Feed drop: Syed Masood

Listen to a conversation with Syed Masood, author of The Bad Muslim Discount. Shahina Piyarali, board president of Tasveer, moderates. 

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A transcript of this episode is available at the end of our show notes.

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The Desk Set is brought to you by the King County Library System. The show is hosted by librarians Britta Barrett and Emily Calkins, and produced by Britta Barrett. Our theme song is "I Know What I Want" by Math and Physics Club. Other music provided by Chad Crouch, from the Free Music Archive.

 

Transcript

Emily Calkins:
You are listening to The Desk Set, a bookish podcast for reading broadly. I'm one of your hosts, Emily Calkins. In this feed drop, we're sharing a recording of an event we did with author, Syed Masood, for the release of his new book The Bad Muslim Discount. The book was published in 2021. So if you're doing our reading challenge, it counts for the category read a book publish this year. Enjoy.

Emily Calkins:
Syed Masood is the author of The Bad Muslim Discount. Hopefully, some of you read the wonderful review of the novel that was in the Seattle Times earlier this week. They called it a remarkable debut and a quintessentially American story. He's also the author of the young adult novel, More Than Just a Pretty Face. He grew up in Karachi, Pakistan. He is a first-generation immigrant twice over and he's been a citizen of three countries and nine cities. He currently lives in Sacramento, California, where in addition to writing novels, he's a practicing attorney and a parent of two children.

Emily Calkins:
Our moderator tonight is Shahina Piyarali. She is a book reviewer for the Seattle-based publication, Shelf Awareness. She's a retired attorney, the board president of Tasveer. She also serves on the board of Hugo House and is a co-chair of the National Council of Graywolf Press. So we're so delighted to have both of you with us tonight. Thank you so much for being here. I will turn it over to you.

Shahina Piyarali:
Great. Hi, everybody. Thank you so much, Emily, for that wonderful welcome. Hi, Syed. How are you?

Syed Masood:
I'm good. How is everyone today? Thanks for being here. I appreciate it.

Shahina Piyarali:
Yeah. Thanks, everyone for joining in this evening. It's wonderful to be talking about a book that I enjoyed so much, and it's such a pleasure to spend the evening with you tonight. So The Bad Muslim Discount has been compared to A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. The book is also been compared very favorably to the movie, The Big Sick. I'm sure many of you have seen that. Many are calling it the great American-Muslim novel.

Syed Masood:
I made no such claims.

Shahina Piyarali:
You don't have to. Others are making it on your behalf. If you wouldn't mind getting a synopsis of the book that those audience members who haven't read it yet.

Syed Masood:
Sure, absolutely. The Bad Muslim Discount is a dual protagonist novel. It's a tragic comedy, a comic tragedy, what have you. It tracks two young people from when they're around 10 years old to when they're in their 30s. It is a journey of immigration for both of them. One comes from Karachi, Pakistan, and his family moves to the States of their own volition legally. The other one comes through extra-legal methods, fleeing the war in Iraq. So very different journeys, then their lives collide here in the U.S. in San Francisco. And so, the book begins in the 90s and ends in November 2016.

Shahina Piyarali:
That's great. So yeah, two very different narrators with two very different life stories. Anvar, being a Pakistani-American lawyer, how would he ever run into Azza, who was formally known as Safwa? So her name is Safwa at the beginning of the book and is Azza at the latter part of the book. He ran into her because they live close by. But what is it that draws them to each other? They are so different.

Syed Masood:
The landlord of the apartment complex they're living at who happens to be a practicing Muslim, actually engineers their meeting. There are things happening in Anvar's life where he is feeling a sense of loss and wants to regain his self-confidence and get over someone that he is infatuated with, in love with. And then in Azza's case, she's always had a yearning for freedom. Her journey is really about freedom and the desire to be free, to have ownership over her own life. Meeting Anvar, he becomes a way for her to reclaim a part of herself that has been taken away from her.

Shahina Piyarali:
Yeah, that makes sense. She's looking for freedom and he embodies this free-spirited Pakistani-American. So yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So both left their countries after destabilizing wars. We're quite familiar with Azza's case, for example, because she left after America invaded Iraq. But I think for readers who are not familiar with South Asian history, Anvar's story, Anvar's reason for coming to the U.S. is probably a little bit more unclear or unusual because they're not familiar with the Afghanistan War possibly. So I was just hoping we could talk about that and you could explain to readers why Anvar's family left Pakistan. They were so happy there for the longest time.

