Books, Pop Culture

An open letter to the writer that changed my childhood as well as my adult life

Dear Sarah Dessen, there are some moments in life that are called cliches for a reason, this one was mine.

Dear Sarah Dessen,

I was 13 when I first read Someone Like You. I was not a book lover, a bookworm or into literature – none of that. But one day, a family friend of mine dropped off this book for me and I decided to give it a try.

Before that, reading was something I did when my mother told me to. I’d read Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, and more just because that’s what I was told. There wasn’t this inherent desire in me to read.

So when I say that reading that one book was when I changed, I know it is the cliche of cliches, but that was when I fell in love with books. Cliches exist for a reason, and this was mine. Reading Someone Like You was eye-opening. The characters, the mood, the connections, all of that – I craved and kept craving.

The book spoke a lot about grief; it dealt with the aftermath of loss and how grief works differently for everyone. I had lost my grandfather a few months prior and I couldn’t confront my grief, so I let myself go in the book. All the lines pertaining to the inherent grief Scarlett’s character held within her resonated with me. 

More than that, there was the friendship between Scarlett and Halley. It wasn’t a romanticized friendship, it wasn’t glamorised, it was real and raw and had all the ups and downs that I was facing with my own friends at the time. Towards the end of the book. there’s a line that talks about how everyone needs that one person in their life, and that relatability factor just struck me. It was a literature that I needed to so desperately connect with. Being 13 in Karachi, you don’t get a lot of exposure.

Someone Like You gave me real connection, real immersion with a culture that wasn’t my own. It was something I had never really felt. But reading that book made it come to life for me. Soaking in Halley and Scarlett, I realized that there was so much more out there for me to learn. I read and then re-read it; allowing myself to just live in someone else’s shoes because I so badly wanted to pretend my reality was not real. So I went to search for another one of her books. But none were available in Karachi.

That summer, I was travelling and I came across another book by Sarah Dessen. That was all I really wanted. I wanted to shop and the usual, but there was this need, this desire to read more that was so new. And that unfamiliarity made me feel good. That exhilaration is still what I feel when I walk into a bookstore. No one in my family was fond of reading or ever really gave it a second glance past Peter and Sally. 

I was so immersed in her novels that I craved to make the characters my own. That was when I started writing. I wrote fantastical stories of the characters meeting one another, making up a reality that was so completely far away from my own. And then I began my own project. It was never supposed to be a novel, but somewhere along the line, I found my own characters.

Sarah Dessen, I read and re-read Someone Like You, questioning my ability to write every second. Praying to anything out there to make my words flow as easily as yours. Wishing that I would finish this book, and get that same feeling I did after reading both those books. Years passed and I kept on writing. I read all of your novels. There is only one international bookstore here and every time I went there, and I would always ask them the same question,

“Any new Sarah Dessen books?”

It became a need to end my night with a world that seemed so far from my own yet one I identified with so well. I would ask friends and family who went on holiday to bring back your books for me. 

I finally finished my book when I was 17. And when the first printed copy lay in my hands, I skipped to the ending, asking myself if I got that feeling – that feeling I got every time I finished one of your books. I still haven’t been able to answer that question myself. It’s hard to judge your writing from a creative distance. The point is, if Someone Like You hadn’t found me all those years ago, I may not have published my book, I may not have ever even written it. I may not have realized that writing is the one thing that feels closest to home.

I think I read somewhere in your books that every story is worth telling, and I thought maybe you’d like to hear this one.