Thursday, April 21, 2016

Meet Nadia Abushanab Higgins

Nadia Abushanab Higgins (above) and I had a great conversation recently about Feminism: Reinventing the F-Word (cover below), her new Spring 2016 YA nonfiction title for TFCB. In its recent starred review, Booklist praises the work, saying, “Higgins' Feminism: Reinventing the F-Word offers a comprehensive and stunningly up-to-date account of the history of feminism.…With plenty of grassroots organizations listed in the back matter and photos of a diverse array of women, cis and otherwise, peppering the pages, Higgins invites burgeoning feminists to find their own places among the vast movement." And the starred review from VOYA says, "Higgins adds a new flavor to the definition of feminism by including issues of race and expanding gender definitions, giving deeper meaning to the fight for equal rights." Here is an excerpt from my conversation with Nadia. How did you become a nonfiction writer? I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. Like most writers, perhaps, I imagined myself writing fiction—and I have published some works of fiction for children—but nonfiction is my strength and my passion. The truth is, working in nonfiction began as a practical necessity for me. I loved words. I wanted—needed--steady work. A job at a newspaper was the most reliable gig around. I was over the moon when I got my first job as an editorial assistant at a newspaper in Washington, DC. Back then, my main duty was to type in the changes that the editors made in red pen on paper manuscripts. I saw manuscripts transform from muddled, unconvincing jumbles into sparkling, incisive prose. It was magical!
What is exciting for you about researching and writing nonfiction? Were there special challenges in writing Feminism: Reinventing the F-Word? The astronomer Carl Sagan once said, “Understanding is a kind of ecstasy.” That pretty much sums up my feelings about research. What a thrill it is to uncover a new area of investigation or to revise and deepen your own understanding about something you thought you already understood. For me, research is like a treasure hunt for facts. Writing is solving the puzzle of how to organize and interpret those facts using the most varied, flexible, effective, and beautiful tools we humans possess—our words! For the feminism book, I spent several months just trying to understand the meaning of the word feminism. Talk about a loaded word! It reverberates in so many directions, encompassing not just politics and culture, but economics, religion, race, sexuality, the environment. The idea of feminism is simultaneously breathtakingly vast and deeply individual. Do you have any particular mentors or role models who have helped you in your life as a writer? Who are they and how do they contribute and support you? In 2001 I took a job as a nonfiction children’s book editor at a publishing house in Minnesota. I got the job through a Help Wanted ad in the newspaper. I didn’t know anything about children’s books except for my memories of my own reading. I had the attitude that a lot of outsiders have about children’s books. How hard can it be? My editor Marybeth Lorbiecki showed me just how tough I needed to be. I remember 45-minute conversations about books that were 400 words long. Marybeth challenged every line that came by her, asking “Why?” “Why not?” or “What else?” She taught me how to respect young readers’ intelligence and outlook. I still hear her voice in my head when I write. For teens who are interested in writing, what tips would you offer them? All the writing experts will tell you the same thing, and they are correct. To be a writer, you must write, write, write! It almost doesn’t matter what you are writing as long as you are practicing your craft every day. If you’re stuck on what to write about, find a book of writing prompts, and work your way through it. Don’t worry if it’s bad! Every author in the world has written pages of cringingly awful stuff. You can go through later and cross out the junk. But as you do, circle the gems that will inspire even more writing. Also—and this is so important--find a way to make writing a habit. Set a daily goal, as little as ten minute a day. Do it at the same time every day. Find a favorite writing spot or make a promise to a writing partner. All those tricks will help you keep writing, even when it feels too hard. What are some of your favorite books, fiction or nonfiction, that you have read or are reading for pleasure? The single book that I have read more times in my life than any other is Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maude Montgomery. That beloved title represents one category of favorite books: books that are like friends to keep me company. Other books that fall into this category are Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Middlemarch by George Eliot, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. I love the eloquence, the understanding, the heartbreak, and the dazzling female heroines in all those classic novels.
One of my favorite genres is heavily researched fiction. What Is the What? by Dave Eggers, about the plight of a Sudanese refugee, is a fantastic example of a novel with nonfiction heft. Louise Erdrich’s The Round House is another stunning example. It opened my eyes to the extreme dangers native women face from nonnative sexual predators. Reading Erdrich’s novel enriched my own nonfiction writing. It inspired research that I might not have otherwise discovered for the chapter on sexual violence in Feminism.
Note from Domenica Di Piazza, TFCB editorial director: Readers may also want to take a look at School Library Journal’s SLJ Spotlight feature "Our Bodies, Our Shelves" from mid-January of this year. It discusses Nadia’s Feminism book in the context of two other fabulous new YA nonfiction titles with women’s issues at their core: Amber J. Keyser’s exploration of young teen women making decisions about sex in The V-Word (Simon & Schuster, 2016) and Vicki Oransky Wittenstein’s timely examination of birth control and other family-planning issues in Reproductive Rights (TFCB, 2016).

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