Syed Masood:
Right. Well, some of them were happier than others.

Shahina Piyarali:
True.

Syed Masood:
Yeah. So yeah, we are familiar with the Iraq conflict, because the news gravitates towards what you would call hot conflicts as opposed to cold conflicts. The Afghanistan War was very much a cold conflict, where the Soviets were there with boots on the ground, but the Americans were not actively fighting the Soviets. They were fighting through money and arms that are being shipped to Pakistan, the freedom fighters in Afghanistan. That was how eventually the Taliban was created, and we all are familiar with the history there. So it was all those "the road to hell is paved with good intentions" moment in history, really. There are some fascinating books to read about this and some of them have become very famous.

Syed Masood:
I would recommend Steven Coll's Ghost Wars. It's very informative. The Looming Towers, I believe there's even a documentary about that now. At that time, Pakistan also had let's just say a military government place. General Zia was a very devout Muslim and he wanted to make Pakistan more of a Muslim country. And so, that combined with the Afghanistan War, all the money that was flowing into the country gave him more influence. He had the U.S. backing him, even though he wasn't elected because they needed him for Afghanistan, right? These events changed the fabric of society in Pakistan in my lifetime. You noticed it in small things, even the way the news was delivered. Female newscasters started wearing the scarf over their - to put over their heads. So we started noticing this trend.

Syed Masood:
People were asking themselves this question, "Is Muslim civilization on a downward trend?" A great book to read about this is called A History of the World Through Muslim Eyes. Well, the answer in Pakistan at least was, "Hey, things were going great before so we should go back and doing what we were doing before," which was the make Islam great again, as Anvar calls it, moment. And so, there was a nice parallel between the make Islam great again and 2016, make America great again. So I was able to intertwine those histories, which was really cool.

Shahina Piyarali:
Yeah. No, it made so much sense that Anvar, his family, why they left. I just think it's fascinating for readers who don't have that background to think about it more. I think your book is a great way to get a little bit more of that history. So this is, I think, the first time we have a novel that's almost exclusively populated by Muslim characters. That's the beauty of it, that there is this whole spectrum of Muslim characters. There's not that typical one that we often come across. In this book, we see verses from the Quran being used translated into English, but this is the first time in Quranic verses are being quoted. Obviously, something very controversial, maybe controversial. But you said you talked to your imam at your local mosque about this and I wanted to ask you what he said about the book and the use of these Quranic verses.

Syed Masood:
Right. Well, to be entirely fair and to give credit where credit is due, my wife was worried that when our kids, who are by the way or were at the time, the book was written four and two, would have difficulty getting married because they will be shunned in the community because of the books I was writing. And so, that's how the book ended up with my wonderful imam. There's this idea of exegesis, is what is called in literary theory, the idea of explaining technically biblical terms in new ways of looking at these verses from a new lens that hasn't been done as far as the Quran is concerned. Obviously, my background is English literature, so I'm indebted to Jewish authors and Christian authors who have done this.

Syed Masood:
I feel like it might have been done, but we don't have access to the languages where it has been done in. So, I don't want to take too much credit. The characters are trying to interpret them or reinterpret them for application into their own life. When I talk about Islam or any religion or anything in the book, I tried not to be too explanatory, but rather show that these are people who are informed by their background and their background just happens to be that they're Muslim.

Shahina Piyarali:
Your imam, when he read that, he wasn't like, "Oh my God, this is terrible. It gives me-

Syed Masood:
Oh, no. He has a great sense of humor. He actually was very supportive and he believes that the book is important, that these kinds of books are important because they're bringing this conversation into the mainstream and letting people into communities where they don't have access. One of the things someone said to me, "We don't usually get access to what's happening inside a mosque." And there were several scenes in the book which are inside a mosque. And so, people get to come in, which is nice.

