Fatima Farheen Mirza Interview
Called “absolutely gorgeous” by the Washington Post and a “miracle of a book” by NPR, Fatima Farheen Mirza’s debut novel A Place For Us is a deeply moving and resonant story of love, identity and belonging that follows an Indian American Muslim family in Northern California. The novel is the first title in Sarah Jessica Parker’s new imprint, Hogarth, and is narrated by Audie Award nominees Deepti Gupta and Sunil Malhotra.
Ross McMeekin: What first drew you to writing fiction?
Fatima Farheen Mirza: Writing has always been a part of my life, ever since I was very young, whether that be stories, poetry, or keeping my own journal—which I’ve done throughout my life. When I was in undergrad, I started to really dedicate myself to writing in a much more intentional way. At that time I was working on my own poems, but I’d also begun writing this novel. It was after I began writing this novel, and after I began discovering who the characters were and what they were concerned with, that I put all other writing projects I might have been considering on the backburner in order to write the story of the family to the best of my ability.
RM: I’ve heard that some writers approach writing as a discovery process—coming to the desk each day, discovering the story as it unfolds—while others have a firm structure or outline that they work out beforehand. Where are you at on that spectrum?
FFM: I had no firm structure or idea of the events that would happen (in A Place for Us). I wasn’t approaching the novel in a plot way. I realized that there were certain ages of the characters that I wanted to write about, and when I was with, say, Hadia at nine or Amar at seventeen, I then asked myself why do I want to write about them at this particular age? What is happening to them at this particular juncture of their life? I would eventually be able to find a plot or arc from it, but that wasn’t my approach. There was a certain image in the novel that I was trying to arrive at, but I didn’t know how I would get there. So it was both very loose—a process of instinct and discovery of certain moments of their lives—while at the same time I knew that they were all going to gather one day at a wedding. And I knew that certain things would have to have happened at that point.
RM: Is your writing space messy or clean?
FFM: For A Place for Us, I didn’t have one set writing space. For many years I would write on a kitchen dining room table, so my writing space would be one that I would lay out every day and then pack up every day, so it would be kind of messy looking. I would have my laptop and my notebooks piled next to me and the books I would be reading at the time, oftentimes poetry if I felt stuck and needed to break away my work and enter into somebody else’s, and then tons of post-it notes. Every day that I would begin to write, I would set out various post-its, and on them wouldn’t be a goal, per se, but something in a scene that I wanted to approach, like some question I was asking, or something about writing itself that I wanted to keep in mind.
RM: Do you have any superstitions about writing?
FFM: I don’t write with pencils, it has to be a pen with the finest tip I can find. I can’t write with a thick tip. It has to be .38. But as far as superstitions go, I don’t think so. I always have to have a hot drink near me. At first it was coffee, but when I realized I was drinking too much coffee I transitioned into tea and water.
RM: Do you see yourself in the characters of A Place for Us? Is it in any way autobiographical?
FFM: The novel is not autobiographical in terms of what happens to the characters and the plot points, etc., but the context that the characters find themselves in is really familiar to me, and through them I was able to explore questions that were deeply personal. This may be a cliché thing to say, but I see myself in all of them as well as none of them, or none of them more than others, if that makes sense.
RM: What aspects of the novel did you find most difficult to write?
FFM: The novel is about characters who are trying to understand their relationship to one another, as well as to their family as a unit and to themselves as individuals. They are also trying to understand their relationship to the faith they have been born into—they’re a Muslim family. There were times in writing it that I felt as though I was moving away from the home that I had come from, which was similar to the home of the characters. But now that it’s done, I realize that what I had been doing, through fiction—through these characters—was returning to that home over and over again. Returning to that relationship between the individual and their society, the individual and their family, and the individual and their own faith and spiritual belief system, but much more deeply than when I was a child actually growing up in that family, that culture, and that community. So what I’ve realized is that I’ve returned home in fiction in order to understand it in a way that I could not had I not begun writing about it. So in that way I feel very grateful to the novel.
RM: Do you have any book recommendations?
FFM: A book that is coming out in August that I recommend is Other People’s Love Affairs by D. Wystan Owen. His short stories have meant so much to me for many years, so I’m really excited they will be shared with the world. Ohio by Stephen Markley. A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley. St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell. In terms of poetry, Look by Solmaz Sharif and Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith. Also, Yiyun Li’s essay collection Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life.