Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero explores this from the perspective of a passionate, intelligent and warm young Muslim boy weighed down by the expectations of the world. It’s a heart-wrenching and eye-opening exploration of identity, grief and discovering who you are in a world quick to label you, and finding the strength to be happy anyway.
Yusuf Azeem has spent all his life in the small town of Frey, Texas—and nearly that long waiting for the chance to participate in the regional robotics competition, which he just knows he can win.
Only, this year is going to be more difficult than he thought. Because this year is the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, an anniversary that has everyone in his Muslim community on edge.
With “Never Forget” banners everywhere and a hostile group of townspeople protesting the new mosque, Yusuf realizes that the country’s anger from two decades ago hasn’t gone away. Can he hold onto his joy—and his friendships—in the face of heartache and prejudice?
What part of the story did you find most challenging to write?
Overall, this was a very challenging book to write. September 11 is a very important topic, and the need to do justice to it — and the stories of Muslims everywhere — was foremost in my mind. The most challenging to write were the journal entries, since the aim was to translate the interviews I conducted into a format that would be interesting for readers and still come across as fiction.
What part of the story did you enjoy writing most? What’s one thing you hope readers take away from Yusuf’s story?
I loved the interactions between the characters: Yusuf and his friends, but also Yusuf and his little sister, whom he adores. Plus, the descriptions of the robotics competition was very fun to write.
What’s one thing you hope readers take away from Yusuf’s story?
I want readers to understand that historical events shape our world in ways that resonate today, and that in order to understand the present, we must analyze the past. I also want readers to understand that September 11 had serious and long lasting effects on the Muslim community around the world, even though this isn’t really taught in schools or talked about in the media.
Are there are any similarities between you and any of the characters in Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero, and did this make it less or more challenging to write?
Not me personally, but I thought about my son a lot while I was writing Yusuf’s character. He’s 15 years old now, and in the past has often suffered in school because of his identity. It didn’t really make it any more or less challenging as a writer, though, because I’m usually inspired by one or more real people when I write my books.
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? And a children’s writer, more specifically?
I always loved writing stories, but never thought in my youth that this could be my profession. Many Muslim and South Asian parents don’t encourage their children to pursue the arts, and that definitely happened to me as well. As an adult I decided to try this path to see if I could be a success.
Are there any tips you would give to Muslim writers trying to tell their stories in the Western world?
My tips for all writers are the same: read a lot of books similar to the ones you want to write, and write regularly. Make it a habit to write in a journal no matter how busy you are, because you need that practice. For Muslim writers in particular I’d say, write your truth, no matter what anyone else says. You don’t have to stick to any one narrative that will please a single audience, whether it’s Muslim or non-Muslim. Authenticity and passion are key to writing success.
And last but not least, what is your must-have snack when writing?
I don’t really like to eat or drink when I’m writing. It not only distracts me, but also makes a mess on my laptop!
Saadia Faruqi is a Pakistani American author, essayist and interfaith activist. She writes the children’s early reader series “Yasmin” and other books for children, including middle grade novels “A Place At The Table” co-written with Laura Shovan (a Sydney Taylor Notable 2021), and “A Thousand Questions” (a South Asia Book Award Honor 2021). Her new book “Yusuf Azeem Is Not A Hero” details the experiences of the Muslim American community twenty years after 9/11. Saadia is editor-in-chief of Blue Minaret, a magazine for Muslim art, poetry and prose, and was featured in Oprah Magazine in 2017 as a woman making a difference in her community. She lives in Houston, TX with her husband and children.
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