Interview

Author Spotlight: 2017 Debut Karuna Riazi

Hey everyone, I’m so excited to interview 2017 debut author, Karuna Riazi. She is an amazing talent and we’re so lucky to be able to feature her this week on Writer’s Block Party.
Karuna discusses her debut book, her experience writing and championing diverse books, and working with Cake Literary! She is debuting with a diverse Middle Grade fantasy, The Gauntlet (out in less than two weeks on March 28th). It is also one of the first books to come out with the new Simon & Schuster imprint, Salaam Reads.
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1. First tell us about your upcoming book, The Gauntlet!

Pretty much, it’s an inverted Jumanji with Middle Eastern flair. I think the jacket copy is the best thing since sliced bread, since it gets in all the key elements so perfectly:

“A trio of friends from New York City find themselves trapped inside a mechanical board game that they must dismantle in order to save themselves and generations of other children in this action-packed debut that’s a steampunk Jumanji with a Middle Eastern flair.

When twelve-year-old Farah and her two best friends get sucked into a mechanical board game called The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand—a puzzle game akin to a large Rubik’s cube—they know it’s up to them to defeat the game’s diabolical architect in order to save themselves and those who are trapped inside, including her baby brother Ahmed. But first they have to figure out how.

Under the tutelage of a lizard guide named Henrietta Peel and an aeronaut Vijay, the Farah and her friends battle camel spiders, red scorpions, grease monkeys, and sand cats as they prepare to face off with the maniacal Lord Amari, the man behind the machine. Can they defeat Amari at his own game…or will they, like the children who came before them, become cogs in the machine?”

The only things said jacket copy won’t give you:

a. The fact that Farah is a Bangladeshi-American Muslim girl (like me, or mostly like me, since I’m a half-Bangladeshi American Muslim girl!)

b. Exact details of how I had to close my eyes and type as fast as possible to clear that spider scene

c. The delightfully carb-loaded experience of an actual slice of bread.

2. How did you start writing?

I think I started around four, though I can’t put a proper date to the moment when I really realized I loved stories. My mom still has my first book around that age, which she hand-bound at home. There’s this little story involving a girl and a bunny in her backyard, all in this very large script and illustrated by yours truly. She has this plan to show it off at my release party, which I’m not sure if I’m going to allow. I seriously started writing with an (well, I thought) awareness of how the industry worked around middle school and my actual first YA series, which is trunked for a lot of good reasons, can be placed around the fifteen-year-old mark…which explains the vampires.


3. You are a great champion for ownvoices, why do you think ownvoices is so important in publishing (and kidlit specifically) and can you describe your own journey in finding your “ownvoice”?

#ownvoices is not a perfect tag, but what I appreciate most about it is the fact that it stresses the importance of seeking out marginalized voices telling their own stories. This is something that is so badly needed right now in the industry and in our general narratives. There is so little space given to us outside of stereotypes and dominant interpretation to speak our truths and our lives as we live them, and it’s been this way – in many cases, due to colonization and suppression of cultures and heritages – for centuries. I like to think of it as having a tapestry laid over your lap and seeing all the messy stitches done that are attributed to you, or are supposed to depict your craft and your work as someone assumes it will be up. To me, centering #ownvoices means letting us have the time, space and priority to take a seam ripper, clear out the assumptions and negativity and hatred and stitch our own threads back in where they belong – and, since it’s a conversation I’ve been having a lot recently, having a space for #ownvoices means having the awareness within your own group that no marginalized group is a monolith and there are narratives that really need to be brought to light that may not match what we assume is the majority experience. All those stories, all those voices, deserve to be heard and recognized and appreciated, both on and off the page.

4. How are you inspired by your life, culture, and personal interests in your writing?

…Um, everywhere? Besides The Gauntlet, my current WiP also features a Bangladeshi-American heroine. I’m slowly working my way into the comfort zone of writing about biracial characters and the biracial experience, which can be very touchy and personal as a biracial person myself – particularly when we add in the details of having interracial family, not speaking my father’s native tongue and just…always having these questions about which lanes I occupy and whether or not in claiming my own backgrounds, I’m veering into lanes that aren’t mine to speak to. (I’m also half-Black, and as one of my future characters is, too, there’s a lot of juggling going on internally about whether I have the right to use AAVE, for instance, or if I’m really qualified to write on certain issues some of my family members will face more than me.)
I also tend toward large families in my fiction, which is definitely autobiographical, and mental health issues may also make an appearance along the line – again, when I’m more comfortable about exploring within myself. I think one of the personal boundaries I’m trying to work through is how people may take my own ruminations about me and my experience and use it to create new stereotypes or assumptions or misconceptions, particularly in terms of Muslim representation. There is so much to learn and unpack and dissect daily, and I appreciate being part of the online community because it always gives me that space to realize things or become aware of things I didn’t think about before.
On another tangent, though, once you read The Gauntlet, you’ll probably see another of my major personal interests: Islamic architecture! I particularly love and have harnessed Mughal architecture for the world of Paheli, and it was incredible as I read up on it and researched to realize how Mughal architecture is a hybrid of a bunch of different, historically Islamic cultures coming together into an entirely different, welcoming style. For a book that was written out of my own sense of giving marginalized kids a home in fiction, picking that particular style was an unwitting boon and another magical part of the entire experience.

