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  • Writer's pictureElnora Gunter

When the World Inspires You: Ream Shukairy

Remember as a kid, how easy it was to become fascinated with the simplest of things? When everything around us a was constant sense of wonder? When it was so easy to the good and beauty in things?

Then we turned into adults.

Simple things became complicated things. Wonder turned into a jaded cynicism, and what was once beautiful now had flaws.

And the world became an ugly place. A place to fear. A place to loathe. A place to hide from.

But even when it all seems afire and hopeless, there's still beauty to be found in this world. A beauty that inspires, nurtures, and impassions us to chase the dreams of our deepest desires.

Read on to find out author Ream Shukairy's inspirations!

1. Welp, the first question is the one all in the writing community love to know! What’s the story of your publishing journey?

Ah, where to start?! My first complete manuscript was actually a fantasy inspired by the Syrian revolution! I wrote it without an outline and spent most of my undergrad years on this story and promised myself I could query it after I graduated. I wasn’t on Twitter, I had no writing friends, and I knew little about publishing, but I believed in my stories enough that it didn’t matter. I wrote to write. Eventually, I queried every agent I could find online and while my first book had some interest from agents and got some full requests, it ultimately didn’t get me anywhere. I did learn A LOT! Thankfully no shady agents offered to represent me because at the time I was so new and naïve to the publishing scene, I probably would have agreed.

While I was still querying this first book, I traveled to Europe and lurked on writing Twitter to learn more about publishing. While in London and Paris I saw homeless Syrian refugees and what I had been seeing online and in newspapers became a reality. I always volunteered within the Syrian American community in Los Angeles to fundraise for the Syrian humanitarian crisis, but the effects of the crisis had never been this obvious to me. And I had an idea: I would write a YA contemporary that sheds light on the Syrian crisis, making it real for readers who see Syrian refugees as numbers instead of people and lives.

I got back home and I wrote THE NEXT NEW SYRIAN GIRL in a month and a half. Of course, I edited it for months afterward, and within a few months, I queried around 20 agents. I participated in #DVPit (my tweet didn’t get too much agent interest, Twitter pitches are great, but they aren’t everything), was very picky about who to query, and waited for feedback before querying more agents. I almost didn’t query my agent because I didn’t want to lose my chance to work with her. Thankfully, THE NEXT NEW SYRIAN GIRL received lots of full requests, and two agents offered to represent me and my manuscript in just a few months.

The first call with an agent was unreal, but my second call was even better, and I knew my agent, Serene Hakim, was right for me and believed in my vision for my story. Serene didn’t want me to change my character, make her more mainstream, or add white characters to make it more relatable to a wider audience. She believed, at times more than me, that my story would be published one day. See, I’m not the most patient person, so Serene is exactly who I needed.

Getting an agent wasn’t what tested my faith in my story; the real struggle was in the downtime between agent and being on sub and then being on sub with editors. That took longer, but I revised TNNSG with my agent to make it better and made amazing writer friends who would help me get through the rejections. Publishing is incredibly subjective, and as the rejections came in, my belief that I’d achieve my dream wavered. I battled with staying true to my characters and my story when some editors clearly loved the writing but couldn’t connect for some reason. Each editor had something different to say, it wasn’t clear what I should revise if anything. I almost gave up on my story completely. I’d written two more books while on submission, and I thought it would be better to give up and pursue one of my other stories.

At the height of my doubt, and over a year of being on submission, my editor at LBYR connected with my story. Ruqayyah loved how relatable my characters are, she loved their growth, she loved how unapologetic the story is. After an R&R that took the manuscript to the next level, Ruqayyah was ready to take on THE NEXT NEW SYRIAN GIRL. I was on a road trip to Yosemite National Park when I knew my manuscript would be taken to the acquisitions meeting. My stomach was all knots as we drove through a tunnel that opens to a breathtaking view of the park. Exiting the tunnel, I checked my phone hoping for a bar of service. Serene messaged me through every possible channel to get the news to me: LBYR would be publishing THE NEXT NEW SYRIAN GIRL! The tunnel and the unfolding view were a metaphor, a world of possibilities had just opened up to me. Finally, finally, I would be a published author.

It took a long time, I’m sure more patient people than me would also agree. I revised it for my editor in a month while working, going to school, observing Ramadan, and in a pandemic— a combination of conditions I wouldn’t wish for any writer. I will admit for a moment, I gave up on it, but my agent did not. I’m so grateful for her, and I am so thankful for Ruqayyah who connected with it. I wouldn’t trade my experience for an easier time on submission. Because when the news finally did come in, I was in a beautiful place surrounded by my huge Syrian family: I cried with my mom and sisters, I hugged my father, my brother, and my uncle, I shared the moment with my cousins who I share so many memories in Syria with. This story is for all of them.

2. Your debut, THE NEXT NEW SYRIAN GIRL, follows a Syrian American boxer MC as she reluctantly befriends a Syrian refugee, and handles the expectations of her family and community. While this summary rings upon the themes of coming-of-age novels it also seems to touch upon a conflict that has disrupted millions of Syrian lives. When writing TNNSG, did you aim for a balance of “happy” and somber in the narrative? Or was the story just the story?

