Educator Spotlight: Talking Literature with Samira Ahmed

Educator Spotlight: Talking Literature with Samira Ahmed

Samira Ahmed’s debut novel LOVE, HATE & OTHER FILTERS comes out on January 16, 2018 from SoHo Teen. The book is portrait of Maya Aziz’s senior year at a high school in the Chicago suburbs. Even before it’s release, the book is receiving a lot of attention in the Teen and YA literature world. Love, Hate and Other Filters is an American Booksellers Association “Indies Introduce” Selection for Winter/Spring 2018, an American Booksellers Association IndieNext “Top Pick”, a Spring 2018 Barnes and Nobels Discover Great New Writers Selection , and a Kobo Winter eBook Indie Pick.

Without giving away any spoilers, Maya’s place in her community is challenged by events that are beyond her control. Beyond being just a terrific read, the book explores a number of really important and engaging themes, including the challenges of navigating identity, culture, and family, the border between inclusion and exclusion, and anti-Muslim prejudice at time when divisions between “us and them” are being renegotiated. 

When I was reading Love, Hate and Other Filters, I wished I had a class of students to be reading along with me, or a group of teachers thinking about using the book in their literature classrooms. I hope I can do both of those things soon, in the meantime, I am fortunate to be in conversation with the author, Samira Ahmed. Below is an email interview I conducted with Samira in late December.

Adam Strom: Samira, first of all, congratulations, on the imminent arrival of your novel. From the reviews it has been getting, I am not the only one who is excited about it. I’d love to ask you about some of the publicity language about the book. It says, “American-born seventeen-year-old Maya Aziz is torn between worlds. There’s the proper one her parents expect for their good Indian daughter….And then there is the world of her dreams.” It has become commonplace to talk about books as windows into new worlds, and mirrors for reflection on our lives. I’m interested in what you want readers to see as they look through the window or stop to catch their reflection in the mirror.

Samira Ahmed: Hey Adam! Thanks so much for hosting me and for all your kind words! I’m incredibly excited for LOVE, HATE & OTHER FILTERS to be out in the world. I very much a believer in the idea that a book can be both mirror and window. Unfortunately, especially on children’s literature, kids of color have been historically underrepresented and so there have been generations that have grown up with scant ability to see themselves reflected in the stories we are reading. Of course, we can all relate to the emotions expressed in a book—hope, fear, love, etc. But I can’t overstate the importance of a kid being able to really see themselves represented in a book. If you growing only seeing white make superheroes you see that as the normative- you only see acts of heroism from someone who is not like you, it’s harder to imagine yourself as the hero. And doesn’t every child deserve to see themselves in that way?

For my book, I hope that every reader can relate to Maya’s experiences in some way—in the way she’s trying to forge a path for herself, in the way she has to contend with the expectations others have of her. But she also deals with a very specific kind of bigotry—Islamophobia—that I think Muslim teens will be familiar with. And she is also being raised by Indian immigrants and some of those cultural touchstones will be known to Indian kids who read the book. For other readers, I hope they can get a tiny glimpse into the world of Maya’s intersectionalities and imagine for a moment what it must be like to live with all of that while also trying to figure things out in her teenage life. At the same time, I want to be clear that Maya’s story is just that—her one story. Neither Muslims nor Indians are a monolith. We each have our stories to tell and Maya’s is one of them.

Adam: Excellent point, your comments remind me of some of the powerful warnings in Chimamanda Adichie’s powerful Ted talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.

Speaking of the universality and uniqueness of our stories and identities, I love the first line on your biography where you write that “Samira Ahmed was born in Bombay, India, and grew up in Batavia, Illinois, in a house that smelled like fried onions, spices, and potpourri.” The description of the smell is wonderful. Everyone’s house has its own smell. Often we don’t even notice them. I remember my best friend’s house in high school smelled like wet dogs, but I couldn’t tell you what my house smelled like. So, when did you notice what your house smelled like? How was it different than the smells in your friends and neighbors houses? And, why do you want people to know about you from those details?

Samira: I am fascinated by the fact that smell is the sense closest linked to memory. I also am going to share right now that if I have one superpower it is the sense of smell. I’m always the one people call on to smell if some food item has turned just a little bit. It’s not always the most enviable power! I remember being aware of the smell of our house since I was in middle school, I think. My mom is a fabulous cook and Indian cooking requires a lot of onion frying. And you also heat oil and add spices to it to bring out the full flavor and aroma of the spices. So my coats and hair used to smell so much like an Indian kitchen, I used to hate it when I was a kid because it made me stand out in my very white hometown. My mom also loved potpourri and I used to keep lavender sachets in my room to ward off the onion smell. But now I love that onion + spice smell. It reminds me of home. My home may have been different than all the others, but I came to appreciate how those differences made me unique.

