Author Interview: Marina Budhos on Ask Me No Questions

Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos (Atheneum, 2006)(excerpt). Nadira, 14, has always been the plump one, the less-bright one, the dim light behind the shining star of her older sister Aisha, 18. After September 11, their family of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh seeks asylum in Canada. They are turned away at the border, and Abba (father) is arrested. As time passes and hope grows dim, it’s Nadira who must find her voice and make people see her, believe in her–and accept. Ages 10-up. See more of my thoughts on Ask Me No Questions.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

It came out of a few impulses that all came together in a kind of rush.

I had written a book several years ago, Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers (Henry Holt, 1999)(scroll), where I had interviewed and profiled immigrant teenagers. In the course of speaking with them, I became very aware of the experience of being a Muslim in America, especially, at that time, in the wake of the Gulf War. Out of those interviews, I crafted a section called To Be Young, Muslim and Female in America Today: Three Stories.

Fast forward to 9/11 and the swirl of events in that aftermath–I was reading about the effect of the Patriot Act, the detainments and deportations. Out of my prior book, I kept in touch with immigrant groups and asked about what was happening with these families. I could not stop thinking about the kids I had interviewed years before. I was on a panel with an activist who told me that the Bangladeshi community in New York City had been shattered by this experience, since so many of them were undocumented. Then one morning I opened the paper to read about families fleeing to the Canadian border, in hopes of getting asylum there; how their children had been growing up in America and believed this was their home. It was as if overnight, everything, their future, had been taken from them.

Suddenly, I remembered something else: a memory of my own father, a Guyanese immigrant, who really never lost the fear that his citizenship could be taken away from him. Every time we crossed a border, he would panic, fumble with his passport, forget essential information if they asked him questions. One foggy night we were in driving in Canada, to visit relatives, when we were stopped by the Canadian police. They asked my father to go into the car with them — I’ll never forget the look of terror on my father’s face. While we waited, my mother grew hysterical. In fact, they were stopping us about a broken tail light, and had brought my father in the car, to stay out of the rain. But that experience brought back how under the surface, for an immigrant, particularly one of color, that sense of being an outsider, of having something taken away, is never very far away.

So literally, the story came to me, all in a rush, out of my research and my own personal memories. I actually wrote the first chapters in one week, and the book flew out of me, fueled, I think by outrage, pain, and a desire for this story to be told.

What was the timeline from spark to publication and what were the major events along the way?

Again, as I mentioned, I wrote it rather quickly, while these events were swirling around. I wrote the book in about ten weeks. Then I got some comments and let it sit a while before revising. I spent about another six weeks revising. We then sent it out to several publishers, almost all of whom were interested in publishing it.

In fact, during this time NY Times reporter Nina Bernstein broke a story about an illegal Bangladeshi girl who was imprisoned for being a suspected terrorist. The authorities claimed they had found “something” on her computer. For me, this was the strange experience of life imitating art. I sent the book to Nina, and she called me up to say that I had no idea how perfectly I had captured that experience—and that there are so many kids out there, experiencing exactly this—their lives in limbo, their situation invisible. Indeed, she sent the book to those girls who were eventually deported to Bangladesh—the younger sister, especially, who is very Americanized, has been really having a hard time of it.

What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

I think the greatest challenge was making sure I had the balance between the political and social pressures and the family dynamics. I did not want this to be seen as an “issue” or “problem” novel—it needed to be as rich in literary and psychological dynamics. I also wanted the characters to be recognizable to an American audience—and potentially an audience outside the States, too. At the same time, I wanted American kids to feel what it’s like when you want the same thing—a future here–and yet it’s somehow just out of your reach, or taken away from you.

Certainly I wanted to be very specific to this culture—I had chosen Bangladesh as opposed to other potential cultures because I had lived in Calcutta, which is in West Bengal, and also visited Bangladesh, so I felt comfortable with Bengali culture. At the same time, I wanted these characters to be kids that we all could know: the know-it-all, high achieving older sister and the left-in-the-shadows younger sister. Nadira was pretty clear to me, from the get-go (perhaps because I’m a younger sister) but I had to work at Aisha, in understanding the arc she goes through, and especially her internal breakdown. I had to force myself to get more inside her character and understand how she would be the one who would crumble. That took up a lot of my revision time.

While all of my work seems to carry a certain non-fiction element (my next young adult novel as well) I try not to over-research. I try to go with my gut and artistic intuition, and then use the research as I need to. With respect to the immigration details, I did interview an immigration lawyer. I also had the manuscript vetted by a Bangladeshi friend, who is also an activist around issues such as this, and was familiar with what was going on in the community at the time.