Salma Hussain - The Secret Diary of Mona Hasan
Interview by Gabriele Davis
GD: Congratulations on your middle grade debut, Salma! Tell us about your story and what inspired you to write it.
SH: Thank you so much for the warm welcome and the congratulations, Gabriele!
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?”
To answer the question about what inspired me to write this novel, I’d like to share its origin story: 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 daughter. I wanted to explore in what ways might the kids who grow up outside Canada be different? And in what ways might they be the same? I wanted this to be an immigration story, and I chose 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 children's literature in North America, I wanted to amplify and celebrate them.
GD: Your story is told from the perspective of an 11-year-old girl writing in her diary. Why did you choose this format?
SH: Multiple reasons in no particular order:
GD: Your characters deal with challenging, worldly issues as well as more light-hearted preteen concerns. Was it difficult to find the right balance between the two?
SH: Yes, it was a challenge! I was passionate about exploring both simultaneously because that is how life is lived, no? Especially for children who have been or are in the process of being displaced due to war and conflict. There’s somber tragedy as well as gut-busting joy. I hope I struck the right balance! Again, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole 13 ¾ was a sort of mentor text in paving the way for me in this regard: Adrian dealt with parental separation, adultery, abortion, and economic uncertainty, but the author never lost her sense of humor about life and gave readers that joy. It’s something I’ve aspired to do in this text.
GD: What message do you hope readers take away from this story?
SH: There are a few different messages, but first and foremost, I would love readers to simply laugh and enjoy Mona’s story. I hope that they can recognize and accept that each of us are on a journey and doing the best we can. Readers of this novel are ideally at a place in their lives where they are looking out at the world in wonder and marveling at both its splendor and absurdity – something that seems to happen to most of us right around adolescence!
GD: How long have you been writing for children, and what was your publication journey like?
SH: This is the first book I’ve written for children. I was a member of two writing groups when I was writing this novel. I also went through a mentorship program through Diaspora Dialogues (an amazing free mentorship program in Canada). After I finished the mentorship, I submitted 10 sample pages for a flash assessment at a literary festival to which publishing professionals volunteer their time. I was paired with an agent who handles childrens’ literature and she instantly “got” my story, loved it and requested a full. We vibed really well and the rest is history! Everyone says publishing moves slow but in my case, I felt it moved really fast!
GD: Mona’s diary entries inspire some laugh-out-loud moments. Does writing humor come naturally to you?
SH: Thank you for this compliment! In everything I write, I do somehow end up inserting comic moments. Comedy is something I’ve always gravitated towards. I believe half my friends would begrudgingly admit I’m pretty funny, and the other half would roll their eyes and advise you not to encourage me.
GD: What advice would you give writers wanting to write funny stories?
SH: Read funny books. Watch funny movies. Spend time with people who are funny or, at the very least, who will encourage your wacky sense of humor. Find your tribe - in books, movies and real life. Then start writing funny.
GD: Do you have any favorite humorous middle grade novels?
SH: Again, I LOVE the whole Adrian Mole series but only the first one would qualify as MG, and the rest of the series move into YA/adult territory. I also really LOVE It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas.
Salma Hussain writes prose and poetry for children and adults. She grew up in the UAE to parents from Pakistan, and moved to Canada as a teenager. Her debut novel for kids and kids-at-heart, The Secret Diary Of Mona Hasan is out May 3, 2022 by Tundra/Penguin Random House. She lives in Toronto.
Find Salma online at:
Twitter & Instagram: salmahwrites