We are delighted to welcome Farhana Zia, author of the newly-released middle-grade novel The Garden of my Imaan (Peachtree Publishers, 2013), to the PaperTigers Blog on the final leg of the book’s Blog Tour this week.
Fifth-grader Aliya is an American-born Muslim of Indian descent and she is the immensely likeable narrator of The Garden of my Imaan. The novel begins with a scene that must be familiar in many young people’s lives of being in the car, running late on a Sunday morning – but this particular journey is marrred by a racist comment flung at Aliya’s mother by another driver. In a way, this unsettling incident is a trigger for Aliya to explore more deeply how she lives her Muslim faith, coupled as it is with an assignment from her Sunday School teacher for Ramadan, for which Aliya writes a series of letters to Allah. These letters are interspersed with the narrative throughout the book and their openness and honesty, as well as their increasing level of maturity, offer readers a chance to reflect on both Aliya’s but also their own reactions to what life throws up for Aliya: in particular the challenges of living what initially Aliya sees as two separate lives, framed by school and religion.
Much of what Aliya experiences will be familiar to many of the book’s readers – the exciting school projects Aliya puts together with her best friend Winnie; dealing with peer dynamics – including the tyranny of both being bullied and seeking popularity; the challenge of standing for student council; and a happy, loving, at times annoying family. In addition, the book is firmly rooted in Aliya’s Muslim faith and her growth within it. The girls in Aliya’s Sunday School class share confidences and concerns about life, whether or not to wear the hijab, parties and boys. Then there is the unsettling effect of another Muslim girl, Marwa, arriving at her school, exuding a quiet but compelling confidence – how come she doesn’t mind everyone seeing her wearing the hijab? What does that mean for Aliya, who up till then has kept her faith completely separate from school?
The book is full of delightful, well-rounded characters from across the generations; and it probes readers to think about religious observances, both private and public, without restricting them to a specific set of answers. Pre-teen girls will be able to empathise with Aliya in general, and for those readers growing up in the western world post-9/11 who also share her Muslim faith, The Garden of my Imaan will be a particularly riveting read.
Farhana Zia grew up in Hyderabad, India and immigrated to the US in 1967. She is an elementary school teacher and is the author of acclaimed picture book Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji, illustrated by Ken Min (Lee & Low, 2011) – included by Jama Rattigan in her Top 10 Multicultural Picture Books about Food for PaperTigers’ 10th Anniversary. You can read a great interview with Farhana about Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji here, a joint interview with Ken Min here, and a “Peek at Farhana’s Creative Space” here.
At previous stops from this week’s blog tour, you will find reviews of The Garden of my Imman at:
~ Monday (April 15)
Welcome to Our Wonderland by 3 Bookworms
~ Tuesday (April 16)
Kid Lit Reviews~
And so, without further ado…
Welcome to PaperTigers, Farhana!
We enter Aliya’s life at a time when she finds herself exploring her Muslim faith and grappling with questions of whether to fast for Ramadan or to wear the hijab. She is surrounded by role models offering different perspectives and ultimately it has to come down to her. Her first-person narrative offers frank insight into these dilemmas, as well as events such as wanting to go to a friend’s party; the way she and others react when Marwa, another Muslim girl, arrives at her school; and running for student council…
How would you describe Aliya and did you enjoy creating/following her journey?
Aliya is a typical American pre-teen, dealing with some typical and some a-typical issues. Unlike her friend, Winnie, who is pretty brash and fearless, Aliya is non confrontational and is somewhat tentative on the surface. But there is something inside her, a potential if you will, that is waiting to blossom. This presents itself time and again in the form of a self-questioning and a desire to be a little better and a little stronger than she is.
In Aliya, I see the nature and nurture theory at play. She is receptive to the influence of her role models mostly because of her own inner mettle. Her story is the story of the growth of one’s self-esteem, which is partly gifted to us and partly dependent on the proper conditions in our environment.
And yes, I very much enjoyed walking step with step with Aliya and peeking into her hopes and dreams along the way. I particularly enjoyed seeing her arrive at the place in her head where I’d like my own grandchildren to be when they are at that age, if not sooner.
Aliya’s story opens with an unsettling racist incident, and there are shadows of prejudice that emerge at different moments in the story. In counterpoint to that, there is a positive multicultural thread running throughout — Aliya’s and Marwa’s families share their Muslim faith but come from different countries; Aliya’s best friend Winnie is Korean American. Were you conscious of this balance?
I’ve always found the middle ground to be the most reasonable. Our world is all about balance isn’t it? Seemingly contrary forces are interdependent. Day balances night; one season balances the other… just to cite two easy examples.
But it’s also about the balance between good and evil, hope and despair. The scale tips from time to time but finds its equilibrium sooner or later. If there is hate and intolerance in the world, there is also understanding and goodwill. In The Garden of my Imaan, I showed both sides of the coin — frailty and strength; trust and suspicion, problems and resolutions; success and failure — because these forces co-exist in counterpoint to each other.
