A Conversation with Fatima Farheen Mirza

The author discusses how a novel can never be entirely invented, and what she hopes readers take away from her tale.

A Place For Us

Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us is a deeply moving, resonant story of love, identity, and belonging. It’s also the first novel published by Sarah Jessica Parker’s new imprint, SJP for Hogarth, and follows as an Indian wedding gathers a family back together, where parents Rafiq and Layla must reckon with the choices their children have made.

There is Hadia: their headstrong, eldest daughter, whose marriage is a match of love and not tradition. Huda, the middle child, determined to follow in her sister’s footsteps. And lastly, their estranged son, Amar, who returns to the family fold for the first time in three years to take his place as brother of the bride.

A Place for Us takes us back to the beginning of this family’s life: from the bonds that bring them together to the differences that pull them apart. All the joy and struggle of family life is here, from Rafiq and Layla’s own arrival in America from India, to the years in which their children—each in their own way—tread between two cultures, seeking to find their place in the world as well as a path home.

Recently, Fatima spoke with Read It Forward’s Abbe Wright about the challenges of crafting a shifting timeline, and how life’s earliest connections can be the most impactful of all.

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Read It Forward: Would you give a quick synopsis of A Place for Us? Tell us about where we are, and who we’re meeting.

Fatima Farheen Mirza: The novel begins when the youngest child and the only son, Amar, has returned to attend his sister’s wedding. It starts as the wedding is beginning, and we don’t know why he ran away, or what it means that he’s come home. From there, the novel shows us moments in the family’s past that answer those questions: why he left, what it means that he’s back. And then we’re back at the wedding.

RIF: Why did you decide to write the story with a timeline that jumps around? I loved that you trusted your reader to follow along and figure it out. 

FFM: That was really hard for me to figure out—how can I ground readers in the time? There are little clues that help us ground them: one of the ages will be mentioned, or the grade one of the characters is in. But it wasn’t a conscious decision that I’d be jumping around in time.

I knew only one thing about the family before I began: they’re gathered together, and they’re getting ready to take the family photograph at the end, waiting to see if their son will make it, and they’re all anxious, worried that perhaps he won’t. That moment was what I wanted to figure out. I knew very quickly the novel wasn’t going to be only about the wedding and what happens after, that the real story was trying to figure out what part these family members had in making that moment possible. I realized that in those scenes, the characters were narrowing in on a moment where they made a decision that reverberated throughout their lives.

RIF: One of the things I found most compelling is the spider web of relationships between the different people. You have these three siblings who all take various roles: one is really driven, one is more of a teacher, and Amar, he’s the rebellious one looking for his spot in the family. And then we have these parent-child relationships, too. Did you have a web for yourself as you wrote about each and how they related to one another?

FFM: No, but I knew that I wanted it to be a novel that explored the different kinds of loves in one’s life. Of course there is romantic love, a love story that’s present, but I wanted to know what other dimensions or complexities of love are as big in one’s life. Like the love that a sister has for her brother, or a mother for her son or daughter, or daughter for her father.

So, depending on which point of view I’m in and which character, that was the relationship I explored. Sometimes it’s Hadia, who’s just had a fight with her father; other times it’s Hadia feeling hurt by her mother. So it’s not just Amar and his relationships with his family, it’s about all of them.

RIF: It’s happening on these different planes all at one time, which is real life. Where did this family first come to you? Did you have a seed of inspiration for A Place for Us

FFM: The image I was talking about earlier was the first thing that came to my mind: this family gathered together, standing on the stage for their daughter’s wedding. I knew she was the eldest daughter, and they’re about to take the photograph that will go into the family album. It was important for the mother to have the photograph taken because she wanted it to replace another. That’s when I knew the family was looking around to see, “Where is our son?” So many questions came from that. “Why does she want to replace the photograph?” And then I realized, “Oh, because they haven’t had a family photograph taken for many years.” Why not? “Oh, Amar has been gone.” Okay, where has he been? That was the first.

RIF: The scene that sparked it all. Where were you when you first began writing this novel? 

FFM: I was an undergrad at UC-Riverside. I’d been carrying around the image for a while. I’ve always written other things, but I was taking a workshop with Charmaine Craig, who’s a wonderful mentor and friend, and through various writing prompts, I started writing about the characters onstage in that moment.

RIF: Is there anything that’s autobiographical, or is it completely invented?

FFM: I don’t think anything can be completely invented. It’s both a novel that is deeply personal to me, and one that doesn’t look anything like my life when you to consider the facts. The novel isn’t autobiographical because the characters took on their own lives, they acted in ways that I never acted, but through them, the heart of it is very personal. Or through the questions they’re asking as they interact with one another, the very questions that I’ve been asking my whole life, without being really aware until I started writing.

