Announcer: This is why we write. A podcast of Lesley University. Each week we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley Community to talk about books, writing and the writing life.
Emily Earle: Welcome to the podcast. My name is Emily Earle. I'm the social media specialist here at Lesley University. I'm here today with Jasmine Warga, a 2013 graduate from our MFA in creative writing program. Her new book, Other Words for Home, tells the story of a young girl from Syria who emigrates to the United States after violence threatens her small town. She travels with her mother, leaving behind her father and brother, and strives to find a sense of home in Cincinnati. Jasmine, thanks for being with us today.
Jasmine Warga: Thanks so much for having me.
Emily: Yeah! So, first off, congratulations on the book. I read it, and it's such a beautiful and complicated story. And so, I think to start us off, I was just wondering if you could speak a bit about the book and where the idea for it came from.
Jasmine: Yeah, well, thank you. Sort of the first, I guess, seed of an idea for this book came actually in the fall of 2013. I was at dinner at a close family friend's house. He's Syrian. My own father's Jordanian. Growing up, we were very close with this family as the Middle Eastern community in Cincinnati's rather small. At this dinner, I was introduced to members of the family I never met before who had just come over from Syria because of the growing conflict there.
At the time, I was vaguely aware of the conflict in Syria, but it wasn't at the point where it was all over the news yet, at least in the West. But what was, I guess, the most interesting, sort of, to my novelist brain, about this dinner was less like the conflict and more of the interactions between the cousins who were born in America and the cousins who had been born in Syria. It got me thinking about my relationship with my own cousins and families who live on either side of the Atlantic Ocean.
And so, I sort of had this idea, like really vague interest in trying to write a story about this, but I was working on another book at the time, so I sort of like tucked it away. But the idea stayed with me and it stayed with me for years and sort of grew in my head. And then I started trying to write the book in earnest in the fall of 2016.
Emily: Nice. And so, could you get a bit into kind of the story from like just, I guess, a plot perspective, just kind of a little synopsis for us?
Jasmine: Yeah, yeah! So the book is about a 12-year-old girl named Jude. She lives in a seaside town in Syria with her family, her mother, her older brother, Issa, and her father. The political situation in her town is becoming more and more tenuous. Like, there's growing protests, and in towns around them, the civil war is breaking out. And so there's this sense that the conflict is about to reach their own hometown. Her mother, Jude's mother, decides that in order for Jude's safety, she wants to go and live in Cincinnati, Ohio, with her brother, Jude's uncle.
And so Jude and her mother move across the Atlantic Ocean leaving behind Jude's father who stays to take care of the family store and Jude's brother who refuses to leave because he's a part of the revolutionary efforts in Syria. The book is about Jude learning how to make a new life in this new place and also how to navigate learning how to feel about the idea that now more than one place is home.
Emily: Actually, that brings us perfectly into my next question 'cause I got the sense that not only does Jude experience this kind of ongoing search to reconcile who she is and where she's from but actually, like, most of the characters in the book were seeking what home meant for them. So I was wondering if you could maybe talk about the idea of home and how that inspired not only Jude's journey, but some of the other characters as well.
Jasmine: Yeah so I think home, in its essence, is a place where you feel very much yourself, that you feel comfortable in your own identity and feel welcomed and able to be yourself as you truly are. I think, though, at twelve, knowing who you truly are, feeling comfortable in yourself is a very difficult thing, even if you aren't a little girl who's just left her home country and moved to an entirely new country. That was one of the grounding themes of the book of this idea of searching for self, searching for home, searching for a place that you feel comfortable in your own skin.
And then for Jude, specifically, I think she moves to this place where now she is asked to grapple with all these facets of her identity that she never thought about before. She's moving from a very homogeneous country in Syria where almost every other person she interacted with was Arab and was actually Syrian. She's now moved to a city where she goes to school with children of lots of different races and is being asked about her own racial identity in a way that she's never thought about that before. I think that also plays into how she starts to think about home and about where she can be at home. And then the other characters in the book, like I said, are also searching for those places of belonging, places of feeling like they can be their truest selves in a safe way.
