I read this book a while ago, but the story really stuck with me. With Naila and her goals and passion and determination still hanging around in my head, persistent and present, I knew I needed to write a blog post about Aisha Saeed’s Written in the Stars.
Here are three things writers can learn from Saeed’s heart-wrenching––but ultimately uplifting––YA debut.
1. Keep raising those stakes.
Naila is a young Pakistani-American girl. Her parents are supportive of her dreams of attending medical school, and she understands and follows their rules, including (mostly) staying away from her more-than-crush Saif. She’s always known her parents will choose a husband for her and she respects her family’s traditions.
At the book’s opening, Naila’s biggest concern is that her parents might catch her sneaking out to a dance with Saif. But when a last-minute trip to Pakistan turns into something far more troubling, suddenly it seems Naila might lose a lot more than her cell phone, her budding relationship with Saif, or even her chance at moving away to college.
Throughout the novel, Saeed does a brilliant job of continually upping the stakes. The book’s fast pace is appropriate for a story where the main character’s life is tumbling quickly out of control. Every time Naila finds a way to escape her situation and make her way home and back to Saif, her plans are foiled––and the situation becomes even more dire. This is an emotional book, at times difficult to read. But Saeed’s skillful pacing and plotting keep us turning pages even when the story has us utterly stressed and scared!
2. Let your characters be their complex selves.
When Naila discovers her family will be staying in Pakistan for longer than expected, she’s not all that upset. (This is before she finds out her parents are trying to find her a husband.) Naila misses home, and the privacy and quiet of her house, and of course her beloved Saif. But there are many things about the Pakistani village that she really likes: the bustle of the market, the lyrical sounds of the call to prayer, the soft, shady ground of the orange groves. Naila is American as can be. Still, there’s something about this village in Pakistan that also feels like home.
When Naila finds out she’s been brought there to marry, Naila’s relationship to her parents’ home country becomes much more fraught. But there are still many things about the place and the people that Naila loves. Saeed does a great job illustrating this complexity, and it’s a great lesson for all writers: in letting our characters develop a nuanced relationship with the world around them, we’re letting them grow into their real, three-dimensional, complicated selves.
3. #OwnVoices are powerful––and some stories best told by them.
This is going to seem strange, but stay with me! One of my favorite parts of this book was the Author’s Note. In it, Saeed talks about her own experience as a Pakistani-American in semi-arranged marriage–– “we were equal partners making a choice to spend our lives together.” She goes on to describe how she’s known girls forced into commitments far different from her own happy bond: marriages they felt they couldn’t say no to, including some that have led to abuse, or parents “threatening to disown them” if they leave.
Saeed makes clear that forced marriages are a “problem that transcends race and religion.” This particular novel, of course, is situated within the Pakistani-American community, and Saeed’s being a part of that community has clearly informed the way she’s written this story. Saeed’s writing is steeped in admiration, knowledge, and respect: from descriptions of chai and sweet-salty lemonade, to the terms of endearment for different family members, to the profound friendship Naila forms with her relative Selma just a few weeks after arriving in Pakistan. There’s so much to take in here: so much texture and detail and love. As a member of this community, Saeed’s well-positioned to critique it in a nuanced, informed way, with a critique that makes room for both problems and beauty, and all the tension and subtlety and variety that only an author with firsthand experience can invoke.
Written in the Stars makes a compelling case for #OwnVoices. Saeed’s debut, and Naila’s sad, hopeful story, both serve as a great reminder of why it’s so crucial that, as writers and readers, we take special care to support our peers, authors, mentors, and mentees who bring a new or overlooked perspective to their work.
Want to chat about Written in the Stars or other great YA and MG titles? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.