BENEATH MY MOTHER'S FEET: Interview with Amjed Qamar

Know a young reader with a blossoming dream to battle poverty? Get her a copy of Beneath My Mother's Feet (Atheneum, June 2008) by Amjed Qamar. Throughout this moving debut novel, we grow to care deeply about Nazia, a young heroine with few choices but immense courage and compassion.

The author honors the culture of her origin and yet unflinchingly etches out in stark detail the chasm in Pakistan between rich and poor and men and women. American readers won't be able to read news headlines about Pakistanis without picturing Nazia and her friends and family living there.

I invited the author out on the Fire Escape to talk about writing the book and share our chat with you here. I also highlighted a few compelling phrases in bold as they seemed to jump out at me ... so, emphasis mine.

So, tell us, Amjed, where is “home” for you?

I was born in Hyderabad, India and came to the U.S. when I was around a year old. My whole life I lived in the midwest, mostly Ohio. I lived in Pakistan for five years and have traveled there regularly over the past 18 years. Although I have a very soft spot for Pakistan, home for me is definitely here in the U.S.

Why do you think that it's important for young people to read stories set in other places?

It's important to learn about the child sitting next to you in school. Understand the accent of the man bagging your groceries or the teller at the bank who has a dot on her forehead. We live in a small world that is constantly meshing. To live in isolation, to think that we have nothing to gain from children who live in other parts of the world is not an option. We need to share these stories with young people in order to catch up, keep up, thrive, and grow.

Could you sum up for us the dream response of a reader who knows little or nothing about Pakistan's history and culture?

I've gotten so many of them already! To be invited to share their joy in reading the book, to see them wearing the clothes, looking for recipes and sharing the food, to hear readers talking about their own mother and daughter relationships, it's truly amazing.

Now let's move to the journey of getting the novel published. What was a high point? A low point?

The high point of course is the great response I'm getting from critics and readers alike, now that the book is out there for the whole world to read. The low point is just the worry and stress of getting it right. It's so hard to let it go.

What was the biggest change you made in response to an editorial suggestion?

In the first few drafts, the father was a heavy smoker. After discussing with the editor, we decided that in terms of age group, it would be best to cut the smoking out all together (despite it being a heavy part of the culture). I think it still works wonderfully without it.

Could you describe a fear you have about this novel that can keep you up at night?

The main fear I had was what would Nazia do? How was she ever going to get out of this mess? How could she possibly help her family? She was just a girl! In Pakistan!

This is one of those stories where the character ruled the book and I couldn't write anything she didn't want me to. It was very surreal at times. You know the stories you hear about the book writing itself or the character takes over, I completely get that now. But to be clear, Nazia has been in my head for nearly a decade now, whispering, cajoling, begging for me to write her story. Finally there just came a time in my life when I said enough already, put aside what I was writing, and started writing for her.

Okay, here's my last question: What's next for Amjed Qamar in the realm of children's books?

I am working on my next book, but I'm keeping it to myself for now!

Thank you so much, Amjed, for listening to your character and giving us this wonderful novel. I loved getting to know and cheer for Nazia, and I'm sure other readers will feel the same. Can't wait to see what comes next! Thanks for visiting us on the Fire Escape.