Naheed Hasnat Senzai calls herself a voracious reader, stalwart writer, intrepid traveler, and eater of good things.
Born in Chicago, she grew up in San Francisco, Jubail, Saudi Arabia, and attended boarding school in London, England. She has hiked across the Alps, road-tripped through Mexico, swum with barracudas in the Red Sea, taken a train across the Soviet Union, floated down the Nile, eaten gumbo in New Orleans and sat in contemplation at the Taj Mahal. She attended UC Berkeley and Columbia University, and lives in San Francisco.
She is the award-winning author of Shooting Kabul (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books 2010), Saving Kabul Corner (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books 2014), and Ticket to India (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books 2015).
She joins us today to talk about her newest book, released this week from Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books , Escape from Aleppo. About the book (From IndieBound):
Silver and gold balloons. A birthday cake covered in pink roses. A new dress. Nadia stands at the center of attention in her parents’ elegant dining room. This is the best day of my life, she thinks. Everyone is about to sing “Happy Birthday,” when her uncle calls from the living room, “Baba, brothers, you need to see this.” Reluctantly, she follows her family into the other room. On TV, a reporter stands near an overturned vegetable cart on a dusty street. Beside it is a mound of smoldering ashes. The reporter explains that a vegetable vendor in the city of Tunis burned himself alive, protesting corrupt government officials who have been harassing his business. Nadia frowns.It is December 17, 2010: Nadia’s twelfth birthday and the beginning of the Arab Spring. Soon anti-government protests erupt across the Middle East and, one by one, countries are thrown into turmoil. As civil war flares in Syria and bombs fall across Nadia’s home city of Aleppo, her family decides to flee to safety. Inspired by current events, this novel sheds light on the complicated situation in Syria that has led to an international refugee crisis, and tells the story of one girl’s journey to safety.
A common theme in your books is the experience of refugees, what they leave behind, and how they struggle to adapt to a new way of life. What drives you to write about such a difficult subject?
As Americans, whether we consciously realize it or not, we have a particular connection with refugees; at one point of time, most of our families sought refuge in this country. They arrived from all around the world, fleeing war, persecution, famine or just hoping to find a better life for themselves and their children. Most of my books deal with such families, and in Escape from Aleppo, my hope is that Nadia’s story allows readers to walk in the shoes of a child whose life has been turned upside down by the trauma of war and the loss of everything they know and love. If we pause to reflect on that connection, that at one point we were all refugees, we can share in a common humanity.
How did you decide to depict the uglier, more violent aspects of Nadia’s journey and still make the book appropriate for middle-grade readers?
I believe that you do a disservice to your reader, especially middle graders, by not to telling them the truth, no matter how ugly. This is especially the case when discussing war, atrocities and the complexities of politics and history. We shouldn’t be afraid of shocking them about how terrible humans can be to one another, whether around the globe, or in own back yards. Without sharing the harsh realities, in a way digestible format for that age group, you cannot hope to dissuade a future generation from committing the same crimes over and over again.
You use flashback both to provide information about how Aleppo became such a dangerous place and to show what Nadia’s life was like before she had to flee. Why was it important for you to show that?
When people see scenes of war and images of refugees fleeing death and destruction, that becomes the viewer’s only frame of reference for that country and its people. When writing Escape from Aleppo, I wanted to show that Nadia had a normal life before the war, like that of any teen around the world. Aleppo was an advanced, cultured city where she had a loving family, friends, supportive teachers, a sweet tooth, a passion for music and a dislike of Algebra! In showing the two sides of the coin, peace and conflict, I wanted to show how anyone’s normal, everyday life can be turn upside down in a matter of moments.
The book depicts a place and a culture that is very different from the experience of most Americans. What kind of research did you do to get the details right?
This, as with most of my books, was very research intensive, and I spend months absorbing and cataloging information! I’m lucky that I’ve lived and travelled in the Middle East for fifteen years, and have many friends in the region. It also helps that my husband teaches Middle East politics at Santa Clara University and he helped in putting the history and politics of the region in perspective. I spoke to many journalists and Syrians who shared first-hand accounts of the terrible conflict.
If there was one single thing that you wanted readers to get from Escape from Aleppo, what would it be?
Kids may have heard about the war in Aleppo or seen images of the conflict on the news or in social media. While reading Escape from Aleppo, I hope that can further delve into the rich history of Syria, the root causes of the war, the culture and people of this amazing country. I’d like to illustrate that Nadia and her family are like families anywhere around the world. Like parents living in San Francisco, Beijing, Sydney or New Delhi, Nadia’s mother and father want to give their children a safe and secure place to grow up, pursue their dreams, get an education and have a family of their own. At the end of the day, all families, no matter their origin, want the same things – peace, security and chance at a hopeful future.
What other books do you recommend to readers who enjoyed Escape from Aleppo?
What’s your favorite thing about middle-grade fiction (as a reader or a writer)?
I love writing for middle graders because at this age they can still suspend belief and journey with you through a story – but they can smell a skunk a mile away. They are sophisticated readers that can handle “heavy” topics via believable plots, authentic characters, dialogue that rings true and reality based facts. At this age, if we present complex material in the right context, we can open their hearts and minds to the world around them so that they build bridges of understanding with others, rather than walls.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to write middle-grade fiction?
I know this is advice often given, but it is at the core of writing middle grade fiction; READ. And not just middle grade novels. The best books are those that bring in unique, interesting, sometimes esoteric knowledge – that knowledge comes from reading about space travel, obscure poisons, baking techniques, Russian history, chemistry, flora and fauna of Madagascar… you get my drift. Read about things that interest you – it will make it into your books which will also be interesting!