When I was in college, I stumbled upon Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers, a collection of fourteen interviews with new Americans, by Marina Budhos. I was barely 21 then, and I was desperately searching for “me” reflected in the pages of a book. I found bits of myself mirrored in the teens profiled in Remix, and the book became very precious to me. Soon after, I read Budhos’s two novels: House of Waiting, a stunning work of historical fiction set in 1950s New York City, and The Professor of Light, a luminous novel about the Indo-Caribbean diaspora. I’ve been a fan of Budhos ever since.
Years later, Budhos’ and my paths crossed in South Asian women artist and writer circles in New York City when I began writing about diversity and children’s literature and she published her first young adult novel Ask Me No Questions, which went on to win the James Cook Teen Book Award and New York Public Library Notable and Best Book. Since, she has published another young adult novel, Tell Us We’re Home, and co-authored a nonfiction book with her husband, Marc Aronson, Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom and Science, which was a 2010 Los Angeles Times Book Award Finalist.
I spoke to Budhos via email and phone on the eve of the publication of her third young adult novel, Watched. Set in Queens, Watched tells the story of Bangladeshi American teenager Naeem Rahman who, when caught shoplifting, strikes a deal with NYPD and becomes an informant and spies on his Muslim neighbors. School Library Journal calls Watched “a fast-moving, gripping tale that conveys Naeem’s restlessness and the sense of paranoia that comes from being watched constantly,” and the book is especially timely this year.
You are best known for your South Asian YA narratives that amplify the marginalized voices of our community—whether it be Bangladeshi teenagers Nadira and Aisha whose father is arrested and detained at the Canadian border in Ask Me No Questions or Trinidadian teenager Jaya in the small New Jersey town where her mother has found domestic work in Tell Us We’re Home. Where and how do you find your stories? My own background is hardly typical, even within the South Asian community. My father was a diaspora Indian, from a converted Christian family, who came to the U.S. before 1965 and married a Jewish-American woman, who herself came from a religious and observant background. That meant I could never assume my own story was “representative.” I was an outsider and observer in many contexts, and yet I needed to find a way to make the particulars of my own experience reach others through storytelling. At the same time, I was raised in an international community, with many interracial and intercultural families, so I grew used to an ease of moving in and out of so many different cultural households.
After I wrote two autobiographical adult novels, I wanted to move toward the stories of others. And the stories I found myself drawn to were more unnoticed. Perhaps because I both felt unnoticed and yet comfortable moving inside the skin of others, this is how I made my way to these perspectives. I grew up loving YA novels, which to me, were complex, not patronizing, and thought-provoking. I also love the ease of the storytelling in YA—it feels less self-conscious, more direct, and driven by voice. I believe in the U.S. we’ve really invented the form, in a sense, drawing on the vernacular and rhythms of how teenagers see the world. That really interests me as a writer.
The trick is not to be didactic; not to make the characters victims of circumstance, but full-blooded, ordinary, like any other kid out there. So it’s a balancing act of finding the universal, but also making sure the weave of details and externals authentic to say, a daughter of a woman who works as a domestic, or an undocumented Bangladeshi teenager. I’m frankly always on the hunt for that interesting angle, or predicament or dilemma that is all around us, but no one has zeroed in on yet.
Your most recent YA novel, Watched, is extraordinarily timely this election year. It deftly addresses undocumented immigration, Islamophobia, the surveillance state, and police violence, among other issues. How did the book come to be? Did you start with an “issue” or did you start with a character? For years people have been asking me about whether I was going to write a follow-up novel to Ask Me No Questions, about an undocumented Bangladeshi family. I did not want to exactly follow the same family, as the novel was left intentionally open-ended. Instead, I began to think about the next “beat” in the post 9/11 story: surveillance.
Watched follows the story of Naeem, a Bangladeshi high schooler in Jackson Heights, Queens, whose parents are struggling with their small neighborhood store. Naeem, like many teenagers, has had a few brushes with the law, and when one of his friends shoplifts at the mall, Naeem is left with stolen goods. Two detectives offer a way out: become a “crawler,” an informant for the New York City Police Department, and the charges will be dropped. Thus, Naeem goes from being “watched” to being a “watcher”—a choice that will eventually implode in his life. What happens when you are enlisted to help in counter-terrorism? Are you a hero or a traitor?
I’m fascinated with how surveillance feels like from the inside: how does a young man, searching for his identity, for heroes, learn how to be in the world, when he senses that his every move is tracked? How, as a young person, does he make an identity for himself when he is often seen as a suspect? And what happens when he’s offered a chance to remake his life and be on the other side—to become the watcher, someone who has the power to see into other lives, and perhaps change his own?
