The author of two YA novels featuring South Asian/Muslim American teenage narrators, with another releasing this year, Sheba Karim focuses her work on themes of identity, Islam, parental conflict, and the trials and tribulations of coming of age. Currently living in Nashville, Tennessee, Karim has also lived in Philadelphia, New York City, and New Delhi, where she has been exposed to “varying types and manifestations of Islamophobia.” By writing about the South Asian/Muslim American experience, Karim actively disassembles stereotypes about race and Islam, creating a narrative filled with representation that young adult readers can enjoy.
The journey taken when writing and reading fiction is not without its epiphanies. Karim realized the power of language when she received support from her parents after sharing a short story. “It seems silly—of course they would [support me], but for me it was very powerful,” says Karim. “I had transplanted words and images from my mind and put them on the page, and someone else read these words and both understood and enjoyed them.”
On a more serious scale, her relationship with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre—one of her favorite books growing up—shifted when she read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys in high school. “Ms. Rhys’s book helped me see the power of perspective in fiction; that every character has a backstory. That the canon of Western literature has always privileged certain voices over others,” says Karim, who is Pakistani-American. “It seems obvious now, but as a child of immigrants who grew up primarily reading books about white people living in almost exclusively white worlds, this blew my mind. I realized that, though I was not white, I had been reading as if I were. I had been identifying with Jane when in fact I had more in common with Bertha, both of us ‘savages’ searching for a place to call home.”
When she began practicing family law after graduating from the New York University School of Law, Karim also started writing seriously. A few years later, she enrolled in an MFA program with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and has since been a full-time writer.
Karim’s first book Skunk Girl drastically altered her writing process. After selling her manuscript to Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers, she says that with the input from her editor she “deleted and completely rewrote the second half” of her book. “It was a much better book for it, and it made me realize the importance of a good editor or a good reader who can help you determine when to persist and when to let go,” says Karim. “Deleting an entire half of a novel also helped me lose the fear of ‘killing your darlings.’” By her second book That Thing We Call a Heart, Karim was clearly without fear. She removed the original best friend of the protagonist. “She was too similar to the narrator,” explains Karim. “I realized one of the narrator’s other friends, who until then played a minor role in the book, was far more interesting and warranted much more of the spotlight.”
The only easy thing about writing, according to Karim, is the “fact that it doesn’t require a lot of physical space or objects.” For her, every part of the writing process is difficult. Karim says, “Drafting is hard because you’re trying to find the right voice, feel the characters. Revising is hard because you’re trying to figure out if that voice, those characters, are right after all.” But the process doesn’t impact her pacing when it comes to completing a work. For Karim, it depends on the type of book she is working on. “I can usually write a first draft of a young adult novel within a year. Whereas I’ve been working on a historical fiction novel for adults on and off for almost a decade!” says Karim.
Mariam Sharma Hits the Road, Karim’s third complete book, is about three friends who embark on a road trip that was meant to save one, but ends up saving all. The book, which is to be released June 5 of this year, was a project that Karim had been wanting to write for a while. “I’d always wanted to write both a road trip book and a book that captures the incredible power of friendship, particularly for those kids who can’t always turn to or confide in their parents and instead must rely on friends for solace and support,” says Karim.
Her third book not only touches on themes of support and friendship, it also speaks about the truths discovered while on a journey. "Across cultures, the journey has been a vehicle for adventure, change and transformation. A journey removes you from your comfort zone, and your responses to unfamiliar landscapes, cultures and situations can open you up to new ways of understanding yourself and others. Hence the trope of going elsewhere in order to ‘find yourself,’” says Karim. “Traveling with others means a heightened level of intimacy and time spent together; we probably all know of a friendship that has been cemented or broken on a journey.”
Karim’s writing journey has impacted her positively. “It’s made me appreciate every day how lucky I am to be doing something I love,” Karim says. With three books, she is well on her way to literary success, which to her is measured by readers, not reviews. Karims says, “Of course it’s nice to have positive professional reviews, but to me the ultimate measure of success is if readers are moved by and connect with your work.”