Shahina Piyarali:
Anvar keeps getting into trouble with everybody, not just his mother or his father. He gets in trouble with everybody in terms of religion. They're hilarious, some of the stories of the trouble he gets into. But in one scene, Anvar happens to be with the imam at the local mosque in San Francisco, and he's empathizing with him and he compares it to the Greek mythology figure, Sisyphus. Before long, there are these rumors going around all over the mosque and the local community that Anvar said that the imam has syphilis.

Syed Masood:
Right.

Shahina Piyarali:
It's just funny. I mean, these things just keep happening, these misunderstandings. So why does Anvar keep engaging with the religious community when he's non-practicing and he always seems to be having to explain himself?

Syed Masood:
Right. Well, for one thing, I think Anvar can't be accused of is a lack of ego, right? And so, one of the plot points in the book is a case that made him very popular in the community. So even if he doesn't necessarily agree with everything, I think there's a part of him that's drawn to the approval that he has secured because he has found so little approval in his life. Anvar and his brother don't always get along. His brother is very pious and righteous and they just aren't on the same page. And so, when Anvar starts ducking out on Friday prayers, his mom starts sending the brother over to drive Anvar to Friday prayers and Anvar is just trying to avoid that from happening. So, he just shows up himself and I think the line he uses is, "I'll torture myself before I let my brother do it." And so, that's the more practical reason he does it.

Shahina Piyarali:
Yeah, that's great. That's a great answer. So, may I ask you to just read for a little bit from The Bad Muslim Discount?

Syed Masood:
Sure. Absolutely. So reading a selection from this book is always a little strange because it's very dialogue heavy and I don't do voices. So I always try to find someplace that has more prose, but it also has to be early in the book because I don't want to spoil anything for anybody. So I'm going to read from page five. It's a section that talks about Karachi where Anvar is growing up in the '90s.

Syed Masood:
"Karachi, the city that spat me out into this world, is perpetually under siege by its own climate. The Indian Ocean does not sit placidly at the edge of the massive metropolitan port. It invades. It pours in through the air. It conspires with the dense smog of modern life and the collective breath of 15 million souls to oppress you. Under the gaze of an indifferent sun, you sweat and the world sweats with you. It's probably not as hot as hell, but it is definitely as bad as the sketchier neighborhoods of purgatory, the kinds of places you are just a little reluctant to wander after dark.

Syed Masood:
When I was growing up, Karachi was a place caught between ages, grasping at modernity while still clutching at the fading relics of a glorious past. It was a city of skyscrapers and small squat shanties. It had modern highways but was still pockmarked with peddlers wheeling vegetables over narrow dirt lanes on wooden carts. Imported luxury cars, rumbling, shining, and glimmering in marvelous mechanical glory, were not uncommon, though neither was the pitifully obnoxious braying of overladen donkeys hitched to rickety wagons.

Syed Masood:
After a bad day at school, all I wanted was to go home. However, we were stuck in traffic and the air conditioner in our temperamental old Beetle was malfunctioning. Trouble started, as it often does because my mother decided to speak. "When we get home, you are going to have to take a shower." I ignored her and rolled down my window, hoping to alleviate the heat in the car a little. It was a mistake. There was no breeze, and in the vain hope for one, I had led the city in.

Syed Masood:
As usual, Karachi was screaming at its inhabitants and they were screaming right back. People were leaning on their horns, though the traffic light was red and there was nowhere to go. Hawkers carrying various goods yelled out a litany of prices in hoarse, worn voices. They sold information in newspapers and romance in strings of fresh jasmine. Divine protection, that is to say cheap pieces of plastic etched with verses of the Quran, could also be purchased for a modest price."

Shahina Piyarali:
Yeah, I have to say that the descriptions of Karachi really resonated with me, having spent some years there when I was a child. Definitely, you picked up on all the visuals that one gets growing up there.

Syed Masood:
I was very aware as I was writing it that I was writing about a place that no longer existed because it must have changed so much. I haven't been back in a good 20, 25 years, but it was nice to revisit it for a while.

Shahina Piyarali:
Oh, absolutely. I can just imagine. Yeah. A lot of good memories, I'm sure. How old were you when you left Karachi?

Syed Masood:
I was around 14.

Shahina Piyarali:
Okay.

Syed Masood:
Yeah.

Shahina Piyarali:
Okay. So, you've lived in different cities. You're a lawyer. How did you end up on this path to writing novels?

