Kathie: Welcome to MG Book Village, Salma! Today we’re chatting about your debut middle-grade novel, The Secret Diary of Mona Hasan, which releases on May 3rd from Tundra Books. Can you tell us a bit about it, please?
Salma: Thank you for the warm welcome, Kathie! The Secret Diary of Mona Hasan is a middle grade novel set in 1991 about a young, Muslim Pakistani girl growing up in big-city Dubai, in the U.A.E. Due to the first Gulf War her parents decide to immigrate to North America. They end up in small-town Dartmouth on Canada’s east coast. The novel is a year-in-the-life-of young Mona as she journeys through immigration, puberty, and general tween concerns – “When will my chest grow, Allah? Why is my mother not like the mothers on T.V.? Why is Aba ruining our lives by moving us to Canada?”
Kathie: Mona’s story begins in United Arab Emirates, but she ends up immigrating to eastern Canada in a small town outside Halifax. Can you share why you chose these locations as your setting?
Salma: To answer this question, I’d like to share the origin story for this novel – when my daughter was five, she turned to me sleepily at bedtime and asked, “Mama, you were born outside Canada, right? Were you a regular kid just like us?”
That one question was the spark behind this entire novel. I knew in that moment that I wanted to write a book in a child’s voice to answer my child’s underlying questions – in what ways might the kids who grow up outside Canada be different? And in what ways might they be the same?
I wanted it to be an immigration story and I choose these particular locations because I know them very well! I grew up in the U.A.E. myself (until grade seven), and immigrated to a small town on the eastern coast of Canada when I was a teenager (I completed my high school years in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia). I have a familiarity and love for both places, and as they are under-represented in childrens’ literature in North America, I wanted to amplify and celebrate them.
Kathie: What 5 words would you use to describe Mona, and explain why you chose them?
CURIOUS – Mona questions the world around her and in so doing holds up a mirror to the absurd world we have created.
JUST – Mona knows when something is wrong and she steps in to do something about it (i.e., in the situation with her sister and Uncle Annoying, and in the situation between Ross and the bully.)
DREAMER – Mona wildly and passionately believes in all the good things yet to come in her life. She dreams of a better world. Every. Single. Day.
UNSINKABLE – Kids, at all times from all places, but especially those who grow up in times of conflict and war, have been and continue to be unsinkable.
GRAND POETESS – Mona would pick this one for herself so I had to include it!
Kathie: The book takes place in 1991 at the start of the first Gulf War. What sort of research did you do, and did you discover anything that surprised you?
Salma: I knew that I wanted the impetus for this family’s move to be the first Gulf War, and I knew that I wanted the novel to cover twelve months. However, when I started researching the first Gulf War, figuring out which twelve months I should cover was a challenge! The Iraqi military invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990 but Mona’s first diary entry begins on January 1, 1991, so when readers meet this family they have already been dealing with the news of the Gulf War for a few months. This meant I had to insert context and background about the Gulf War quickly but in a way that would not be overwhelming, nor an “info-dump”! It took a few tries to get it right. I looked up the front pages of newspapers in the Middle East (in English, Arabic and Urdu) and compared and contrasted the headlines. I also listened to news coverage from different TV channels (a lot of this is available on Youtube). Nothing was surprising, but a lot of it was very sad. News about any war, anywhere, from any time period, is extremely sad. In contrast, I then also looked at popular “fashion”/“beauty”/“womens’” magazines and listened to music from the late 80s to 91. This research countered the sad stuff. I found that as an escape from the reality and horror of war, people determinedly and resolutely sought out joy in fashion and food and music.
Kathie: Your writing voice is quite humorous. Are you naturally a funny person?
Salma: Yes, absolutely! My friends (who have had their arms twisted about this) agree. My children, however, disagree.
Kathie: What’s one question you wish readers or interviewers would ask about your story?
Salma: What are Mona and Adam up to today? 🙂
Kathie: Can you tell us where we can go to find out more about you and your writing?
Salma: Please follow me on Twitter and Insta: @salmahwrites. I post updates about my writing life on these platforms and I also desperately need more followers! (My mom and her friends aren’t enough! :))
I also have a website (designed by the lovely Hazel of @staybookish): www.salmahwrites.com.
Kathie: Thank you so much for joining me today. I love connecting with Canadian new authors, and I wish you all the best with your publishing kickoff!!
Salma: Thank you so much, Kathie. I just want to close by adding that the Middle Grade writing community in Canada and beyond is one of the friendliest writing communities to be a part of, and I am honoured and delighted to join it. Thank you for reading The Secret Diary of Mona Hasan!
Salma Hussain enjoys writing prose and poetry for all ages. She has a B.A. (Hon.) in English literature from the University of Calgary, a law degree from the University of Calgary, and a Masters in Law from McGill University. The Secret Diary of Mona Hasan is her debut MG novel. She lives in Toronto.