By Sabrina Del Piano
March 5, 2019
Read our Q & A with Syeda Ahmed'19, an English major and a creative writing minor.
Ahmed talks about how her love of magical realism began as a child, and how it's evolved upon becoming a writer. From listening to stories about magical sultans and canaries, to breaking down stereotypes and creating a new narrative, Ahmed's goal is to always push the envelope, but to also ground her readers in a real and relatable way.
Sabrina: Why did you choose English and creative writing as a combo?
Syeda: Mainly because of the literature aspect of it. I was always a fan of stories and fairy tales. I would usually drag my mom to my room and beg her to tell me a story. So, it was usually that aspect that I was interested in. I never thought of a career in it. It wasn’t until I took a course in creative writing which I took for a core class. I took the class and I loved it and I decided I wanted to do more courses. I decided then to be an english major.
Sabrina: What kind of stories did your mom tell you when you were a kid, was it from memory or was it books?
Syeda: She usually did it from memory and it was a mix of cultural stories from Pakistan, and then other stories. Her dad bought her a storybook from Germany so it was a mix of German fairytales.
Sabrina: Your family is originally from Pakistan, so what kind of stories did she tell you that were tied to the culture?
Syeda: They were similar to fables so they had a lot of animals in them. The ones that didn’t have animals still had a magical aspect to it. The one I remember most which is a story called ‘Podna, Podni’. Which is about these two yellow birds and it follows the story of a wife and a husband bird. The wife goes into the garden of a sultan and keeps stealing his fruits. The husband warns the wife not to do it because she is going to get caught. And then one night she doesn’t come home and he goes on this quest and he encounters obstacles where he is asking people for help on how to get his wife back. So all these obstacles tell him that they will get into his ears. So he has ants, crows, the hole of the ocean in his ears. He faces the sultan and he gives them 3 trails. For each trial he calls on his friends that are in his ears to help him. One trail includes elephants so he asks the ants for help, and at the end he asks for the ocean and it comes and floods everything.
Sabrina: So does he get his wife back?
Syeda: Yeah by the end the sultan just wants him to leave him alone.
Sabrina: That is a nice story though, it has a lot of adventure and fantasy to it. Is that something that is in your writing?
Syeda: Yeah, kind of. I love magical realism too. I like that grounded feel. I love it when stories go off and are fantastical on a strange degree, whimsical.
Sabrina: Do you read Toni Morrison then?
Syeda: Yeah! She’s amazing. I have read only Sula and Paradise but I have to read more of her work! It is just so strange and all the characters despite being so separated are still so connected in a way.
Sabrina: You mentioned that you like the grounded feel of magical realism? Can you take me through what you mean by that and how you try to use that in your stories?
Syeda: I typically like it because it sort of brings a connection to the reader. Say, you toss a reader into a magical world and everything is topsy turvy, the reader doesn’t really have an interesting story. The reader probably doesn’t have a feel for it or the culture. If you ground it or with emotions like in magical realism, for example, Maggie Stiefvater - I really like her work because it is so grounded in a West Virginia town of Henrietta, but there is also a magical aspect to it where the kids are running around going on adventures. The kids they feel like real people, and their problems feel like real problems.
Sabrina: I think that grounding aspect makes it more palpable for people, it is a foreign world and these foreign entities in it but they can still relate to it in some way.
Syeda: Yeah like George R.R Martin with Game of Thrones. It is high fantasy and it is entertaining but even he has an aspect of realism with the characters and that is why it is so popular. It focuses on things like depression and anxiety and just these horrible things that happen.
Sabrina: I have to admit when I first heard of Game of Thrones I was like Dragons and White walkers .. no thanks. But once you get immersed in the story you realize he is talking ab humanism and how we interact with other humans and that is timeless across any category. You chose English and Creative writing because you like the story aspect to it. Can you remember your first day here at Rutgers and what it was like?
