Reading Samira Ahmed, you would expect her to be someone who’s always been a published writer, as if she’d tumbled out of the womb creating historic and phenomenal characters and storylines. But it turns out, she published her first book at 46, after a long and rewarding career involving teaching high school English, working for non-profits and even fighting for equitable funding in NY’s public schools as a lobbyist. “Love, Hate, & Other Filters” was an instant bestseller.
Ahmed is the first South Asian Muslim woman to voice Kamala Khan, Marvel’s first Muslim superheroine. Like Ms. Marvel, her signature characters have always been revolutionary girls. Her “revolutionary girls,” as she calls them, represent an archetype of strength, insight and compassion, are usually Muslim and often Indian American.
Revolutionary girls don’t necessarily take up arms…sometimes the revolutionary girl is just taking control when others are falling down. And sometimes it means standing up for yourself when others want to muffle you.Samira Ahmed
Ahmed ‘s latest young adult novel, “Hollow Fires” (on sale May 10, 2022; ages 12+), taps into the current and timely conversation about racism and its dangers and the terrible costs of misinformation. A topic so delicate and polarizing blooms fully through an innovative storyline and lyrical prose.
Congratulations on your new book, Ms. Ahmed ! Almost everything you’ve published since you began writing has received immense popularity and near-instant success. What do you think your readers and critics love about your novels?
Thank you so much! Every novel is a dialogue between the reader and the writer and I’m so interested in that experience. Stories are about connection, about our interrelatedness as human beings. When I read a book, what first pulls me in is the character and their voice — how in many ways, they’re like me — a regular person often facing an unexpected or extraordinary circumstance. I want my readers to feel those connections to my characters and also to the experience of reading itself… to briefly visit a world not their own and to experience it through a new or different lens. And it’s that very act that broadens your world view. I hope my readers feel those connections — to the character, to the story, and to themselves.
Tell us about yourself. What was it like growing up? How does your work as a high school teacher and lobbyist influence your writing today?
I grew up as the only desi and only Muslim in my school. We were the first Indians to move to our little town in the Chicago suburbs! I definitely had an “outsider” experience in many ways, but at the same time, I really enjoyed my high school experience and was really involved in school activities. But I always wanted to leave that small town in search of bigger places and experiences. My work as a lobbyist was directly linked to education — trying to ensure fair funding for public schools in New York. Through both those experiences, I had the good fortune to meet so many inspiring young people who were finding their voices, their politics. As a writer, I have the privilege of bringing the promise, challenges, and ferocity of youth to life.
What’s your writing process like when writing your novels? Is it different from when you’re working on someone else’s fleshed-out character?
Working on my novels is quite different from working on comics and I love both! Both start with a seed of an idea. With my novels, I often first write a short story — what I call a treatment — that incorporates the seeds of the plot idea I have. I write a vignette that helps me explore three key elements that are starting points to all my work: a character, a conflict, a question. Though writing a Ms. Marvel script is wholly different than writing a novel, I still approach Kamala’s story with those things in mind. Her character is well established and getting her voice just right is critical as I start to draft the script — that element of her character defines her world view, her approach to every conflict. Working in comics is a much more collaborative process than when you’re writing the first draft of a book and, honestly, I love both!
How did you come to be the first South Asian Muslim writer to bring a voice to Marvel’s premiere Muslim superhero? What’s it been like?
Being the first South Asian Muslim to write Ms. Marvel has truly been an honor and a joy. Ms. Marvel means so much to so many people (me included!) and I wanted to do right by her character and all the readers who love her.
I remember when I saw the very first Ms. Marvel cover and it was just so iconic. I remember thinking how excited I would’ve been as a young reader to see a hero that looked like me and how amazing the series was going to be for kids who had never seen themselves written that way.
Kamala is a regular girl with an extraordinary job. She has friends and family who are important in her life. She’s not perfect, but she tries so hard to be good. She’s also funny. Ultimately, I think that’s what so many people love about her. It’s what I love about her. Every child deserves to see themselves as a hero on the page — and Ms. Marvel has given that to so many kids. It’s a privilege to be a part of that.
What draws you to YA fiction? Some of the themes you cover, like the chilling racism-fueled murder in “Hollow Fires” can be extremely challenging to talk about even for adults. How do you do it?
I love writing for young adults because it’s such an interesting, complex space to write in. When you’re a teen, you occupy this interstitial space between childhood and adulthood. You’re on the cusp of a new world — one that you have a hand in building for yourself. It’s both exciting and terrifying. I call it the realm of possibility—but it can be a fraught experience. So often — too often — young people are forced to find their courage, to grapple with painful situations because of circumstances that are beyond their control — because of choices the adults around them have made. Just turn on the news and you can see so many examples of this. Often old men decide to wage wars, and they send our young people to fight in them. I’m interested in exploring that — in unpacking moments in childhood when life is shattered. Nothing can really prepare you for that moment and yet our children are faced with that every day. I try to write about these themes honestly and with compassion and candor because our young people deserve it. Adults who believe our kids can’t handle these discussion are allowing their own discomfort to guide them and, frankly, they are grossly underestimating the intelligence of young people.
Tell us about your revolutionary girls. It’s a defining character in almost everything you’ve written. Why is this theme so close to your heart?
I have had the good fortune of meeting so many brilliant, inspiring young women. Girls who are facing tough choices and difficult circumstances in a world where institutionalized racism and sexism are pervasive. And yet, I see them finding their voices, their power, even when the odds are against them. When I use the term “revolutionary girl,” I don’t just mean heroes like Ms. Marvel who are empowered by terrigen mist. So much of Ms. Marvel’s heroism comes from the fact that she is a young woman, growing up, trying to do good — that’s who she was even before she became a hero. Sometimes revolutionary acts can be “quieter” like in “Love Hate & Other Filters,” where my protagonist, Maya, has to find the courage to speak her truth, to define her future for herself. Other times, like with Internment, it can me fighting against the system for your freedom. Still other times, as in “Hollow Fires,” it can mean doing what Safiya does — uncovering difficult truths, speaking the truth when people are trying to muffle her voice, even threatening her because someone has to find the courage to act and she decides it might as well be her. I love exploring all the nuance, the complexity of the stories of revolutionary girls.
Any interesting projects coming up for you in the near future, Mr. Ahmed?
Yes! “Hollow Fires” releases in May and so does my final issue of the “Ms. Marvel Beyond the Limit” miniseries with a collection of the five issues hitting shelves in June. I also have the sequel to my middle-grade fantasy hitting shelves this fall. “Amira & Hamza: The Quest for the Ring of Power” was such a joy to write. It’s a thrilling adventure with two bickering siblings taking on one very scary jinn. I’m also working on an anthology called “Magic Has No Borders,” a collection of young adult science fiction/fantasy stories written by South Asian diaspora writers that I’m co-editing with Sona Charaipotra, [which will be] out in summer 2023. I’ve been busy — in the best kind of way!