A Place For Us: Fatima Farheen Mirza on her new novel, and working with Sarah Jessica Parker
A poignant narrative on family, faith and the idea of home, Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place For Us is the first novel to be published under Sarah Jessica Parker’s ‘SJP for Hogarth’ banner. Following a non-linear structure, Mirza’s debut novel follows the story of a Muslim Indian-American family and their struggles and hopes as they go through life and relationships in a foreign land. Here, the author chats with us about writing on the immigrant experience, the importance of reading particularly for writers and what it was like working closely with Parker.
How did the idea for the book come about?
I knew I was interested in exploring sibling dynamics in a family where the parents have immigrated and strive to pass on their culture and faith to their children. There is a particular bond between siblings that forms in that environment — partly because your siblings are the only ones who know how difficult it can be to navigate your parents’ expectations.
Your siblings become the keeper of your secrets, the negotiators between you and your parents after a conflict, and when the gulf between you and your parents feels especially impossible to bridge, your siblings make you feel as though you do belong in your family. But it was not until an image from Hadia’s wedding came to me — of the family waiting to see if Hadia’s brother, Amar, would make it in time for a photograph — that I knew it was through Hadia and Amar that I wanted to understand these observations.
The book talks a lot about familial relationships and navigating faith particularly when surrounded by an alien culture. How much of it was inspired by your own experiences?
There are seeds of autobiography in the novel — in the details, or observations, or certain moments — but when they are planted into the world of the novel, they begin to belong to the characters, and are altered by the character’s personality, and we can see how the moment is remembered over decades, as well as what that same moment meant to other characters. In life, a moment exists once, but in a novel, it takes on its own dimensions, gives a sense of story, and can be mined for a deeper meaning.
The narrative follows the non-linear path, telling the story through different characters and their varied perspectives. Was this method an attempt to show the subjective, inauthentic nature of memories, particularly when it comes to family?
I wanted to explore this family’s story through multiple perspectives in order to present as balanced a portrait of them as possible. When you consider things through one perspective alone, you are convinced by the character’s interpretation of events and you empathize with them. But when you enter other perspectives, you see how limited each of us are in our understanding of an event, or of our loved ones, and what seemed justifiable in one perspective is unconscionable in another.
I wanted to understand fully why this family fractured — why their needs and wants were so in conflict with one another — and writing through multiple perspectives helped me see how impossible it is for them to be in harmony, and yet how they still try to love one another and do right by each other.
Your narrative touches upon the nuances of the immigrant experience. How important do you feel representation of the diaspora community in literary works, and the need to relay such stories, has become in the world today?
Stories are important because the lives they seek to highlight are important — if stories about certain lives are absent from literature, art, music, cinema, then it conveys a message that lives like these are not worthy of being explored in art. Representation is crucial — not just so people can understand something of their own experience, or experience the joy of encountering a familiar detail in story, but also because it makes evident how complex and nuanced each individual experience is, and therefore why one family’s story is not enough to capture just how vast the immigrant experience is.
Your novel is the first to be published under Sarah Jessica Parker's new imprint. How was it working on the book with the Hollywood actor?
It has been an incredible, moving, and unforgettable experience. I am so fortunate that the novel found Sarah Jessica’s hands. She has gone above and beyond with her role as the Editorial Director of SJP for Hogarth, and it has made this process so personal and meaningful for me. Every time I’ve spoken with her about the novel, I’ve had the thought that she is the ideal reader a writer might want for their book, as she is thoughtful and insightful, generous with her heart and precise in her observations, and it is clear how genuinely she feels for characters and how much time she spends thinking about them.
As a debut novelist, is there any piece of advice you would like to impart to those attempting to come into the literary space as authors?
Read. Read to discover what moves you, what surprises you about a sentence or a moment, and try to break down what the author is doing that creates that reaction in you. Love your characters, but more than that, respect them. Try to approach them with questions and not an idea of what you want them to accomplish or experience in a scene. Find readers you trust, a community of writers.
Are there some authors you look to for inspiration or any you admire? Have any of them shaped your own writing style?
During the years I was working on the novel, everything I read was teaching me how to write. After reading Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, I thought about the revolving quality of memory, the lusciousness of prose. After reading Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, I was inspired by the way objects reappear at different moments in time and serve as markers for how much has changed in the course of the novel.
What are you working on next? Is there any genre or form that you would like to experiment with next?
Yes, there are a few personal essays I want to write. And I think it would be a fun challenge to try and write a screenplay.
SJP for Hogarth, `599.