Adam: I want to be careful how I say this, because, first and foremost, Love, Hate, and Other Filters is a delight to read, at the same time, you explore a number of really important challenges for our fragile world. Maya is like one quarter of the students in schools across the U.S who are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Maya is also a Muslim teenager, and through her story you explore the impact of anti-Muslim prejudice at a time when schools across the country are reporting increasing acts of hatred and bigotry.

As a former English teacher, and someone who has been involved in helping to create small schools. I’m wondering, what do you want young people to be talking about as they read your book? What would you want their teacher’s to make sure their students know either to set context before introducing the book, or for students to consider after they’ve finished the text?

Samira: Hhhmmmm. I was always cautious about “overly” introducing a book because sometimes it can change the lens, the filter if you will, that the student brings to their reading.

My main character Maya is a girl like any other girl, and I don’t think a kid needs more context than that. As they are reading the book, I hope teachers and students can talk about both those mirror and window experiences they have with the story. I hope they can pause and potentially have some uncomfortable discussions about stereotypes and assumptions. I hope they can discuss the problems of asking one person to represent an entire group or having one individual’s reactions reflect on an entire population. This is an experience that is pretty universally felt amongst all marginalized groups but rarely the majority. And it is such an unfair burden to bear. I would love if students and teachers could reflect on their own experiences both being judged and also judging others.

We all have our own prejudices. It’s often deeply uncomfortable to acknowledge and face them but there really is no other way forward, is there? All around us, I’ve witnessed people who are more upset to be called a racist than to be a racist. That is so deeply wrong but it speaks to these political times. There are always sides to bigotry, racism, misogyny—-the right side and the wrong side. If you want to be on the right side, it’s not enough to be a non-racist, say, you need to be anti-racist. That can begin with those uncomfortable conversations.

Adam: Samira, let’s stay in teacher mode for a moment. I know you are a writer now, but my guess is that you were an awfully good teacher. If you were teaching Love, Hate, and Other Filters, what overarching question would you use to frame the book? How about, one essential question and maybe two guiding questions?

Samira: I used to team teach a combined American Lit/US History class, which was one of my absolute favorites to plan for and to teach. I always taught Am Lit thematically, not strictly chronologically, and my first unit was always, “What is an American?” So many great discussion come out of that question, as it relates to both history and literature. I think that is a great question to lean into when teaching LH&OF—it also speaks to so much going on in America today, grounding the book in real world issues. I used a comprehension hierarchy of questions when teaching and the I especially liked the generalization questions—ones that spoke to authorial intent, structural purpose, and the reader’s response to that. So, for this book, I would love to be a fly on a wall during classroom discussion that asked: Why does the author structure the novel with a main narrative and intercalary chapters? How do the intercalary chapters shape the way the reader interacts with the characters and situations in the book? What historical events might the author being trying to echo in the book?

Adam: Finally, I was really struck by your response when you were asked about your dream cast for Love, Hate, and Other Filters if it was made into a movie. You pointed out that there really aren’t working actors in Hollywood that could play some of the Indian American teenagers in the book. You are right. I have my own answers to why that matters, but I’d like to hear yours. In your answer, can I ask you to think about what is lost, not just to students of color when they don’t see themselves represented in media, but for all students.

Samira: This question makes me think a little bit of the Michael Ondaatje poem, “What We Lost,” which reflects on the cost of assimilation. A great poem to read in conjunction with any book dealing with the immigrant experience. Immigrants necessarily lose things when they move from their old homes to new ones, even if they do so voluntarily. (It’s a much greater loss and bigger question when people are forced to migrate). America’s strength is her diversity and when we see only that single story, when we see only a majority culture reflected in our media, in our pop culture, we lose the beauty of nuance, of our multiculturalism. We see only one idea, one experience as normative—“difference” and “otherness” are solidified as something to be feared, shunned, hated. We don’t see how that holds our own progress in abeyance. We can either live in the world and thrive or hide from it and be lost. We’ve seen the high cost of isolationism. If we open our eyes, we can see the heavy toll it’s already taken on us.

Adam: Thanks for doing this. I hope this book finds a place in classrooms around the world.

Samira: Thank you! I really appreciate this opportunity you and your thoughtful questions. And especially the work the ReImagining Migration project is doing. Onward, always.

Samira Ahmed’s Love, Hate and Other filters can be pre-ordered now, and will be available in bookshops on January 18. A study guide will be available from SoHo Teen. We will link to it when it is live. In the summer of 2017, we featured Samira’s sister, Sara Ahmed, in our first Educator Spotlight.