Sabina Khan is the author of ZARA HOSSAIN IS HERE (Scholastic/ April 6, 2021) and THE LOVE & LIES OF RUKHSANA ALI (Scholastic, 2019). She is an educational consultant and a karaoke enthusiast. After living in Germany, Bangladesh, Macao, Illinois, and Texas, she has finally settled down in beautiful British Columbia, Canada, with her husband, two daughters, and the best puppy in the world.
Voyage: What was the inspiration behind your novel, Zara Hossain is Here? What made you want to tell this story?
Sabina Kahn: This story is inspired by an experience my family and I went through when we were living in the US. As immigrants, it was very important for us to feel that we belonged in the country where we experienced some of the most significant milestones of our lives, like the birth of our children and the beginning of our family life. Becoming a permanent resident is a long, drawn out process, and we had waited years to get our green cards. But then we found out that because of a clerical error which had not been disclosed to us when it happened, we would now have to leave the country instead. Heartbroken, we packed up our lives and moved to Canada where we were fortunate enough to find a new home and make a good life for ourselves. But it was not easy to start over again with two very young children. Being forced to leave the place you thought was home and having your dreams shattered is never easy. It was also incredibly difficult to realize that we were dispensable, that our contributions to the community and dreams for our future didn’t matter. It is a harsh reality to face for us and for the countless other legal immigrants who, despite following the rules, often find themselves in the same situation through no fault of their own.
V: When you write your stories, what is the one thing you hope readers will take away?
SK: The stories I write come largely from my own experiences as a South Asian Muslim woman, an immigrant, and a mother. I draw from all the amazing and enriching relationships I have forged over the years and from the difficulties I have faced as well. As an immigrant and a woman of color, I have learned that some people will always view me through a different, often distorted lens. What I hope readers will take away from all my stories is that no matter how the world views you, the only thing that really matters is your own convictions. Only you can truly define who you are and what kind of life you want to lead. The rest is just noise. And also fight like hell for what you believe.
V: What was the hardest scene of Zara Hossain is Here to write?
SK: To be perfectly honest, this whole novel was difficult for me to write because I had to dig up a lot of the painful memories I had buried deep inside for a long time. It’s not easy to be forced to start over when you thought you had found your home, only to be told that you didn’t belong. It’s difficult to try and face each day when you feel hopeless and tired.
But if I had to choose, I would say the hardest scene to write was when Zara finds out that she and her family will have to go back to Pakistan and all her dreams come crashing down around her. It reminds me of the moment I found out that my family and I would have to leave and even all these years later it was difficult to think back to that time.
V: If you could tell your younger writer self anything, what would it be?
SK: Like many people of color, growing up I never saw myself in the stories I read. I’d always just assumed that our stories didn’t matter and that no one would want to read about the experiences of someone like me. I would love to go back in time and tell my younger self that we do matter and that our stories and histories are important, and that we are the ones to tell them.
V: What are your writing must-haves?
SK: There are a few things, but the most important one is a scented candle. My current favorite is a eucalyptus and spearmint one, but other favorites include gardenia and black cherry. I also need relative silence, which means I cannot write to music. I’m okay with background chatter, which is unavoidable when you live with your family. I love going to public places like coffee shops and libraries when I’m in the research and plotting part of the process, but of course, that hasn’t been possible for the last six months, so it’s been challenging not being able to go out. But when I’m doing serious writing, I need to be in my usual spot which is a recliner by my bedroom window with my puppy at my feet. And coffee!