Syed Masood:
Well, I've always tried to write. I've always been drawn to it even when I was a kid. I never thought I'd actually get published. My father and I were on a road trip. I had just graduated law school and I was looking for a job. There was a huge economic recession at the time. I couldn't find a job. And so, we would go to these faraway places trying to do job interviews. On the way back from all of those interviews, there was a new story about some trouble in a Middle Eastern country, I honestly can't remember where it was. He turns to me and he says, "You should do something." I'm like, "What am I going to do? I'm an attorney. What could I possibly do?" But years later, he passed away in 2010. In 2016, when things started getting a little crazy with the election cycle, I kept thinking of what he had said, "Do something," and it just became something I could do. I wasn't sure if it will ever get published, but that is the reason for the dedication of the book.

Shahina Piyarali:
That's great. Oh, that's wonderful. I hear that your wife had a role in getting this book published.

Syed Masood:
To be entirely honest, I mean, it's an impossible enterprise with two young kids if your partner is not willing to hang in there with you and doesn't appreciate the book. But aside from that, she has really good literary instincts. So when she tells me something is bad or something is good, I know that, "Okay. This is very reassuring that she likes it." Or if she doesn't like it, then the question is why and how I can fix it.

Shahina Piyarali:
We've talked so much about Anvar because he's the one that provides us that eye, but Azza is a huge part of the story. I was struggling with her for a little bit because she had it so tough, so difficult, and yet she decides to shed some of that. She is herself funny. For example, in one scene, she's scowling under her niqab, but no one can see it. And so, she's happy scowling away while serving tea. She makes her own rules as she goes along a little bit to the extent that she can. So, what keeps her going? What's behind her fire, do you think?

Syed Masood:
That's a really good word for her is fire, right? I mean, that has been the consistent word for her since the very beginning, because she is born in very unfortunate circumstances, which actually aren't that unfortunate in the very beginning, but because of the role of America in her life and the wars that happen in her homeland, it gets worse and worse and worse as she goes along. She just has this desire to assert her own freedom throughout the entire book.

Syed Masood:
There are two sides to a coin. Even though Anvar has an easier life by far, he is a more passive character. He runs away from doing things and he gets in trouble because he doesn't want to do things and he misses out on opportunities because he doesn't want to do things. Whereas she is always trying to do something and make her own fortune. She gets in trouble for doing things. Her regrets are as a result of things she's done, but so are her accomplishments. So there are two sides to a coin. It was really interesting writing them because in some ways, Anvar's humor makes it easier to get through Azza's parts because you know you're going to get on Anvar's, but some of Anvar's silliness is easier to get through because you know you're going to get more seriousness from her.

Shahina Piyarali:
Yeah, that's true.

Syed Masood:
I also think that she has... Like I said, I think she doesn't get enough credit for being funny. She is funny in a very sort of dark and grim way. One of my favorite parts from her is talking... Well, she's thinking about a Quranic verse and the Quranic verse is very famous. It basically says, "After hardship comes ease." And that is a verse that is typically used to assure people that you're going through tough times now, but after hardship, there comes ease. And so, things will get better.

Syed Masood:
Azza's sitting there and says, "But death is also an ease of a sort, right? It is the cure for all ills. Maybe the verse is just saying you will suffer and then you will die and that's how things really become easier, is when you're no longer here." So there's humor. It's just very dark humor in the way she approaches her life and her point of view. So writing her was emotionally draining. She was a less willing narrator. She doesn't like to share as much as Anvar does. That's how I ended up writing a YA rom-com after writing Azza, because I needed to just write something light and funny afterward.

Shahina Piyarali:
Decompress. Yeah.

Syed Masood:
Exactly.

Shahina Piyarali:
And that happens to be my favorite Quranic verse, by the way, after difficulties come ease. I mean, yeah, it's a beautiful paragraph.

Syed Masood:
It is a beautiful paragraph.

Shahina Piyarali:
But there is a really funny story - for both of them in their lives, in their young lives, there's a goat. So for Anvar, a goat is his first pet, and for Azza, the goat is something that's really bugging her because it belongs to their neighbor. Can you talk a little about the Eid tradition that involves goats?

