A fight against classism in Aisha Saeed’s new YA novel ‘Omar Rising’ – WABE

In her 2018 young adult book “Amal Unbound,” Aisha Saeed wrote a beautiful novel inspired by the real-life story of Malala Yousafzai, the heroic Pakistani activist for female education. Saeed’s new novel “Omar Rising” is another story of hope set in Pakistan. The author joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to talk about this new story of strength amidst broken systems.

Interview Highlights:

Picking up from “Amal Unbound” with a new character’s view:

“Omar is the son of a servant. They live in the same village in Pakistan, as it was the case in Amal’s story, and in ‘Amal Unbound,’ we know that he is living in this shed behind Amal’s home,” said Saeed. “They do n’t have running water, they do n’t have electricity, and he just got accepted to a prestigious boarding school and is on scholarship — and that he has the opportunity to change his entire destiny.”

“That’s where we leave off in ‘Amal Unbound,’ and in ‘Omar Rising,’ we see that journey to this boarding school, and what it’s like to be a kid on scholarship, and the struggles that a child in that situation can have , and how over time he begins to start feeling like a second class citizen,” Saeed explained. “The book explores that, as well as the power of collective activism to change unjust systems.”

How Omar encounters stark reminders of classism:

“He is not allowed to, as a scholarship student, participate in the same activities as the other kids… and worst of all for him, he also has to do chores, which other kids don’t have to do. And they say it’s a way to repay in some way, the fact that they’re at the school for free,” Saeed said. “On their face, these rules, to the adults and the people who put them in place, they’re doing them to ostensibly help these children. ‘You do need more time to study, and we want you to be mindful of this gift you have while you’re here…’ but the way that it’s coming across is belittling.”

“There are kids that are not particularly kind to him, but I was more interested… to explore the kids who were not outwardly mean or cruel intentionally but still say things. They might complain, ‘Oh, my father, when he went here, he did this. So I have to do this.’ Whereas he doesn’t have a father, Omar, and he has nobody to guide him or tell him what to take or how to maneuver through the system.”

Shades of real-life inspiration in “Omar Rising:”

“That particular pressure [of scholarship education], it’s inspired by the inherent pressure that I’ve seen in my own family, and in the students that I’ve worked with about wanting to please people; feeling like you will be the first in your family, let’s say, to go to college. You’re going to be the first in your family to accomplish a certain milestone that nobody else has … You don’t want to let anybody down, and you don’t want to let anybody know that you’re scared,” Saeed said . “I’ve seen the effects of that with relatives that I have, and I’ve seen the effect with students.”

”[Mr. Moise] was inspired by my sixth-grade teacher … She was always on my case, and I felt like she was out to get me. And I always felt like when she was pulling me aside to give me extra lessons, it was some sort of punishment, and it wasn’t until the year went on and towards the end of the school year that I saw that she saw something in I. She saw something in my writing, and she had wanted to nurture it and grow it.”

Aisha Saeed’s new novel “Omar Rising” is out now and can be ordered through the author’s website at aishasaeed.com/omar-rising.

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