TNNSG is dual POV, so the balance of “happy” and somber plays out with the two main characters really well. While the Syrian crisis is central to the characters’ journeys, it is not a story about the Syrian crisis. It’s the story of two girls who might sound similar on paper, but in reality, are very different. Many first-generation Americans can relate to the struggles that Khadija, the boxer MC, goes through. I wanted to write a character that was really relatable, so of course, there’s a lot of humor that goes with that. Leene, the Syrian refugee MC, is really wholesome. She’s clearly gone through a lot, but she’s not down on herself. She is the definition of perseverance, and though she’s gone through a lot, which is where the ‘somber’ in this story comes in, she’s admirable and strong.

Honestly, I just wanted to write a book that has a lot of heart and nostalgia. For my young readers, they’ll be able to see themselves, and for older readers, they’ll be able to reminisce. I promise if there are tears, there will be tears of sorrow, joy, and laughter.

3. As someone who is trilingual and learning a fourth language, are there ever times when you are writing and find certain language expressions can’t quite be genuinely conveyed in translations? When writers are writing characters who have multi-language backgrounds, what do you think goes into deciding when to translate these types of phrases and when to keep them written in the original language?

I love this question! My brain is a jumble of languages, so there are lots of times when I write a sentence backward and I have to rewrite them in revisions because they’re flipped. It makes for interesting writing because the unconventional can make for a unique voice.

For TNNSG, something that I thought a lot about was how to show that my characters were multi-lingual. I studied Linguistics at university, so I loved playing around with language. In the book, the assumption is that once it’s established that one character usually speaks in Arabic or speaks in a mixture of Arabic and English, it carries through the rest of the book even though the dialogue is in English. In Khadija’s chapters, she has a funny way of introducing Arabic terms so that it’s enjoyable for Arabic speakers and informative for non-Arabic speakers. Initially, I didn’t do this for any other reason other than it being really voice-y and fun, but then it became such a great tool for the book. I’m someone who doesn’t think we need to be so explicit and hold the audience’s hand to understand everything, so there is a balance. But I really think that weaving Arabic into TNNSG is what makes it so fun to read.

4. Jason Reynolds recently appeared on the Daily Show and discussed books embracing empathy in young people. You have previously expressed your desire to center American Muslims and offer readers a glimpse into the larger worlds around us. How do you think books do this?

When I write, my audience is American Muslims, Arab Americans, and first-generation Americans first. I think the best way to embrace empathy in young people and give everyone a glimpse of the larger world around us is to write authentically for those who don’t usually see themselves accurately represented in books. That way anytime anyone picks up my book, they won’t just be reading a story play out, they will feel everything the characters are feeling because it was written to make my audience feel seen by seeing their experiences, their thoughts, and their struggles on paper.

5. How do you balance the demands of graduate school along with meeting deadlines and writing professionally? Has your writing process changed since writing under contract?

*crying emoji* I wish I had advice here for writers who are writing between classes or on their lunch breaks or between changing diapers, but I’m sorry I don’t. I don’t know if what I do can really be called balance. I don’t even have a planner, I just try my best to get things done well before deadlines so that if something comes up, I’ll have extra time. It’s worked well for me so far!

6. Do you know when you’re at risk of burnout? What’s your form of self-care?

I usually realize I’m burnt out once I’m burnt out (not ideal I know!). I like to work nonstop because if I stop working on something I’m at risk of forgetting about it completely. Luckily, I don’t experience burnout too often because I feel I’m pretty good at self-care and prioritizing myself. My forms of self-care are working out and skincare, volleyball, k-pop, being with friends and family, and learning new things, especially languages so that I can travel to new places. I love working on bettering myself, there’s so much to learn and to see and I want to learn and see everything.

Ok, now it’s time for the ‘fun’ questions!

7. Unpopular book or writing opinion?

That you need to be able to describe your books using tropes. I am very bad at describing my writing with tropes like “enemies to lovers” or—actually I can’t even think of a second trope because I’m that bad at tropes. I think if you have a good story, it’s a good story and you don’t need to be able to fit it into these tropes. Just write, and if readers point out that your book has certain tropes, then great.

I do enjoy tropes though! And I am in awe of writers who are masters at tropes, I just don’t have this talent.

8. Your pre-order swag gear includes The Next New Syrian Girl-inspired hijabs. Your publisher has given you the choice to design these in partnership with the following designers. Who do you choose?

  1. Jenahara Nasutian

  2. Rabia Z.

  3. Marwa Atik

  4. Dina Torkio

  5. (Your own choice)

I’d love to collab with Jenahara Nasutian, I love her style, and I think if my MC Khadija had an Instagram she’d definitely be following her.

Ream Shukairy is a Syrian American born and raised full-time in Orange County, California and part-time over summers in Syria. Whether in California or Syria, she feels at home where her family is and wherever there’s a beach. She has a talent for learning languages and is always on the search for the next place she can travel and flex her words. The daughter of immigrants, there isn’t a stereotype she won’t try her hardest to defy.

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