What inspired you to write AMAL UNBOUND?
The idea for AMAL UNBOUND came to me several years ago. At the time I’d known I wanted to write about a girl like Amal who was brave and full of hope and who lived in Pakistan—an often misunderstood country— but I wasn’t sure what her specific story would be. While reading the day’s headlines one day in 2012 I came across the inspiring story of Malala. Her story stopped me in my tracks because it reminded me of the strength and resilience many young people I worked with as a teacher showed every day—their situations were of course starkly different than Malala’s but many of my students were also resilient and brave in the face of unspeakable difficulties. With this in mind, thinking about all the brave children around the world who never get a headline but who work in the way of justice nonetheless, I began writing AMAL UNBOUND. Lately, many people have told me that AMAL UNBOUND feels like a timely story. I can understand that. A story about resistance and justice against all odds and the power of each of us to affect change does seems like an incredibly timely story. Of course in 2012 when I began writing this story I could have had no idea how deeply relevant the story would have been today but it is and I’m grateful if it is giving people hope. The name Amal means hope in Arabic and it is my hope AMAL UNBOUND that not only does this book show us a glimpse into a country that is often misunderstood but that it also reminds readers of their own inner strength and the importance of working in the way of justice whether a spotlight shines on us or not.
Which character in AMAL UNBOUND was the most challenging for you to write?
Nearly everyone in AMAL UNBOUND is to some degree sympathetic. If they are harsh or unkind we learn the reasons through reading the novel. The one exception to this was Jawad, the landlord’s son who forces the main character, Amal, into a life of indentured servitude in his estate. He is the one who taunts her and is positively amused at her devastation about her changed circumstances. In earlier drafts, I struggled to find more ways to create him with nuance and to explore his complicated upbringing which made him the way he was. Humans are complex and exploring that is part of why I love to write. That being said, I finally came to the conclusion that while I personally did know Jawad’s upbringing and the things that may have shaped him into the awful man he grew up to be, for Amal, Jawad is The Big Bad Wolf. He destroyed her dreams and terrorizes her community. To center in any way his past was to minimize the immense harm and hurt he was causing his community and to our protagonist Amal. While I do introduce one hint of his past in a scene he has with her in his library early on, we don’t explore his motivations because we don’t need to—our sympathies are and should remain with Amal who is enduring the ramifications of his monstrous actions.
Did you encounter any unexpected challenges or interesting moments while writing this book? Tell us about it.
The biggest challenge I encountered while writing this book was my baby! Namely, my first round of edits arrived around four weeks after I’d given birth to my third son. Most of this novel was written and revised while balancing life as a mother of three including a newborn and the lack of sleep that came with it. When I was anticipating this eventuality—the baby coming right when edits would likely come to me—I had been very nervous about how exactly I would do it all, but the interesting thing when you have very little time to work is that you get to work. When the baby napped and the older two boys were in school I took advantage of that one hour nap and accomplished more in that one hour than I likely would have in two or three hours before simply because I was aware how precious my time was and there was not a minute to spend procrastinating. Writing has always been a funny thing for me in that I love to write but can find a million reasons to avoid writing. Having children and managing time in the new way that required means my time at the writing table is much more focused now.
This Q&A appeared in the May 2018 issue of the CBC Diversity Newsletter. To sign up for our monthly Diversity newsletter click here.
Aisha Saeed also wrote Written in the Stars, and is a Pakistani-American writer, teacher, and attorney. She has been featured on MTV, the Huffington Post, NBC and the BBC, and her writings have appeared in publications including the journal ALAN and the Orlando Sentinel. As one of the founding members of the much talked about We Need Diverse Books Campaign, she is helping change the conversation about diverse books. Aisha lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband and sons.