|Zara Raheem, photo by Nang Ngoc Pham|
Zara Raheem is the author of the new novel The Marriage Clock. She teaches English and creative writing, and she lives in Southern California.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Marriage Clock, and for your character Leila?
A: The idea came to me when I was going through the arranged process myself. Whenever I would share with friends details about the crazy, awkward, frustrating dates I was being set up on by my parents, they always seemed really entertained and fascinated by the whole process and encouraged me to start writing my experiences down. Gradually, those writings turned into the premise behind The Marriage Clock.
With Leila, I wanted a main character who not only felt familiar to me, but who also resembled the type of women I saw around me. Leila is outspoken, independent, unapologetic in her Americanness while also possessing a sense of pride in her South Asian roots.
I think oftentimes when you have a South Asian-American protagonist, they tend to fall on extreme ends of the spectrum—they are either too South Asian or too American. Leila, however, embraces her dual identities and doesn’t feel a need to reject or abandon her culture and traditions in order to “prove” her Americanness. She’s comfortable occupying the space in between, and I felt it was important to tell the story from her perspective since she, in many ways, redefines what it means to be a modern Muslim, South Asian woman living in the West.
Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: Initially, I had no idea how I wanted the book to end. I’ve never been a very detailed outliner, so even though I had the premise and a few ideas for certain scenes in mind, the rest I left pretty open-ended. As I began writing and developing the characters and the story, Leila’s journey eventually took on a life of its own, and by the time I reached the final chapter, everything leading up to it kind of came together, and I felt strongly about where her story should end.
Q: You dedicate the novel "to every woman who's ever been told she wasn't enough." What inspired that dedication, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: I think whether it’s at work, in our relationships, in our consumption of social media, women are constantly being told that we are not “good” enough, and these messages of inadequacy often have a lasting impact on our self-esteem, our perceptions of self-worth, and the choices that we make.
My hope is that Leila’s journey will resonate with readers, and perhaps challenge women to seek beyond the societal and cultural expectations of marriage and family in order to discover their own definitions of happiness.
Q: What are some of your favorite books?
A: I have a pretty eclectic taste in books—from Victorian literature to suspense thrillers to mystical poetry. With fiction, I would say that I’m mostly drawn to immigrant/cross-cultural stories. Some of my favorite books are The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, There, There by Tommy Orange, and pretty much anything written by Khaled Hosseini.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am currently working on a short story collection that centers around Muslim-American characters, the South Asian diaspora, and first-and-second generation immigrants.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: One of my favorite parts of this whole publishing journey has been connecting with fellow readers and writers through social media. So for anyone interested to know more about The Marriage Clock and any upcoming works, you can find me at www.zararaheem.com and on Instagram at @za_ra_heem.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb