Young Adult novelist and alum writes stories of ‘revolutionary girls’

Samira Ahmed, AB’93, MAT’93, draws inspiration from BA thesis in forthcoming book

Editor’s note: This story is part of ‘Meet a UChicagoan,’ a regular series focusing on the people who make UChicago a distinct intellectual community. Read about the others here.

Though Samira Ahmed may be long graduated from the University of Chicago, she’s still at home in the intellectual community of Hyde Park. 

Whether beneath the sunlit dome of Mansueto Library or among the bustling clatter near the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, the novelist often can be found working on the South Side campus that first inspired her to be an author.

“UChicago was really the place I learned to write. This is where I learned how to create an argument and do research,” said Ahmed, AB’93, MAT’93, who lives in Hyde Park. “It was a very rigorous education, which is what I wanted, and our professors did a fantastic job of challenging us to have the ability and confidence to work on craft.”

After years teaching high school English and working in education nonprofits, Ahmed turned her career to writing Young Adult novels—a type of fiction aimed at teens and adults. In the past two years she has published two New York Times best-sellersLove, Hate & Other Filters and Internmentand this spring, she will publish her third novel: An inspirational story that draws upon her UChicago bachelor’s thesis in English.

Years ago, Ahmed was in Paris when a painting stirred memories of her BA research on Romantic Orientalism and inspired the plot of her forthcoming novel, Mad, Bad & Dangerous to KnowBlending historical and contemporary Young Adult fiction, the novel follows Leila, a 19th-century Muslim woman who struggles with life in a harem; and Khayyam, a 17-year-old budding art historian who begins to piece together Leila’s story through the works of Alexandre Dumas, Eugène Delacroix and Lord Byron—Romantic figures Ahmed first studied at UChicago. 

In the face of sexism and Islamophobia, Ahmed’s dual protagonists fight to write their own stories.

“A lot of the story is about upending Romantic Orientalism,” she said. “My thesis and the research I did as an undergraduate gave me a great lens into the novel, a conduit of sorts.”

In all her work, Ahmed strives to explore the untold stories of “revolutionary girls”—women who have been written out of many valued forms of art and culture.

“Revolutions can be very loud; necessarily, in fact. For example, in my second novel, my main character is literally imprisoned and needs to fight for herself and her family. But there’s also the idea of a quiet revolution, which means to just be able to live your life in a way that is true and authentic to yourself,” Ahmed said. “Just as Khayyam is trying to figure out her own way, the reader can also see Leila’s story, and we see how those two stories across centuries begin to connect.”

Origins of inquiry

Ahmed first became interested in Romantic Orientalism in a College course taught by Prof. Jim Chandler, a leading scholar of English literature. Taking Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a central text, the course taught students about different analytical lenses—including biographical, historical and literary criticism—and sparked Ahmed’s curiosity.

“I realized, in the midst of Frankenstein, there were all these Orientalist tropes,” Ahmed said, referring to the character Safie, a young woman of Middle Eastern parentage whose education is taken over by the De Laceys. “To me, she represented this character of a Middle Eastern woman who needed to be saved by the white family. I became very curious about that trope.”

It wasn’t until five years ago, when she was in the Petit Palais in Paris, that a painting reminded Ahmed of her BA thesis—and helped inspire her latest novel.

Delacroix’s The Combat of the Giaour and the Pasha takes inspiration from the Lord Byron fictional poem The Giaour, which tells the story of Leila, a young woman who belongs to the harem of Pasha Hassan. Leila is drowned in a sack when the Pasha learns of her affair with a Venetian man known as the Giaour. Though the poem and, subsequently, the painting both focus on the ensuing duel for vengeance between the Giaour and the Pasha, Ahmed was more interested in Leila.

“The whole story is about Leila, and yet she doesn’t have a voice in it at all—it’s just about these two men fighting over her,” she said. “None of her story is depicted on the canvas. In Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know, Leila’s story is the feminist twist on The Giaour—that narrative from her point of view.”

Honing in on hopefulness

As Ahmed prepares to release her third novel, she continues to work to hone her craft. 

“Everything you write is a dialogue with yourself,” she said. “It's also a dialogue with the reader, of course, but in those first drafts, you are the only reader. What leads me in the process is this sense of curiosity and inquiry. Where can I take these characters? Where can I take the story? How can I write it in a way that allows these characters to speak their truth and be interesting?”

While Ahmed challenges herself to bring the ideas that have long fascinated her to new stories, she continues to see writing Young Adult fiction as an opportunity for hopefulness.

“I think writing Young Adult fiction is about writing into the realm of possibility,” Ahmed said. “At that age, people are so much on the cusp between childhood and adulthood, and it's both this time of making decisions and this time of opportunity. I visualize it as a place where there are all these doors that are closed, but not necessarily locked. 

“It's about kids having this choice—not every door is going to be easy to open. Some doors are going to be pulling back against those kids. But I think Young Adult literature is about opening those doors.”

While Ahmed is at work on her next project, she continues to appreciate Hyde Park as a center for scholarship and community. She also has hosted her book launches and discussions at 57th Street Books, where she still loves to browse the shelves.

“My ideal Chicago neighborhood has, in walking distance, a bookstore, a coffee shop, access to the lake, a grocery store and neighbors from diverse backgrounds. Hyde Park embodies that,” she said. “I enjoy grabbing a chocafe at the Medici and walking around campus when I need a mental break from writing, and I almost always run into someone from the neighborhood and chat for a bit, which gives Hyde Park an almost village-like feel with the benefit of being in an incredible city.”