A. M. Dassu

📷 : A. M. Dassu

A. M. Dassu’s second book Fight Back was released on 2nd June this year, after her first draft in 2018, and follows a 13-year-old Muslim girl called Aaliyah, with the storyline leading towards finding your identity and the courage to fight for it. Having published her debut novel Boy, Everywhere in 2020, A. M. Dassu’s novel has proved very popular and has been shortlisted for and won numerous honours and awards. Both Boy, Everywhere and Fight Back were written for the younger audience but will appeal to all ages, and A. M. Dassu offers school and library visits based on her books featuring workshops for the recommended year groups 5 to 9. Speaking with us, A. M. Dassu talks about her recent release of Fight Back, her debut novel Boy, Everywhere and visiting schools and libraries.

Your second book Fight Back was published on 2nd June, can you tell us about it?

Fight Back is an empowering story about finding your identity and the courage to fight for it. It’s a story of hope, speaking up and the power of coming together in the face of hatred.

Aaliyah is a normal 13-year-old Muslim girl from the Midlands. She has always felt at home where she lives… until there is a terrorist attack and racial tensions increase and she starts getting bullied. She is hurt and feels isolated until she sees that other children from different backgrounds to her own also experience these feelings. She decides it’s time for someone to speak out and fight back against the prejudice they all experience.

I’m hoping Fight Back will encourage readers to challenge stereotypes, explore prejudice and racism and positive action, and see the power that it can have.

What can you tell us about the lead character Aaliyah and how was it writing for her?

Apart from the fact that I love her? Only joking! Aaliyah is brave and hugely inspiring. She shows us you don’t have to accept a terrible situation, and you can challenge hateful views. Her voice was easy to write, she just came to me. I wanted her to be upbeat and hopeful despite the abuse she gets and all her worries about school. But I wanted her to be realistic and flawed, so she also tells white lies, keeps secrets and feels guilty and worries about getting caught hiding her neighbour’s cat from her parents. She is funny, anxious and strong, and hopefully readers will be inspired by her to stand up for themselves too.

Who do you think the book will appeal to and why would you recommend reading it?

Growing up and finding your identity is never easy. I hope readers will see their own story through Aaliyah’s. Not everyone is accepted for who they are or who they want to be. And I want them to know that they’re not alone.

I hope that anyone reading this will see that though bad things happen, together we can get through them, and no matter how awful things get – there will always be someone who can empathise and who is willing to work beside them to make things better.

I wrote Fight Back to help us talk about being different. I wanted young people to know it’s okay to be different. It’s not easy sometimes, but there are so many people like you. And together we are stronger and we can fight back!

I wrote it for young people aged 10 and over, but readers have suggested, Fight Back, like Boy, Everywhere, is for everyone; young people, adults, teachers or parents. It’s political, timely and hopefully there is something for everyone in it!

How long were you working on the release and how much did it change over time?

I wrote the first draft in 2018 and it was published four years later in June 2022. And during that time it changed A LOT. Initially the story was mostly about Aaliyah getting bullied and then moving on to raise money for the victims of the bombing, but then I added the subplot, which showed her brother Yusuf getting embroiled in a campaign fighting the far-right, it then developed further to show how Yusuf’s actions and Darren’s actions affected Aaliyah AND Lisa. So a parallel for both friends.

What did you find most challenging and rewarding about working on this storyline?

The research for this book was harrowing. The most difficult: articles and footage of young people fleeing a concert bombing, seeing far right posters and leaflets – just like the ones depicted in this story – displayed on lampposts and posted into homes in the UK as recently as 2017 and also 2022, speaking to girls Aaliyah’s age who faced the same anxiety and prejudice, and listening to people with the diverse lived experiences featured in this book about being judged and their identities stereotyped.

I thought Boy, Everywhere would be the hardest book I’d write, but actually I found writing Fight Back so hard because the themes are just as challenging and painful. Adults tend to think that young people don’t think about what’s happening in the news, but sadly, the ripple effects of events in the news can be far reaching and when writing, I kept in mind that there are children all over the world experiencing the same prejudice Aaliyah does. And that was simultaneously a struggle but also motivating.

But the most rewarding was amplifying the voices of young people and writing a story that showed them that things may get bleak, but you will get through them.

Can you tell us about your debut publication Boy, Everywhere and how was it seeing the readers’ response to the release?

It was surreal. I was most nervous about what children would think, but the response has been AMAZING. I’ve had children who reluctantly read, pick it up. Teachers and adults have told me they were shocked because they’d never thought about how easily someone can become a refugee. Some readers have passed it on to older parents who have xenophobic and anti-refugee views, and having read it, their parents have changed their minds! Children who are very fussy readers have been going to bed late and unable to put the book down. And that is the best thing to hear, honestly!

It’s been amazing to see how real the characters feel to readers. I’ve had a few people ask me if Uncle Muhammad divorces Aunty Fatimah, which I hadn’t considered before they’d asked!

