Behind the Book: A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

Editor’s Note: From first-time author Fatima Farheen Mirza comes a book that is beautifully written and emotional, a book that you will adore from the moment you begin the first page until you close the cover at last. A Place for Us handles one of the biggest desires in life—the desire to belong. This is the story of Rafiq and Layla, an immigrant couple in California, and their children, as they seek to reconcile their non-Western values with those of modern America. A Place for Us breaks open the family dynamic and examines what it truly means to belong. It was also the HPB Book Club pick for June and July. We had a chance to catch up with Fatima Farheen Mirza, who describes her writing process below.a-place-for-us

Days before I was to submit the final draft of the novel—after all the major editing had been done and I was only reading to find mistakes—there was one sentence I added toward the very end, and writing it into the margin moved me to tears, despite how insignificant the line seemed: “Layla pointing out the leaves when the wind makes them all wave at once.”

It arrived in a paragraph written in Rafiq’s perspective. Rafiq and Layla have been married for decades, and it is their family that the novel centers around. The passage is written from the furthest point of time in the novel, when Rafiq is in his late sixties and looking back on his life to understand what kind of a father he was. In the passage, he is reflecting on the sights in his life that he will never tire of: his wife tying her hair up into a bun, his daughter whistling when she was younger, and, in the case of the sentence, Layla pointing out the leaves on trees when the two took their evening walks together.

There are times, when writing, that each sentence feels like an impossible, aggravating effort, and all I want to do is crumple the page and give up. But there are other moments when a sentence appears all at once, complete, as though I just happened to be present to receive it. This sentence felt like that, and it contained within it what I had hoped to accomplish with the novel: to show what these characters lives were like over decades, to trace both what remained consistent and what was altered. I also wanted to fully capture each perspective in this family, so that readers can have the experience of zooming out and knowing how well each character knows their loved ones, how accurately they can predict them, but also how little access they actually have to each other’s inner lives, how limited they are in their ability to imagine their loved one, even if they’ve spent decades by their side.

Rafiq, in the passage, is referring to something that happens frequently on his walks with Layla. I like to imagine that Layla does not even know how often she feels compelled to point out the waving of the leaves. And the reason I was first startled by the detail is because it reminded me of Layla at twenty-one, when we are in her perspective in the section that is the furthest back in time that the novel goes. In that scene, Layla is still living in Hyderabad. It is after the proposal from Rafiq has first been sent, and later that day he is planning on visiting Layla’s family for the first time. On the balcony, with her younger sister, Layla watches the wind move through the bougainvillea tree and thinks: “The wind rises. It moves through the branches of the bougainvillea and all the leaves quiver like clapping hands, their rustle a round of applause. It is one of Layla’s favorite sounds in the whole world.”

I wonder if each time Layla notes the sound and sight, if she has the thought: this is my favorite in the whole world. I wonder if she is even aware of how frequently she thinks it, if each time it presents itself as new, the way one often reencounters the things we love: with freshness, excitement. I wonder if she has ever shared that thought with her husband, Rafiq, on their many walks together, or if she only points out the sight to him, which means he can only guess why she may feel compelled to do so. I like to think that even when Layla is a woman in her sixties, even when she is walking in her neighborhood in California, somewhere in her is the woman she has always been, who looked up to the trees in her home in Hyderabad and adored the sound of the wind passing through them. That though a lifetime has passed for Layla, though she has faced many changes, some specific things will always remain particular and essential to her. And I wonder what it means if Layla is moved by the sound of the wind rustling, but when she points it out to Rafiq, he thinks she is pointing to the sight of them waving. What that says about how earnestly we try to love the ones we love, how we try to understand them, despite the gulf that separates us from even the ones we spend every evening walking alongside.

___
Fatima Farheen Mirza

Fatima Farheen Mirza was born in 1991 and raised in California. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recipient of the Michener-Copernicus Fellowship. A Place for Us is her first novel. You can find her on Twitter.

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