Na'ima B. Robert has written books for children, teenagers, and adults, including Far From Home, a winner of the 2013 Children's Africana Book Award, and her latest, She Wore Red Trainers. She lives in London and in Cairo.
Q: You've written for younger readers and teenagers, as well as adults. Do you have a preference?
A: I most enjoy writing for children and teenagers, to be honest. I don’t know whether it is because I get to forget my age and see the world through the eyes of a child again, as in the case of my picture books, or because I get to experience a different fictional world in the process of writing the YA novels, but I find the process really invigorating.
It’s an adventure every time, particularly as each book is based in a different cultural milieu.
Q: Many of your books deal in some way with your Muslim faith. What do you hope readers learn about Islam from your books?
A: To counterbalance what they may hear in the mainstream media. So much of what we are told does nothing but produce fear, distrust and contempt of ‘the other’. This is particularly true of Muslims in the media.
I hope that, when young people read a book with a Muslim protagonist, they develop a special kind of understanding, an empathy, for Muslim teens who are different to them, but also similar to them in so many ways.
Who hasn’t wanted to fit in with their peer group, like Faraz in Boy vs. Girl? Who hasn’t clashed with their parents, like Safia in From Somalia, with Love? Who hasn’t had to find the courage to make really difficult decisions, like Dwayne in Black Sheep?
Our struggles as humans are universal, even though our situations, beliefs and cultures may be different. Books and stories have an amazing way of bridging those gaps.
Q: On your website, you describe yourself as ‘Muslim, Black, mixed-race, Southern African, Western, revert and woman all in one’. How do you think that perspective affects your writing?
A: I think it makes me feel like the heir to an incredibly rich and diverse legacy of stories and experiences. In a way, I feel it has given me confidence to tell a wider range of stories, even those that are not, strictly speaking, my own.
When I look at the books I have written and the ones I hope to write in the future, there is a common thread: they are diverse, in terms of culture and context, and they are not ‘mainstream’. This is where I feel my voice is needed the most and I am happy to continue honouring this voice by telling the stories we seldom hear.
Q: When you're writing a novel, do you usually plan the entire plot before you begin, or do you make changes along the way?
A: I will admit to being more of a planner than a ‘pantser’. I watched a series of plot crafting videos a couple of years ago and it revolutionised the way I think about plot.
Of course, there will always be surprises along the way. My favourites are when a character turns out to be quite different from how I imagined him or her. This happened to me with the female protagonist of my latest book, She Wore Red Trainers. I didn’t expect her to be quite as feisty and opinionated!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Aside from promoting my new book, a ‘halal love’ story, I am planning to try my hand at middle grade fiction after the summer, as well as a few books for adults.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Just that I have a new book out! As you can tell, I am quite excited about this one. You can read an extract at www.muslimlovestory.com and watch the trailer on YouTube.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb