Sheba Karim Speaks on the Need for Diverse Voices In YA Fiction
Author Sheba Karim remembers growing up on 50 acres of land along the Hudson River in upstate New York. It was a picturesque setting but as a little girl, she had little appreciation for her surroundings whilst longing for the big city. “Like any ‘good’ child of Asian immigrants back then, I spent most of my time indoors, reading books.”
A former Fullbright Nehru Scholar, the author recently released her second young-adult coming-of-age book That Thing We Call A Heart, revolving around teenager protagonist Shabnam Qureshi, who turns to father’s Urdu poetry to figure out who she is and what she wants to do with her life.
Sheba started writing at a young age, filling notebooks with half-finished novels. She didn’t think of writing as a possible career until she actually studied and started practicing law and was evidently unhappy. This prompted her to remember that she’d always dreamt of being a writer.
“Reading, of course, inspires my writing. Also, traveling, observing the madness of life. A lot of ideas come to me at night, in that state between wakefulness and sleep.”
She went on to study creative writing at the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, “My first semester as an MFA student, I took an elective in children’s fiction writing. I began writing my first YA novel for that workshop and discovered I love writing for young adults.
Reading, of course, inspires my writing. Also, traveling, observing the madness of life. A lot of ideas come to me at night, in that state between wakefulness and sleep.”
How did the workshop change the way she looked at her own work?
“When you start out writing it’s often difficult to hear criticism as so much of your ego is bound up in your work. After two years of being workshopped and workshopping the work of others, you’re both accustomed to being critiqued and are better adept at spotting weaknesses in your own work.”
With the incessant bigotry and xenophobia in developed countries like the US, it is even more essential that kids in schools have access to books like hers where the central characters are young women of colour?
“The more exposure young people have to diverse voices, the more empathy they will hopefully build toward those they may have perceived as ‘other’.”
“Definitely,” adds the author saying, “Xenophobia and bigotry are unfortunately part of the fabric of most countries, developed or developing, but it’s really amped up in the US since Trump’s candidacy and subsequent election. The more exposure young people have to diverse voices, the more empathy they will hopefully build toward those they may have perceived as ‘other’.”
After she published her first YA novel, Skunk Girl, Sheba received a handwritten letter from a South Asian American teenage reader telling her how much the book meant to her. “It was moving to receive a written testimony to the emotional impact of your words,” she says.
Though one’s writing process is usually quite individual and personality-based, a well-written book will always deepen your appreciation for the art of writing.
Sheba Karim still loves a lot of British writers she read in high school like the Brontes, E M Forster, Austen. In the YA genre, she enjoys “the poignant zaniness of David Arnold and the lyricism of Laura Ruby”.
She asserts, “I try to read a lot of desi authors—A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is one of my favorite books. Though one’s writing process is usually quite individual and personality-based, a well-written book will always deepen your appreciation for the art of writing.”
The author’s next book Mariam Sharma Hits the Road is about three best friends who embark on a road trip through the American South. All three are running away from, and in search of, different truths about their families and themselves, but manage to have a ton of (mis)adventures and laughs along the way.
Sheba adds, “It’s the most fun I’ve had writing a book so far. I’m also working on a historical fiction novel for adults that I hope to complete soon.”
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