Syeda: When I got to Rutgers I was just a confused mess mainly because of the busses. So, it was like the whole first-year thing getting on the wrong bus/campus. Once I got into the swing of things it got a lot easier. I think I took my first english class in my second semester, I took it again just for the core - Creative Writing. It was the instructor who was encouraging me to write, she basically encouraged me to write more. The story I handed in was fiction but it was realistic fiction. It followed this kid and his life and the struggles he was dealing with being in love with this girl who was working for his parents. When I handed it in, I was very nervous. It was a short paper - 20 pages max. I handed it in and once I got the reviews back from everybody my professor encouraged me to clean it up and it could be published. That was what struck me and I was like it’s good. I enjoyed writing it and the fact that it was well-received by my peers and my instructors and I was happy it is something I could do.
Sabrina: So when you say it was well-received by your peers you mean you were workshopping in class? Do you like the process of workshopping?
Syeda: Yeah, I think it helps a lot. Especially in regards to different peoples backgrounds. I don’t typically like to write stories about one sort of person. I like branching out of my comfort zone. I typically usually write about men/women of color. Usually make them bisexual - so I can have a broader range. I usually do it because there needs to be more representation. I am also personally struggling with issues of my own and I feel like the bisexuality adds to the character. It doesn’t stop them from just having relationships with men or women, but they can have relationships with both on a personal level. Not even my main character is only bisexual - but all the background characters are bisexual. Like, I have gotten a few gay and straight characters but majority are bisexual.
Sabrina: Does it have to do with them having the freedom to choose who they want to love?
Syeda: Yeah, I think that is definitely an aspect to it. That has always been my thing. I come from a religious background but it is not to the point where it is strict - you cannot do this you cannot do that. I wear the scarf but I wasn’t forced to - I chose to. I was always encouraged to question what I am being told. You shouldn’t just take things at face value. I think that is research aspect to it as well. I know for a lot of people in regards to religion in Islam - a lot of people think that it is anti-gay and people are told that because of the rise of a certain sect within Islam that influences the others. But for the longest time, no one cared. In history - no one cared. There were so many sultans that were bisexual, you cannot really write that off.
Sabrina: Do your stories give you a purpose to be like, ‘Listen, there are all different types of Muslim people and we are not going to be constricted to one stereotype. We have a bunch of different identities.’
Syeda: That is pretty much it. I was at first pretty hesitant to have a Muslim main character in my stories because I was unsure of how it would be received if I ever did get it published. But then I was like, screw it and I wrote it. The story I am writing right now - the main character is muslim, I wanted her to be unlikable at first. I usually like when the characters go through an arc through stories. When the character is unlikable and like-able it gets you. I wanted to go that route with her.
Sabrina: So you mentioned that you were kind of scared/hesitant to write from a Muslim character. What was it like when you realized you were going to do it?
Syeda: I feel like I came to it when I was reading Toni Morrison - I was reading Paradise. Her book was so unapologetically feminist, especially towards the end. She was calling out the men that attack the convent in her story. At that point, people in the class were talking about the book being too feminist. Toni Morrison didn’t care, and I thought I wanted to do that too. Why should I restrict myself from an area that I know so much about. Even if I get backlash, it doesn’t matter what I write because I am going to get backlash either way.
Sabrina: I think that is very brave to do. Especially, correct me if I’m wrong - but especially from a mostly conservative religion. Do your parents support your aspirations to be a writer?
Syeda: Yeah, right on the line for conservative. My mom encourages me to be a writer, she is the one who was the history major and was really into stories when she was younger. My dad was hesitant at first, he has come around. I typically don’t give them my stories to read because I feel like, it doesn’t feel like they would be the audience. My audience is young adult/adult - but more around 20’s - late teens. Mainly because it is my age, and I reflect my age onto the characters.
Sabrina: So when someone in that age range reads that writing, what do you hope they take away from it?
Syeda: I hope they enjoy the writing. I hope they understand the character and who they are. I hope they have a good feel for the character and how they are as a person. Since I don’t like flat characters, if someone is going to be a bad character throughout it’s like the Disney thing. They are fun, but there is just only bad - no nuance to them. I don’t like when a character isn’t nuanced, I want them to take it away and have the story stay with them. I recently read Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor. It is a book about trauma and whimsical and fantasy. I feel like she has that perfect balance, I want to write a book that affects somebody the same way that book affected me.
Sabrina: How did it affect you?
Syeda: I typically don’t cry when I read books. But like, I was outright sobbing by the end of it. Her style, her prose, her characters. They were so layered, and so well-written. I couldn’t even fathom how to get to that level. I want to reach that goal and be that good.
