their child do this to them? When the book came out, I really was thinking about how my book is one of very few, especially at that time, [books with] Muslim or desi representation. Something I worked a lot on in the book was where I wrote that this is not Islam. This is not Islam. This is cultural. The people who save her are also Muslim. There are people within this community who are saying this is not okay. When there are such few representations we have, the canon is heavier. One of my friends who's an editor in the publishing world and who's Muslim and Pakistani said, ‘Whenever you're struggling with that, you should always err on the side of justice.’

There are so many stories written about forced marriage and arranged marriage that are told very stereotypically, so my hope was that this book would create nuance. It was interesting, because the first email I ever got from that book was from a Mormon woman who ran a shelter for women who were running away from forced marriage in the Mormon community. I think [the weight of representation is] not fair in a way; marginalized creators, especially Muslims who have had a tough go within Western culture and representation, want to tell our stories. And we have issues within our community that we want to write about and expose, but then it's like, ‘Oh, God, then everyone's going to see it. Everyone's going to make assumptions.’ It's a constant battle, but I think that's why [I have a range] with my stories. I have that forced marriage story, but then I have “Yes, No, Maybe So” that I wrote with my friend Becky Albertalli, and it's a love story and the parents are nothing like [the parents in “Written in the Stars”]. I'm really grateful that I've been able to write — at this point, 13 — books so I can share a diversity within my own collection of the desi or the Muslim experience. But it's definitely hard as Muslims because you always are like, ‘Oh, what if [this is] the only book someone [reads] and then they walk away with [this concept representing all Muslims]?’ But that's why in “Written in the Stars,” I put a scene in there where she hears the azaan and she feels comfort and she prays. This is not faith that's doing this. This is very, very corruptible human people doing this. It is not the religion, and I think that has to be emphasized, because otherwise, the default is going to be, ‘Oh, yeah, Muslims do this.’ 

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Fann Staff: Is there a dream project you would like to work on? 

Aisha Saeed: Not really, I feel really grateful that I've been able to do this. This is the dream. This is my job; I could not have imagined this ever, really. I feel like I'm already there, and I’m just so grateful that my stories get read by people and that storytelling is my job.

Fann Staff: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming Muslim or desi writers?

Aisha Saeed: I'd say my biggest piece of advice for Muslim writers, for desi writers and for all writers really, is just to read widely in the area that you're writing. Sometimes I will hear very young writers — I'm talking like middle school — being like, ‘I'm gonna write the one story about this!’ But what else is out there? Always be aware, because I was one of the few [Muslim authors in young adult and middle grade] in the beginning, and now there are more and more, but you have to remember and honor those people around us. We stand on their shoulders, and so I think that's just really important to read the works of those who came before. Read the works of what's out there right now. What is your voice going to add to that mix? What are you going to bring to it? I think those are some good pieces of advice, not just for desi and Muslim writers but for all writers: whatever area you're planning to write in, know the area.

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