Author Samira Ahmed on Her New YA Novel ‘Hollow Fires’

s editor of her high school newspaper in Batavia, Ill.—a small town about an hour west of Chicago—Samira Ahmed got used to asking tough questions. It was here that she began to think deeply about the flawed ideas of objectivity. And it’s part of what influenced the dogged nature of the protagonist of her new young-adult novel, Hollow FiresPublished on May 10, 2010.

Hollow FiresFollow 17-year old Safiya, an Indian American student journalist from Chicago as she sets out on a mission for 14-yearold Jawad Ali’s murder. He was a local boy who attended a city public school.

Jawad was the son of Iraqi refugees and had a love for science. Less than three months before his death, he brought a homemade jet pack to class—only to be reported to the police by a teacher for wearing “something like a suicide bomber vest.” The arrest was traumatic, and after his death, it stains his legacy, lending him the nickname “bomb boy.”

In Ahmed’s novel, Jawad remains an active character, a ghost who struggles to communicate with Safiya as she investigates his death. “All I am is a whisper in the dark to a girl who doesn’t want to believe in ghosts,” he says. “How do I get Safiya to believe in me?” All while trying to uncover the truth about what happened to Jawad, Safiya must navigate white supremacy, a nerve-wracking crush, and some cryptic and frightening clues.

Ahmed (51), also wrote InternmentAnd the first South Asian womanComic book series author Ms. Marvel. TIME spoke to her about how the events shaped her life. Hollow FiresHow media bias and police bias affect the response to crime and her views on Disney+ TV Series Ms. Marvel.

Can you please tell me more about the writing process Hollow Fires? Was it the hardest?

One of the hardest things was tying all the novel’s elements together. Hollow FiresThis is Safiya’s story of a crime. But it’s also the story of Jawad. And there’s a found-document element—snippets from social media, news reports, and blog posts. Question: How media discusses hate crimes and murder? I was particularly interested in how it relates to race, religion, and ethnicity. Often, media refuses to do a self-examination.

At one point in the novel, Safiya shares how she hated how everyone forgot Jawad’s name and instead referred to him generically as an Arab American teen or son of Iraqi refugees. Is this what you were trying to convey about identity?

It was my intention to investigate the role of race in how the media, police and social media deal with victims and perpetrators. Hollow Fires is set in Chicago—a diverse city with huge immigrant populations. If you look at the the clearance rate for police solving murders in the city, WBEZ found that it’s much higher if you’re white. The clearance rate of murders in Chicago was 47% if victim was white; 33% if victim was Hispanic and 20% if victim was Black. This made me wonder about the victims being advocated for. I discovered that there was a lot of erasure of Black transwomen and Indigenous women. I was thinking about all of this.

Which real-life events have shaped this narrative? The Story of Ahmed Mohamed is 14 Years OldTexas is the obvious choice. His school accused him of possessing a suspicious-looking homemade clock and police arrested him. Did there seem to be an intention?

His story is definitely one that stuck with me, although it’s not an isolated incident. There are many stories of young Black boys or girls or Muslim children being seen as suspicious.

With Ahmed, you have this young boy who is bringing in this clock that he’s disassembled and reassembled in this cool way. He’s so excited to have reverse-engineered something and just wants to show his teachers. Being a former teacher I could just picture this bright, creative kid walking into school only to have a teacher become suspicious and call the cops. This was an incredibly heartbreaking incident. The right-wing media started to spread conspiracy theories that he might have terrorist connections. Threats were made to the family. They fled the country.

Many of the stories I write for young adults are about these moments: when childhood ends. Too often, adults put young people in terrible positions—choices that adults make impinge on young people’s lives in ways that they’re not prepared for and that are so deeply unfair.

How did your personal experience influence the way you told this story?

Most people think that Islamophobia started with 9/11. It has deeper roots. It was 1979, when I was 7, 8 years old. Chicago was the scene of the Iran Hostage Crisis. Two white men pointed at me and said, “Go home, you goddamn f—ing Iranian.” It was very violent language, especially for adults to use against a child. For a second I was lost in confusion, thinking, “What do you mean? Go home!” Do they know that I don’t live in Chicago and that I live in the suburbs? I remember thinking, Why do they think I’m Iranian? They make me look Indian. Later, I realized: they’re racist, and racists are bad at geography. They think we’re all from the same place.

In the years since, I’ve been blessed with many different experiences. Ahmed is my last name. And in the olden days when we had phone books, whenever there was any kind of incident in which a Muslim was suspected, I would get calls all night long saying, “Go home, f—ing terrorist” and “Go back to your own country.”

My experience with Islamophobia and racism has always had this theme of “go home.” And pieces of that come up in almost all of my novels. Virtually every person who’s an immigrant or a child of immigrants can understand this experience. We are witnessing it more and more with the rise of anti-Asian hatred during this pandemic. To be clear, I want young people to know that you cannot have anyone tell you when to return home.

How did you handle balancing the heavier aspects of the novel—the murder of a young boy—with the levity and lightheartedness of teenagers on a mission?

I want to honor young peoples’ stories and to write them as they are. That means you can be in the midst of something horrifying and devastating, but you’re also a teen, and maybe you have a crush on someone, or you’re dealing with the fact that you really don’t want to write this paper, or your parents have put this curfew on you. I don’t think I can write a book that’s about deep sorrow and nothing else. I try to put hope on every page, even when it’s dealing with dark subjects.

You’ve been involved in writing comics for the Ms. Marvel series. Do you want to be a part of the next TV series?

The TV series is not part of the same thing. It’s really cute because kids in my neighborhood know that I write Ms. Marvel comics, and they’ve been asking me if they can get parts on the show. They ask me if I can. One time, a kid came up to me and said, “You’re writing Ms. Marvel, right? You better not mess it up.”

You know what they say: Great power is accompanied by great responsibility

Yeah, exactly. I said I’ll do my best, but I love their passion for this character. And I love her, so I’m going to try and do right by her.

Do you have any thoughts about Disney+’s upcoming series?

I’m excited about it. All children should feel like heroes on the page as well as on the screen. And Ms. Marvel gives that opportunity for so many young people to see themselves in a way they’ve never gotten to before. Especially for young Muslim kids and young brown kids in this country: we’re so often portrayed as terrorists. When you’re always the bad guy, it’s very traumatizing for kids.

Do you have any other thoughts?

It was all the time I was writing Hollow FiresIt felt to me that the U.S. was at an inflection point. We’re facing this crisis of philosophy in terms of who we are as a people. A novel I wrote. Love Hate & Other Filters, Madison County, Mo. has restricted it. Schools; The May 9th school board vote to decide whether to ban the device is taken place. Anti-critical race theory advocates denying history and eliminating entire identities. It’s so important to speak out against this. America prefers to conceal the truth. Part of what my characters do in these situations is to uncover the truth, even when it’s difficult, and face it.

For clarity, this interview has been reduced to a shorter version.

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