Children’s Author Aisha Saeed on South Asian Storytelling for a Western Audience

Raised on fantastical tales from South Asia, Saeed explores the intertwining of ordinary and magical elements in her cultural narratives in "Forty Words for Love."

Children’s Author Aisha Saeed on South Asian Storytelling for a Western Audience
Photo credit: (left) Aisha Saeed, (right) Jasmin Rubero & Penguin Random House

In a feature in Publishers Weekly, author Aisha Saeed discusses her latest YA novel, "Forty Words for Love." The novel blends fantasy with everyday experiences to pay homage to South Asian storytelling. Raised on fantastical tales from South Asia, Saeed explores the intertwining of ordinary and magical elements in her cultural narratives. "Forty Words for Love" follows two star-crossed teens, Yas and Raf, who are dealing with loss, home and community in the aftermath of a tragedy.

Saeed delves into her own experiences as a first-generation Pakistani American, paralleling Raf's struggle to justify her existence in a foreign land. The story, set in Moonlight Bay, unfolds against the backdrop of economic collapse and rising hostilities. Through the fantastical elements of pink seas and glowing leaves, Saeed explores real-life challenges, drawing parallels between her teenage years and the uncertainties of a global pandemic and climate crises in her ancestral lands.

"Forty Words for Love" defies easy categorization, blending elements of fantasy, contemporary realism and magical realism. Saeed describes it as a love letter to her heritage, merging mythology, folklore, magic and reality to capture the messy truths of the contemporary world. She acknowledges the importance of diversity in the publishing industry, highlighting her gratitude for the opportunity to tell a unique story that honors her cultural traditions and addresses complex, uncategorized themes.

“This story is an homage to my heritage and to the ever-present themes within South Asian tales of love and longing,” Saeed said. “It is also a love letter to all of us who exist outside of easy categorization.” She goes on to credit her editor, Zareen Jaffery, who is also Pakistani American and was able to take a chance on Saeed writing a book that doesn’t cleanly fit into traditional publishing categories. “This … is a testament to the importance not only of diverse authors from traditionally marginalized backgrounds, but to the critical importance of diversity within the publishing industry,” Saeed continued. “Without [that], a story like this — honoring a storytelling tradition that is not yet neatly categorized by Western readers — would not exist.”

Aisha Saeed is an award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of books for children. Her middle grade novel "Amal Unbound" received multiple starred reviews and was a Global Read Aloud for 2018. Her picture book "Bilal Cooks Daal" received an APALA honor. Aisha is also a founding member of the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books. She lives in Atlanta with her family (via Saeed’s website). Fann previously spoke with Saeed as part of our Fall Into Reading interview series.

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