The Next New Syrian Girl is a book that makes you sink into its pages and characters, pulls you in with its lyrical prose. It’s a book about fraught and complex family relationships, it’s a book about the power of love, nostalgia, and devotion, and ultimately it is the story of two very different but equally bad-ass hijabees! We sat down with author Ream Shukairy to talk about her writing process, balancing heavy concepts with romance, and her upcoming projects!
What was your initial inspiration for The Next New Syrian Girl?
There was a lot that inspired me to write The Next New Syrian Girl—I wanted to write a badass athlete hijabi who was outspoken and headstrong! I wanted to give her flaws and make it real and relatable, but also wanted it to be nuanced which is where each main character comes to be a foil for the other. As for the storyline, I wanted to write a love letter to Syria to essentially process the pain of losing access to a country that I call my second home. On a trip to London and Paris, I really came face to face with the reality of Syrian refugees in a way that I hadn’t seen it within the comfort of my community in Southern California. I also felt that Syrians are really just seen as numbers or a news story, so I started to write a story that would humanize their struggle.
Can you describe your writing process? Are you more of a pre-plotter or do you let the plot develop as you write?
I’d call myself a rough outliner. I’ve gotten much better at pre-plotting my stories (I used to be a complete pantser!), but I like to give myself an outline of the plot while keeping a lot of room to let the story develop as I write. I’m always ready to throw out anything that’s not working. Before and during the writing process, I think a good deal about which themes I want to explore in a story and what stereotypes or expectations I want to break through my writing.
Khadija and Leene are two very different girls. What was it like switching between their perspectives? Who was easier for you to write?
It was easier for me to write Khadija because she’s Syrian American like me and has that headstrong attitude and energy that I also have. All her relatable commentary feels like it comes from my experiences as an Arab American, so it was so fun to write her. Then when I’d switch to Leene, I’d have to let myself relax and take it slow. Leene is so strong, but she observes a lot more and thinks more before acting whereas Khadija likes to get straight into it. I feel like writing the two of them felt like a natural transition, so I hope readers also enjoy the balance that comes from their differences.
I love the themes of family – both blood-related and found. Khadija’s difficult relationship with her mother and brother and Leene’s complicated feelings surrounding her family all felt so genuine and true! What was it like trying to balance the many different and often complex relationships between the characters?
I think the family relationships came naturally as I wrote them. I think it’s almost unnatural to write simpler family relationships that aren’t multi-layered because that’s just not a lived experience for most first or second generation kids. One thing I really tried to balance was that if I portrayed one kind of mother-daughter relationship with Khadija, I showed an opposite mother-daughter-relationship with Leene. I really didn’t want to get caught in any stereotypes, so I wanted to always show that there were two sides to everything and that my characters are not portraying a specific narrative. I wanted to defy the mainstream narrative, but certain aspects of their story are needed and I was conscious that people had preconceptions that the story might feed into simply as a part of the storytelling. That’s why I made sure to show the opposite perspective to make sure it was more nuanced.
We need to talk about Khadija’s romance! I absolutely love it!! What was it like balancing out the flirtation and romance in the book with some of its heavier themes?
The romance is definitely needed as a reprieve from the heavier themes! Even as I was writing the book, it felt good to get back to writing the romance so I could get a break from the heavy stuff. I also think Khadija needs the romance to balance all the tough stuff being thrown at her throughout the book whether those are her own negative feelings or the world going after her. The romance gives her space to not be judged and to be loved for being who she is
What are some books you’ve been reading recently or would recommend?
I haven’t been reading much YA these days since I’ve been reading more Adult books, so I’m not sure if that counts. I recently read Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet by Laekan Zea Kemp which was a great YA featuring older main characters. I have a few on my TBR that I’m hoping to get to very soon: The Love Match by Priyanka Taslim, She Is A Haunting by Trang Thanh Tran, and The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty.
What are you working on now? Any exciting ideas you can share?
I’m currently editing my next novel Six Truths and a Lie, and I’m loving getting it ready for readers! It’s a crime/mystery, but it really focuses on the relationships between these six Muslim teens who are suspected of a crime, and they have to decide to implicate each other or work together to clear their names. I’m also working on a story that centers young Muslim teens who dealing with changes in their mental health after a summer that turned their lives upside down.
Khadija Shami is a Syrian American high school senior raised on boxing and football. Saddled with a monstrous ego and a fierce mother to test it, she dreams of escaping her sheltered life to travel the world with her best friend.
Leene Tahir is a Syrian refugee, doing her best to adjust to the wildly unfamiliar society of a suburban Detroit high school while battling panic attacks and family pressures.
When their worlds collide the result is catastrophic. To Khadija, Leene embodies the tame, dutiful Syrian ideal she’s long rebelled against. And to Leene, Khadija is the strong-willed, closed-off American who makes her doubt her place in the world.
But as Khadija digs up Leene’s past, a startling and life-changing discovery forces the two of them closer together. As the girls secretly race to unravel the truth, a friendship slowly and hesitantly begins blooming. Doubts are cast aside as they realize they have more in common than they each expected. What they find takes them on a journey all the way to Jordan, challenging what each knows about the other and herself.
Fans of Samira Ahmed’s Love, Hate, and Other Filters and Tahereh Mafi’s A Very Large Expanse Of Sea will love Khadija and Leene’s sharp-witted voices in this dual POV narrative. The Next New Syrian Girl is a poignant and timely blend of guilt, nostalgia, devotion, and bad-ass hijabees.
About the Author
Ream Shukairy is a Syrian American born and raised full-time in Orange County, California and part-time over summers in Syria. Whether in California or Syria, she feels at home where her family is and wherever there’s a beach. She has a talent for learning languages and is always on the search for the next place she can travel and flex her words. The daughter of immigrants, there isn’t a stereotype she won’t try her hardest to defy. She can be found reading at the beach, with her sisters watching anime, or playing volleyball really anywhere. She currently resides in Boston for graduate school. The Next New Syrian Girl is her debut novel.