People: Champion of Representation
Atlantan Aisha Saeed is an author, teacher, and attorney. As a founding member of the We Need Diverse Books campaign, she’s a passionate advocate of representation. Forty Words for Love, her new book for young readers, is a story that illustrates how various forms of love can pull hearts in opposite directions.
Photo: Bindu Liang
At any given moment, Aisha Saeed has about 800 story ideas running through her head.
In her Forty Words for Love (Kokila–Penguin Books), there’s family, community, self, and “the kind of love that binds two people together, that leads to marriage,” but which is forbidden for Yas and Raf, the story’s two main characters. Raf is a refugee who has escaped the freezing Golub country. Yas and her family are lifelong residents and essential threads in the fabric of Moonlight Bay, where Raf and his family have settled. When a mysterious death takes place and the town suspects it had something to do with the Golub immigrants, Yas and Raf, forced to set aside their own dreams and desires, help the families cope with an economic and social crisis.
For Saeed, the sentiments felt by her two protagonists were influenced by own experiences. “I tap into them very easily for inspiration,” she says.
Saeed’s passion for telling stories started in elementary school. In fifth grade, her teacher gave her an assignment to retell a classic. She wrote about three bears catching Goldilocks and making her pay for the damage she had inflicted upon their home—the eaten porridge, broken chairs, etc. “When I was done, it was incredible to see I had the power to change this world, to add something to an existing story,” she remembers.
As a South Asian, however, the notion of pursuing a career in writing felt elusive. She’d hardly seen any books written by South Asians at her local library in Miami, her hometown. Instead, she had relied on young adult staples: book series like The Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley High—and authors like R. L. Stine and Judy Bloom. Her favorite book was Irene Hunt’s Up a Road Slowly, a plotless coming-of-age tale about a girl whose mother dies. Saeed found it to be very different from the rest, although none of the works were written by or about South Asians. While Saeed could relate to the teen emotions, she didn’t see herself in the pages of these books.
At the University of Florida, following her parents’ practical advice, she worked towards a bachelor's degree in education. Though they had never prevented her from writing, they felt job prospects amidst a teacher shortage seemed more promising in education. “Many desi parents immigrated here for economic opportunity,” she points out. “They made all these sacrifices. They want their children to have what they had or more.”
It was in college that she also came across diverse books, including Suzanne Fisher’s Shabanu and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, which caught her eye when she was working in a bookstore. Saeed had a revelation: These were stories about us, desis. We can write them, and people are reading them. From that moment through her first year as a teacher, she spent a lot of time researching how to get published. She found an agent, and together they worked relentlessly to find a publisher for Saeed’s first novel, titled Written in the Stars.
“I had many rejections,” she recalls. “It was hard. Editors told me, ‘I already have another Indian author on my roster’ or ‘I don’t know how I would market this.’ Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Bombay Blues was already out, and not many publishers were willing to take a risk on another desi-inspired novel. Facing rejection after rejection, Saaed was told there was only one more publisher left to pursue, and if that didn't work out, she would have to call it quits. “At that point, I believed I was going to be a failure,” says Saeed, who turned her attention to her second novel.
Luckily, that last publisher—Penguin Young Readers Group—accepted Saeed’s first novel in 2015, and it opened the door for her to continue writing and publishing. “I could have given up so many times along the way, but I have the urge to tell the story.”
Roadblocks helped her pave new pathways. When Saeed tried to publish Written in the Stars, she was told that her book was “quiet,” meaning the publisher couldn’t identify a marketing hook to give it the same level of funding as others. This prompted her to think about how other books by diverse authors were supported with marketing. Her research focusing on the outcomes was eye-opening. “The statistics are bad,” she notes.
Saeed discovered a self-fulfilling prophecy: When publishers limit the marketing spent on a book, it tends to do poorly in sales, and that performance in turn causes publishers to shy away from carrying similar books. She and her peers turned to social media, launching the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag, which snowballed into a full-fledged non-profit organization that provides writers resources such as grants and mentorship from established authors. They also provide tools for communities to challenge the banning of diverse books, which Saeed has faced firsthand.
Saeed was surprised to learn that Amal Unbound and Bilal Cooks Daal, an illustrated children’s storybook, were banned for a year from York County, Pennsylvania, although she and her supporters were able to get the ban rescinded. Saeed is not worried about the angry cry of a small minority that gains media attention; what concerns her is the silent banning by teachers and librarians who remove books from reading lists and shelves. That can affect book sales and the livelihood of diverse authors.
For Saeed, fortunately, this temporary local banning has not hindered her success. In fact, Amal Unbound (Penguin Random House), her 2018 novel, hit The New York Times bestselling list. Saeed got the news through a phone call from her editor before the news was officially posted. “It was exciting—not like anything that I could have ever imagined,” Saeed recalls.
That moment was unreal for Saeed, and she feels grateful for earning the privilege of being able to write the stories she feels compelled to share. But did she feel like she had “made it?”
Not really. “As humans we always want more,” she says. “If you want to keep going, you cannot get obsessed with those markers. Instead, remember why you are doing this. That is success.”
Amritha Alladi Joseph, a former reporter for Gannett newspapers, The Hindu, The Gainesville Sun, Gainesville Magazine, and CNN-IBN, is now a consulting manager at EY and lives in Sandy Springs, Georgia, with her husband and two children.
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