Emily: Yeah it also, I mean, it really struck me as this very important conversation starter about just current events and events from the recent past for younger students. I was wondering, how do you think this story, in particular, might resonate for readers who are younger but who might be seeing pieces of the evening news or headlines in the newspaper, or kind of overhearing more kind of grown-up conversations and how that kind of might be an entry point for younger students?
Jasmine: Yeah you know what's interesting is when I've talked with younger readers of the book, and to be fair, the book came out in May. And so—I have—[coughs]. Excuse me, sorry.
Emily: You're fine. [laughs] Aw.
Jasmine: [coughs] Sorry.
Emily: No, no, no!
Jasmine: I'll start again there.
Emily: Yeah that's perfect, yeah.
Jasmine: So the book came out in May, and so I've only just started doing events where I've gotten to speak with younger readers who read the book. I have a lot of events this fall where I'll get to meet lots of other young readers. But what's always the most heartening to me is that the things that—the way that children think about the book are less in terms of, like, I guess wanting to understand the conflict in Syria and more wanting to know how they could help and have this generosity of spirit and being curious about like, how to be more welcoming to children who are in Jude's situation.
That's always the thing that readers seem to be bringing up the most at the events to ask about. It's like feeling this call to action to be welcoming, be—like I said, have this generosity of spirit. That's always interesting to me that like, I think it's such a—maybe it's an adult, more of an adult perspective 'cause I labored a lot about how many details to include about the Syrian civil war and questions of politics and all these things. And at the end of the day, for kids, it seems like a much more simple equation of I feel for Jude because her hometown is in a scary situation and so she's moved over here. How they view that story is they want to be someone who would extend the kindness to her in that situation.
So it's interesting that I haven't been asked a lot of questions about the conflict in Syria as much as I've been asked questions about like, if I think Jude would enjoy doing this kind of activity.
Jasmine: Which is such a funny and different like, perspective than you might expect and certainly what I would have expected, but asking if I think that's something that would make her feel welcomed into the community or comfortable. I don't know, I'm always—it's one of the reasons I love writing for children. I'm just reminded of that pureness of human kindness that exists. Sort of that, I guess, universal knowing of the right thing to do, that kids just so intuitively rise to the occasion.
Emily: Yeah no, and I mean I think that really comes across. It's like you're getting these perspectives from these kids and they're kind of just bringing it back to this very human level, like person-to-person, you know. Outside the—not outside the scope of, you know, all that's going on just in the world and kind of just bringing it back to—
Emily: Yeah. You spoke a little bit about this. You say you were born and raised in Cincinnati and your father is from Jordan. Can you explain a bit about what it was like to write about the Middle East and also Middle America in just terms of a sense of place. Was one more challenging than the other?
Jasmine: Yeah, so definitely, to do the scenes in Syria were more challenging for me and that I've never been to Syria. I conducted lots of different interviews like I said, with family, friends, and also other people in the Syrian community in Cincinnati. I've been to Jordan several times, but obviously, they're two different countries. And in terms of like, I guess, terrain the area in Syria, which Jude is from, is completely different than Amman, which is the major city in Jordan, which I've been to. I think like, whenever you're trying to render a place you haven't been to yourself in a novel, that is a specific kind of challenge.
Whereas, I grew up in Cincinnati my whole life and so being able to describe those rhythms and beats and sounds and all the things that are gonna make a place seem real to a reader are much easier for me to access since that was a space that I knew. I think also I was able to understand that conflict between being a Middle Eastern person in Middle America because I lived that experience. That tension was something, again, that was easier for me to draw from.
So I'd definitely say that the most difficult part or the part that required the most research and the thing that I was the most nervous about getting right were the scenes in Syria just because that's where I was the most out of my own comfort zone of knowledge.
Emily: Yeah no, I think that the verse really kind of, comes across in such a beautiful way in kind of conveying both of these places. It was just so delightful to read the language itself.
I am a musical theater lover, and I was absolutely delighted to discover that Jude's passion is acting. A piece of the plot centers around her involvement in the middle school's musical. I was just wondering why did you choose theater as an outlet for her to express herself?
