A.M. Dassu’s Fight Back is her latest children’s fiction book, following on from internationally acclaimed Boy, Everywhere, which published to rave reviews – including being listed as one of The Guardian’s, Bookriot’s, Kirkus’s, American Library Association’s Booklist’s, CLPE’s and BookTrust’s Best Children’s Book of the Year.
We had the pleasure of asking A.M. Dassu some questions about her latest publication, and you can find her thoughtful responses below!
What inspired you to write Fight Back?
The media has a lot to answer for. I wrote Fight Back because I wanted to
put a spotlight on Muslims who are always in the news – for the wrong
reasons – and explore what that might feel like in a school setting and as a
family. I also wanted to explore what it feels like to struggle to express your
identity and then find the courage to be proud of it, and to realise that you’re
not alone and there are many others from all sorts of backgrounds
experiencing the same. Most of all I wanted to show that when we come
together, our voices are stronger.
Fight Back was borne from my desire to challenge stereotypes and was
inspired by recent terrorist events and the subsequent rise of the far-right, and
my desire to put a spotlight on a community that is vilified in the media just
like The Hate U Give did back in 2017.
Through Fight Back I wanted to show a different side to a story the world
thinks it knows. I wanted to show how Islamist terrorism affects Muslims and
also how far-right beliefs not only affect Muslims, Jews and people of colour
but equally the families of far-right ideologists. I also wanted to show that it is
not only a white working class problem; in Fight Back we see how the
negative narrative affects people of all ages and backgrounds, affects Sukhi’s
mum, Mr Kumar, Mrs Owen, Darren, and even Yusuf.
My first novel looked at what it’s like to be a refugee. With this one I wanted to
look at what it’s like to be a Muslim today but what makes this novel different
is that it pans out and looks at the experiences of others who are
discriminated against too. It shows what we have in common and what can
happen when we come together.
What did you find most challenging when writing this story?
The research for this book was harrowing. The most difficult: articles and
footage of young people fleeing a concert bombing, seeing far right posters
and leaflets – just like the ones depicted in this story – displayed on
lampposts and posted into homes in the UK as recently as 2017 and also
2022, speaking to girls Aaliyah’s age who faced the same anxiety and
prejudice, and listening to people with the diverse lived experiences featured
in this book about being judged and their identities stereotyped.
I thought Boy, Everywhere would be the hardest book I’d write, but actually I
found writing Fight Back so hard because the themes are just as challenging
and painful. Adults tend to think that young people don’t think about what’s
happening in the news, but sadly the ripple effects of events in the news can
be far reaching and when writing, I kept in mind that there are children all over
the world experiencing the same prejudice Aaliyah does. And that was
simultaneously a struggle but also motivating.
What did you find most rewarding?
Finally representing the Muslim experience authentically and showing the
impact of “Islamist” terrorism on us by challenging the negative stereotype we
see in the news and in movies/TV shows.
The most rewarding was showing the connection we all have by amplifying
the voices of young people and writing a story that showed them that things
may get bleak, but you will get through them.
Also creating the “us” and them” narrative – bringing “us” all together against
“them”, the minority hateful few.
How did this writing experience differ between that of Boy, Everywhere?
Boy, Everywhere looked at what it’s like to be a refugee. Fight Back looks at
what it’s like to be a Muslim today while panning out and exploring the
experiences of others who are also discriminated against. And while I did do
that in Boy, Everywhere too, with Fight Back I wanted to show what we have
in common and the possibilities when we come together.
With both stories I wanted to show a different perspective and challenge the
negative media narrative and show how it affects characters from various
religious and ethnic backgrounds.
I thought it’d be easier writing my second novel because it was own voices
and so I wouldn’t have to do much research, but boy was I wrong! It was so
much harder because I had to ensure what I put on the page was
representative and made sense to everyone else outside of my lived
experience. And because I am so ‘extra’ I ended up speaking to just as many
people for research. With Boy, Everywhere I spoke to lots of refugees and
friends from Damascus or in Damascus. For Fight Back I consulted teachers,
librarians, students in the UK, psychologists, people who’d been to the Ariana
Grande concert, Muslim, Jewish, Chinese, Black and Sikh readers. It was just
as much work and I was exhausted by the end of it (mostly because of how
much I panic about writing authentically)!
I’ve learned that getting the plot right in any book is always challenging and no
matter how formulaic I am, I will always need to revise and rewrite to make
the story a page-turner. And I really don’t like the process because I’m so
impatient, but I know it’s what I have to do. But this time towards the end, I
was a lot clearer in how I wanted to make the book inclusive and empowering
for all kids, and I really loved that.
What is one book you can’t wait to read in 2022?
As Long As the Lemon Trees Grow by Zoulfa Katouh, the first YA by a Syrian author. I have the proof copy and I am so ready to shout about this book. Send me some time and I am not putting it down!
Last but not least, your must-have when writing, and why?
Peace and quiet, but custard creams help a whole lot too!
A. M. Dassu is an award winning writer of both nonfiction and fiction, including the internationally acclaimed novel Boy, Everywhere, an ALA Notable Book which was also nominated for the Carnegie Medal and was one of The Guardian’s and Bookriot’s Best Children’s Books of 2020 and has been listed for 25 awards including the prestigious Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. She is former Deputy Editor now on the Advisory Board of SCBWI-BI’s magazine, Words & Pictures, a Director at Inclusive Minds, one of the lead authors in The National Literacy Trust’s Connecting Stories campaign, a patron of The Other Side of Hope, a literary magazine, edited by immigrants and refugees which serves to celebrate the refugee and immigrant communities worldwide, and the Society of Author’s Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group committee member.