Syed Masood:
So, one of the major references in the entire book is to the idea of sacrifice and what sacrifice means, and what it entails. Everyone familiar with the Bible or the Torah will be familiar with the story of Abraham and how he was asked by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac or Ishmael, depending on what religion you are. And so, what Muslims have this tradition is they commemorate the Prophet Abraham's sacrifice by sacrificing an animal on the day of Eid. It's the second Eid of the year. And so, the Eid has a recurring... It recurred several times in the book as well, but it ties into the idea of sacrifice. So the reason the goats are in there is because of the theme of sacrifice.

Syed Masood:
The story of Sisyphus is he rolls a rock up a mountain for eternity, and that's his punishment and he's never free, but Camus argues, "No, he is free in time that he's walking back down the mountain when he doesn't have to push the rock." So there is this momentary freedom. In Azza's story, there's a goat that is about to be sacrificed for Eid, which essentially commits suicide by jumping off of a building. Azza says, "Oh, but the goat was free. And the moment that it jumped before it realized the terror of what it had done." So it's a little throwback to Camus. It was a very subtle throwback to Camus. It sort of links into the Sisyphus thing we were talking about earlier.

Shahina Piyarali:
Yeah. Yeah. I didn't mean to laugh when you mentioned about the goat, but it's funny, I mean, in the sense that she's had to tolerate this goat for so long being her neighbor and then suddenly... Yeah. No, that was great. That was good. I think the whole novel is filled with such a sensational cast of characters, the two main characters, but then they're surrounded by a very lively bunch. The landlord, who is the landlord of this apartment complex that they both live in, and we talk about the fact that he's your favorite character. He's also my favorite character, but it also has to do with the title of the book. I was thinking readers might enjoy hearing about that.

Syed Masood:
Hafeez Bhatti is an interesting character. He gives people discounts. Specifically, he has various kinds of discounts. The book talks about he also has discounts for non-Muslims. But for Muslims, he has the good Muslim discount. He ends up giving Anvar the good Muslim discount when he really shouldn't have. That's a source of some comedy in the book, but that's where the title comes from. It's from Hafeez Bhatti and his discounts. Really, what he is a collector of stories. He wants to help them when they're struggling by giving them a break on their rent, but also the tax, the price for that is he gets involved in their lives and their stories. So yeah, he's fascinating.

Shahina Piyarali:
He's also kind of a hero. I mean, I think he is. That's why I love him so much. He's definitely a hero of the story.

Syed Masood:
He is. He really is. In fact, in some ways, I would say more than either of the protagonists. He's more morally clear in the sense that he doesn't have to make the difficult choices they make. And so, he's able to come out looking nice and sweet.

Shahina Piyarali:
Yeah, but it's also the fact that there's a good Muslim discount is legally dubious. But I was going to say there are so many other supporting casts and members that are so good. The grandmother, so the maternal grandmother, you call her Nani Jaan, which means your mother's mother in Urdu, she's clearly somebody dear to Anvar. She's his, I think, probably closest and favorite relative.

Syed Masood:
Yes.

Shahina Piyarali:
Did you have someone like that in your life?

Syed Masood:
Not really. I will say that my great-grandmother on my mother's side was a ruthless checkers player. She was really good at it. She taught me how to play. Unlike Anvar who never beat his grandmother, I did beat her a couple of times, but it was hard-earned. I'm now teaching my kid how to play. My wife keeps telling me, "You could let him win." And I'm like, "Yeah, but that's not how I was taught." Because when he does beat me, and he has come close and he will one day, it'll mean more if he knows I didn't throw it away.

Shahina Piyarali:
That's right. That's right. He'll beat you because he became good enough. Just for those readers who don't know the reference to checkers, so Anvar's grandmother teaches him everything that she knows about life through playing checkers with him and never letting him win. Even when his family immigrates to America, they continued talking on the phone and she gives him advice. She's really eager to find out if he's got any girlfriends. But there's this one scene where Anvar gets his brother, his real goody-goody brother, into a lot of trouble by downloading porn onto his brother's laptop. His brother would never, ever look at porn but Anvar does this to get... Not just to get him into trouble. He was trying to do something else, but it just so happened that in order did you get what he wanted, he needed to do this to his brother.

Shahina Piyarali:
And then when his grandmother finds out what happens, she's obviously on Anvar's side, but the hilarious thing is, I mean, he's expecting to have to talk about what happened and about why he did this. And the only thing she says to him is, "What is porn?" That's how you end the chapter, but it's fabulous the relationship between the two.

Syed Masood:
His brother is exemplary. His brother actually is an overachiever and does everything he's supposed to do, and Anvar does nothing he's supposed to do. The grandmother, I feel like has more of an affinity for Anvar because I think that the grandmother has spent... There are hints that she has made some choices that she didn't like, probably not necessarily from her own volition. And so, she admires in Anvar the freedom that she herself never exercised. And so, I think she sees that and she appreciates it. So she's closer to him than she is to the perfectionist.

Shahina Piyarali:
The person that I found the most enigmatic was the person who was Anvar's... the love of his life, Zuha. So yeah, what were your reasons for bringing Zuha into the novel? You had a lot of other wonderful characters, but Zuha plays a specific role. What were your reasons for bringing her into the book?

Syed Masood:
Anvar has an authenticity, which is natural, but it comes with a cost, right? So when you're uncompromising, you end up hurting the people that are close to you sometimes. He's also pretty self-absorbed, so he has his own spiritual path and he has this woman that he's in love with, or a girl at the time. He expects that because they're so compatible, that their journeys will be the same, but she ends up becoming more religious for a while, then she struggles with it. And then she's no longer religious. I wanted to show a character who was taking a different path. Just because you're close to someone, just because you're their friend doesn't mean that their views are going to evolve the same way as yours do. And so, his inability to see that, to give her the space to grow into her own person at the beginning, and then his inability to do that causes him to lose her. So I wanted to show intelligent people of faith who will have different points of view than you, even if you think you are right and they're wrong.

Shahina Piyarali:
Yeah, that's great. That's a really good way to put it. Obviously, the same thing is true of the parent characters. You have Azza's father, and then you have Anvar's parents. All of them are navigating moving into new homes - some of them have it easier than others - while staying true to old traditions. So which of them was more difficult to write?

Syed Masood:
I mean, the parents actually were not that difficult to write. I had a lot of fun with all of them, even the horrible ones, maybe especially the horrible ones because the really horrible one is actually the most poetic them all. Whenever you come across a poetic character, it's cool because you can have more fun as a writer with wordplay and stuff. The one that I had the most fun writing was Anvar's mother who was very religious. Her interactions with her son are really cool.

Syed Masood:
One of the things people always ask me, especially in the YA, "Will you ever write YA fantasy?" I'm like, "I probably never will because a lot of my humor depends on references." So one of the scenes in the book is Anvar is wearing a shirt for the band, The Barenaked Ladies, and his mom is freaking out like, "How can you wear that?" But it's a pretty innocuous reference that she just doesn't get, and that's not the kind of joke you can make in a fantasy world. They're very different people, but again, it's a journey of his... Anvar's journey is a journey of reconciling with people whose points of view are different than his and learning to respect them. Because when you are someone who thinks that you are the smartest in the room, there's a cost to that.

Shahina Piyarali:
And then the scenes where his father takes him for ice cream. I mean, there are just some really great ways that you show the different parent bonds that occur. I mean, difficult ones in Azza's case, but there is still a parent bond there.

Syed Masood:
Both of their bonds with their parents changed significantly due to outside forces. Azza's father goes through a traumatic experience, which changes the way he is. And so, we do get a glimpse of what he was before and then when he becomes later on. Anvar's relationship with his father changes once they move to the States. They become closer because his father can't find friends. And so, he's dragging his son off on these long walks until he does.

Shahina Piyarali:
Yeah. That was really interesting, that I thought when they all moved to America, you think that the ones who are more religious would have a harder time assimilating, but it ends up being that the ones who are more religious end up assimilating more easily because they have this local mosque community and they're very certain about what they want to do. They meet a lot of people like themselves. It's very surprising. There's one thing that you described that I found so interesting. You said that West Coast Islam is very different from British Islam or Canadian Islam. I would love to talk more about that.