Jasmine: You know, it's so funny, because in the initial drafts of the book, she was really into soccer. It just was not feeling right to her character. I couldn't make the whole soccer plot line work. And then all of a sudden, I don't know, I just got this feeling that she was someone who really wanted to express herself with her voice and she wanted to be on stage. I was like, "Oh! This is right. This clicks."
I think that it was loosely probably where I got this idea, like if I'm gonna psychoanalyze it back, is that growing up, I—one of the things I bonded with my Jordanian cousins the most about was American movies because American media is like our biggest export, right, in terms of what the rest of the world knows. And so my cousins were watching all these American movies but lots of times they were like a few years older or even like, ten years older than the movies that had just come out in the States. I remember bonding with them about American movies and American TV shows and my cousins were just obsessed with American movie stars. It just made sense with her character of someone who's looking for a chance to have their voice be heard.
Emily: And it was great just to see her make that journey from singing in her apartment and watching Julia Roberts and then being enabled to be on stage and being involved in that way.
Jasmine: Yeah, yeah. And I also think, too, the other thing about that plotline that I have always really liked is that, obviously, when she comes to America, there's so many different struggles that she faces, but there's also lots of joy too. I think that in the current political climate we're in, there's this bizarre situation that's happened where one side of the political spectrum has decided that they have 100% of the rights on loving America or appreciating anything about America. It was important for me to show joy in her journey too. This experience again to be in the school play is something that was different than what her opportunity had been like in Syria. That's an important, I think, thing to show and something to celebrate. And so it's sort of like reclaiming that part of the story too is really important to me to tell, to have stories where it's not just about Brown suffering, but there's also moments of joy.
Emily: Oh yeah, absolutely. And I think you kind of see that negotiation a bit throughout. You know 'cause she is—there is a lot that she's going through, obviously. She's struggling with so many things. But also I think there's a line in there about how she would eat pizza every single day if she had the opportunity or something like that. Yeah and just kind of seeing that in her. There are things that she discovers that she loves as well.
Jasmine: Yeah! Yeah.
Emily: Is this correct that this is your first middle-grade book?
Jasmine: Yes, that's right.
Emily: And your previous two books were YA?
Emily: I guess what was it about this story that lent itself to a middle-grade audience? And I was wondering if you could maybe describe the difference in those two.
Jasmine: Yeah. You know, it's interesting. I always wanted to write middle-grade books. I was a really lonely kid in middle school. I was also the best reader that I've ever been in middle school. Books were my life. There was a real awakening moment for me when I was in college of reading actually some more recent middle-grade classics that had been written after the time I was a middle schooler and being like, this is what I want to write, this is what I want to do. When I came to Lesley, I'd intended to work on middle-grade projects. For the most part, I did. Everything I was writing was mostly middle-grade and whimsical.
And then I had, like personal circumstances happened in my life where I unexpectedly lost someone who was really close to me. And my first book, that's a YA book was kind of born out of that experience. And I think was like a departure from all of the things I had been working on and probably was going to work on again. For me, it's not surprising at all that I came back to middle grade. It was something I always wanted to do. For this story in particular, I always saw it as a middle-grade book. I don't know, the character, she was always twelve to me. It was a story more about family and, like I said, that sense of trying to find a place where you feel safe and you feel yourself.
Those to me feel more like middle-grade themes than young adult themes, though that line can be blurry sometimes. But, it definitely took several drafts, though, for me to get back into the middle-grade voice after having done a YA voice for my past two books.
Emily: Actually something you just said makes so much sense because there is so much growing and learning that you're doing at age twelve. To have to then be taken out of what you know and where you are, it must be such a multi-layered experience to have to be growing as a human but also in this new situation that's unprecedented and trying to navigate that while also navigating being a 12-year-old.
Jasmine: Yeah, no. I used to teach sixth grade and so I think I've always just had a really soft spot for that eleven to thirteen-year-old age range. The joy about if you write a book for that age range is then, that's the readers that you get to go interact with and talk with. I think I always saw this as the type of story that I wanted to be discussing with middle schoolers.
Emily: Yeah, no. That's great. The book is written in verse, as we mentioned. I read that it was not initially written that way and you had to do some rewriting. What prompted that decision?
