Six Questions for
Author of Watched
Marina Budhos joined us at the Center this spring for a KidsRead event with students from the High School for Youth and Community Development in Brooklyn and The High School of Graphic Communication Arts located in Hell's Kitchen. (You can find out more about our KidsRead and Books for NYC Schools programs here.)
Marina discussed her award-winning novel Watched, which tells the story of charming trouble-maker Naeem. When Naeem lands in a situation that he can't talk his way out of, he's forced to spy on his neighbors in Queens. Watched is a novel for our times about survelliance, immigrants and the issues facing Muslims in America.
In this interview, we sat down with Marina to talk with her about writing for teenagers and adults, seeing her book turned into theater, and what she loves to read.
What inspired you to write a book for young readers about surveillance?
For a long time my readers had been asking me whether I was going to do a sequel to Ask Me No Questions. I somehow didn’t feel this was the right thing to do. The book ends in an open-ended way, and I wanted it to remain that way in the imagination of the reader.
At the same time, I knew there were other stories out there about the next "beat" in the post 9/11 world, especially for Muslims. The more I reflected upon it and spoke to others, the more I became convinced that the broader story was about surveillance. The AP story about the NYC Demographics unit had broken, the NYC policy of "stop and frisk" was being questioned, Black Lives Matter had begun. I began to envision portraying a young Muslim teen boy who’s always aware of being "watched." If my earlier book about undocumented Muslim immigrants was about being invisible, this was about being hypervisible.
Those were the atmospherics—I just needed to hunt around for the inner story. And that came to me one evening when a lawyer friend told me about a young man who had come into her office. His father owned a small shop in Jackson Heights, and he seemed to be boasting that he was an informant for the FBI—that he was succeeding beyond his father, "in" with those in power, "with the man." At the same time, he also appeared trapped in what he did. This combination of swagger and entrapment, a young man thinking that he’d gained power and was getting "beyond" his father, immediately caught my attention as a novelist. That’s when I saw the inner core of the story, not just the outer political pressures.
This is how I often work—balancing the part of my brain that is attuned to politics and larger forces with the other side of me that seeks the emotional core of a story.
Your books often address socio-political issues. Do you feel a responsibility as the author of books for young people to directly address these issues? And is it difficult to address them without the cynicism or pessimism of an adult?
I think what interests me is the mix, the political pressures that have bearing on a young person’s story. Some of my instincts as a journalist (and someone who is a voracious news reader) find their way into my YA books. As a young person, I experienced all the pangs of coming of age, but there was also a swirl of events and politics around me. I’ve never seen these realms as separate, really.
I don’t feel like it’s hard to address them because my aim is always to get inside the experience; to render it on the page in a visceral way. I’m also very interested in how to meld a sometimes hard edged story with a kind of lyrical tenderness. That’s why I think I never feel these stories with any cynicism—it's more that I’m traveling inside that quieter, empathetic space.
In a funny way I see myself as writing books about and for teenagers, yet they are also for adults. In classic YA books adults are often off-stage. In my books (at least so far) they’re sharing their world and pressures with adults and other generations. That’s pretty true to immigrant teenagers and their lives. I see these books as a literary space adults and young adults can intermingle in, as characters and readers, though the young adult is always central, always the protagonist. Some of my readers have felt the adult characters—the father and stepmother, for instance—are as fully drawn as the teenage characters. That’s what I want to achieve.
I love that Naeem isn't your typical good kid. Could you tell us a little bit about your inspiration for him? Forgive me if I'm wrong, but I believe he's the first male protagonist that you've written—could you tell us why you decided to write about a teenage boy and if there were any challenges to this?
Yes, he’s my first male character! Though I’ve written male characters in short stories. The run-up to Naeem was a short story I wrote for the anthology One Death, Nine Stories, about a Latino boy who is reunited with a father who had remarried and started another family. In that story the boy is screwing up, he’s angry, on edge, but he has a friend—similar to Ibrahim in Watched—who has even more dark shadows than he has. I had started to channel an edgier and older voice that I wanted to explore further.
I also felt that as the mother of two boys—one pre-teen, the other teen—I was full up with observations and sympathy for boys. I wanted to create a landscape that was about fathers and sons and brothers, one that I’d been observing and thinking about for quite a while. I felt I understood their screw-ups, their distractions and restlessness, their evasions. For me, the story was a chance to re-think the male hero’s journey—he’s an immigrant kid that goes in search of a more solid sense of manhood through the cops, and yet he has to face his own morality.
Finally, I wanted to portray a young man who is a goof-up, who falls through the cracks on the streets of NYC—and there are many such kids—but for him, the consequences can be really dire. The challenge was less with Naeem—I felt I knew and understood him on some very deep level and some of his restlessness as a teenager in Queens I actually identified with. I remember what it was to feel as if the landscape around me seemed to be bursting with promise and yet also hemmed me in. I also knew, underneath it all, Naeem meant well and had this strong sense of responsibility toward his younger brother, something I observe in my older son.
