Book Title: Home Is Not A Country
Author: Safia Elhillo
Genre: Young Adult
Publication Date: March 2rd, 2021
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Nima doesn’t feel understood. By her mother, who grew up far away in a different land. By her suburban town, which makes her feel too much like an outsider to fit in and not enough like an outsider to feel like that she belongs somewhere else. At least she has her childhood friend Haitham, with whom she can let her guard down and be herself. Until she doesn’t. As the ground is pulled out from under her, Nima must grapple with the phantom of a life not chosen, the name her parents didn’t give her at birth: Yasmeen. But that other name, that other girl, might just be more real than Nima knows. And more hungry.And the life Nima has, the one she keeps wishing were someone else’s. . .she might have to fight for it with a fierceness she never knew she had.
(NOTE: The Author has created a lovely playlist for the book, click here to listen to it as you read!)
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Interview with Safia Elhillo
Hello Safia! I’m thrilled to have you joining me today. To kick things off, can you tell us what inspired you to write this story?
I wanted to make something for my communities—a book that had the aunties and uncles that taught us Arabic on Sundays in a rented classroom in it. And their children, my friend-cousins, my infinite siblings, the languages we invented together. As for the story itself, I’ve been obsessed for a long time with this Mahmoud Darwish quote: “Longing is exile’s punishment for the exiled and the exile’s shame of liking exile’s music and gardens. . . to long means not to be overjoyed by anything here, except with shyness. If I were there—you say—If I were there my laugh would be louder and my speech clearer.” I spend a lot of time thinking about the idea of alternate or parallel selves in the context of the diasporic experience—who would I be if I had only grown up back home, how would I be different, that sort of thing. The idea was originally just for one poem, called “yasmeen,” about my obsession with the name I was almost given and the parallel life that might have come with that alternate name. But once I’d finished the poem, I realized I’d only scratched the surface of everything I wanted to say and had to keep going.
Home Is Not A Country is about family, identity, and finding yourself, were those themes you knew you wanted to explore since the beginning? Why?
Those tend to be the themes I am often considering in my writing (and in my life)—I wanted to make something that processed, through fiction, the way I came to rethink my own ideas around identity and belonging and community. My communities and my friendships are the spaces where I can heal from the failures of larger constructs of nation and citizenship and allegiance. I think I actually don’t care anymore where I “belong” in the larger geopolitical sense, because I know who I belong to, who I am accountable to. And I wanted to honor that in this book, those little interpersonal spaces that feel like home when the larger questions about home feel so unanswerable.
What was your favorite scene to write?
I loved writing all the scenes with Haitham and Nima just having fun in the midst of the more stressful events in her life. The scene where they spend the afternoon yelling random names into the courtyard to see if anyone would answer—it was so much fun to live in that scene for a little while.
What food reminds you of home?
My mom’s leg of lamb is my ultimate comfort food and ultimate party food. It roasts in a low oven for 7 hours and by the time it comes out it’s so tender you don’t even need any utensils to cut into it—it just melts off the bone.
If your book was a dish, which one would it be? Why?
I think it would be the fuul sandwich that Nima’s mother makes her towards the end to take to school—a little portable version of a home meal, a way of carrying home with her into her day.
What’s something you’d like readers of Home Is Not A Country to take away?
The title of the book sums up what I hope the reader will hear me saying here—it really is my thesis statement, for this book and also for my life. A country is not the only way to belong, to identify oneself. It’s maybe one of the least interesting ways to belong and to identify oneself. I think home is about love and community and care, not about borders (which are made up by humans!) or about countries (which are also made up by humans!)
Thank you so much to Qamar Blog Tours and Penguin for the ARC!
Check out the rest of the tour here!
SAFIA ELHILLO is the author of The January Children (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), which received the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets and an Arab American Book Award, and Girls That Never Die (forthcoming from One World/Random House 2021). Sudanese by way of Washington, DC, she holds an MFA from The New School, a Cave Canem Fellowship, and a 2018 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. Safia is a Pushcart Prize nominee (receiving a special mention for the 2016 Pushcart Prize), co-winner of the 2015 Brunel International African Poetry Prize, and listed in Forbes Africa’s 2018 “30 Under 30. Safia’s work appears in POETRY Magazine, Callaloo, and The Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-day series, among others, and in anthologies including The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop and The Penguin Book of Migration Literature. Her work has been translated into several languages, and commissioned by Under Armour, Cuyana, and the Bavarian State Ballet. With Fatimah Asghar, she is co-editor of the anthology Halal If You Hear Me (Haymarket Books, 2019). She is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and lives in Oakland.