SALMA HUSSAIN grew up in the U.A.E. to parents from Pakistan, and immigrated to Canada when she was thirteen years old. She has a B.A. (Hon.) in English Literature with a concentration in creative writing from the University of Calgary, a law degree from the University of Calgary, and a Masters in Law from McGill University. She writes prose and poetry for both adults and children. Her work has appeared in various Canadian literary magazines, including filling Station, Fiddlehead, The Humber Literary Review, and in the anthology, Homebound: Muslim Women Poetry Collection. She lives in Toronto.
This is your first middle grade novel. What came first for you: the character? The era? The story idea? How did you proceed from there?
To answer this question, I’d like to share the origin story for this novel – when my daughter was five, she turned to me sleepily at bedtime and asked, “Mama, you were born outside Canada, right? Were you a regular kid just like us?”
That one question was the spark behind this entire novel. I knew in that moment that I wanted to write a book in a child’s voice to answer my child’s question. It was also quite clear to me that this needed to be an immigration story so there was my plot! I thought a diary structure would give the reader the closest, most immersive experience so all these separate ideas for the book bloomed open at the moment of her question. Throughout the writing, I returned again and again to her question and it became my reason for writing this book. The one piece of advice I always find useful when it comes to working on a project is to know your WHY. WHY are you writing your story? The “HOW” you will do it usually becomes less foggy when you’ve really sat and simmered in your WHY.
How did you conduct your research?
Structurally, I wanted the novel/’diary’ to cover twelve months in the life of this young character, so I began with gathering and collating as much data about those twelve months as I could. Later I built in some comical moments because as readers in the present-day we see those twelve months more intelligently with foresight.
A lot of my research centered around the first Gulf War. The Iraqi military invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990. However, the main character, Mona’s first diary entry begins on January 1, 1991, so when readers meet this family they have already been dealing with the news of the Gulf War for a few months. This meant I had to insert context and background about the Gulf War quickly but in a way that would not be overwhelming, nor an “info-dump”! It took a few tries to get it right. I looked up the front pages of newspapers in the Middle East (in English, Arabic and Urdu) and compared and contrasted the headlines. I also listened to news coverage from different TV channels (a lot of this is available on Youtube). A lot of it was very sad. News about any war, anywhere, from any time period, is extremely sad. In contrast, I also looked at popular “fashion” magazines from that time and listened to music from the late 80s to 91. This research countered the sad stuff. I found that in order to escape to the reality and horror of war, people determinedly and resolutely sought out joy in fashion and food and music. I’d definitely encourage gathering information about the music and fashion of a time period to get a deeper appreciation of the mood and atmosphere of an era!
What kinds of different questions did you have of the time period? The more specifics here, the better!
What were the big headlines of that time period? In different newspapers and languages?
What was the body language of newscasters reading the leading stories of the time or “breaking news”? And/or what was the tone behind the stories from radio broadcasters (joy/anxiety, etc.)?
What were the popular songs at the time?
What were the popular daytime soaps? Sitcoms? Movies?
What were the big sporting events? I included a bit about a game with the L.A. Lakers because they were so huge at that time.
What were the popular toys? I also included a scene with a Cabbage Patch doll because they were all the rage at the time and I thought it was an important detail that a kid would notice!
Any interesting weather aberrations?
How long do you typically research before beginning to draft?
Research is ongoing for me throughout the writing process, so I go back and forth between writing and reading and researching. I also find it very helpful to read other historical fiction novels set during the same time period I’m writing about, and they can be from anywhere in the world!
Why is historical fiction important?
Historical fiction for kids conjures the past in a way that facts and dates are unable to.
Historical fiction novels are stories about ordinary people living during extraordinary times. The differences in what people ate, wore, danced to – these are fascinating details that remind us that even through the chasms of time and place and culture, humanity shares the same basic hopes and fears for love, belonging, and joy.
I love this.
Can you tell us where we can go to find out more about you and your writing?
Please follow me on Twitter and Insta: @salmahwrites. I post updates about my writing life on these platforms, and I also desperately need more followers! (My mom and her friends aren’t enough! :))
I also have a website (designed by the lovely Hazel of @staybookish): www.salmahwrites.com.
What’s one question you wish readers or interviewers would ask about your story?
What is Mona up to today? 🙂