Mariya Khan - Author of "Sunday Brunch"

Mariya Khan is a graduate of The George Washington University and Summer Institute at the University of Iowa International Writing Program. Her work received awards from the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition and has appeared in the Summer Institute anthology Multitudes50 Word StoriesWriting in a Woman’s VoiceConstellate Literary Journal (forthcoming), and Creative Kids. When she's not working as an Editorial Assistant at National Geographic Books, she is trying new recipes and watching crime dramas.

1. What has your experience been like as an Asian in America?

I was lucky to grow up in a diverse suburb with big Muslim, Pakistani, and Indian communities. It made me feel less alone when I was fasting all day during Ramadan or had to skip school and fall behind to celebrate with family. Some people would never understand why I couldn’t eat or drink at the lunch table, but I knew that a Muslim or South Asian would at least understand why. Even if it’s a small group, you still have a connection tied to your homeland and culture. I feel a bit more comfortable and more myself when I’m with people who understand my family traditions. I’m privileged enough to not have faced discrimination or terrible comments because of my religion or race. However, I also don’t wear a hijab, which immediately lets people know that I’m Muslim. So for some, with my brown skin, brown eyes, and brown hair, I just look ethnic.

I think everyone can attest how annoying this is, but I constantly get asked where I’m really from. They see me and believe that my family history isn’t rooted in America, that we must have come from somewhere else. That can be difficult to answer, especially when you don’t feel fully connected to the distant country your family hails from. I didn’t even learn that I was both Pakistani and Indian until my parents told me in high school. Growing up, I thought my dad immigrated from Pakistan and my mom just grew up in the American South. I learned that her family immigrated from India before she was born. It partly contextualized why some people in my Pakistani and Indian communities look and treat us a certain way. I always thought it was me, because my interest in writing diverged from medicine or other stereotypical careers prescribed to Asians. The history, animosity, and stereotypes between Pakistan and India, however, were what seeped into my suburban life in Maryland. I’ve started reconciling all the different threads of my identity. First in my undergraduate memoir class, where I poured everything out as if it was my therapy, and second at a summer program at the University of Iowa. The Summer Institute was a cultural exchange program with young writers from India, Pakistan, and the U.S. I was physically surrounded by three pieces of my identity, able to watch them interact and blend together. It gave me the confidence to finally start owning and exploring my voice, perspective, and identity through writing.

2. What was the inspiration for “Sunday Brunch”? How did the story develop or change from start to finish?

This story was originally a historical fiction piece about a white girl getting her family bakery ready for weekend customers. As I started to revise it, I felt like it was only scratching the surface and I wanted to bring a deeper level to the story. That’s when I decided to completely rewrite the story with a South Asian protagonist. There are so many intricacies in our culture to explore topics like gender, food, marriage, and family, and the historical fiction had some good foundations to expand on.

I was craving some South Asian food from my hometown when I was working on this story for my undergraduate fiction workshop. There are a couple of local Pakistani restaurants that are staples in my community and known for things like handmade samosas, butter chicken, and extensive buffets. I had the rough layout of these restaurants in mind when I pictured how Laila and the other characters moved in the space. Also, Laila’s brother originally came into the restaurant alone, and I used Shanti to up the stakes. She was such a fun character to write, and brought the story to a whole different level with the conflict she created. Jonah was another character that wasn’t originally in the story. As I looked at Laila’s reaction to her brother’s quick engagement and her thoughts on the restaurant and marriages in the Desi community, I felt like there was more to tell about her. Jonah was a way to explore her character and the complexity of interracial marriage add another layer to her and the story. I was surprised at how natural their scenes and moments together seemed when I was writing.

3. How would you describe your writing and revision process What have you found to be most helpful for you when dealing with writer’s block?

Some people only focus on one writing project for a long period of time, especially if it’s a novel. I’m the opposite: a sporadic writer. When I’m writing a sentence, if another idea or piece of dialogue comes to mind, I jump to a new line and start typing until I return to the place I left behind. As I go back, I create more sentences to fill in the gaps and weave things together. I’m usually juggling with multiple pieces at once because of all the ideas I have in my head. I think cinematically when I write, visually thinking through characters’ actions and movements in the spaces they occupy.

