Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Q&A with Lila Riesen




Lila Riesen is the author of the new young adult novel Free Radicals


Q: What inspired you to write Free Radicals, and how did you create your character Mafi?


A: I wrote Free Radicals during the pandemic, which gave me license to think introspectively about my upbringing. Even in a notoriously open-minded college town, after 9/11, I could tell my classmates looked at my family differently.


As a child, hearing "Your dad is a terrorist!" from my elementary school crush was debilitating. My dad? The most loving, dad-joke spewing, classical guitarist?


Through the years, Baba and Dad both told me stories about their close-minded encounters with strangers. When I’d watch television, people who looked like Baba were cast only as suicide bombers and hijackers, propelling more fear and othering in the USA.


The dehumanized, villainous representation of Afghans on screen can literally mean life or death for some. It directly affects how people we come into contact with treat us.


I wanted to write a story that would be universal, funny, and could expose the prejudices that are (still) ingrained in society. I wanted to write the book I needed as a teenager.


In 2020, my husband brought my attention to human rights activist and NBA star Enes Freedom’s story. Though his father was imprisoned and Enes had to break all communication with him to ensure his safety, Enes continued to speak out against the corruption pervasive in his country.


I found this inspiring and drew many parallels between the corruption, especially in regard to the criminal justice system, in Afghanistan.


After serving as governor of the Baghlan province and fearing for his life and the lives of his family, my Baba packed his four children in the car a few years before the Soviets invaded and told them only hours later they would never be returning to Kabul.


My dad recounts the grueling passage they took to the USA and notes it was truly a miracle that they survived. I am moved by Baba's courage and strength and am saddened that he died before I was able to understand the fullness of the sacrifice he made for his children – and grandchildren.


Though safe in the USA, I feel that ostracization, both by Afghans who no longer saw him as a true Afghan (and deserter) and Americans, who never saw quite saw him as belonging, was a coat he always wore.


No change happens without discomfort, and though this book explicates uncomfortable material, I think it is important we continue to talk about the "hard stuff," especially with our young adults.

Mafi struggles with identity vs. role confusion, never quite feeling like she belongs in either of the two worlds she lives in. Her parents want her to be a certain way; her brother another; her sister another; and her former friends—another.


Throughout the book, she embarks on a journey of self-discovery, surrounding herself instead with those who love and accept her. Instead of being who she should be, she decides to be who she is, no matter the consequences. I tend to write braver characters than I am, but Mafi definitely still has a large piece of me in her.


Q: The Kirkus review of the book calls it a "smart, powerful, poignant tale of identity, freedom, and family." What do you think of that description?


A: I was thrilled to receive a starred review from Kirkus. Identity, freedom, and family are three ingredients that make up the messy cake batter that is this book.


Each character struggles with identity at some stage, each character feels trapped at some stage, and whether they like it or not, consulting with family either propels the characters forward or impedes them from their goals. There’s a push and pull here, and I think there is something in the book that every reader can identify with.


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


A: In the book, I play with the science term free radicals and radicals in general—those who think outside the box and don’t go along with what everyone else is doing.


For example, back in the day, many thought suffragettes destructive to the social order. And some might argue that universal health care is a radical idea—and others a human right.


However, radicalism, being a positive agent for change, is the only path toward freedom for Mafi. Mafi is definitely a flawed character and makes some questionable decisions in her formative years—as we all do. But I think her heart is in the right place, and she’s receptive to change and constructive criticism from those who matter.


At the end of the book, Mafi and her brother must think for themselves, defying what family members and others think they should do and instead doing what they must in order to locate family forced to flee Afghanistan. Mafi doesn’t know if she will be helping or hurting the situation, but she also can’t sit in silence any longer while her family abroad suffers.


And the thing about radicalism here is that, just like with the suffragette example, not everyone will agree with Mafi and her brother’s radical action. By the end, Mafi finally lives her truth and is emancipated from what others think of her, and because of that, she’s free from the mental prison she’s kept herself in.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I wasn’t sure how the novel would end.


*Spoiler alert.* After Afghanistan fell to the Taliban once more, I did a lot of reworking. I felt that we should have an inkling of hope after hearing that Mafi’s family members have been sighted, but I didn’t want to write that they were found – or alive.


This is not the reality for many Afghans. Life is not a Disney tale. There is a long list of missing and/or displaced Afghans. Visas are turned down right and left. Fleeing the country is almost impossible at this juncture. I’ve received messages from Afghans still trapped, asking for my help.


Keeping hope alive is important, but I also wanted to be candid and reveal the horrific reality of the situation that so many face today.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m a multitasker, so I’m working on about four things at once! Many of my projects are adult books. I hope to announce my next book in 2023. I just have to finish (one of them!) first.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: There’s an unspoken expectation placed upon authors writing about non-white characters that they are required to make some daring statement or speak for all individuals of that particular group.


Mafi’s experience as the child of an Afghan immigrant and a white, American mother will vastly differ from others who identify as Afghan-American—and that is okay. She is not religious, she doesn’t speak Farsi, she has a beautiful and diverse group of friends, and she is open about sex.


Many will not agree with this. Many will hate Mafi (and me) for this. Because shelves aren’t filled with books with Afghan-American representation (yet!), readers must note that this is only one story. One piece of the puzzle.


This book is not meant to be didactic or educational by any means, and readers should not think that this is how every Afghan-American family thinks or acts. In many ways, it is my story—and so is just as valid as any other puzzle piece.


Thank you for having me!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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