Saturday, October 23, 2010

Talking with N. H. Senzai, Author of SHOOTING KABUL

I recently found Shooting Kabul on the new release shelf at my local library. The cover was beautiful and the title intrigued me – especially in the children’s area of the library. The jacket flap promised a story of a young boy’s family, their flight from the Taliban, their journey as newcomers to the US, and the unfolding of the events of 9-11. Pretty heavy stuff for a kids’ book.

It proved to be a jewel of a story, grabbing me with its cultural details and the emotion and true voice of Fadi as he tries to process the family tragedy as well as the international one. N. H. Senzai was nice enough to grant me an interview about this, her first novel.

CARPE kEYBOARD:  Your book, Shooting Kabul, illustrates a rich combination of the cultures of Afghanistan and the US from a young boy’s point of view. I was especially struck by the things most Americans would take for granted – like Fadi’s view point of a toy store.  And the description of the flight from the Taliban in the first 2 chapters is nerve wracking! I felt like I was running for the truck right along with the family! What kind of research did you do research to get the details of his experience down so vividly?

N.H. Senzai:  I do extensive research before and during  the writing process. For SHOOTING KABUL my goal was to be as accurate as possible when depicting Afghan culture and the landscape of the country before fleshing out the novel. In chapter two, the family’s flight from Afghanistan, takes place in a Jalalabad. Although I have never been there, I spoke to my Afghan in-laws, read up on the city, saw pictures, maps and travel guides to make sure I had the feel and flavor of the area for authenticity. Much of the latter part of the book takes place in Fremont, California, which is where I’m from, so I just took in the scenes from everyday life.

You include the events of 9/11 as a pivotal turning point for your characters. Fadi feels the fallout in the form of bullying at his school – such a huge issue today in the news lately -- and sees the impact in the adults in his community, as well. What do you hope your readers will learn from seeing these events from Fadi’s perspective?

For thousands of years, Afghanistan has been a battle­ground for outsiders. Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan came with their armies, as did the British and the Soviets. All attempted to conquer and occupy, yet failed. There are lessons to be learned as the United States currently contemplates its role in this war-torn country. Afghanistan came into the global spotlight again, post 9/11, and thus that day is a pivotal moment for my characters. My hope is that the readers of SHOOTING KABUL take away one critical thing – that after having walked in Fadi’s shoes they realize that although people from different parts of the world may look, speak or even act differently, their core values are the same – they want security, access to education, healthcare, a happy, stable family life and a hope for a positive future.  My hope is that readers  realize that Fadi and his family are similar to their own; that their hopes, dreams and desires mirror theirs.
You also included rather intimate details of Muslim faith traditions, such as the visits to the mosque and Fadi’s discussions about his faith with his family. Your scenes that hinged on faith were smoothly integrated as a meaningful, natural part of the story, yet were obviously illustrations of a much different “side” of Muslim faith than we typically see portrayed in the media lately. Were you intentionally sending a message about the peacefulness of Islam? Do you hope your story will open minds in America and elsewhere about this faith?

My greatest challenge in writing the book was to make sure I didn’t resort to cliché’s and sensationalism when telling Fadi’s story – I wanted to write an accurate, truthful portrayal of Afghan culture, world politics and the religion of Islam in a thoughtful, nuanced and way.  Islam has been present in the United States since Muslims arrived as slaves from Africa, and many of the founding fathers owned a Quran, including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, and they established the freedom of religion.  Islam has had the opportunity to flourish in the US, but unfortunately, in a post 9/11 environment, there has been tremendous backlash against the Muslim community; but looking back historically, many groups, such as the Catholics, Jews and others have also faced challenges as they established their place in the American landscape. I believe we are at a very challenging, but hopeful time as Americans learn more about Islam and the Muslim people. I hope that SK lends a voice to the debate.

Here is a question I ask a lot of authors:  I’ve recently learned (the hard way!) that the editing process is where a huge part of the art of writing happens. I think some writers would argue the magic is in the act of writing the first draft. What do you think?

I would argue that both, art & magic, happen at all times, during the writing of the first draft, and then in the follow up revision process.  For me, the first draft is when the essence of the story lands on the page, its soul (the magic) and skeleton (the art).  The editing process is adding layers of tissue and skin to refine, solidify and strengthen the story. Then, once your manuscript is acquired, you go through another round of revisions with your editor, and they too lend an element of  art & a hint of magic to the story for final publication.

What actions did you take to improve your writing skills? Do you have a degree in creative writing? Do you belong to a critique group? What would you recommend as a way for budding authors to improve their skills?

I graduated college with a degree in accounting and marketing – I think I took all of two English classes at U.C. Berkeley. I still joke that I don’t know what a dangling participle is! My strength as a writer is the creative process – coming up with the story and plotting it out. My weakness is grammar and the “English”. So when I got serious about writing, the first thing I did was to join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and found a critique group. My two partners were instrumental is helping me strengthen my writing skills, enabling me to bring my ideas to life. So I would recommend this to all writers – join a community of writers, either on-line or in person, and sharing your work.

When do you carpe your keyboard? What are your writing habits?

I don’t have a set schedule for writing, and since I have a day job and a family, I tend to write in the evenings, late into the night or early mornings. For me, I write straight into my computer, and since I do a lot of research, Google is always open, waiting for research project to commence…

What’s your next project?
I am currently in the process of working on a few different ideas for my next book. When I know more, I’ll be sure to share it!

Thanks so much for sharing your time and thoughts with Carpe Keyboard, Ms. Senzai! Good luck with sales, your next work, and the writer's life. I'll look forward to seeing your name (and a new title) on a shelf at my local bookstore again soon.

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