Writer’s block usually comes when I get frustrated and feel like nothing is right. To cope, I turn to another project to focus on until I’m ready to pick it back up again. Or I might pick up a book to read or binge on TV and movies. It sometimes means that I’m working on a piece for months at a time. But I always find my way back. And when I do I write with a bigger flourish and dedication than ever. Writing workshops during my undergrad years were my main motivators to worry about and follow deadlines. Now that I’m writing more for me, I don’t really follow any deadlines, unless there’s a specific publication or contest I want to submit to.

4. What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve received as a writer and what advice would you give new writers?

I tend to overwrite any project that I’m working on, whether it is a short story or an essay. Even though I rein my writing back with merciless editing, I still write too many details that at the time feel necessary to include. My most valuable writing advice not only came from my writing and English professors, but also from my journalism professors. They’ve all taught me the value of word choice—of making sure each detail serves a purpose in the piece. When I’m editing, it helps me cut away the extra details and sentences that are implied through the characters’ behaviors and better left unsaid. It tightened my writing and also launched my exploration into flash fiction.

That’s the advice I’d give to new writers. You might feel that it’s important to include everything about a character or setting, especially at the beginning of the story. Weave in those details throughout. Offer glimpses of details that impact the character and story. Things like this allow important pieces of information to appear naturally without seeming forced upon the reader.

5. What do you enjoy most about working as an editorial assistant? What do you find most challenging?

I love helping our adult book editors with a variety of nonfiction book projects - from history to travel to nature to science. It’s fun to learn about the publishing industry from the other side of the aisle. You learn about the different moving parts of what goes into a book and how long it takes to produce and receive the finished product—whether it is a narrative, a poetry chapbook, or illustrated reference. Even though I’ve done a couple of publishing internships, for the first time I’m learning about the business side of publishing and the different factors that make a book and its success.

And I’ve always dreamed of being involved with National Geographic in some retrospect. Every day I am part of something that uses storytelling to foster change and consciousness in the human condition and natural world. I get the chance to attend talks, documentary and film screenings to widen my perspective about the environment and culture. What else can you ask for in your first post-grad job?

Everyone in the community is really welcoming, but it’s been a challenge adjusting to the social side of the adult world. I’m very introverted, so I try to push out of my comfort zone—from speaking more during meetings to attending more networking and social events. I’m getting involved with events hosted by different minority groups at Nat Geo, and I’m also planning to join a workshop group of women of color writers in D.C.

6. What are some of your favorite recipes or new recipes you have tried recently?

I’m pretty much on Pinterest every day looking for recipes to tweak. My friends and family love my banana bread. I adapted the original recipe by using five bananas instead of three, and it gives a moist, stronger banana flavor. We’re always saving bananas in my house for it, and it’s a fun and easy food to bake on the weekend. For this year’s Superbowl, I tried a recipe with steak, sweet potatoes, and bell peppers. The original recipe didn’t season the meat (an abomination!) and required more colorful peppers than I had. Much like Laila’s grandmother in the story, I don’t measure spices or salt when I’m cooking. I just sprinkle them in until it looks enough. You need real self-confidence to trust yourself like that. I feel like most cooks in Desi households don’t really measure the spices they use. I wasn’t sure if the recipe worked, but everyone got at least two helpings and finished it by the end of the night. So I guess it was a success!

7. What are you currently reading? What book has been most influential on your life or on you as a writer?

A little late to the game, but I’m almost finished with On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. I love beautiful, poetic prose and Vuong does this through intimate letters from a son to his mom. Vuong lyrically explores topics such as trauma, family, history, race, and class. It’s been a revelation to read and an influence in how I explore similar concepts in my own work. While I am a proud Hufflepuff, I don’t think my love of the Harry Potter novels was the real reason why I started writing. However, reading a character like Hermione Granger helped me see that there was nothing wrong with smart girls who burrow their heads in books and love school. Anne of Green Gables and the Nancy Drew mysteries were two of many women-led novels that inspired me to write. They were powerful and claimed their voices in their own unique ways and really helped me shape my characters and find my own voice. In Anne of Green Gables particularly, I was lost in the abundant natural imagery of Prince Edward Island, which encouraged me to include it in my own writing. Virginia Woolf was the one who really elevated my photographic and artistic lens when it came to writing. Without her, I wouldn’t have connected the natural world to human emotion and focused on how words look and sound on the page.

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