Meet Samira Ahmed, this month’s candidate trying to upstage Pogo, the Most Interesting Monkey in the World.*Portrait courtesy of six-year-old daughter Lena Jonas.
Archaeologists have found copies of Samira’s unpublished novels amongst the prized possessions of ancient Pharaohs. She can tame a class of unruly juniors into silence with an expertly executed aria. She can hail a cab in the rain with one arm full of shopping bags, another elbowing an unsuspecting tourist out of the way. She can break up a fight between her kids while singing show tunes (badly). Right now, she’s busy writing (and re-writing) her first novel.
Title of Book: Swimming Lessons
What are some of the main themes of your book?
Coming of age. Falling in love. Finding your passion and fighting for your dreams. Growing up as a child of immigrants and struggling amidst cultural tensions. Islamophobia.
What prompted you to write a book targeted to teens?
I love teenagers. I taught high school English for seven years; I worked to help create new high schools in New York City. I find those years between Middle School and College to be magical. You’re on the cusp of everything—exploring new worlds, new ideas, discovering who you are, navigating that amorphous space between childhood and adulthood. Finding your place in the world
In writing Young Adult Fiction, I hope my story can, most importantly, be a mirror for some readers while also being a window to others. I can’t stress enough how imperative representation in literature is. When people can see themselves in the world around them, in the books that they are reading—they see their own value; they see (self) affirmation.
Stories have the power to connect readers to a broader world, beyond the walls of school or home, but stories also allow readers to connect to themselves. That’s the power of story and I hope my story can empower.
How did you manage to write a book while raising two small children?
Coffee. A sense of humor. A supportive husband. And buying everyone lots of underwear—this cuts down on laundry because you can re-wear jeans FOREVER.
Also, what is sleep?
What’s one big thing you want people to take away from your book?
Being true to yourself can be an act of courage.
What jumpstarts your creativity?
Keeping my eyes and ears open. Really. It seems simple, and, in a way, it is. Every day, all around me, if I pay attention, there is inspiration. There are stories–in images, in conversations (yeah, I eavesdrop in cafes, I’m a writer), in how my children laugh, in the way sunlight filters through trees and falls onto a building, in the way the sun seems to set a high rise ablaze as it is reflected in glass, in the eyes of a painting and the life of its painter, in history, in the news, in the worlds you imagined as you gazed into the starry night as a kid & in the melancholy you feel as you think of that very moment on the blurred edges of memory.
What recently sparked your curiosity and how did you satisfy it?
I’ve been working with my agent on revising my novel and also my next work-in-progress. So, I’m particularly curious about the craft of writing and revision. The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite novels—not merely for its story, but because I believe it is amongst the most finely CRAFTED novels of the American 20th century. I was curious about how F. Scott Fitzgerald revised—his process. There are these charming stories about how he wanted to revise Gatsby even after it had been printed. So, I started digging around and found that the Princeton University Library, which has his archives, digitized not only the earliest existing version of Gatsby (written in hand), but also 2 pages from the very first draft of Gatsby. Not only is it amazing to see the author’s notes to himself, but he actually changed the point of view—from third person to first person between drafts. This was a revelation to me. I spent hours poring over his edits. When you see those pages, so personal, in his own handwriting, it feels like he’s speaking to you through time.
I love the library for making this treasure available to everyone, for free. Librarians are super heroes.
Did I mention I’m a nerd? I am. A proud one.
When was the last time you were on roller skates, either figuratively or metaphorically?
This question is making me nostalgic. I had the most amazing pair of roller skates, circa 1980, white leather, green wheels. Hot, right? I loved them. Would skate around my yard on the sidewalks, catching the cracks sometimes where weeds had taken root, skinning a knee. Mostly, though I found if I let myself be in the moment, look ahead and not down at my feet, I could keep my balance. Coast along; catch the flow, breeze in my hair, imagining I was Farah Fawcett.
But that’s not a metaphor, or anything.
Since we are interviewing the most interesting people we know, what can you tell us in summation that makes you more interesting than the rest, and Pogo in particular?
This puts me in mind of an Eleanor Roosevelt quote I had on my fridge for pretty much all of the 90s and into this century: “Remember always that you have not only the right to be an individual; you have an obligation to be one. You cannot make any useful contribution in life unless you do this.”
It’s our individuality that makes us interesting. Honor one another’s differences.
Stay weird, friends. Let your freak flag fly.
I think Pogo would agree.
SAMIRA AHMED was born in Bombay, India, and grew up in Batavia, Illinois, in a house that smelled like fried onions, spices, and potpourri. She currently resides in Chicago. She’s lived in Vermont, New York City, and Kauai, where she spent a year searching for the perfect mango.
A graduate of the University of Chicago (AB 93, MAT 93), she taught high school English for seven years, worked to create over 70 small high schools in New York City, and fought to secure billions of additional dollars to fairly fund public schools throughout New York State. She’s appeared in the New York Times, New York Daily News, Fox News, NBC, NY1, NPR, and on BBC Radio. Her creative non-fiction and poetry has appeared in Jaggery Lit, Entropy, and Claudius Speaks.
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