Nafiza Azad is an island girl. She grew up on a farm in Fiji, where the society is a profoundly multicultural one: The three main holidays are Christmas, Diwali, and Eid. To describe the island’s distance from the rest of the world, Azad borrows a metaphor from her mom: “It’s like you are a frog in the well,” she says, “swimming around and around.”
Her town had only one library; patrons could only check out two books at a time. The TV didn’t come on until 3pm and mostly showed Australian nature documentaries. “I was always hungry for something to read,” Azad says, “and the idea that I could tell my own stories came to me.” Like the characters in Anne of Green Gables, her group of friends would tell each other stories.
Nonetheless, Azad never gave writing much thought as a career. She went to university in Canada, majoring in biology and intending to become a doctor. It was reading G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen, one of the first major fantasy titles from a female Muslim author, that opened her mind to the possibilities of telling her own stories. “It felt as though I had finally a found a reflection,” Azad says. “I had a right to my own adventures.” She rushed out of a lecture on mycelium and changed her major to English. After completing that degree, she went on to study children’s literature in graduate school.
Throughout her studies, Azad was obsessed with Shakespeare’s famous query, “What’s in a name?” Considering names’ social, personal, and cultural meanings, she started to wonder about a society where names literally shaped those who received them.
Her debut novel, , arose from that idea. It’s the story of Noor, a city on the border of the desert, where Silk Road traders mingle with warrior Djinn. In the wake of rising nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment, Azad says, “I wanted to create a place where everyone was welcome, not a utopia, but a place that had its problems but was still accepting of people and their differences.” Characters of different races, religions, and even species work to save their city from the threat of the Shayateen, chaotic Djinn determined to destroy the city’s tenuous peace.
Azad feels that spirit of diversity and multiculturalism is vital to children’s literature. Not only does it give young people the affirmation of seeing themselves in a story (as she once did), it can help them learn to relate to people who are different from them. “Seeing people of different colors and nationalities in literature will let a child grow up more accepting and curious about the world in which they live,” Azad says.
Promoting multiculturalism is hardly Azad’s only reason for writing for children, though. Mostly she just enjoys the challenge. “Kids are a lot more difficult to write for than adults because they are so particular about what they like and what they don’t,” she says. It’s more exciting to write for an audience that is so passionate about the stories they love.
Azad has little patience with the snobbishness of literary fiction. She suffered through enough classic British novels as a student to have little hesitance championing other types of stories. “People who read literary fiction, people who write literary fiction always look down on genre fic and popular fic, but I feel like…[they’re] very revealing of our community,” she says. Magic, romance, and adventure were good enough for Shakespeare; why shouldn’t they be good enough for us?
Alex Heimbach is a writer and editor in California.