Books, Pop Culture, Interviews

Making diversity the norm: An Interview with Aisha Saeed

The author behind We Need Diverse Books talks about what needs to happen to make diversity the norm in publishing.

Aisha Saeed is the kind of person you know you’ve heard of before. And it’s not because Aisha is a common name, either.

The author of “Written In The Stars” also contributed to the “Love, Inshallah” anthology and, as one of the amazing women behind the We Need Diverse Books campaign, is at the forefront of a movement to change the face of English literature. Her website includes a page dedicated to promoting the best of South Asian bloggers, along with great advice about writing, publishing, and life in general. Looking for advice on how to get started on your novel? Aisha’s got a list of books and websites that can help you get started. Searching for happiness in your life? Koala bears. Also, given her love for it, probably chai.

Searching for happiness in your life? Koala bears, according to @aishacs Click To Tweet 9780399171703_Written_in_the_Stars-1

Aisha spoke to The Tempest about her campaign as well as her upcoming book, “This Promise I Will Keep.”

The Tempest: Tell us about the We Need Diverse Books campaign. What inspired you to start this campaign?

Aisha Saeed: We Need Diverse Books™ is a grassroots organization of children’s book lovers that advocates essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people. The campaign came to be via a Twitter exchange in April 2014 when Ellen Oh, myself, and other authors were expressing our frustration with the lack of diversity in kidlit. We decided that we were tired of simply expressing our frustration and that it was time to do something about it. Spurred by our conversation, we planned a three-day event for May 1-3 to raise awareness, brainstorm solutions, and take action (Diversify Your Shelves). Soon after we launched our campaign, the hashtag started taking off and soon became a viral sensation. Now we are a non-profit committed to making the literary world a more diverse place.

What are your goals for this campaign? Any upcoming projects?

We have numerous projects underway from our yearly Walter Dean Myers grants for unpublished writers, our yearly publishing internship program that helps fund interns who are interested in working in the publishing industry, and we have many other initiatives as well that you can learn more about at our website.

What do you think needs to be done for diversity to become the norm in literature?

The biggest thing you can do to help diversity in literature become the norm is to buy diverse books. Buy them for yourselves, buy them as gifts for your friends. An author only has a future when their books actually sell, and so if you believe in the cause this is the biggest thing you can do. Additionally, requesting that your library carry particular diverse books can also help an author immensely. You can also recommend and signal boost diverse authors and diverse books. Every little thing that we do can make an impact and help us see more of the types of books we want to see.

What are some of your favorite diverse books?

I have a lot of favorite diverse books, five diverse books I recently recommend that I love are:
1. “Alif the Unseen” by G. Willow Wilson. She is the author of the newest Ms. Marvel which is absolutely fantastic, but her other works of fiction and nonfiction are also worth diving into.
2. “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. He’s won many awards for this book and they are well deserved. A beautiful and heart-wrenching letter from a father to his son on what it means to be black in America.
3. “Tasting the Sky” by Ibtisam Barakat is a powerful memoir on growing up in Palestine. Penned by a poet, the words flow beautifully and its a read that brings the realities of life in Palestine into sharp focus.
4. “Painted Hands” by Jennifer Zobair is a great work of fiction trailing the lives of several American Muslim women as they deal with family, relationships, and love.
5. “Brown Girl Dreaming” by Jacqueline Woodson. This is the memoir of one of the most gifted artists of our time, told in prose it sweeps you up into her story but also speaks to the experiences of anyone who feels marginalized.

Talk to us a little bit about your own writing. What’s your process? Where do you get your inspiration? 

My first book “Written in the Stars,” about a young girl forced into a marriage against her will, debuted last year. I am currently working on my next book “This Promise I Will Keep,” which comes out in 2017. In it, a Pakistani teenager enters indentured servitude to pay her family’s debts, and discovers the key to saving her village from a dangerous threat.

My stories come from everywhere. From the life I’ve lived, from the world that I see. I have no particular process beyond simply taking time to think about the world I live in, to question and ponders the limitless “what ifs” that can be and to seek the answers to those questions on the written page.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.