5. How was it working with Cake Literary (boutique book development company)?

I am ridiculously biased, but I think you cannot go wrong with considering Cake if you are interested in working under a book packager. I’ve been working with Sona and Dhonielle for several years now – I was their intern before I became a writer – and they are both so full of heart, warmth and giving. Every step of the process is transparent, readily and willingly explained right down to the contracts. Victoria Marini of ICM handles the representation and red tape for Cake and is honestly one of the most wonderful agents I know. I’m sorry that this turned into a little Cake testimonial, but I’m very happy with them. I also think that being with them and having good people at my back while also on my case to get chapters done, turn this around on this day, etc, has improved me as a writer and my sense of how I write, what works for me and what doesn’t. I do not regret by any means. (Also, for the record, as a lady of color, having two other incredible ladies of color who get how differently the industry looks from our perspective and are always ready to advise me on the best way possible to stay afloat in it, it’s just been utterly amazing.)

6. Can you give some words of advice for ownvoices authors just starting their journey?

Do not think your voice is redundant. Do not allow that sense that others from your marginalized group are speaking in more eloquent, passionate ways than you are – or perceive yourself to be – mean giving up your chance at standing in front of the mic. Seriously. I’ve been there and I know the temptation to just shut your own self down and call it a day because, gosh, the talent out there already. But you don’t know what’s in you. You do not know what is waiting in you. And I think I know what is there: magic. Wonder. Glorious words. Things that other people, as beautiful and wonderful as they are, cannot tap into. Tell the stories that only you can tell and let your heroes guide you with their light instead of make you hate your flickering, newly-struck match.

Also, find your people because they are out there. Make connections with the other people of color and marginalized groups on Twitter or Facebook. I’m not saying that you won’t find your people outside of your own niche, but it’s also good to have friends who get the struggle, get what it takes to be here and speak up and understand the particular stresses that come with being a marginalized author.

7. How have you seen the industry changing to embrace authentic diverse stories?

I’ve definitely seen, and appreciate, more acknowledgement and open calls for diverse voices, particularly in the wake of the wonderful Corinne Duyvis’s #ownvoices push, but I still think there is a lot more to be done. A lot of other Muslim authors, for instance, rightfully pointed out that they wish agents would have been more vocal for the need to give Muslim writers space and welcome their stories sooner rather than being galvanized by current affairs. I still think there needs to be more realization that #ownvoices are needed most and those stories are far more important at the end of the day than an outside voice, once again, telling the story the way they can only assume it is from their research. Too many people have reacted to me recently in a way that goes something like this: “I feel so bad about the lack of representation! Now I feel responsible to tell your stories for you!” That’s not what we need. We need respect for our stories coming from us and encouragement and initiatives for us. The CCBC numbers for this year are proving that: yes, it’s good that we finally have diversity as a mainstream buzzword, but that’s not going to mean a thing if the publishing slots each year are going to be filled by writers who are not marginalized. There are still boundaries in place that are institutionalized and must come down.

8. Is there anything you think others can do to boost ownvoices and authentic diverse stories?

Pass on an opportunity that you think a marginalized writer could use and appreciate – that can be for work-for-hire, an agent looking for a specific voice in a client, even like some very lovely writers and agents have been doing recently and paying people’s way to conferences like SCBWI or MWW. Part of the boundary for us is that lack of attainable, affordable education and boosts upward to network and hone our skills. See which books are coming out from marginalized writers for the year and put your shoulder and your voices and your wallets behind them so that readers who need them can get them and publishers can see that these stories do pay off, literally. Share your platform, step aside and boost when you know it is a marginalized issue, and let these voices be heard.

Also, this is a bonus from me, but…stop asking us to educate when you have Google or even previous essays or threads from us to tide you over! Please respect our time and realize that education and getting involved in ill-meant community discourse only takes away from the time we can spend on our own stories and helping other writers develop their stories as well.

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Karuna Riazi is a born and raised New Yorker, with a loving, large extended family and the rather trying experience of being the eldest sibling in her particular clan. Besides pursuing a BA in English literature from Hofstra University, she is an online diversity advocate, blogger, and publishing intern. Karuna is fond of tea, Korean dramas, writing about tough girls forging their own paths toward their destinies, and baking new delectable treats for friends and family to relish. Her dessert of choice is a lemon bar, which always promise a sharp zest of intrigue along with the reassuring sugar of a happy ending. Find her online: Twitter

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Winner announced Friday, March 24, 2017

2 thoughts on “Author Spotlight: 2017 Debut Karuna Riazi

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:

    It was so much fun interviewing Karuna for WBP! Everyone should check out her book THE GAUNTLET. I cannot rave enough about her and her writing!

    Like

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