A Twitter hashtag, #ownvoices, started by Otherbound author Corinne Duyvis, focuses on recommending titles about marginalized groups of people by authors in those groups. How do you amplify the stories of the marginalized in our communities without appropriating them? That hashtag is a concern that grows out of power dynamics. And it’s an important concern because who gets to tell the story is who has always told the story. It’s really important to remember that.
On the other hand, you’ve got to balance that with the power of the imagination and the power for all of us to use fiction as a source of empathy. Because if we don’t, then we wouldn’t have Hamilton: we wouldn’t have a Puerto Rican kid from Manhattan imagining himself into the Founding Fathers. I think we have to acknowledge, be sensitive, and be aware of that power dynamic. That isn’t a call towards shutting down the imagination. To me, the power of empathy through fiction is one of the most powerful tools we have.
You write across genres: adult fiction, young adult fiction, nonfiction. How do you know what the best format for a story is? I’ve been working on a big adult novel and I’ve been re-writing it. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I learned from writing in this recent YA that I can bring over to that adult novel from narration to approach. For me, YA has been a very liberating form to work in. I think more people should do it!
I have a lot of ideas and a lot of landscapes that interest me. I’ll write them down in a notebook and start musing around them. For example, Tell Us for Home began as a nonfiction projects. It was a proposal that never became a book. I was going to do a book on the relationships between mothers and nannies. And I interviewed mothers and nannies and I went home with a nanny and I started to think about and notice the children of the nannies. It was the journalist in me thinking I had an adult book. When I didn’t manage to sell it, I knew that I had stumbled upon rich material. By that time, I was writing in the YA field and realized, “This is what I need to do.”
This summer, I began work on a new novel. It takes place in the late 1960’s and concerns integration battles in NYC. It is going to be about two mixed-race girls who get caught in this polarizing time. And part of what I’m sorting out is what I can use now or what I might use in another YA novel or even a memoir. I use my notebooks to sort it out a little bit. I’m not saying I ever come up with the right answer!
Next year Henry Holt will publish Eyes of the World: Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and The Invention of Modern Photojournalism, a work of nonfiction co-authored with Marc Aronson, your husband. This is the second book you have co-authored with him after Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom and Science. What is it like working with a co-author who is also your husband Eyes of the World is about a couple who collaborated [as photographers] and I think in some way we were working through our relationship in writing this book. We wrote the two books a little differently, but I set up a template for us. For Sugar, he was the driver of the book and got the draft down. We talked about it and we carved up the research, but he set down the draft. And then we started to work and collaborate together.
Eyes of the World was always my baby. I had always been interested in photography and happened upon the Gerda Taro, who was sort of forgotten. I thought it was going to be my book. But then it hit us that this was a book that we would write together. So, two summers ago, I sat down and wrote it straight through, and because he’s trained as a historian, I left a lot of the contextual explanation to him. I focused very much on the story, the photographs, and how the telling of the story would be.
How has being a writer influenced you as a mother, and how has being a mother influenced you as a writer? Tell Us We’re Home originated from being a new mother. I had a part-time nanny who was Indo-Guyanese, and sometimes people thought I was the nanny. It was so confusing. Somebody asked me to write an essay about the relationship between mothers and nannies for an anthology. I called it “Sisters,” because we were like sisters, but ultimately I had to recognize how different her life was to mine—how privileged and how cushioned I was compared to her. And how I had somewhat blinded myself to that despite having this mutual background and being seen in the world as being similar. Watched came from being around boys a lot. The brother relationship had a lot to do with what I was observing at home [with my sons].
On one hand, having kids keeps it real. There are good swaths of my time where I’m just not a writer—I’m organizing family life, and I’m not thinking and I’m not observing. But it also means that when you finally sit down at the desk for whatever treasured hours are left, there’s a kind of [practical] sensibility that I feel has influenced me. Because I came to mothering later and I had written a few books before I became a mother, I wasn’t one of those people who wanted to write about everything that was going on around me. I knew what my territory was and I was carving space out to do it. But, yes, things started to seep in.
Those of us who write for children are often reminded that literature has social duties. Others argue that literature only has an obligation to the art itself. Do you struggle with these ideas? At the end of the day, I would err on the side of being an artist. There is no doubt in my mind that both what I’m drawn to, what I care about, what I’m animated by is a sense of passion about certain issues or experiences that I really want to bring forth. And yet, I want to be careful not to be too flat or didactic because that’s a short shelf life when it comes to literature. I am reminded of the Gabriel García Márquez quote where he says, “The duty of a writer—the revolutionary duty, if you like—is simply to write well.” That is ultimately my higher muse.