Yara's childhood has been a complicated one: growing up in Aleppo, Syria, as a revolution brewed meant a tense and unpredictable existence. And when the Arab Spring unfurls, it means violence on a scale the young girl hasn't even imagined - her home, her parents, and her Nana are all suddenly gone. She and brother are rescued from the rubble, but Saad is traumatized into silence, leaving Yara to lead their way to safety. A powerful, tense, and toughly beautiful story of overcoming impossible odds and holding onto love in the most difficult circumstances, Jamal Saeed's Yara's Spring (Annick Press) is a book for every young reader.
Saeed drew on his own story of astonishing courage and conviction for Yara's Spring: He spent twelve years as a prisoner of conscience in Syria before being invited to Canada, where he raises awareness about Syria's humanitarian crisis as a writer, artist, and activist. He worked with acclaimed author Shraon E. McKay to bring Yara's story to the page, where it comes alive with evocative drawings by award-winning illustrator Nahid Kazemi.
We're deeply honoured to welcome Jamal to Open Book to discuss his journey to bringing Yara's Spring to life. He tells us how the book goes beyond a war narrative to become a story of "love and adventure", how he and PEI-based McKay spent two years getting the story just right, and the pain and joy of revisiting his own memories of the past - and hopes for the future - to create Yara's story.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
The Canadian writer Ray Argyle (head of The Kingston Writers' Refugee Committee, and sponsor of my family) emailed me about a book that Sharon McKay was considering.
Sharon and I meet and immediately connected.
Sharon suggested that we write the book together. I did not hesitate in saying yes. We began building a story that strongly reflected the reality of teenage life in Syria.
Is there a message you hope kids might take away from reading your book?
Of course! The book gives a picture of the Syrian civil war but it is also about family, friendship, loyalty, and the support of strangers. It is also about love and adventure!
Did the book look the same in the end as your originally envisioned it when you started working, or did it change through the writing process?
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The main characters and their experiences stayed as I had imagined them. Sharon (who lives in PEI) and I talked, emailed, and texted over two years. There were many changes but we stayed true to the experiences of Syrians from beginning to end.
Is there a character in your book that you relate to? If so, in what ways are you similar to your character and in what ways are you different?
I feel I know most characters in the book. They look like real people I know and relate to.
I, like Yara, suffered during the civil war. When I was seventeen-years-old I watched as my family home was raided by soldiers of the al-Assad regime. I was arrested at nineteen for passing out pamphlets. I was held in prison, without charge, without seeing a lawyer or judge, for twelve years.
Thankfully Yara and her best friend Shireen do not experience prison but they, like me, must draw on inner strength to survive.
What was the strangest or most memorable moment or experience during the writing process for you?
Once, I received a new chapter from Sharon by mail. I wanted to discuss with her a specific event. I began writing an email saying: "Sharon, how do we convince the readers that the building was bombed after Yara departed?" Before sending the email, a friend of mine who was still living in Syria, told me how the house he was living in was bombed twenty minutes after his departure. I delete what I wrote to Sharon and told her that the chapter was realistic.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
I need a table that is big enough for a laptop and a cup of coffee. (Sometimes empty cups meet each other on my table). I need a fridge to open and close. (Often I just open and close it without taking anything out!) When I am thinking deeply, I eat whatever is available when the fridge door is opened. It is good to have a backyard. I like to walk and think of anything but writing.
How do you cope with setbacks or tough points during the writing process? Do you have any strategies that are your go-to responses to difficult points in the process?
Facing a tough point makes me write down the problem. Re-reading the problem leads me to researching, chatting with friends, and building up a solution.
Many times, the solutions for the narrating technique, style, or enrichment of the characters, flashes in my head suddenly when I am in the shower, getting up in the morning, walking, or even shopping.
Yara loves her country. So do I. I miss the peaceful Syrian I grew up in. Writing this project has made me think about my past, the good and the bad. Now that I am in Canada with my beautiful wife and sons, it makes me wonder too of a future I could never have imagined.
Jamal Saeed spent twelve years as a prisoner of conscience in Syria before being invited to Canada in 2016. He continues to raise awareness about Syria’s ongoing civil war and humanitarian crisis through his work as an activist, editor, visual artist, and author. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.