Undesirable things happen to us from time to time, life being what it is. It’s pretty hard to let go of those negative experiences but the random acts of kindness shown to us are memorable too. It’s those kindnesses — genuine and unexpected — that keep our faith renewed in the humanity of all people.
As a people we naturally have differences in attitudes and outlooks simply because we have our own personal histories and experiences. It’s when these differences lead on to cause harm to others that we all must be wary. And I think the best long-term remedy in such instances is education and open dialogue.
A sense of intergenerational love and wisdom emanates from the book — as well a strand of resentment where visiting grandmother Choti Dahdi is concerned. You have created some strong women! How would you describe the different relationships that they represent?
The book is as much about familial bonds as it is about Aliya’s personal growth. It is a tribute to a multi-generational family system operating at its best. I lived in such a system for part of my youth and grew to appreciate the closeness of relationships as well as the seamless support systems that developed so naturally.
To me, Aliya’s home represents all of this. Amma and Badi Amma are more to her than grandmothers whom she visits on rare occasions. They are an integral part of her daily life. And as such, there is a lot of cross pollination going on between her and them. Amma and Badi Amma impart wisdoms, traditions, culture and values, while she keeps them informed about things like spas and such. Of the two, Amma has a more active role in Aliya’s life but Badi Amma also has a say in all important matters. It’s the village that raises the child, you see.
Choti Dahdi is a visiting relative. She is idiosyncratic, dogmatic and causes chagrin but she’s respected as a member of the extended family. There is no question of Aliya disrespecting her. Grumble, perhaps but disrespect? Never. Why? Because of the important lessons instilled into her by Badi Amma, Amma and Mom, of course!
The book is interspersed with Aliya’s letters to Allah for her Sunday School project. How important was this for the structure of the book?
The Allah letters were absent in the first draft. At that time, The Garden of my Imaan was still evolving. But once the story line began to take a firm shape, the letters became not only pertinent but almost essential. Aliya’s reflections mirror her growth. Her private confessions allow her to make better sense of the issues she is grappling with. The letters let the readers see this. In many ways, the letters are the glue that holds the threads of the story together.
Food is also an important theme in the book – did you know it would be so central when you started writing it?
Ramadan was always central to the story from the start and while eating and drinking between sunrise and sunset is forbidden during Ramadan, the truth is that food gets to be pretty important before and after the fast. The story of Thanksgiving coinciding with Ramadan was also there from the start. So there you have it. There was more than one reason to write about food. The foods mentioned in the story are examples of the foods one might typically have for suhur (before fasting) and iftar (breaking of the fast) on the Indian subcontinent. The sheer khorma is a traditional dessert in Indo/Pakistani Muslim households and definitely part of the Eid menu.
How did your own faith influence your writing?
I could only write this story with most honesty from a perspective I knew best, and my views are moderate. This book is not about Islam. It might give some information about some of the practices but only that. And it does not promote any particular view point either. But it does speak about the variations in the practice of the faith and it speaks about the variations in its adherents. It’s a simple social commentary, related in simple terms through a fictionalized telling. I am more at ease with Aliya’s family’s views pertaining to the hijab but at the same time, I wrote with an appreciation for those whose strength of conviction compels them to wear hijab and to stay faithful to the requirements of practice.
…And your experience as a teacher?
I suspect some issues in the book would not be as easily apparent to me had I not been a teacher. You get to witness the full gamut of human behaviors and interactions in a classroom with so many personalities, attitudes, and perspectives co-mingling or conflicting. A classroom is truly a slice of the bigger world and more so now when society is getting increasingly multicultural.
What do you hope readers will take away from the story?
Aliya’s story could be the story of any young person, anywhere in the world, navigating her way through some bumps in life. I hope readers will see this and be on her side as she tries to resolve her particular issues. I hope the story will leave readers feeling good because it is a story of faith in the human potential. I hope they will see that Muslims come in all skin tones, ethnicities and degrees of religious fervor and that they are no different in this from Christians, Jews or Hindus. But most of all, I hope the readers will see that it’s not what’s on our head that matters but what’s in it.
How different was the writing experience for you, compared with your first book, picture book Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji?
Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji was conceived, and written pretty quickly. The idea for the story fell into place by the end of my usual walk around the neighborhood. On the other hand, The Garden of my Imaan took much longer to complete. It underwent several major transformations. Originally, I wanted to write it as picture book but the theme grew larger and the original premise of the story changed entirely. What this book shares with Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji though, is the theme of family. It’s something I seem to keep coming back to in my work.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve submitted a manuscript recently. Besides that, I’ve been taking a second look at several picture book manuscripts I have in store already and I am also mulling some ideas for writing something new. I don’t have a clear vision yet but it will likely be a chapter book, adventure/myth mix with a male protagonist. There are a whole lot of questions at this point. I do my best thinking during my walks and now that the weather is improving I’m hoping that something’s going to start flowing soon.
Thank you for the opportunity to share some thoughts in your blog.
And thank you, Farhana, for being with us today — I’ve loved exploring The Garden of my Imaan more deeply with you.