Jasmine: Yeah [chuckles]. So it definitely was not. It was written in just regular prose. We were actually getting pretty close to the book going to copy-edits, which is like—in publishing, when a book goes to copy-edits, basically everything major about the book is done. Like major plot changes, all that stuff has been done. Just in copy-edits, your copy editor helps you with spelling errors and continuity errors and missed commas and all those things, but anything big about the book is done.
As a writer, there's always this gap that exists between the book that you wanted to write and the book that you actually wrote and you always have to swallow that gap. We were getting closer and closer to that point of the book basically being done and the gap just felt too wide for me to swallow. I don't really know, I couldn't quite put my finger on it of what felt so wrong about it, but the emotional heart of the book didn't feel right. My editor, she's so great and she'd really worked with me. The plot structure of this prose version was very solid. It was a solid book, but it just did not feel like the book that I wanted it to be.
And I'll never forget. I had been doing events for my second book, and I was sitting in the Los Angeles Airport and I was jet-lagged and super tired. And I got this idea in my head to write the first chapter of the book in verse and see like, what Jude's voice would look like that way. It felt to me like that made a huge improvement, really worked. But the thing is that I get ideas all the time when I'm overtired.
Jasmine: And sometimes, they're really good and sometimes they're terrible. Like when I think I'm gonna write this epic fantasy novel and then the next morning I wake up and I'm like "No, no. That was not a great idea." But that next morning, I looked at the verse that I had written, and I was like, "No, this is what I want to do." I called my agent who was like, "What? The book is almost done. We're about to get paid. This maybe is not the best business decision," which is exactly what she's supposed to say.
Jasmine: I was like, "Would you please just look at it. I think this is the right thing for the book." And she, before being an agent, she was actually an editor, and she'd worked on one of my favorite verse novels from my own childhood called Out of the Dust. I knew she would be honest with me and so I was really, really nervous, but then she called me back and was like, "You know what, you're right. Let me call your editor and we're gonna have to tell her we're gonna need more time."
So the book got moved back like a season so that I could rewrite it in verse, but I think it was really the right decision for the book. It's one of those things where you don't know what is wrong with the book until you figure out that issue that you were searching for and it's just a really hard thing to put your finger on, but once you do, it clicks. That for me made Jude's voice click. Like, I think there had just been this narrative distance between me and the character and writing in a verse really helped to close that.
Emily: I mean I think it was, obviously, it was such a beautiful decision and worked out so well, so I'm glad. [laughs] I'm glad that all happened in the way that it did. So, you're from Cincinnati and you're located in Chicago right now. Can you talk about your experience in the low-residency MFA program here at Lesley and what that was like.
Jasmine: Yeah, yeah. So at the time when I started Lesley, I was actually living in Austin, Texas.
Emily: Oh, okay!
Jasmine: It was a really wonderful thing for me because I was still really shy about my writing, shy about the fact that I wanted to do this, kind of embarrassed by it and really nervous because I knew my parents were like, "What are you doing? Like, no—
Emily: [laughs] Okay.
Jasmine: —you need to be in medical school. This is not a good choice." Because as the daughter of an immigrant, you have basically, your career choice is what type of doctor you want to be. So—
Emily: Not like doctor or not? [laughs] It's like what kind? [laughs]
Jasmine: Yeah. It was like, "What kind of doctor?"
Jasmine: So they were certainly not thrilled about that, and I was also really insecure about it. And so I liked the fact that it let me to—like, gave me the ability to hold on to my job in Austin, while doing that. And the thing that I always tell people is, I think it prepared me so much for the actual job of being a writer because you have to learn how to produce work in your own life.
My friends who went to full-residency MFA programs, they had wonderful experiences, but they were kind of in these little utopias where everyone was writing all the time and I think that made it easy to have a high output. And then when they left school, their output fell off a lot because they weren't used to like, having to learn how to work around having a job or work around being in a situation where they weren't like, constantly in this writing community.
And I mean, I'm lucky enough now that I'm able to write full-time, so I don't have to write around a job. But the fact that I did while I was in the program and I did while I was working on my first book I think has made it really good for my discipline of like, I know how to make a deadline and I know how to write even when I'm not necessarily feeling like it or I don't have the inspiration, I'm able to sit down and do the work. And so I think the program really helped me in that way of learning how to take myself seriously as a writer by making time for it. Now that I have two little girls at home, I definitely have to write when I have time, not when is the best—
I think all of that, the programs really, really prepared me for that. It was also my first interaction with people who were doing this as a career. All of my professors who I interacted with, they were real writers, working writers, and so that was really great from an inspiration perspective and to see that this could be a career and that people do do this and all those types of things.
So—and then, I mean, I just talked about how you have to learn how to do it on your own. That said, I also made some really, really wonderful friends in the program. I think you can't underestimate the value of finding community since writing can be such a lonely enterprise that's really great to have, like your people. The program definitely also afforded me that.
Emily: It's almost like the best of both worlds in that way and it's like you're able to be in life [chuckles] and also be writing but then also have that community to come back to because that exists as well.
Jasmine: Yeah! Like, we always used to joke that residency was like summer camp.
Jasmine: [laughs] That it was so great and so sad when it was over. But I also think, like I said, that well, if you would asked me when I was like twenty-three if I wanted to be in the program all the time, I would have said, "Yes, of course, I want to be there all the time." But I think the fact that I wasn't, it made me learn all these skills that have really been to my benefit now of being able to write in real life. When I still have to make dinner for my kids and when I stop to take them to school and when they are homesick and when all these other things are happening, I know how to write through all of that. I don't have to have like, these perfect conditions.
Emily: Right. That makes a lot of sense. You said you were a little shy about your writing when you were getting into the program. What prompted you to seek out the creative writing program in the first place?
Jasmine: When I graduated from college, I told my parents I was taking a year off to figure out my applications for grad school stuff. With grad school being the idea of going to medical school or in the worst case going to law school.
Jasmine: Like, grad school not being getting an MFA.
Emily: Right, right, right. [chuckles]
Jasmine: That was not something that would have ever occurred to them when I said that. It actually hadn't occurred to me either, though, what had occurred to me was that I probably wasn't going to go to grad school, but I was saying that to like, stall. And so I did, for this gap year, I did an alternative teaching program where I got sent to actually, I got sent to Texas to teach science to sixth graders.
Jasmine: And the thing is like every cliche about teaching proved to be true for me. I learned so much more from my students than they learned from me. Actually, probably in an embarrassing way of why I was so miserable in that job of like, I was just not well suited to teach science. I think if I'd been teaching English, which is something I had much more of a passion for, it would have been a different story.
I was super miserable in this job. And I'd be up like, every night learning the science that I hadn't paid attention to in sixth grade when I'd been taught it
to then teach it to my sixth graders. My boyfriend, who is now my husband, at the time helped teach it to me. He's an engineer and is much more science-minded. And I was complaining about just how miserable I was in kind of that way that you do in your early 20s where you feel like really lost and have no idea what you're doing with your life. He was like, "Well, you always say that you're a writer, but I've never seen you write something."
And I got so mad. And I started to write the next day on my lunch break. It's almost like when the dam breaks for you. So many writers I know now have had this experience that the second you decide that you're going to start trying, then you just caught the bug and you're going to do that. Then it was actually also Greg who found these programs. I was always telling him, I was like, "I can't do an MFA program. My parents will freak out. I can't leave my job and do this." And he's like, "Well, look, you can go and you don't have to leave your job. You can just use your vacation days." I applied to these programs. And—that's, like, it I guess.
Emily: [laughs] Yeah! That's great. I think just the inspiration behind that, it's like you kind of don't know where you want to land but then—kind of like what you said about the book becoming clear. It's like the path became clear when you saw the right fit.
Jasmine: Yeah! And I think that it definitely, like I said, it taught me to take myself more seriously as a writer, which I think is the most valuable skill you can learn and that like, publishing is such a tough industry and you're gonna have so many moments of doubting your worth as a writer, the longevity of your career, et cetera, et cetera. And so building up that skill of learning to fall in love with writing again and take yourself seriously as a writer and all of those things, I use them almost every day as a writer now. That's something I really learned in the program.
Emily: So yeah, you got into this a little bit, but I was just wondering, maybe there's not a concrete answer to this, but wondering what a typical day in your writing life is like. Do you write every day? Do you set aside a specific amount of time per week, or is it just kind of more, like you said, writing through your life?
