Two years after finishing her beloved “Ember in the Ashes” series, young adult author Sabaa Tahir is back with a novel near to her heart. Based on Tahir’s own childhood growing up in a motel in the Mojave Desert, “All My Rage” follows two Pakistani American teens, Noor and Salahudin, as they fight to escape from their small town. “All My Rage” debuted on The New York Times Best Sellers list and is already in development for television, with Tahir cowriting the script. Fresh off a whirlwind book-release week, Tahir sat down with The Seattle Times to talk about her inspiration, writing process and adjustment to a new genre after a decade of writing fantasy literature.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired “All My Rage”? How long have you been working on the book?
“All My Rage” was conceived in the early 2000s, inspired by the motel where I grew up. When I was still in college, my father had a stroke and my parents sold the motel. I wasn’t home when it happened, so I felt I didn’t really have closure on this place that was such a formative part of my life. I started writing about the motel, the tenants, the people who live there, but then eventually it became more about the people who ran the motel. And it also became somewhat of an anger book for me.
Every time I was frustrated, I would work on this book… It was just something I had on the side that I was working on whenever I didn’t want to think about my contracts or the books that I was supposed to write. Eventually in 2017 or 2018, it started to take shape as an actual story. And after that, I started developing the characters and story line more fully until finally, it was a book. Gosh, that was 15 years!
How does it feel to finally send it out into the world after all that time?
It was pretty nerve-wracking because until then, it had just been this conversation with myself and I didn’t really expect anybody to read it. I think if I had known, “Oh, I’m writing this under contract,” then it probably would have been a very different book, but because it really was a story for myself, I wrote it with a lot of care and honesty and realness.
Something I thought was interesting about the book is how it focuses on rage, which is something we don’t see so much in teenage protagonists. I love The Smashing Pumpkins, so I love that it’s called “All My Rage” [from their song “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”]. Can you tell me about why you focused on rage as an emotion for this book?
A few years ago, there was this incident on Twitter, because of the phrase “Muslim rage.” Someone had used it in a magazine cover, and all these Muslims found it hilarious and were hashtagging it and joking about it. They were saying things like, “That girl’s wearing the same hijab as me! #MuslimRage.” [It was] ridiculous that a magazine would create this concept of Muslim rage specifically.
But at the same time, it was pretty sad that an emotion that is as essential to our humanity as anger can’t be expressed by specific groups. I was thinking about young people — how the world treated Greta Thunberg because she was angry about climate change or how the world has treated Malala [Yousafzai] because she’s angry about what was done to her by the Taliban.
I think that as a result, we bottle up our rage because it’s not always safe to express it and that’s just so unjust, so wrong, so unfair. I’m not saying we should all run around hitting each other with sticks, but we should be able to express our anger if it’s deserved. And since that’s not something I could change, I wanted to write about it.
Both Noor and Sal make some very bad decisions over the course of the book, but I found myself fully rooting for them as the reader. How do you write characters who are very flawed, but still very likeable?
I think honestly is the answer. I have to be very honest about these characters’ lives. They might make choices that I, as an adult, would be like, “No, don’t do it!” I wanted to show that these are kids who don’t have guidance. [For example, Noor’s decisions about where to apply for college] are the type of thing that’s a real-world consequence of not having somebody help. [I wanted to show a] messy reality both in the struggle and in the beauty and the humor.
I wanted to allow for a lack of resolution, or resolution that is slightly more ambiguous. I wanted to show the consequences of the actions of some of these characters. There was this interview with [YA author] Jason Reynolds in The Guardian in which he is talking to juvenile offenders. One of the conversations he had was with a man who said, “You know, everyone asks me why I would make such bad decisions, but at the time, those were the decisions that I thought were the best decision.” That’s really what I wanted to incorporate here. At the time, the choices these kids make are the only choices they feel they can and that’s not a failure on their part — that’s a failure on the part of the adults around them.
Both of the protagonists of “All My Rage” have some kind of traumatic history that isn’t revealed to the reader until after the halfway point in the book. Why did you decide to structure it that way?
A lot of times, those who have experienced trauma don’t always accept it about themselves, and sometimes it’s not a central fact of their life in a day-to-day way. It’s something that can be buried and to dredge it up takes time and conscious thought, or someone has to be forced to face it. With this story, I really wanted to drop readers in the middle of it, and to me, dropping a reader in the story meant that they don’t know everything about these characters — because guess what? These characters don’t know everything about themselves.
How is it different writing a contemporary novel after writing four really big fantasy books [Tahir’s previous series, “An Ember in the Ashes”]? There was no magic, obviously, but what else?
The no magic thing is actually a pretty big deal. We can’t gloss over that. I had to remind myself every time I sat down, I can’t fix these problems with magic and I can’t bring in tension with battle scenes and big fights. I have to focus on the characters in their internal development. But at the same time, it wasn’t so different because my books are quite dark and that theme continues in this one. And, my books are ultimately always about hope. That was a touchstone for me. So when I was panicking and freaking out and like, “God, I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t know how to write this, I don’t understand anything, what are words?” I would just try to remind myself, “Hey, this book has the same heart as all your other books.”
This article was written on special assignment for The Seattle Times through the TeenTix Press Corps, a teen arts journalism program sponsored by TeenTix (teentix.org), a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit organization.