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Fatima Farheen Mirza is not just a young, bestselling author but she is the first author to be chosen and published by American actress Sarah Jessica Parker for her imprint, SJP for Hogarth. Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place For Us made the New York Times bestseller list and she was hailed as a new voice in the world of writing. In this exclusive chat with Latha Srinivasan, Fatima Farheen Mirza talks to us about the novel, which revolves around an Indian Muslim family in the US, patriarchy and how love and faith drive families.
NewsX: What inspired you to write this particular book?
Fatima Farheen Mirza: In high school, I struck a deal with my father: if I could move away for college, I would study pre-med. Very quickly into my freshman year, I was miserable in Chemistry, so I enrolled in creative writing classes. In one workshop, I started writing about different members in a single family, and I realized they were all concerned with the same moment: it was the eldest daughter’s wedding, and time to take the family photograph, but the youngest son could not be found. I wanted to know why he was missing at that moment, and how each family member was affected by his absence but also complicit in it. Soon, I couldn’t stop thinking about them, and the more I wrote about them the more I cared about them until eventually, I felt my duty was to them, to capture their story as best as I could, and I started learning how to write in order to tell their story.
NewsX: Is any part of this book autobiographical?
Fatima Farheen Mirza: I share a similar background to my characters, but not a shared history, as the plot points in the novel belong to the characters. I did not want to write a fictional version of my own life, but rather I wanted to imagine a fictional family in a context that was deeply familiar to me. And through these characters, I explored questions that I carried while growing up, questions that became clear to me only after I started writing, such as: What do we owe our loved ones, and what do we owe ourselves? What relationship between siblings emerges in an immigrant family? What happens in a family of faith when one child cannot believe or follow the faith?
NewsX: Despite living in the US for many years, the son continues to hold more importance than the daughter even in this family, isn’t it?
Fatima Farheen Mirza: The difference between how sons and daughters are raised and regarded in this family is one of the central concerns of the novel, especially when we are in Hadia’s perspective, as she feels that inequality most acutely. I don’t think it has anything to do with living in the US for many years or not—there is a universality to the way the lives of our daughters have been clipped and their capabilities curbed when we have prioritized the potential of our sons, although this manifests in different ways across cultures.
What I wanted was to know how it manifested in the details of Hadia’s life, as it is in the details of one’s life that a concept as broad as “the effects of patriarchy” can begin to be understood, or we can recognize how deepest and unexamined these patterns are. Sometimes Hadia is told that there are certain decisions she cannot make until she is married—which sends a message to her about her own agency, or her ability to intrust her instincts for her own life and her power to act upon them. Other times, the importance placed on marriage as a primary goal can unintentionally discourage her, when she’s a young teenager, from imagining her own career to pursue, from thinking of her own path as the center of her life, and not just as a means to one day support the life and career of her husband. These comments are made unthinkingly to young women and are easily internalized—not only by the daughters but also by sons, who are absorbing from them messages of how to regard women, think of women.
I also wanted to understand the damage this inequality does to the relationships within a family—how it creates resentment and jealousy in Hadia toward her own brother, how it distances her from her mother and feels like a cruelty, and ultimately, how it returns to harm the relationship the parents have with their son.
NewsX: While faith is what holds this family together, faith also seems to mar these relationships. Comment.
Fatima Farheen Mirza: It is not faith that mars these familial relationships, but the way these characters interpret their faith. At times, we see that their interpretation of their faith keeps them apart from one another—the parents consider their son Amar’s behaviour as a sign of his sin, or disrespect, and not as an expression of who he is. But in other moments, it is through the same faith that the characters find comfort and understanding—the father, Rafiq reminds himself that there is no compulsion in Islam, that every chapter in the Quran begins with a reminder of God’s mercy. The mother, Layla, looks closer at what a believer is meant to be like when the rituals and practices are stripped away and finds that, in heart, her son embodies very values she has most wanted to impart. So we see that it is not the religion that holds the family together or causes it to fall apart—but the individual’s interpretation of it, which is a reflection of who the individual is— if they are someone who wants to challenge or reflect deeper upon their belief systems, or holds tight to them, even if it keeps them from loving their child.
NewsX: A Place For US shows that love and family are above every other emotion and even faith.
Fatima Farheen Mirza: I wanted to capture what it was like for these characters to be alive, to be a family. If that is what comes across, then I am happy with that. We are here for so short a time. Why not love one another?