Jasmine: Yeah, well—okay so we recently, we just moved to a new house. With this move, my girls, they are two and three, very exciting. They're both now starting preschool. And so the typical day for me is that I drop them both off at school. And then I write while they're at school and then I pick them back up and then I'm a mom.
But I use the time every day when they're at school to write, so that's five days a week. Though, this fall, I have a lot of travel coming up, and so on days when like I have a school visit or I have to be traveling for a book festival, obviously, that schedule will look different.
I do try to write almost every weekday when I can. I feel still extraordinarily lucky that this is my job, and so I feel like I constantly have this thing of needing to work to like, justify that this is real to the point that sometimes I'm like, "No, it's okay to take a breath. You just turned in that draft." There's also all these other parts now being a writer that I didn't realize that are separate from writing, which will be like, answering interview questions or—
Emily: Like here we are today [laughs].
Jasmine: Yeah! Or answering emails or filling out this contract or doing this and that. I also have to do all of that in the space of when the girls are at school. 'Cause once they're not at school, it's not feasible to do anything.
Emily: [laughs] Makes sense. Yeah no, there are a lot of other moving pieces in terms of like—in addition to a word count or something, any kind of writing goal you have for yourself.
Jasmine: Yeah. But it's definitely not to say that I think you have to write every day in order to be a productive writer. I have a loose definition of what I consider writing. So like, if I'm thinking about the draft in terms of brainstorming and taking notes, I consider that to be writing even if I'm not actively working on the books.
Emily: That definitely makes sense. So my job here at Lesley is primarily running our social media accounts. I've noticed that you are on social media. So, I was wondering what your thoughts are just on how social media can impact writers and the writing community. Is it a good thing to get your name out there, get your work out there? Is it a distraction? Or all of the above?
Jasmine: All the above. I mean, I think it's really easy to be cynical about social media, I think. And I definitely have those moments where it's like, [gasps] it's like so much and it's so tiring and it's a distraction. Well, at the same time, there's a really amazing community of educators and librarians on social media who are doing, I think, really, really important work to have their classrooms be filled with books that are more inclusive for all of their students and also they're just really champions of getting kids to read. I'm so grateful for the time and energy they spend on championing books, championing my books, championing books by other people that I admire.
Like I said, writing can be lonely. So while I sometimes find social media exhausting, it's also so nice at the end of a writing day when I log onto Twitter and see all these notifications from teachers telling me how much their student enjoyed the book. But I definitely have set limits on my social media of just overtake your whole life. And I do think it's been so good at creating some of the movements you've seen especially in children's publishing, pushing the industry towards being representative of all kids. And that is a credit, I think, to social media.
Emily: Yeah no, I mean I think that's so important getting the hashtags out there, getting the visibility out there and just kind of bringing all the voices to the table, who should be at the table.
Jasmine: Yeah, yeah.
Emily: So, what are you working on next?
Jasmine: So my next book, it'll be another middle grade novel. It's called the Shape of Thunder. It's tentatively scheduled to come out in winter of 2021.
Jasmine: So if I finish the revisions in time, that will be the case.
Emily: Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Jasmine: Yeah! So it's about two twelve-year-old girls who are dealing with the aftermath of a school shooting that's happened in their small Ohio town.
Jasmine: So it's kind of about gun violence in America and how I feel like we, as adults, are not having the moral courage that we need to have, and are expecting our kids to save us. So, yeah!
Emily: Yeah! Very topical [laughs] for sure. So, an important conversation to also be having. That's great. I will definitely be looking forward to that.
Thank you, Jasmine, so much for speaking with us. This was really wonderful. Like I said, the book was just outstanding. I encourage everybody to read it. It's such an important piece and told in such a beautiful way. Congratulations again.
Jasmine: Well, thank you so much.
Announcer: Thank you for listening to Why We Write. For more information on Jasmine and our catalog of episodes, visit lesley.edu/podcast. This is our last podcast of 2019. We’ll be back in February with new episodes. But until then, would you give us some holiday cheer and leave a review on Apple Podcasts? It helps other people to find the show!
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