Sabrina: You want to make people feel good. When you were little were you always writing or did it come later?
Syeda: I was always writing but I never thought of it as a career. The first book I wrote, this picture book thing about a rainy day. Looking back at it, it was these scribble people going down a rain boat and just scribbles. From that point on, I would keep writing little stories. My best friend and I would play dolls a lot. We weren’t into the going to the mall and shopping type, we were more into the adventure type. So, we would have the dolls go on adventures, we would both write down what was happening so we had this joint effort of helping each other.
Sabrina: So storytelling has not only been in your blood because of your mother but even dolls - you have to have some story-telling involved.
Syeda: We would even plan it ahead of time saying that these are the points we have to hit. I remember one time we did a Hunger Games style type thing saying one character had to die at one point, and we had to figure it out. We just did our thing and planned it out. We had to flip a coin to see what trial each would face and we didn’t have a coin so one of the barbies was like we can just use my shoe!
Sabrina: Has there been a professor that impacted you significantly?
Syeda: I feel like all my professors have to some extent. All of them have all elevated my understanding of reading and writing and literature as a whole. I wouldn’t say one influenced me more then the other, except for my first one. That was mainly because she was my first professor. In regards to family as well, my moms dad wanted to be a poet. My mom told me a story about him, when he was younger he wanted to be apart of the army. Due to the partition, Pakistan was forming and in the army he had to do some tests and had to do writing for it. The guy who was looking at the recruitment said to him, why are you here? Be a poet. He told him that, and my grandfather wanted to but it just doesn’t pay. He did later in life write law books - writing law and engineer books. I never got to read his poetry. He was really into it and stuff along those lines.
Sabrina: Now that you are a senior and are approaching graduation. When did you make the decision to go into publishing?
Syeda: I feel like probably happened a few semesters ago. I was thinking of being an english major and hadn’t thought about the switch over yet and wasn’t thinking about jobs. I wanted to be a novelist, and it isn’t viable to be a novelist unless your J.K Rowling. I wanted to have something grounding and have a stable income, and I was thinking publishing is a good income. I looked into librarian at first and thought no. It is a lot more statistical stuff. I thought about publishing, one of the things I would do for my friend is workshop each others stories. We would tell each other what isn’t working and I think that brutal honesty is what prepared me for the publishing industry. If you do have an author and be able to tell them when something is or isn’t working. Tell them when they are cross racial boundaries and I think my background helps with that.
Sabrina: Do you read a lot as a writer? What are you currently reading?
Syeda: Currently, I just got it from the library, ‘Trail of Lightning’ by Rebecca Roanhorse. The blurb in the back states, While most of the world has drowned beneath the sudden rising waters of a climate apocalypse, Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation) has been reborn. The gods and heroes of legend walk the land, but so do monsters.Maggie Hoskie is a Dinétah monster hunter, a supernaturally gifted killer. When a small town needs help finding a missing girl, Maggie is their last—and best—hope. But what Maggie uncovers about the monster is much larger and more terrifying than anything she could imagine. Maggie reluctantly enlists the aid of Kai Arviso, an unconventional medicine man, and together they travel to the reservation to unravel clues from ancient legends, trade favors with tricksters, and battle dark witchcraft in a patchwork world of deteriorating technology.As Maggie discovers the truth behind the disappearances, she will have to confront her past—if she wants to survive. Welcome to the Sixth World.”
Sabrina: I see what attracts you with all of the dynamics with this. You mentioned how you are pursuing publishing as a career and you think it is also grounding. Does this idea of grounding but at the same time somehow incorporate storytelling keep coming up?
Syeda: Yeah, I think that it does. I feel like it is okay to be optimistic or whimsical and have these fantastic ideas. I think you also just need this foot in reality you cannot go off on your own. Like, I do it a lot of grounding in my everyday life and religion. My mom will pray over water and have me drink it, and gets mad when I challenge her about it. I feel like you gave to be realistic about it, it is just water. It will hydrate me but it won’t heal me.
Sabrina: So you bring rationality and whimsicalness to it.
Syeda: It is okay to believe in anything, but also you need to have an anchor in reality to make sure you know what's what and what’s realistic.