Author Ream Shukairy discusses the life-changing trip that led to writing her debut novel, The Next New Syrian Girl.
Ream Shukairy is a Syrian American born and raised full-time in Orange County, California, and part-time over summers in Syria. Whether in California or Syria, she feels at home where her family is and wherever there’s a beach.
She has a talent for learning languages and is always on the search for the next place she can travel and flex her words. The daughter of immigrants, there isn’t a stereotype she won’t try her hardest to defy. She can be found reading at the beach, with her sisters watching anime, or playing volleyball really anywhere.
She currently resides in Boston for graduate school. The Next New Syrian Girl is her debut novel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
In this post, Ream discusses the lifechanging trip that led to writing her debut novel, The Next New Syrian Girl, her advice for writers, and more!
Name: Ream Shukairy
Literary agent: Serene Hakim
Book title: The Next New Syrian Girl
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release date: March 14, 2023
Genre/category: YA contemporary
Elevator pitch for the book: A story of friendship between two very different Syrian girls—one a Syrian American boxer, the other a Syrian refugee—grappling with the effects of the Syrian revolution on their lives, families, and identities in this story of survival, love, and rediscovery.
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What prompted you to write this book?
I always wanted to write a story about my love for Syria and the loss of losing access to it after the revolution. I felt like there was a lot to process about Syrians in the diaspora feeling survivor’s guilt, and we needed a book out there to help us process it. There was also an ongoing understanding of multiple identities for a lot of us, and I wanted a story out there to make us feel seen.
But I remember when I decided it was definitely time to write this unapologetically Syrian book. I had just returned from a trip to Europe where I saw the effects of the Syrian revolution firsthand. For the first time, I saw Syrians in a way I had never seen them before, homeless or begging because they’d been forced out of their homes and country.
My mindset shifted from eventually writing a story to writing it right away because I wanted to write something that humanized the Syrian crisis, making it real for readers who see Syrian refugees as numbers instead of people with lives that were uprooted.
How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?
Once I returned from that eye-opening trip, I got straight to work. I wrote it in a matter of months and queried it and received interest a few months later. It wasn’t until I started working on it with my agent that it really transformed. I think my agent helped bring out the best parts of it, while not compromising my flawed characters or watering down the culture, language, and themes that are so authentically teenage Arab Muslim (and American) girl.
From there, it went on submission to editors, and it had a tough time on sub. Writing it all out here makes it seem quick and easy, but this book took years of knocking on doors that never opened and overcoming obstacles that are often in place for authors of color. But when my editor connected with the book, it was a dream come true! Her vision for the book was similar, and she connected with the headstrong characters and that this was a book written for kids who could see themselves in the story—first generation, immigrants, Muslims, Arabs, and anyone who has questioned where exactly they fit into the world when they seem to fit in more than one place, but also none at all.
With my editor, we worked on the arc of the characters’ friendship and pulled the catalyst of their friendship earlier into the story. We also highlighted the romance and made it a bigger part of the story.
Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?
This being my debut novel, every step was a learning moment. But it was surprising to take it from being such a personal story that has so many parts of me and edit it round after round to make it more marketable, to be more about how it will be read rather than my reasons for writing it. It has become a book that is less about me and more about the reader, and I feel that’s the natural progression for a lot of published books.
It’s an honor to be able to sell a book that was and is so personal, but to know that it’s going out into the world and now about readers. It feels like publication will bring the end of my journey with this book, and the start of a journey for my readers.
Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?
I was surprised by how emotional it was to write some of Leene’s scenes because she’s a refugee and it really forced me to put myself in a Syrian refugees’ shoes. I had spoken to refugees and written a lot of aspects of her journey from my family’s experiences leaving Syria, but nothing compared to actually writing down the loss that Leene experiences.
Writing this book felt like peeling back the layer that I always have up to keep myself from feeling all the loss and heartbreak that comes with thinking of the Syria that was and the Syria that is now.
What do you hope readers will get out of your book?
Most of all, I hope readers can humanize Syrians and Syrian refugees rather than seeing them as just a number or a passing headline in the news. But beyond that, I really wanted this to be an unapologetically honest portrayal of a teenage Syrian Muslim girl, so I hope young readers will feel seen.
I think it’s relatable to most first-generation kids who feel a responsibility to their families but also a pull to do what they want. This book is hopefully a mirror for teenagers who see themselves in their multiple identities but also can’t see themselves in any one in particular.
If you could share one piece of advice with other writers, what would it be?
Write for yourself! Writers can get stuck on trying to make their stories marketable or writing trendy tropes, but the only thing that’ll get you writing your best is when you do it for you. What do you want to read? What part of you do you want to heal through your writing? Because no matter how much you try to write for others or for the market, not everyone is going to be happy.
Reviewers will always have something they didn’t like, and readers will inevitably have their own interpretation of your words that might not align with what you meant. So don’t write for them. Write for yourself and when it goes out into the world, just remember that what was written was for you and whatever is read is for them.
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