Join Young Adult authors Sufiya Ahmed and Amy Keen on Saturday 7th June, 6.30pm, at Waterstones Leeds for Passions and Pressures: Young Women in Fiction. Sufiya and Amy will be in conversation about their current writing projects, and the event will be chaired by Dr Helen Reid, the Director of the LCI. Expect a lively discussion and the opportunity to ask questions about Young Adult fiction, their fabulous books, and the life-changing situations their characters face.
This week, both Sufiya Ahmed and Amy Keen join us for a Q&A session to give a taster for their forthcoming event at the Leeds Big Bookend.
- Did you intend to aim your books at young female readers? If so, what would you say is the message you want to your readers to take away from your work?
Sufiya: I wanted to write a story about the awful practice of forced marriage which British born girls and boys are subjected to. When I wrote the story I wanted to highlight the underlying reason behind forced marriage which is the patriarchal culture and the honour based system.
Of course the story focuses on a girl and the front cover is also very feminine, which can discourage boys from picking the book up. But I think the story of survival and hope can appeal to boys as well.
Interestingly I did a school visit last year in Rotherham where I found copies of my book covered in brown paper. The English teacher was very determined for the boys to read Secrets of the Henna Girl. After the initial surprise, I was just glad the department was encouraging the boys.
In terms of the message, what I wanted to portray was a heroine who was brave and courageous and who stood up for herself. The message I think is one of hope. That no matter what a person goes through, if you stand up for yourself, there is always hope.
Embers, the first in the Scarlett Roth trilogy, published by Fisher King Publishing
Amy: I hadn’t set out to focus on female readers; I had the idea for the book without any real intention to that regard, but the genre and style of my books does tend to attract a higher proportion of young women.
I wanted readers to relate to Scarlett. She is, certainly at the beginning, a normal teenager, facing the kinds of challenges we can all remember as teens and I think as a young reader it can be powerful to think “that’s how I felt” about making friends, or meeting boys. That said, overall there is a stronger message that challenges come in all shapes and sizes but we have surprising strength within us to deal with them when it comes down to it… Obviously in Scarlett’s case these may be slightly out of the ordinary, but I want readers to make their own parallels.
- Do you think your books address similar themes that are arguably universal to the lives of young women, despite the dissimilarities of cultural setting and genre?
Sufiya: Yes, I think so. It’s about gender power. It’s about women being forced into acts or situations which they don’t want for themselves. To me it just fits into the wider social ill of bullying.
Amy: The books, as you mention, are clearly very different, but I think there are similarities to be drawn in terms of themes, yes. We are dealing with young women being subjected to the beliefs and views of others, pushed into scenarios that ultimately feel beyond their control and watching how they deal with it. Young women, regardless of culture and the genre of these books are often written to the extreme; fiercely strong or fatally flawed. In Scarlett’s case, despite the supernatural element to my story, I wanted to create a character that walked the balance of moments of real fighting spirit and the natural predisposition we all have for moments of doubt.
- How do you connect with your Young Adult readership? Do you think your role as a YA author differs from an Adult fiction author, and why?
Secrets of the Henna Girl, published by Puffin Books
Sufiya: I do a lot of school visits. I love doing them. I always wanted to be a writer but I never imagined how absolutely lonely it is to be a writer. That’s why I try to balance my week with a couple of school visits. I love meeting young people who have already read the book. I love their questions about forced marriage, patriarchal cultural practices, bullying and feminism. I love that they question established practices from a moral point of view.
I also love inspiring young people to pick up the book in the first place through my author sessions. There’s no greater feeling than signing a copy for a boy pupil who is very curious about how my heroine Zeba escapes a small rural isolated Pakistani village to come back home to England.
Of course, social media also plays a part. Twitter and Facebook galore. Anyone can contact me.
The book readership has also crossed over to adult women. Forced marriage is a very topical issue in our country and women are fascinated and repulsed by the practice. They also buy the book. I think this shows that most readers, regardless of age, just want a good story.
Amy: I think my connection to readers stems from my own prolific fiction reading as a teen and then into young adulthood. I write the kind of books I like to read which is a major bonus! The advent of social media makes the lines between author and reader much more fluid and allows us to engage with our readers on a very real level. Outlets like Twitter provide us direct access to their thoughts and feelings, allowing us (if appropriate) to work this into our books.
I think there is a certain responsibility in YA writing to deliver a message or moral but, most importantly to do so without patronisation. I think writing strong characters but not over-writing to the point the reader feels spoon-fed is important. We have to credit young readers with the ability to draw some of the conclusions themselves. Young adults don’t want a book that screams ‘this was written for a younger audience’, they want a degree of complexity in dialogue and theme as much as an adult, even if the tone or language is slightly different.
- Sufiya – Secrets of the Henna Girl is a work of fiction, but the issues you consider of forced marriage and Islamic cultural values are largely based on reality. How much research did you do in preparation for the novel, and is there any social comment intended?
I worked in the Houses of Parliament in my previous career and it was there that I discovered the issue. I came across women campaigners who were fighting for better protection and more awareness of the issue in the police force, the education system and social work.
I did a lot of listening to survival stories, and a lot of research with the Forced Marriage Unit (the government helpline set up for victims) at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I wanted to make sure the story was as real as could be.
- Amy – The heroine of the Foresight series, Scarlett Roth, is a modern victim of the horrifying witch trials, dating back to Salem in the 1600s. Although your work is deeply rooted in paranormal and fantasy genres, to what extent does the trilogy explore the real, historic implications of the Witch Trials and compare the treatment of women in this period to modern day?
I read a lot about the original trials at the beginning and I base the story in this history but my idea was to focus on how this could be adapted for a contemporary setting. I hope I have dealt with the back story sensitively and where I have provided any detail, that I have done so in a way that duly satisfies the reader’s curiosity or even sparked it for them to research it further.
I think bringing the persecution to the modern day was easy, but it wasn’t supposed to only reflect treatment of women. The story was designed to address the way in which all types of people, regardless of gender (and other differences) can be persecuted for standing out in some way. Scarlett is targeted in quite a significant and distressing way and I hope her handling of the events is interesting, surprising and occasionally inspiring to readers.
Sufiya Ahmed is the author of Secrets of the Henna Girl, published by Puffin Books. The book was launched on International Women’s Day at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in London 2012. It has been translated into Arabic, Spanish and Polish. Secrets of the Henna Girl has been shortlisted for various awards and won both the ‘Published Writer of the Year’ at the Brit Writers Awards in 2012 and the Best Teenage Book at the Redbridge Children’s Book Award 2013.
Amy Keen is a Young Adult fiction author whose passion for the paranormal drove her to create a series which would deliver the kind of thrills, suspense and intrigue she grew up devouring. Amy’s current project is The Foresight Series – a trilogy that follows Scarlett Roth – a seemingly ordinary girl whose life takes a sudden twist into the sinister and macabre when she moves to Salem; home of the infamous Witch Trials of the 1600’s. Books one and two are out now and the final instalment is underway. The series is the answer to the question: What if the witch trials aren’t over; what if they have evolved?