Ibrahim was trickier—he is sort of falling apart, but much of that takes place off-stage. It’s not clear how deep he’s in with the recruitment, but he is vulnerable to manipulation. I based him a bit off someone I knew well as a teenager, with a fragile sense of self that he hid behind crazy and alluring lies.
Parts of Watched were turned into scenes for the theater—what was that experience like?
It’s thrilling and so rich for me as an author. I’ve been working with Ari Laura Kreith, the artistic director of Theater 167, and her process is very collaborative and open. Thus, while sitting in with actors, or watching what they do on the stage, I get to see all these other dimensions to the work. Many of the actors also identify with the experiences and world in the book, and their conversations during rehearsals brought so much depth and thoughtfulness to their performances. We have more performances scheduled, in different settings, and Ari hopes to adapt Ask Me No Questions as a play.
What do you think are the biggest issues facing young people today? And what advice would you give them?
The onslaught of media. It’s got them skittering and floating on the surface. I know that sounds a bit crotchety and old-fashioned, but teenagers don’t know what it’s like to live in a world where your nerves are not always jumping to check out a text or a game or an alert. We all suffer from this, but they don’t know otherwise. Their capacity to live in the moment, to look around them, to sink into fictional worlds of a book, to relish language and the long intimacy of books, is being compromised. It also means they can be easily manipulated. And in some ways that’s part of what I was trying to depict in the novel, especially with Ibrahim.
What were some of your favorite books when you were younger? And what books would you recommend for kids and teens today (besides your own!)?
On the old-fashioned side, I just loved The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. But then as I got older as a teenager I loved books like My Darling, My Hamburger and The Pigman, both by Paul Zindel, and Richard Wright's Black Boy. More recently in Middle Grade and Young Adult books I’ve loved Monster by Walter Dean Myers and Lily’s Crossing by Patricia Reilly Giff. I think Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir Brown Girl Dreaming is beautiful. I think all young people should read Junot Díaz!
Marina Budhos is an author of award-winning fiction and nonfiction. This past year she published Watched (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House), a follow-up to Ask Me No Questions, taking on surveillance in a post 9/11 era. Set in Queens, NYC, Watched tells the story of Naeem—a teenage boy who thinks he can charm his way through life. One day his mistakes catch up with him and the cops offer him a dark deal. Watched received an Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature YA Honor, (APALA) and is an Honor Book for YA, The Walter Award (We Need Diverse Books).
In March, 2017, Marina will publish Eyes of the World: Robert Capa & Gerda Taro & The Invention of Modern Photojournalism, (Henry Holt & Co.) co-authored with Marc Aronson. Among the first to depict modern warfare, Capa and Taro took powerful photographs of the Spanish Civil War that went straight from the devastation to news magazines. In so doing, they helped birth to the idea of bearing witness with technology, bringing home tragedies from across the world.
Marina is the author of the young adult novels Tell Us We’re Home and Ask Me No Questions, which are taught in school districts throughout the country. She has published the adult novels The Professor of Light and House of Waiting, and a nonfiction book, Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers. Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom & Science, co-authored with her husband Marc Aronson, was a 2010 Los Angeles Times Book Award Finalist. Her books have been published in several countries, and her short stories, articles, essays, and book reviews have appeared in publications such as The Daily Beast, The Awl, The Huffington Post, LitHub, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, The Nation, Dissent, Marie Claire, Redbook, Travel & Leisure, the Los Angeles Times, and in anthologies.
Marina has been a Fulbright Scholar to India, received an EMMA (Exceptional Merit Media Award), a Rona Jaffe Award for Women Writers, has twice received a Fellowship from the New Jersey Council on the Arts, and frequently gives talks throughout the country and abroad. A graduate of Cornell and Brown universities, she is a professor of English at William Paterson University.
She is married to the author Marc Aronson and lives in New Jersey, with their two sons, Sasha and Rafi.
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Marina Budhos’s extraordinary and timely novel examines what it’s like to grow up under surveillance, something many Americans experience and most Muslim Americans know.
Naeem is far from the “model teen.” Moving fast in his immigrant neighborhood in Queens is the only way he can outrun the eyes of his hardworking Bangladeshi parents and their gossipy neighbors. Even worse, they’re not the only ones watching. Cameras on poles. Mosques infiltrated. Everyone knows: Be careful what you say and who you say it to. Anyone might be a watcher.
Naeem thinks he can charm his way through anything, until his mistakes catch up with him and the cops offer a dark deal. Naeem sees a way to be a hero—a protector—like the guys in his brother’s comic books. Yet what is a hero? What is a traitor? And where does Naeem belong?
Acclaimed author Marina Budhos delivers a riveting story that’s as vivid and involving as today’s headlines.