Q: What inspired you to write Samira Surfs, and how did you create your character Samira?
A: Five years ago, I came across an article in a magazine about a group of girls who surf in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Among them was a young Rohingya girl.
What struck me immediately was how brave these surfers were. They were defying societal traditions and pushing themselves to the limit. A story was already beginning to take shape in my mind.
In creating my character Samira, I drew on my personal experiences of learning to surf and the challenges and joy that come with it. I was also raised in a part-Muslim household and am familiar with its customs and culture.
And to fully develop Samira's character as a refugee and a street seller, I spent a lot of time reading first-hand accounts and reports by NGOs and aid agencies.
Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: Gathering information through news articles and academic journals formed a large part of my research. I also interviewed Rohingya refugees who shared their stories with me.
After consulting a Bengali lifeguard/surf coach and a teacher, I was better able to understand the significance of being a female surfer in Cox's Bazar.
I pored over history books to learn about the history of Rohingya and the persecution they have faced for generations.
What most surprised me was the resiliency and steadfastness of the refugees. Many were brutally attacked and narrowly escaped the mounting onslaught by Myanmar police and military.
These survivors have been forced to rebuild their lives in neighboring countries, often in overcrowded camps. Many of them still hope to return to Myanmar if their basic rights are granted. In the meantime, the dream of going home sustains their daily life.
Q: Why did you decide to write the story in verse?
A: Writing Samira Surfs in verse allowed me to create an intimate space for the story. I want the reader to become fully immersed in Samira's mind and heart. The poems use the language of emotion and self-reflection, and this sincerity invites the reader to feel the story. Each line has rhythm and beat, which further enhances the reader's experience as the narrative unfolds.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from Samira's story?
A: I hope readers, young and old, remember that the human spirit has no bounds. Samira endures loss and sorrow, yet she is still able to find peace and freedom. Playing in the waves with her friends brings her those things.
The journey to finding her passion for surfing is not an easy one, but once she experiences it, Samira is determined to keep it alive.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I learned so much from writing this book. I'd like to put that hard work to more use by working on another middle-grade novel in verse.
I also have lots of ideas for more picture books that have been percolating for a long time. One of them is about food, and I need to write it to satisfy my hunger finally!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Writing takes determination and courage. When I wrote my first book, I felt exposed to the world. It was truly a heart-opening exercise, and I wasn't sure I could do it. But translating each emotion into words felt so liberating that I discovered writing is a place where I could let go and just be me.
If publishing interests you, I encourage you to pick up a pen and write the story that already lives in your imagination.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb