She creates her own kind of Marvel superhero – Chicago Tribune

Samira Ahmed once owned a golden ball.
It was actually rubber with gold-colored flecks, but for the sake of storytelling, picture a gold ball, magic, one of a kind. Certainly, she liked to believe this. Her parents planted a grove of lilac trees in their backyard in Batavia and Samira would roll her golden orb between the trunks, opening a portal into strange worlds. Think Narnia, “A Wrinkle in Time,” the rune-carved doorways of J.R.R. Tolkien. She read them all. She was that most typical of pop-smitten ‘70s children. She was devoted to “Star Wars.” Also, Linda Carter on “Wonder Woman.” They shared a lot in common. Wonder Woman had dark hair — so did Samira! Wonder Woman was an immigrant — Samira was born in Bombay!
Her family was perhaps the first Indian family to live in Batavia. She knows this because, when the Ahmeds arrived in 1972, a local newspaper found it remarkable enough to do a story on them. She had a lot of friends and describes a normal sounding, free-range ‘70s childhood. But she was also the only the Indian American face in birthday party photos. When high school came along, she became the only Indian American student.
She was, in a way, a pioneer.
Today, at 50, Ahmed is spinning fantastic tales of Indian American Muslim children who find themselves as pioneers. They lead revolutions. They save universes. They discover romance across centuries, and fight oppression. But for the most part, they also cling to their Chicago roots. From her home on the South Side, Ahmed has become one of the freshest voices in Young Adult fiction, and though she’s only three years into a writing career, she already has a few bestsellers, with a new book this month and others in the works. No less than Marvel recently snapped her up: In December, Ahmed will continue the adventures of Kamala Khan, aka Ms. Marvel, a mild-mannered Muslim teen with shapeshifting abilities, for a new five-issue miniseries.
“The voice of Samira’s characters sounded so much like Kamala Khan,” said Lauren Bisom, senior editor at Marvel. “She writes humor well, she give us teen angst but she also knows how to put than in the context of events often bigger than her characters.”
Ahmed, in other words, knows how to write superheroes.
As well as writing dystopias, love stories, social-justice tales, world-saving fantasies. Ms Marvel aside, these are also Chicago tales. Her latest, “Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds” (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers), the start of a probable series (steeped in “Star Wars” homage), offers a crumbling moon, supernatural jinn demons and an epic backdrop pulled from South Asian oral traditions and the Hamzanama, centuries-old adventure tales passed down through generations. It’s also just about a 12-year-old girl and her 10-year-old brother who, faced with apocalypse, remember Devon Avenue, the CTA, “The Lord of the Rings,” the Avengers, the Fortress of Solitude and the smell of chocolate wafting through the Loop.
They do not teach lessons.
Rather, they weave together Islamic legends and pop culture, because, like many of us, their DNA is composed of two things: family and pop culture. They are never one thing.
“There’s a lot of energy coming right now from YA authors who want to write from the point of view of underrepresented communities,” said Franny Billingsley, a bookseller at 57th Street Books in Hyde Park (and a National Book Award YA finalist herself). “Just five years ago, this part of book publishing was way more white. Now it’s a train going fast, and Samira, I think of her on the cutting edge. She checks the social justice boxes, the equity boxes, but she also just does this really well. There’s no lip service.”
Samira Ahmed describes herself as bossy and naturally combative. Which seems hard to buy. She talks fast; she comes across as a linear, structured personality. She waves her hands so much as she talks I keep waiting for her to swat her iced tea off the table. But she’s also sunny, wry, blunt. She says when she started writing, she realized she had no idea how to write books. So she Googled: “How do you write a whole book?”
All that she had at first was a nugget of an idea, inspired by an incident in Chicago.
“I was a kid during the Iranian hostage crisis when I had my first experience with racism,” she said. “I mean, I can tell you the exact spot on the street where it happened. We were in the family car, windows rolled down, on Michigan Avenue, right in front of the Fine Arts theater. Traffic is crawling, it’s super hot. Two white guys roll up beside us. They seemed old to me but they were probably in their 20s. They pointed right at me, this little girl, and one had a genuine snarl and he screamed, ‘Go home, you (expletive) (expletive) Iranian!’ I was gobsmacked. First of all my parents never used that language so I didn’t know it. It was scary, traffic moves and they pull ahead — it all probably happened in a second. But it felt longer, and I thought: ‘How do they know we live in Batavia?’ That’s what I thought the ‘Go home’ meant. Did it say Batavia on the license plates? My next thought was, ‘Why Iranian? Oh, is that person being racist or prejudiced or something?’ So then I thought: ‘Wow, I guess racists are really bad at geography.’”
And so that partly became the inspiration for her debut novel, 2018′s “Love, Hate & Other Filters,” about a 17-year-old Muslim teenager, eager to break from her traditional Indian parents and attend film school in New York City, who finds her hometown of Batavia turning against her in the wake of a catastrophic suicide bombing in Springfield.
Ahmed wrote (channeling her heroine Maya):
“I try to keep my head down at school, but the vandalism at my parents’ office, combined with the my friendly police escort, make me an attention magnet. And by attention, I mean open-mouthed ‘you’re a freak’ stares and puppy-dog eyes …”
When Ahmed asked her mother why they moved from then-Bombay to Batavia — which then had a population of around 10,000 (it’s now more than double) — her mother said she liked open spaces and didn’t want a big city. Mostly, Ahmed liked it there, she said, though quickly found herself drawn to Chicago for the late ‘80s/early ‘90s concert scene. She was a good student, attended University of Chicago, became a teacher right out of college; she taught English for seven years, partly at Homewood-Flossmoore, partly in New York City, then worked for education nonprofits. Around the time she turned 40, she wondered if her a longtime hobby of writing (for herself) could be more.
She landed her agent through a pitch contest on Twitter. Rather than plan her first novel out, “I winged it,” she said, turning in a book twice as long as expected. Still, after being edited, it clicked. She followed “Love, Hate” with “Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know,” about another 17-year-old Chicagoan, this time nursing a breakup in Paris, while dreaming of the Music Box and searching for a lost painting. Next came “Internment,” her most ambitious so far, the story a different 17-year-old Muslim American in a future United States, forced into an internment camp with her parents. It’s a very Trump-era protest novel, of slowly-eroded liberties made normal.
Rena Barron, another well-regarded Chicago YA novelist (whose latest, “Maya and the Return of the Godlings” just came out), first met Ahmed in 2017 at a local publishing conference. “We’re all doing coming of age stories, but each one is doing it from a different perspective. Everyone has got their niche. Samira is really writing across a lot of genres, but where she’s landed well is that culture of expectations for a kid — how it clashes and intersects.”
One of the constants in her novels are parents.
Ahmed said that, being a child of immigrants, hers would have loved for her to become a doctor, but “I’d say the biggest expectation they placed on their kids was to make positive contribution to our community and the world.” Indeed, in “Amira & Hamza,” Amira’s parents are encouraging her interest in astronomy — stargazing on the roof of the Medinah Temple — when otherworldly events intrude and the kids are thrust into an adventure, to save their parents (and the world). “If you’re an immigrant in this country, your parents loom large in your life,” Ahmed said, “but I also saw when I was teaching kids helping their parents navigate a brand new country, helping them fill this form out, helping with that. The students were often forced to step up and take on adult roles.”
Another constant, decades after the incident on Michigan Avenue, has been racism.
Ahmed said, since she started publishing, she’s gotten images of Auschwitz and Dachau via Twitter. Just before the pandemic hit, while on tour for “Internment,” she received threatening calls at her hotel. A signing event at a children’s bookstore in New York City required a private security detail. She began booking hotels under aliases.
When her Ms. Marvel arrives in December, she expects it to get worse.
Luckily, her signature character has been, as she calls it, the Revolutionary Girl, a sort of archetype of strength, insight and compassion, usually Muslim, often Indian American, but always a teenager. “Revolutionary Girls don’t necessarily take up arms. Ms. Marvel, she has this giant fist — she is literally punching through the glass ceiling. But sometimes the Revolutionary Girl is just taking control when others are falling down. And sometimes it means standing up for yourself when others want you muffle you.”
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