Why 'An Ember In The Ashes' could launch Sabaa Tahir into JK Rowling territory

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Marco Werman: So, when’s the last time you picked up a book that pulled you in so quickly you didn’t want to stop reading? That’s what happened with me with a book for young adults that’s coming out next week. It’s called “An Ember In The Ashes,” and in tone and theme, it could be the next “Hunger Games.” The book is written by a first time novelist, Sabaa Tahir. She’s a daughter of Pakistani immigrants who own an 18-room motel on a navy base in the Mojave Desert. She says the transient population there certainly affected her worldview.


Sabaa Tahir: I think when you see so many different types of people coming through one place, especially as a young person, you start to realize that everyone has a different story, everyone has demons, everyone has their own issues. Actually, I think it gave me a soft spot for the disenfranchised of the world and the outcasts of the world because I saw so many.


Werman: A lot of disenfranchised people coming through that motel or just kind of in the town where you were?


Tahir: In the town and coming through the motel. I, myself, felt very much like an outcast in my home town.


Werman: Why was that? I know your parents are Pakistani, right? Is that kind of deemed “the other” as a child?


Tahir: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I was picked on, I watched my parents and my family deal with a lot of racism. So, I felt really voiceless and powerless as a kid. I think any time you grow up and you hear people calling your parents names and telling them to go back to where they came from, it has a big effect on you.


Werman: So, how much did books play a role in your life, growing up in this little backwater--in the Mojave Desert?


Tahir: I mean, books were everything to me. I turned to books to deal with this feeling of being an outcast, and I particularly turned to fantasy. Because in places like Narnia and Middle Earth, I wasn’t a scared little brown kid. I was brave and strong, and I was never afraid.


Werman: Did you come up, when you were a kid reading these books, with ideas for your own fantasy world where you might be the hero?


Tahir: I’m sure I did. I don’t remember anything specific. I used to write, but I was never really the hero of my own story. I would write about talking animals, that sort of thing. But it wasn’t until later that I started sort of realizing that I could have a voice through writing.


Werman: So, tell me about that voice and how it comes out in “An Ember In The Ashes.” What was the voice you wanted to take on in this book?


Tahir: I really wanted to take on two voices: one of somebody who was afraid, somebody who was a coward and who had to surmount that in order to attain her ultimate goal. The first character in my book is Laia. Her brother has been taken from her by empire soldiers and she’s trying to get him back. But she’s not brave. She’s not Katniss Everdeen. She really just wants a quiet life, and in order for her to save her brother she can’t have that, she has to fight back, she has to find her courage. That was really important to me because I wasn’t brave as a kid. I was really afraid of speaking out. Like I said, I felt really voiceless and powerless, so I never defended myself. The other voice that I wanted to touch on was the voice of someone who feels like they don’t belong, and that’s the voice of Elias, the soldier who doesn’t really agree with the empire that he’s forced to be a part of.


Werman: Both those characters in your novel, they deeply question the world that they’ve been brought into.


Tahir: Yes, absolutely.


Werman: And is it a world that you continue to question yourself?


Tahir: I think that it is sadly reflective of our modern world. You know, even though the book is a fantasy and it’s inspired in part by ancient Rome, I drew on a lot of modern conflicts. Any time I read these stories from all over, whether it was the DRC, or Sudan, or Colombia, or Mexico, or Kashmir, Afghanistan, I was always shocked at how violent our world is. I think that when you’re portraying a war zone, you have to portray it honestly. I felt that if I didn’t portray this violence as it would actually happen, I’d be doing a disservice to my readers. I mean, these are teenage readers--they will call you on your lies. So, I didn’t want that to happen.


Werman: What do you think literature like your book, “An Ember In The Ashes,” actually does to help young readers get their heads around this violent world?


Tahir: I think that it helps them realize that even in such a violent world, hope can still prevail. That’s a really important message. This idea that hope is stronger than hatred and it’s stronger than fear.


Werman: Sabaa Tahir’s new book, “An Ember In The Ashes,” comes out next week. It’s really incredible. Thanks a lot, Sabaa.


Tahir: Thank you so much, Marco.