Fatima Farheen Mirza made a deal with her father - she could go to college if she studied medicine.
She enrolled in pre-med courses, but a creative writing class captured her imagination, and gave her a true focus for her studies. In the class, at age 18, she began sketching out the scenes that would eventually form the heart of her 2018 novel, “A Place for Us,” which became a NewYork Times bestseller.
A few months into her freshman year at UC Riverside, Mirza switched her major to creative writing with a minor in journalism.
“I knew I wanted to dedicate my time to (writing). You can’t do it half-heartedly,” she said.
Mirza was the featured speaker at the April 11 meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society, held at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar Resort. Her book was the first to be published by SJP for Hogarth, the new imprint of actress and producer Sarah Jessica Parker.
In an interview before her talk, Mirza said she worked on the book for about eight years, through both college and graduate study at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Along the way, she worked at a variety of jobs, including waitressing, babysitting and tutoring. After Iowa, she moved to New York City, and now lives in Brooklyn.
Mirza was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, of an Indian father and British-Indian mother. Her grandparents lived with the family when she was growing up, teaching Mirza and her three younger brothers both the Urdu language and the family’s Muslim religious beliefs.
The novel centers around the wedding celebration for the oldest daughter of an Indian-American family, and the return home of the bride’s brother for the first time in three years. Mirza said the family dynamics, culture and religion were drawn from her own childhood experiences, but the characters were entirely fictional.
She said she began by imagining her characters, and the story grew around them.
“I became a writer because I wanted to write this novel,” she said.
“I wanted to do justice to their story,” she said of her five main characters, the two parents and three children in her fictional family. “I was subconsciously trying to understand the place I’d come from.”
As the novel opens, the hall is filling for the wedding. Amar, the family’s estranged son, greets the arriving guests.
“There, beneath the golden glow of the chandeliers and surrounded by the bright colors of the women’s dresses, Amar thought maybe he had been right to come. He could convince them all — the familiar faces, his mother who he sensed checking on him as she moved about, his father who maintained his distance — he could even convince himself, that he belonged here, that he could wear the suit and play the part, be who he had been before, and assume his role tonight as brother of the bride.”
Among her motivations for writing the novel, said Mirza, is that she wanted to explore the relationships between the three siblings. While much in literature examines romantic love, she said, there are fewer examples of books that focus on the love between siblings.
Mirza said she has kept busy in recent months in the classroom -- she teaches creative writing at New York University, and reading to middle school students — along with traveling both in the U.S. and in Europe to promote her book.
“I’m ready for it to quiet down,” she said. “I need quiet space to begin writing again and I’m looking forward to that.”
Mirza said she hasn’t yet started on a new novel, although she recently published a piece in a collection of essays.
“I want to wait until I feel I really have something to say, and not just because I like speaking,” Mirza said.
“A Place for Us,” which was named one of the best books in 2018 by the Washington Post, is available on amazon.com and more. Visit fatimafarheenmirza.com for additional information.