Sabaa Tahir still remembers when a classmate at her high school in California’s Mojave Desert probed her about whether she had a green card. She can recall many mispronunciations of her Pakistani American name. She also remembers receiving violent threats. Tahir’s family owned an 18-room motel off the main road of their isolated, majority-white town. Her parents’ accents and the family’s religious traditions made them different. “We felt it every day,” says Tahir, now 38, “the things kids said to me at school—asking questions that indicated not just a lack of knowledge, but disdain.”
That feeling of being othered runs through Tahir’s latest young-adult novel All My Rage out March 1, which follows two Muslim Pakistani American teenagers—Noor and Salahudin—as they navigate grief, faith, love, and trauma while coming of age in a desert community where isolation is not only a matter of geography. “So many of us who feel marginalized, we hold all this anger inside, and we can’t express it without potentially serious consequences,” Tahir says. Her characters know the feeling well, and the result is a book that brings readers closer than ever to the celebrated author’s inner world.
Tahir was the first author to publish the best-selling YA fantasy book series. The Ashes have an Ember.The story is about young adults that bravely challenge a brutal empire. More than one million copies have been sold worldwide. All My RageThis is an unexpected departure. The novel is already being adapted to television by Tahir, which is also her fifth and most intimate. Writing All My Rage was “infinitely more difficult” than crafting a fantasy world. “I had to remind myself that I can’t fix these problems with magic,” she says. “But at the same time, all of my books, at their core, are stories about hope in dark times.”
Continue reading:The 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time
The title of the new book is rage. This not only refers to racism, but also the failure of parents to act, as well as the many ways addiction can destroy relationships and the pain that comes with losing those you love. Noor and Salahudin, high school seniors, navigate a complicated friendship.
All My Rage travels back and forth in time, telling the stories of the teens in present-day California and Salahudin’s parents when they were young in Pakistan. Tahir’s writing style is first-person. He switches between viewpoints in chapters that read like journal entries. Although the book is nuanced in its inclusion of Pakistani, Muslim, and desert culture, it speaks to something shared by many: the “universal experience of being in an inescapable situation where you have no good choices.”
To write, Tahir spent 15 years All My Rage. Her story was so intimately tied to her own life, it was an extremely difficult undertaking that she did a lot of in private. “It was just this conversation I was having with myself,” she says. She kept the project secret because she knew that the story would never be published, even if it was a disaster. “I needed the freedom to draw from my life without telling the story of my life,” Tahir says.
The most direct tie to Tahir’s reality can be found in her motel room. Tahir’s parents worked to hold their business together through difficult economic circumstances while raising three kids. Tahir, while in college had a stroke which led to her parents selling the motel. The place was too important to her, but she never found closure so she bought Salahudin and the family a desert hotel. “I’ve never been a person who really thought about things like self-love, but it took a lot of self-love to write this book,” she says. “It was like looking back at who I was as a child out in the desert who didn’t know how to deal with difficulties that came her way—and expressing love and hope for that person.”
Her experiences were both hard and formative. Salahudin’s father is often drunk throughout his book. “He’s looking at someone he loves, who is just a mess, and thinking, I deserve better than this,” says Tahir, who has felt similar emotions. Her friend’s death was an important moment in her writing journey, with a central theme that she recognized as a part of the story. In 2017, a friend of Tahir’s overdosed. “Everything I witnessed around that incident—confusion, shame, grief—it had a big impact,” she says. “The book allowed me to work out how I felt about things that I’d experienced, but in a way that didn’t feel overwhelming.”
In the world of YA, wherever there’s darkness, there must also be light. The teens of YA are the ones who will be able to share their experiences with them. All My RageOne source of this light is faith.
Continue reading:The 100 Greatest YA Books Ever
Tahir aims to portray religion in the most human way possible, showcasing her characters’ evolving relationships with God. Noor and Salahudin see Islam as a source of deep comfort and a casual (and often funny) daily routine, but also an aspiration.
Tahir herself is Muslim, and relates to her characters’ ever evolving feelings. “I definitely don’t think I have it figured out,” she says. But she does believe strongly that faith should never be a burden: “I’ve always felt that it is a gift,” Tahir says. “It was very important for me to show that faith offered these kids a way to feel a little less alone.”
The author hopes that the book will help people feel understood. Sometimes it takes a grown-up’s perspective to know the value of that kind of peace. With her two young daughters and husband, she returned to the motel for the first-time since 2000. “I needed to see it,” she says. “We went there and my brain just went quiet.” She struggled to find the words to explain to her kids what this place meant. So her husband stepped in, telling them all sorts of facts about the town, which made her realize he’d done research of his own.
Looking out, Tahir’s mind circled back to one thought: “It was crazy how much it had remained the same,” she says, “and how much I had changed.”