Authors, librarians and teachers have donated copies to school libraries and it really feels as if after so many years I have passed the baton onto readers to challenge stereotypes about refugees. It’s a curriculum text in schools across the country and Oxford University Press has also published a textbook edition for schools. The intention was always for it to encourage discussions, enlighten and change perceptions and I can’t express how incredible it is to see it doing that.

Boy, Everywhere has been shortlisted for and won numerous honours and awards, how does it feel having your book recognised?

I am just so grateful for the love and attention it has got. When I wrote it, my aim was to simply reach readers in schools and hopefully encourage a conversation. I couldn’t have dreamt it would be listed for so many awards. I really am so honoured that it has moved so many people. I can’t thank them enough for picking it up, let alone recommending it and sharing it.

📷 : A. M. Dassu

Was there anything that inspired you to write Boy, Everywhere and Fight Back and how different did you find the experience writing your second novel?

Boy, Everywhere looked at what it’s like to be a refugee. Fight Back looks at what it’s like to be a Muslim today while panning out and exploring the experiences of others who are also discriminated against. It shows what we have in common and the possibilities when we come together.

With both stories I wanted to show a different side to a story the world thinks it knows and challenge the negative media narrative and show how it affects characters from various backgrounds.

I thought it’d be easier writing my second novel because it was own voices and so I wouldn’t have to do much research, but boy was I wrong! It was so much harder because I had to ensure what I put on the page was representative and made sense to everyone else outside of my lived experience. And because I am so ‘extra’ I ended up speaking to just as many people for research. With Boy, Everywhere I spoke to lots of refugees and friends from Damascus or in Damascus. For Fight Back I consulted teachers, librarians, students in the UK, psychologists, people who’d been to the Ariana Grande concert, Muslim, Jewish, Chinese, Black and Sikh readers. It was just as much work and I was exhausted by the end of it (mostly because of how much I panic about writing authentically)!

I’ve learned that getting the plot right in any book is always challenging and no matter how formulaic I am, I will always need to revise and rewrite to make the story a page-turner. And I really don’t like the process because I’m so impatient, but I know it’s what I have to do. But this time, towards the end, I was a lot clearer in how I wanted to make the book inclusive and empowering for all kids, and I really loved that.

How do you prepare to start work on a new book?

Both novels were inspired by events in the news and my desire to challenge stereotypes. But with all my stories, including the early readers and forthcoming picture books, I always have in my mind, a beginning, middle and end and a few key scenes along the way. I then usually make it up as I go along, or according to the research I do. I have tried to fully plot a novel before but I found it stunting. With this messy “plotanster” process, I find it easier to develop my characters and get to know them.

Alongside writing, you offer school/library visits, can you say about this?

I do and I really enjoy them. I make my visits as interactive and engaging as possible. For both the Boy, Everywhere and Fight Back workshop, I kick off with an activity exploring photos, then making a list and then delving deeper into issues.

In the Fight Back workshop, I explore identity, freedom of expression and allyship, inspired by the book. Attending schools are asked to engage in an activity exploring identity, we discuss how you can help someone being bullied/discriminated against because of their identity. Then explore what it means to be an ally and the vital importance of coming together in the face of discrimination. It is recommended for Year 5 to Year 9.

Where does your love of writing come from and how did you start?

I think for me it comes from the passion to make a difference. Whether that’s by helping everyone to feel seen in books or by challenging stereotypes that will hopefully (fingers crossed) build a better, kinder society.

I loved writing as a kid, and it’s one of my biggest regrets that I didn’t pursue it earlier in life!

Have you been given any advice over the years that has stuck with you and what advice would you give a new author?

The advice I was given was to persevere and not take rejections personally, and I never did. I see them as a way to improve my work and try again by coming back stronger.

I would tell new authors, it’s okay to make mistakes. You won’t get things right first time, and that’s okay. Keep at it. You can most definitely rewrite and make your book shine!

How do you like to spend your time away from being a writer?

I love spending time with my kids, watching the shows and memes they watch, playing tennis, going for bike rides and eating loads of crisps and custard creams while chilling on the sofa!

What are some of your favourite books and authors to read?

Whenever I’m asked what my favourite book as a child was, I can only ever remember the picture book Where’s Spot?. I really loved it and read it till I was way too old for it! I even had a Spot the Dog soft toy!

Then as I got older, I loved Funny Bones (remember that – in a dark, dark street, in a dark, dark house) and The Jolly Postman with all those wonderful, clever, pull out letters. Then there’s a huge gap where I can’t recall any books I read until I got to secondary school of which one of my favourites was Brave New World and Roll Of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I loved our class discussions and dissecting the books and the reasons the author had made certain decisions and I love that this is now happening with my novels. I think they must have subconsciously inspired me; they are both multi-layered and approach their subjects from a different perspective.

Now I love reading anything by Malorie Blackman, Patrice Lawrence, Louie Stowell, Nizrana Farooq, Sue Wallman and Philippa East.

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