Author Samira Ahmed talks about her new YA novel “Hollow Fires”

Aeditor of her high school newspaper in Batavia, Illinois—a small town about an hour west of Chicago—Samira Ahmad got into the habit of asking tough questions. It was in this article that she first thought deeply about erroneous notions of objectivity. And that’s part of what influenced the stubborn nature of the protagonist of her new young adult novel, hollow lights, will be released on May 10.

hollow fires follows Safiya Mirza, a 17-year-old Indian American student journalist in Chicago, as she embarks on a mission to find out who killed 14-year-old Jawad Ali, a local boy who attended a public school in the city.

Jawad, the son of Iraqi refugees, had a passion for science. Less than three months before his death, he brought a homemade jet pack to class – only to be reported to the police by a teacher for wearing “something like a suicide vest”. The arrest was traumatic and, after his death, it stains his legacy, earning him the nickname “bomb boy”.

In Ahmed’s novel, Jawad remains an active character, a ghost who struggles to communicate with Safiya as she investigates his death. “All I am is a whisper in the dark to a girl who doesn’t want to believe in ghosts,” he says. “How can I get Safiya to believe in me?” While trying to uncover the truth about what happened to Jawad, Safiya must navigate between white supremacy, a nerve-wracking crush, and cryptic and chilling clues.

Ahmed, 51, is also the author of Internmentand the first South Asian woman write the comic series Mrs. Marvel. She spoke with TIME about the events that shaped hollow fireshow media and police bias affects the response to crimes, and his thoughts on the upcoming Disney+ TV series Mrs. Marvel.

Could you tell me about the writing process hollow fires? What was the most difficult?

One of the hardest things was tying all the elements of the novel together. hollow fires is a murder story told from Safiya’s point of view. But it is also Jawad’s story. And there is a found document element – social media snippets, news reports and blog posts. I wanted to ask about how the media reports on murders and hate crimes, especially in regards to race, ethnicity, and religion. Often the media does not want to examine itself.

At one point in the novel, Safiya shares how much she hated how everyone forgot Jawad’s name and referred to him generically as an Arab-American teenager or the son of Iraqi refugees. What were you trying to say here about identity?

I wanted to examine how race is implicated in how the press, police, and people on social media treat victims and perpetrators of crime. hollow fires takes place in Chicago, a diverse city with huge immigrant populations. If you look at the clearance rate of police solving murders in the city, WBEZ found it to be much higher if you are white. In 2019, the clearance rate for murders in Chicago if the victim was white was 47%; if the victim was Hispanic, it was 33%, and if the victim was black, it was only about 20%. It got me thinking about the victims being stood up for, and in my research I found so much erasure of people of color, black trans women, and Indigenous women in particular. It was all swirling around in my head.

What actual current events shaped the narrative? The story of Ahmad Mohamed, 14 years old in Texas comes to mind. Police arrested him for possession of a homemade clock that his school said looked suspicious. Was there an intentional connection there?

His story is definitely the one that stuck with me, even if it’s not an isolated incident. There are so many stories about the young black boy or the brown girl or the Muslim child considered suspicious.

With Ahmed, you have this young boy who brings this clock that he took apart and put back together in this cool way. He is so excited to have reverse engineered and just wants to show his teachers. As a former teacher, I can imagine that curious, inventive child coming to school and then having a teacher immediately become suspicious and call the police. It was a heartbreaking incident. Right-wing media have taken the plunge with conspiracy theories saying he may have ties to terrorists. The family received threats. They left the country.

Much of my young adult fiction is about issues like this: moments in life, where childhood is shattered. Too often, adults put young people in terrible positions – choices adults make affect the lives of young people in ways they are unprepared for and that are deeply unfair.

What personal experiences influenced the way you told the story?

People think Islamophobia in America started with 9/11. But it actually has much deeper roots. I was 7 or 8 years old and living in Chicago during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979. Two white men pointed at me and said, “Go home, you fucking Iranian. It was very violent language, especially for adults to use against a child. I was confused for a second, like, what do you mean, go home? Do they know I don’t live in Chicago and I live in the suburbs? I remember thinking, why do they think I’m Iranian? I look so Indian. Later, I realized: they are racists, and racists are bad at geography. They think we all come from the same place.

I’ve had so many other experiences since. My last name is Ahmed. And back when we had phone books, whenever there was any incident in which a Muslim was suspected, I got calls all night saying, ‘Go home, you fucking terrorist’ and ‘ Go back home.” country.”

My experience with Islamophobia and racism has always had this “go home” theme. And bits of that come up in almost all of my novels. Virtually any immigrant or child of an immigrant can relate to this experience. And we see it a lot with this rise in anti-Asian hatred during the pandemic. I just want to be clear with young people that no one is allowed to tell you to go home when you are home.

How did you manage to balance the heavier aspects of the novel – the murder of a young boy – with the levity and levity of teenagers on a mission?

I want to honor the stories of young people and write them as they are. It means you may be in the middle of something horrifying and devastating, but you’re also a teenager, and maybe you have a crush on someone, or you’re dealing with the fact that you really don’t want to. write this paper, or your parents imposed this curfew on you. I don’t think I can write a book that talks about deep grief and nothing else. I try to put hope on every page, even when it comes to dark topics.

You participated in the writing of comic strips for the Ms. Marvel series. Are you also involved in the next TV show?

No, the TV show is separate. It’s really cute because the kids in my neighborhood know that I write Ms. Marvel comics, and they asked me if they could get roles on the show. I tell them I wish I could. Once a child came up to me and said, “You write Ms. Marvel, to the right? You better not mess it up.

With great power comes great responsibility, doesn’t it?

Yes exactly. I said I’ll do my best, but I love their passion for this character. And I love her, so I’ll try to do the right thing with her.

What do you think of the next Disney+ series?

I’m excited about this. Every child should be able to see themselves as a hero on the page and on screen. And Ms. Marvel gives this opportunity to so many young people to see themselves in a way they have never had before. Especially for young Muslim children and young brown children in this country: we are so often portrayed as terrorists. When you’re always the bad guy, it’s very traumatic for the kids.

Any other parting thoughts you’d like to share?

All the time I was writing hollow fires, I had the impression that the USA is at this inflection. We are facing this crisis of philosophy in terms of who we are as a people. One of my novels Love Hate and other filters, was restricted by schools in Madison County, Mo.; the school board’s vote to ban it will take place on May 9. This whole anti-critical race theory movement is about denying our history and erasing entire identities. It’s so important to speak out against that. America likes to bury the truth about itself. Part of what my characters do in these situations is find the truth, even when it’s hard, and face it.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com.

Irene B. Bowles