Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Q&A with Marina Budhos




Marina Budhos is the author of the new young adult novel We Are All We Have. Her other books include The Long Ride. She lives in New Jersey.


Q: What inspired you to write We Are All We Have, and how did you create your character Rania?


A: Rania literally came to me on a subway—I was on my way to do an author’s visit in Brooklyn, and I had a clear vision of her, including her name: I saw her un-tameable hair, her fierceness, and the fact that she’s an aspiring poet. I imagined her wearing black lace-up boots.


I had been musing for a while that I wanted to write the third novel in my loose trilogy around immigrant, Muslim teens post-9/11, beginning with Ask Me No Questions, followed by Watched.


But I had a strong sense that I wanted to portray a family that one doesn’t usually think of in the circumstances I often portray—this one is educated, coming from a privileged background. I wanted their immigration story to have a political backdrop, and for them to be asylum-seekers.


I also knew from the start that Rania’s parents had infused her with a love of words and language. And yet they are in this terrible place where no matter the words and story they build, it isn’t the one that immigration authorities want to hear, to give them the magical key to staying put, being safe.


Rania, the character, wasn’t so hard to build. But I actually wrote an entirely different manuscript, titled “Sanctuary,” based on her character. I delivered it to my editors and they were a bit lukewarm, as was I. Yet I knew I had found something in her character that wasn’t coming out in the way I’d constructed the story.


So I literally pulled her out and went in another direction—I decided this was a road novel, which would bring out greater depth and growth, her need to know, to learn the truth, and to survive.


I also wanted there to be real energy—a girl who is hungry for experience, who wants to find her version of America (thus the references to On the Road) and who, for the first time, tumbles into love. I wrote that version in a streak and we all were so much happier!


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, in part, “Budhos vividly portrays the fear and confusion many undocumented families experienced after the implementation of Trump-era asylum and immigration policies while also unflinchingly detailing the tensions and secrets within Rania’s family.” What do you think of that description?

A: Yes, I like that. This novel is propelled forward by a set of external forces at a particular moment in our history, and internal forces, within the family. I always wanted both to be unspooling together in the novel. In fact, I’d say that all my novels, while dealing with timely issues and settings, have a very intense family dynamic.


I wrote the first draft of this book during 2019, out of a sense of horror at what was occurring at the border, the separation of families. Even though I did not want to directly take on that situation, I wanted the atmosphere of fear and fragility, of “lost children” to permeate the story. I wanted to explore the state of asylum, the circumstances that lead to political asylum, and bring that to young readers.


I guess you could say I want to internationalize the story: depicting a family of relative privilege and education that finds themselves suspended, not able to find a final sanctuary in America. Asylum law is so very tricky and volatile and much less rational than people might assume. And during the period I was writing about, asylum was very nearly eliminated as a category.


I also knew I had another inner story—about family, about a girl who has been invested with certain ideals, through her journalist father—about seeking truth, and how words have a kind of magic power. She uses that legacy to unpeel the truth about her own mother, her family, and how they came to be in the predicament they are in.


Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: It took me a while to find the title because we had a different one, from the original concept of a novel. My editor and I kept raking through the manuscript, and that phrase, which ends one chapter, “We are all we have,” kept ringing in our minds.


And it felt right, because Rania is in flight, her whole life upended, and all she can hold on to is those she loves, and those who truly understand her predicament. It is a time when there is so little she can count on, and yet, in a way, she finds the very person she can experience this freefall with.


It also echoes the mother’s story—I don’t want to give away too much—when you are in flight, from family, from political danger—those you hold on to are your true home.


Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Rania and her brother, Kamal?


A: She’s deeply protective of him, but a little envious too, because he is much more protected. Her mother has put a lot on her shoulders, while also withholding quite a bit of information, so Rania has to keep scrambling to be both a parent and a sister to her brother.  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I recently finished an adult novel and I have been doing the finishing touches on a nonfiction proposal, based on a true story in my husband’s family. I am very excited about both. Otherwise, I am gearing up for We Are All We Have to come out to and to hopefully write some essays.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’ve actually been thinking a bit more about the back story of We Are All We Have—the disappearance of Rania’s father, who was a journalist risking his life to cover politically sensitive subjects.


With the recent attack on Salman Rushdie and the general atmosphere of repression and book banning, I feel ever the more concerned and vehement about freedom of speech, about the need to resist through story and words.


I hope that Rania, by the end of this novel, having come to terms with her own past, can feel the power to step into that inheritance.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Marina Budhos.

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