We all know and love Sabaa Tahir for her An Ember in the Ashes quartet. She recently released her contemporary debut All My Rage and it is an absolutely beautiful story. The novel took 15 years to complete. and we are certain the story will stay with us for at least 15 years. We have the honour of chatting with her today.
Sal scrambles to run the family motel as his mother Misbah’s health fails and his grieving father loses himself to alcoholism. Noor, meanwhile, walks a harrowing tightrope: working at her wrathful uncle’s liquor store while hiding the fact that she’s applying to college so she can escape him – and Juniper – forever. When Sal’s attempts to save the motel spiral out of control, he and Noor must ask themselves what friendship is worth – and what it takes to defeat the monsters in their pasts and the ones in their midst.
Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art is featured heavily in All My Rage. When did you first learn about this poem?
I encountered this poem as a 13-year-old. I’d just been given “The Writer’s Home Companion” as a birthday present by my oldest brother, and one of the essays in the book is about revision, and how this poem specifically came into existence over multiple drafts. It taught me a great deal about rewriting, but also gave me a lifelong love of the poem. I’m really grateful I got permission from the rights-holder to share that love in this book.
Why did you decide to incorporate so much of it in All My Rage?
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come back to this poem again and again as a source of comfort and as a way to understand loss. Its meaning has changed for me throughout my life, just as its meaning changes for the characters as they grow through ALL MY RAGE. Incorporating it was a way for me to chronicle that growth and change, and also to honour a poem that has meant so much to me and so many others.
Many teenagers are often angry at the world. How do you think All My Rage can help them with their rage?
Teenagers certainly aren’t alone in that respect. A lot of adults are angry at the world too. Me included. I don’t know if All My Rage’s purpose is really to help anyone unless they want and need that. I think it simply exists as a witnessing. It is proof of a witnessing. “Your rage is seen. Your pain is seen. It is witnessed.” Beyond that, the book is what its readers make of it. For some, it’s just a story. For others, it’s something much more.
Forgiveness is also an important motif within the novel. From understanding your own characters, do you think it is more challenging to forgive or to ask for forgiveness?
Forgiveness is a complex thing. I think society likes to tell us that when we grant it, we are holy. When we ask for it, we are humble. But like any other act, the act of forgiveness is what we make of it.
For instance, I think Noor finds it very, very hard to forgive, especially when she feels like she is being told to forgive someone else, instead of being asked for forgiveness by someone. Salahudin is similar. It’s not easy for him to ask for forgiveness—in fact, he tries to earn it without really asking for it directly. However, it’s even more difficult for him to grant it, because I think to grant true forgiveness means releasing rage. And it takes Salahudin and Noor a very long time to even recognize that the knotted-up feeling inside them is rage.
Let’s turn to the characters. The story is told in 3 POVs, Salahudin, Noor and Misbah. Was anyone’s POV particularly difficult to write?
It took Noor a while to let me in. I struggled with her voice because she’s not into words or nerd stuff, like Sal (which I relate to), and she spent the early part of her life in Pakistan. She also hides a lot of herself—even from the people closest to her. Noor’s character required a lot of research about Pakistan, interviews with family members who grew up there, a much better understanding of the Punjabi language than what I had. To discover her heart, her voice—it truly took every one of the 15 years I spent on this book.
The characters have very different relationships with their culture and faith. When writing All My Rage, how did you ensure a non-judgmental way of representing people’s many different attitudes to faith?
In general, I think if you are writing books for young people, being judgmental isn’t the wisest course. The goal of All My Rage is to offer a story that bears witness to the lives of these three people, Noor, Salahudin and Misbah. In my opinion, there shouldn’t be judgement involved in that—just the witnessing.
In regards to the incorporation of faith, it’s something I added over time. In early drafts, faith was not a big part of the book. I was afraid to make it a big part of the book. I’m a Muslim in America. I was 18 when 9/11 happened. I have felt very keenly the Islamophobia and hatred for people of my faith for the past 20 years. At the same time, the contemporary books I read that incorporate a faith system—Islam or other faiths—always felt either unforgiving or saccharine. I wanted to write about how faith can comfort and condemn, how it can be sheltering and it can be terrifying. I really wanted to write about how faith can be many things at once, and part of growing up is figuring out what faith means to us as individuals. Three-hundred-ish pages isn’t really enough space to do that, but it’s something I wanted to at least touch on.
Get your copy of All My Rage here.