Hello Muhammad! Thanks so much for talking to us. Can you tell us a little bit about I Am Thunder and where the idea came from?
Hi and thanks for having me!
I Am Thunder is about a shy girl who catches the eye of the hottest boy in school. Muzna battles radicalisation and Islamophobia as she tries to find her inner thunder to make an impossible choice.
The idea came from the unfortunate events that led to three girls from Bethnal Green going to Syria to join ISIS. Children are not born terrorists. I wanted to explore the dangers that are out there so we can all better protect ourselves.
Your voice throughout I Am Thunder is refreshingly authentic – did your time in the classroom help shape the dialogue? What advice would you give other writers?
My students definitely helped shape the dialogue. Sometimes I’d hear them use an interesting turn of phrase or make a sassy gesture and I’d quickly note it down. I read extracts from the first draft in class and got live feedback – which was incredibly helpful. I also had some wonderful students volunteer to be my Slang Police.
My advice to other writers would be to listen. We don’t realise how much time we spend talking instead of listening. Even when we’re quiet during a conversation, we’re usually thinking of the next thing we’d like to say instead of concentrating on the rhythms and quirks and even content of the other person.
Culture and religion both play big roles in Muzna’s life – was it important to you whilst telling the story to make a clear distinction between the two?
Definitely. When religions spread to other countries, culture inevitably becomes integrated and entwined with faith. We see this clearly in the various depictions of Jesus around the world.
In my book, I never criticise Islam but I do criticise some Muslims. Human fallibility is inevitable. Improvement comes from honest dialogue and reflection.
Was it difficult to show the subtle shift from characters devoted to their religion and the more extremist thoughts and actions in the plot?
It was enormously difficult. I wanted to be honest and fearless with my depictions. When I was studying Engineering at uni, I unfortunately met a group who were pushing their extremist agenda on the rest of us. The Islamic Society eventually banned them, but there were some who became convinced by their twisted ideology. That’s what’s so insidious about radicalisation: even intelligent people can be taken in because it can be so subtle.
Anger and injustice are of course huge themes throughout I Am Thunder – what advice would you give to young people like Arif, who might be feeling those frustrations?
Oh my gosh, that is such a big question! I think someone like Arif wouldn’t have become radicalised if things were more equal in society. He is someone who is patently aware of social injustice and Islamophobia and a lack of representation at senior level. However, in answer to your question, I would advise him to speak to the Imam of his local mosque. Last year we saw Mohammed Mahmoud (the Imam of Finsbury Park mosque) being celebrated as a hero. Thankfully most Imams are like him and want to make a better world for all.
Educational anxiety and parental pressure pushes on Muzna a lot – do you think parents are putting too much pressure on teenagers to have their futures sorted at such a young age?
I think parents want their children to never have to endure the hardships they went through. For some this means allowing their children to make all their own decisions and live with the consequences. For others they believe they know best and guide their children in a prescriptive manner. I think moderation is the key to success and happiness. Teenagers need to be listened to and have their opinions valued.
Have any of your students read I Am Thunder yet? What do they think?
My students helped shape the narrative up to about the halfway point. From there, I wrote my story in secret, later reshaping it with my wonderful editor at Macmillan. It will be hugely exciting and nerve-wracking to hear my student’s thoughts on the finished product!
BAME representation in YA is slowly increasing, but there’s still so much room for stories and voices that we’re yet to see – which authors should our readers be picking up, and what stories would you like to see in the future?
I am proud of the industry for inviting BAME, LGBT and other minority voices into the mix. It is so important, especially for children, to find themselves reflected within the pages of a book. I love everything written by Minfong Ho and Patrice Lawrence. Alex Wheatle, Irfan Master, Angie Thomas and Rachel Lucas also provide great representation. I’m really looking forward to debuts from my Pan Mac sisters: Sophie Cameron (Out of the Blue) and Tomi Adeyemi (Children of Blood and Bone).
Your new novel, Kick the Moon, isn’t out for a little while yet… are you allowed to tell us anything about it yet?
Absolutely! It’s a story about a fourth generation British Pakistani boy who forms an unlikely friendship. It’s an exploration of gang culture and toxic masculinity.
That’s it! Thanks so much for chatting with us, Muhammad – all the best with I Am Thunder, it’s already set to be a smash.
Thank you for asking such interesting questions! 😊