RIF: At times, these characters feel at odds with the culture in which they’re raised. It’s so interesting, and important, that Amar and Hadia are examining what it means to have an arranged marriage, and what it means to pray. I noticed them questioning these things that have been handed down culturally from their parents. Why was that introspection important to include?

FFM: No one has ever asked me that question before. I never set out with that in mind: “Okay, I’m going to figure out how they relate to the expectations placed on them, or their faith, or their culture.” But I knew certain facts: that Amar left, and he has come home. And if he’s the kind of kid who would leave, how would his siblings grow up in that environment? His sisters, Hadia and Huda, their whole lives would have been living with that possibility in their minds. When I knew that, I was curious about, “How is Amar relating to his faith in a way that his parents aren’t?”

There are a few things that bind this family, and one of them is their faith; that’s very important to the parents. So of course they want to pass that on to their children. I wanted to know, “Okay, what’s Layla’s relationship to her faith?” Once I knew what that was, I could put her in a scene where she’s trying to teach her son how to pray. Then, I knew Amar’s place is one that’s more questioning, or sensitive. For Hadia, it’s okay for her to fake it till she makes it, but maybe Amar’s a kid who says, “No, I cannot.” All of those things were at play.

RIF: It’s not that you set out to do that, but in exploring each of them, we see they relate to their own culture and faith differently. You touch on addiction, and we get this hint that Amar’s had this dark chapter, that he’s now coming into himself and shaking off the beast of opioid addiction, which plagues this country. Why did that feel important as a part of his story?

FFM: To be honest, that didn’t feel like a choice either. When I talked about the images that came in the very beginning—one being at the wedding, another image that came shortly after—that I knew the novel would be revolving around, there was one where he was with another person at the wedding, and that’s what he was confessing. So, it became a question of, “How can I move backwards to figuring that out, and who is that person?”

RIF: There’s a lot of young love in this book. Do you think the attractions we form as young people are somehow stronger, or more formative than the ones we form later in life?

FFM: I don’t know if they’re more formative, but they do have their own quality that can never be recreated later on in life. It exists in its own sphere emotionally for the characters, and they think about that, too, like when Amar’s thinking about Amira, “Oh, my love for her will always exist on its own plane.” I wanted to figure out how when you’re young, the decisions you’re making at every moment are choosing who you’re becoming, and these relationships could affect who you become for your whole life.

The two families in the novel are the main family: Amar, Layla, Hadia, Huda, Rafiq, and the Alli family, who they’re echoing off of and interacting with. When Amar’s 17, he becomes aware that he’s fallen for Amira Alli, and because they’re in the same community, these families knew each other their whole lives. That has its own particular effect because you can trace back to the earliest times of knowing them. I knew that when he was 17, in his mind it would occur to him, “Oh, I love her,” or even, “Do I love her?” But we could also be in scenes when they’re five, and that thought hasn’t appeared at all, but how are they interacting?

What was so fascinating in witnessing these moments is that we don’t know, and Amar doesn’t know, “Oh, I love her because we’ve interacted positively at this moment, and in this memory.” But it’s all there for the readers to draw those possible connections.

RIF: I love that. Your book is the first to be in print from Sarah Jessica Parker’s imprint, SJP for Hogarth. What’s it like working with her? What’s she like as a reader? How did this whole experience feel?

FFM: It’s been unlike anything I ever thought would happen. You don’t know what it will be like and what it will feel like. But working with Sarah Jessica has been so wonderful because she’s such a thoughtful reader and so detailed in her observations. In our conversations, she always picks up on the things that were most dear to me, and it makes me feel like this is exactly where the book belonged. It’s made the process so much more personal. When you’re working on your novel, it’s what you care about the most, and you really care about the characters, and it’s your precious little thing. It’s impossible to think that anyone else will match that kind of care you’ve given to it.

But in working with Sarah Jessica, and everybody at SJP for Hogarth who’ve poured their care and thought into it, I’ve been so grateful that it does feel like this is a story she genuinely cares about. And I’m so lucky that I can work with her in bringing it to readers.

RIF: Speaking of these readers, what do you hope they take away from this story?

FFM: My goal in writing the novel was, to the best of my ability, to tell the family story in a way that each of their perspectives was present and as truthful to them as I possibly could be, even if they were so different than me in the ways they thought or acted.

I would love for a reader to walk away and think, “I know what it was like for these characters to be alive. This was their time on earth, and I have a sense of what their greatest stories were, and their most secret moments within themselves.”

RIF: I can’t stop thinking about them. Thank you so much, Fatima.

Author Photo: Gregg Richards

FATIMA FARHEEN MIRZA was born in 1991 and raised in California. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recipient of the Michener-Copernicus Fellowship.

About Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Senior Editor of Read It Forward. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.

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