Jasmine Warga ’10 won a John Newbery Honor in January for her recent book Other Words from Home, a story about a 12-year-old Syrian refugee named Jude who lives in Ohio with her mother while her father and brother remain in Syria. The book also won a Walter Honor and a Charlotte Huck Honor. Warga, a Jordanian American, also wrote My Heart and Other Black Holes and Here We Are Now.
What is the importance of storytelling?
Stories are the way that I make sense of the world. They’re a vehicle through which I can ask questions and a way to preserve my family’s culture and identity. My father being an immigrant, a lot of the stories he told my brother and me were about family members who lived on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Storytelling was a way for us to access that cultural heritage.
How do you get to know your characters?
I let these imaginary people live in my head for a long time. When I start writing, I have a sense of a character’s silhouette, and with each draft I’m coloring in all the different shades and textures that eventually make the full character. In my mind, each character is asking an interesting question, and I have to figure out why they are asking that particular question.
What characters in your books stick out to you?
In Other Words from Home, Jude’s American cousin, Sarah, is in many ways the closest character to my childhood self. When I was first writing the book, I was really reluctant to delve into Sarah’s character, and my editor kept pushing that she needed more depth. I was reluctant to be vulnerable. I was in eighth grade when 9/11 happened, and my reaction to Islamophobia was to hide my background. But in denying and suppressing this integral part of myself, I suffered serious emotional damage that I hadn’t really reckoned with before writing this book.
What do you hope the book will teach readers?
I hope that the book will engender empathy. I hope it makes kids who haven’t encountered media that present people from the Middle East or Muslims in a flattering light to tell a different story about these people who are often dehumanized by Western media.
How did growing up as the daughter of an immigrant shape you as a writer?
My mom is a white American. My dad is a Middle Eastern immigrant. I never felt like I was enough of either. I felt alienated, and as I got older, I thought it was impossible for me to write books because I didn’t see kids like me on the printed page. I started to realize that this thing that made being an author an impossibility in some ways was my possibility. I was uniquely positioned to tell these types of stories. And when you spend your childhood as an outsider, you hone your observation skills by spending a lot of time alone and on the fringes. I spent a lot of time in my own head.
Why do you write for a middle school audience?
I never needed books more than I did in middle school. For me, it’s a calling to write for children who have lots of questions about the world. I have the opportunity to shape how young people feel about themselves and feel about the world. I can’t imagine writing for any other audience.
Do you have advice for young writers?
All of my favorite writers are exceptional readers. Reading is the way you get better at writing. So many people want to write, but they don’t want to listen. In a way, that’s like being in a conversation where you want to talk but don’t want to listen.
How did Northwestern influence your career?
I was not brave enough to be a creative writing major when I was at Northwestern. I was a history and art history double major, and those fields taught me to look at stories but from a different perspective. Good writing is born out of curiosity, and that was definitely fostered in me at Northwestern.
Interview by Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff, a junior journalism major from Newton, Mass.