Syed Masood:
Well, I think what we have to keep in mind is when these communities were formed, right? I mean, that has a huge impact on what the legacy of the community is and what the nature of the community is. I think we also have to be careful when we talk about the nature of a community, because individuals are, as the book demonstrates, very different and you can't talk about communities without generalizing. So that's what I'm doing and I apologize. I don't think this line made it into the book. I think it came out. Anvar's mom at one point says, "Oh yeah, Islamic California is more relaxed because everyone's high all the time." There is a relaxed, more easygoing approach to the mosques here, which you do find in California.

Syed Masood:
I mean, the first time I went to a mosque in California, they were talking about the importance of smiling at people. Whereas if you go to a mosque in Pakistan and in England where the community was formed in different circumstances because there was a lot more prejudice when it was formed. When you're a minority facing that kind of hostility, I feel like you close ranks. It is the privilege of living in big cities in California. You have a lot of tolerance and you have the ability to be more open as a community. I think that changes the nature of the practice of religion.

Shahina Piyarali:
That's great. I didn't think of it that way. You're absolutely right. Yeah. It's so different. I mean, I don't know. I live in Seattle and I think it's so different to England, how we practice Islam here. So if it's okay with you then, I'd go ahead and see what our audience is asking. Okay. So the first question is how would you like your texts to be used in the elementary classroom? As the creator, thoughts or suggestions in doing the story justice.

Syed Masood:
So just a clarification, the elementary classroom would be a little young for this particular book. But in classrooms, in general, if you just type in Penguin Random House Bad Muslim in Google, it will come up. I did about five questions. They asked me to do discussion points that I thought will be interesting for the book. They asked me to do it for book clubs, but certainly, I think that would be useful in classrooms as well.

Shahina Piyarali:
Yeah. Great. So just to clarify, no elementary classrooms.

Syed Masood:
Well, I mean, if the kids are extremely precocious I suppose, they could use it there.

Shahina Piyarali:
If the parents are okay with it.

Syed Masood:
Yes, the book deals with some pretty dark themes. So I would definitely say high school and above, right?

Shahina Piyarali:
Yeah. Yeah. I concur. So how is writing for a teen audience different than writing for adults?

Syed Masood:
When you're writing for teenagers, you are obligated, I feel, to be more hospitable to your audience. So there is a passage of text in the Bad Muslim, for example, that I could never write in a teen book. It is towards the end. It's like this grand romantic moment and it's just a bunch of allusions to biblical and historical things. You can't do that to a teen audience because there's no space in that paragraph or two to explain it. When you're talking to a teen audience, I feel like you have to be kinder. The vocabulary you use has to be a little less complex. You don't have the same freedom with wordplay. And so, you just have to be nicer to them.

Syed Masood:
I don't bother being nice to my adult audience. If they don't get a reference, I expect them to be able to go up and look it up. Whereas the teen audience, I will explain it. That makes it sound like I don't enjoy writing for teens as much, which is not true. I think the flip side is young adult literature is the literature of hope. It is the literature of firsts. There are a lot of new things happening in your life. You're discovering yourself. Whereas adult fiction is often the literature of discontent. It is a literature of finding yourself in a place and asking, "How did I get here and why? And then how do I get out?" I think there are virtues to writing for young adults. There's fun to be had, but it's not the same kind of fun as writing for adults is.

Shahina Piyarali:
Great. That's a fabulous answer. Thank you. Okay. So another question is the family relationships and dynamic in both your books are funny, revealing, and probably relatable for many readers. I was especially drawn to the relationship between Anvar and Nani Jaan, as well as Anvar's connection to his parents and brother. Ditto for Danyal's relationship with his parents. Can you talk more about them?

Syed Masood:
Family dynamics are always interesting because they're the one relationship in your life that you absolutely don't get to choose, right? You get the hand you're dealt and then you'll deal with it. There is a concept in Islam called risk, which is the idea that what you will use up in life, the food that you eat, the money that you make are all predetermined for you. Your family members also are predetermined for you. Family is an easy place for an author to establish some interesting relationships. Because if someone like Aamir were to meet someone like Anvar, if these two brothers were to meet out in the wild with no connection to each other, they would have absolutely no reason to ever meet again or ever talk again.

