Sabaa Tahir Is Ready to Talk About Rage

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Sabaa Tahir still remembers when a classmate at her high school in California’s Mojave Desert probed her about whether she had a green card. The Pakistani American author remembers countless mispronunciations of her name. She remembers violent threats. Tahir’s family owned an 18-room motel off the main road of their isolated, majority-white town. Her parents’ accents and the family’s religious traditions made them different. “We felt it every day,” says Tahir, now in her early 40s, “the things kids said to me at school—asking questions that indicated not just a lack of knowledge, but disdain.”

That feeling of being othered runs through Tahir’s latest young-adult novel All My Rage, out March 1, which follows two Muslim Pakistani American teenagers—Noor and Salahudin—as they navigate grief, faith, love, and trauma while coming of age in a desert community where isolation is not only a matter of geography. “So many of us who feel marginalized, we hold all this anger inside, and we can’t express it without potentially serious consequences,” Tahir says. Her characters know the feeling well, and the result is a book that brings readers closer than ever to the celebrated author’s inner world.

Tahir broke out as the author of the best-selling YA fantasy series An Ember in the Ashes, about young adults who step up to bravely defy a brutal empire. The series has sold more than a million copies around the world. All My Rage is a dramatic departure; the novel, already set to be adapted for television with Tahir co-writing, is her fifth, and her most personal one to date. Writing All My Rage was “infinitely more difficult” than crafting a fantasy world. “I had to remind myself that I can’t fix these problems with magic,” she says. “But at the same time, all of my books, at their core, are stories about hope in dark times.”

Read More: The 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time

The new book explores exactly what the title declares: rage, not only in response to racism but also in response to parents who fail to show up, the ways in which addiction unravels relationships, and the grief of losing the people who matter. Noor and Salahudin are high school seniors navigating a turbulent friendship (and maybe more) while learning what it means to be there for one another during the worst moments of their lives.

All My Rage travels back and forth in time, telling the stories of the teens in present-day California and Salahudin’s parents when they were young in Pakistan. Tahir writes in first person, switching between perspectives in chapters that unfold like raw journal entries. Although the book is nuanced in its inclusion of Pakistani, Muslim, and desert culture, it speaks to something shared by many: the “universal experience of being in an inescapable situation where you have no good choices.”

Tahir took 15 years to write All My Rage. Crafting a story so closely tied to her life was a vulnerable undertaking, and one she pursued largely in private. “It was just this conversation I was having with myself,” she says. Keeping the project quiet gave her the knowledge that even if the story came out completely wrong, the book never had to see the light of day. “I needed the freedom to draw from my life without telling the story of my life,” Tahir says.

A motel setting is the most obvious tie to her reality. Tahir’s parents worked to hold their business together through difficult economic circumstances while raising three kids. When Tahir was in college, her father had a stroke and her family sold the motel. She never got closure with a place that had been so important, so she gave Salahudin and his family a desert inn of their own. “I’ve never been a person who really thought about things like self-love, but it took a lot of self-love to write this book,” she says. “It was like looking back at who I was as a child out in the desert who didn’t know how to deal with difficulties that came her way—and expressing love and hope for that person.”

Author Sabaa Tahir All My Rage

She drew from several hard, formative experiences. Throughout the book, Salahudin is disappointed by his father, who is often drunk. “He’s looking at someone he loves, who is just a mess, and thinking, I deserve better than this,” says Tahir, who has felt similar emotions. And the loss of a friend turned out to be a key moment in her writing process, solidifying a theme from her life that she knew had to be part of the story. In 2017, a friend of Tahir’s overdosed. “Everything I witnessed around that incident—confusion, shame, grief—it had a big impact,” she says. “The book allowed me to work out how I felt about things that I’d experienced, but in a way that didn’t feel overwhelming.”

In the world of YA, wherever there’s darkness, there must also be light. For the teens in All My Rage, one source of that light is faith.

Read More: The 100 Best YA Books of All Time

Tahir aims to portray religion in the most human way possible, showcasing her characters’ evolving relationships with God. For Noor and Salahudin, Islam is at once a profound source of comfort, an informal (and sometimes funny) daily practice, and an aspiration that feels just out of reach.

Tahir herself is Muslim, and relates to her characters’ ever evolving feelings. “I definitely don’t think I have it figured out,” she says. But she does believe strongly that faith should never be a burden: “I’ve always felt that it is a gift,” Tahir says. “It was very important for me to show that faith offered these kids a way to feel a little less alone.”

She hopes the book can help readers feel seen. Sometimes it takes a grown-up’s perspective to know the value of that kind of peace. Last year, the author returned to the motel, for the first time since the mid-2000s, with her husband and two children. “I needed to see it,” she says. “We went there and my brain just went quiet.” She struggled to find the words to explain to her kids what this place meant. So her husband stepped in, telling them all sorts of facts about the town, which made her realize he’d done research of his own.

Looking out, Tahir’s mind circled back to one thought: “It was crazy how much it had remained the same,” she says, “and how much I had changed.”

Correction, Feb. 17
The original version of this story incorrectly stated Tahir’s age. She is not 38; she is in her early 40s.

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