Author Spotlight: N.H. Senzai and Escape from Aleppo
Today I'm thrilled to be featuring N.H. Senzai on the blog! Her latest middle grade book, Escape from Aleppo, was released back in January to much praise, including a starred review from Booklist.
N.H. Senzai is the author of Shooting Kabul, which was critically acclaimed and on numerous award lists. Publishers Weekly called it “hard hitting, emotionally wrenching.” Her second book, Saving Kabul Corner, was nominated for an Edgar Award. She is also the author of Ticket to India and Escape from Aleppo. N.H. Senzai lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.
And now, here's my chat with N.H. Senzai!
Hi, Naheed! Welcome and congrats on the publication of Escape from Aleppo. Can you tell us a little about the story and what inspired you to write it?
At its heart, ESCAPE FROM ALEPPO is an adventure story about a girl named Nadia who is separated from her family as they flee the city of Aleppo after their home is bombed. Nadia has to overcome her fears and come up with creative solutions to make her way through the war to find her family again. Through Nadia’s eyes, readers experience life in Syria, during good times and bad, the country’s rich culture, history and the complexities of the war. I was inspired to write this story because I truly believe that kids are capable of handling “heavy” subjects such as war and conflict, and if we present such material in a context they can understand, they will be able to digest the complexities geopolitics and empathize with the characters through their stories.
What was the most satisfying and surprising thing about writing Nadia’s arc?
When Nadia came and introduced herself to me (figuratively not literally!) I was surprised to find that I didn’t actually like her all that much. She was spoiled, self-centered and pretty much thought the world revolved around her. It took a war to turn her world upside down and for her learn the true value of the gifts she’d been given----the most satisfying part of her journey was seeing her grow----become empathetic to those around her and appreciate her family, life and the incredible city of Aleppo.
At times, it seems like fiction is even more effective than non-fiction when it comes to exposing kids (and adults!) to complex and difficult real-life situations. Why do you think this is?
Empathy. Creating fictional characters with whom a reader connects with engenders empathy----an incredibly powerful tool to sharing complex and difficult real-life situations. In Escape From Aleppo, Nadia’s story allows a reader to walk in the shoes of a child whose life has been turned upside down by the trauma of war and the loss of everything she knows and loves. Although her story takes place in a “faraway” place, Syria, with different customs, religious practices, food and language, readers soon learn that Nadia is more like them than they think----she loves hanging out with friends, watching Arab Idol, begrudging Algebra and has incredible hopes and dreams----at the end of the day my greatest wish is that my readers see how we all share a common humanity, no matter where they are from.
Children see the world through a different lens than adults do. What are your tips for writing an authentic middle grade POV?
I love writing for middle graders because at this age they can still suspend belief and journey with you through a story----but they can smell a skunk a mile away. They are sophisticated readers that can handle “heavy” topics via believable plots, authentic characters, dialogue that rings true and reality-based facts. At this age, if we present complex material in the right context, we can open their hearts and minds to the world around them so that they open their hearts and minds to the world around them so that they build bridges of understanding with other communities, rather than walls.
What part of the writing process do you find most challenging and how do you tackle it?
All my books are very research intensive; I spend months absorbing and cataloging information about the subject I’m writing about. My greatest fear is to get the facts wrong. I am not from Syria, but I’ve lived and traveled throughout the Middle East for fifteen years and have many friends in the region. It also helps that my husband teaches Middle East politics, so he helped in putting the history and politics of the region in perspective. I also spoke to many journalists and Syrians who shared first-hand accounts of the terrible conflict. My goal is to make sure I know the nuances of history, politics, culture and food of the region before writing the story.
What has been your most rewarding experience as an author?
As a writer, you work away on your book in solitude then send if off into the world hoping it is received with open hearts. The absolute pinnacle of this for me are the letters I get from kids who’ve read my books and found that they have found friends within the pages of my books.
What are you reading, watching, or otherwise currently infatuated with?
I’m reading a lot of biographies, in particular of Africans who were kidnapped and brought to the US as slaves. According to historians, up to 30% of these individuals, such as Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, a slave in Maryland who left a memoir and Abdulrahman Ibrahim Ibn Sori, a Prince brought to Natchez who made it back to Africa, where Muslims. They had to navigate a world of suppression and brutality while keeping their faith, way of life and their humanity.
And finally, what’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned so far in your publishing career?
Frankly, never give up! At the end of the day it's 25% talent 75% perseverance (more talent is always helpful but keep taking classes and working on your craft!).
Many thanks go out to Naheed for taking the time to tell us more about Escape from Aleppo, as well as addressing the importance of evoking empathy in readers, young and old.
Be sure to add Escape from Aleppo to your Goodreads list, or (better yet!) order your copy RIGHT NOW from retail sites such as Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, or request it at your library, or local independent bookstore.
And, as always,