Syed Masood:
So, the family dynamics are always fun because you can use them almost to say, "Hey, powers beyond my control as an author put them together, so there they are." I think that's why family dynamics are so rich as a source of humor, as a source of connection too, because everyone deals with them. Whether it's found family or actual biological family, there is a universality to these relationships. And because we all struggle with them, you're able to go from the specific to the general really quickly using family relationships.

Shahina Piyarali:
Okay. So, which writers inspire you?

Syed Masood:
Fredrik Backman, I adore his work. Katie Henry, Angie Thomas, Nic Stone on the young adult side are all fantastic authors. As far as adult is concerned, I really think that one of the best books I have ever read, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Mistry is a fantastic writer. All of his books, but especially that one, also his other book, Such a Long Journey. I adore that. He is fantastic. I would recommend you check out his books. I look at some of the mystery writers just to get an idea of how to keep the pace up in a novel. When you're an author, I feel like the way you read changes, I'm interested in the story and the plot, but I'm also very interested in the way people are phrasing their sentences and forming their sentences.

Syed Masood:
Rumaan Alam is a fantastic writer. You read his sentences and you're like, "Oh, I wish I'd written that." That's the feeling I'm looking for when I'm reading a book. Other books that I have really enjoyed, Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is amazing. The science fiction side, which I don't read as much anymore, but Neil Gaiman is amazing. I really love his work, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which I think was fantastic. The descriptions of food in this book were amazing. When I was writing More Than Just a Pretty Face, it helped me realize how you could use food to connect with the audience and I learned a lot from that. So, those are just some of the books that inspired me and helped me out in my writing journey.

Shahina Piyarali:
So, what are you reading now?

Syed Masood:
I have this weakness for Victorian England. So what I really like about Victorian England is the setting. I really enjoy Sherlock Holmes and all those mysteries. And so, any books that are set there, I have a tendency to gravitate towards those mysteries. I'm currently reading The Last Passenger by Charles Finch. It is a part of a series, the Charles Lennox mystery series, but I've been getting the audiobooks and breezing through them. This is the third one I'm reading now in the series. I think there are 14. I will probably read all 14. If you're reading Victorian England, I think the audiobooks are really cool because you got the accent. That's always fun. But also, it allows me to multitask because I've got so many other things to do, that an audiobook is something that I can do while I'm doing other things. Yeah, I really enjoy that setting in particular for mysteries. I think those are great.

Shahina Piyarali:
Excellent. Well, thank you. Before we let readers go, I wanted to say that we've talked about the fact that your book might generate some controversy. It's hard to write and then not have people comment, and that's fine, but you've written some advice for people or tips on how to write controversial topics.

Syed Masood:
It's difficult to write about religion, especially if you're writing a comedy or a tragic comedy, and not offend people. I don't set out to offend people unintentionally. So if I give offense, I probably meant it. But I try not to hurt people's feelings. I try to be sensitive. But ultimately, it just is the nature of what I write that people are going to be upset. And the idea is just to approach it with honesty and from a place of love and you'll be fine.

Shahina Piyarali:
Oh, I like that. I like that. Was that the best tip that you provided, the rightful place of honesty and love?

Syed Masood:
I mean, there's all the things that people didn't like about Pretty Face, where, "Oh, you're criticizing the Desi community. I'm like, "Yes, but I'm part of the Desi community. I have a lot of affection for the Desi community." Yes, there are some things that we need to fix and pay attention to and do better, but I'm writing and pointing these out in the hopes that we will get better at it. I think that's important to allow space for that.

Shahina Piyarali:
Yeah. Yeah. No, I think this book is going to generate a lot of great discussions. I do feel that especially for young adults who may have different experiences in Islam growing up in the U.S., it's going to be fascinating to have conversations with them about it. It's been so fun chatting with you about books. Thank you so much.

Syed Masood:
Thank you for your time. I really appreciate it.

Shahina Piyarali:
Thank you, Emily, for the opportunity.

Emily Calkins:
Absolutely. My pleasure. Thanks to both of you for this wonderful conversation. We have a great season of author events coming up. This was sort of the kickoff for our spring season. Please follow along at kcls.org or on our social media. Again, thanks to both of you for being with us tonight. It was really wonderful to hear from both of you.