Interview with Rhonda Roumani author of Tagging Freedom

Hi Rhonda, welcome to TeenLibrarian and thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about Tagging Freedom!

Can you please introduce yourself to readers of TL?

I am the daughter of Syrian immigrants to the United States. I am a journalist and have written about Islam and the Arab world for many years. I started writing children’s literature in 2017. The war in Syria was raging and I was very frustrated with adults and how little they understood what was happening or what had happened in Syria. I wanted children to hear our stories earlier so that when they grow up, they’ll do a better job making sense of the world around them.

Would you be able to give a short elevator pitch to us to introduce Tagging Freedom?

Tagging Freedom is about two cousins – a Syrian boy named Kareem and his Syrian American cousin named Samira – who, through graffiti and artivism, learn to make sense of the revolution taking place in Syria and discover what they stand for in the process and what their role might be even when they’re far away.

My next question is going to go a bit wide, but it does tie in to the book – do you know how things in Syria are going at the moment? (Most of the news about the war in Syria has been overshadowed by Ukraine and now the Gaza conflict). Are there any trustworthy sources of news you could recommend for anyone wanting to find out more?

In English, I recommend reading the Guardian and Al Jazeera English for news about the Arab world. I also follow Middle East Eye, Al-Monitor. The New Arab, The Public Source, and the BBC. I always check information. I want to know who owns the news source and what their spin might be. No news is completely unbiased. These days, I always check where the journalist is reporting from and I’m always asking who their sources are and checking facts with other sources or reports.

There is still fighting in certain parts of Syria– there was even an uprising a few months ago in Idlib. But much of the country has quieted down. People in Syria are struggling financially. During the summer, the electricity is cut for most of the day. And the cost of food has skyrocketed. The entire region is really struggling right now.

As an immigrant myself I am always interested in finding out more about other communities, is there a large Syrian/Syrian-American community in the US?

I grew up in a Syrian community in Los Angeles. It wasn’t huge, but it was sizeable. We started off surrounded mostly by Syrians, but I think as we grew older and as my parents got used to being in the U.S., we naturally branched out to different groups. We ended up in different Muslim and Arab groups comprised mostly of Syrians, Lebanese, Egyptians, Iraqis and Palestinians. As we started asking more questions about our identity as Syrians and Arabs and Muslims, it was only natural that we branched out. They also came from a generation that centered around Arabism, I think. You do have large groups of Arabs in Los Angeles, as well as in other large U.S. cities like New York City, Boston, and various mid-western cities like Toledo, Dearborn, Patterson and other cities in New Jersey and even in cities like New Orleans. There’s even a large Jewish Syrian population in New York.

Young people have always formed an integral part of any uprising/protest against brutal regimes and abuses of power – how true to life were Kareem’s experiences in Syria?

I actually wasn’t in Syria during the uprising in 2011. But I was there in 2002-2006, when the opposition movement was taking shape in Syria, during a time that was dubbed the Damascus Spring. Young people were definitely interested and young people were integral to the revolution in Syria. I based Kareem on different people that I had read about and people that I remembered from my time there. He is a compilation of characters, really. The fact that the revolution was ignited by a small act of resistance, by a group of kids who graffitied on a wall outside their school makes it so much about young people. But the revolution involved people of all ages really. The scene where Kareem is experiencing his first protest is an important one. Most kids would have seen or been a part of pro-government rallies. But to see people of all ages, coming out to protest the government, to demand freedom – on this level – that was new. So that is very much based on reality. Also, I worked for an organization that brought Syrian students to the U.S. and Canada to complete their education, and many of those students became activists or voices for freedom in the U.S. So I definitely based Kareem on some of those students.

When reading fiction works based on fact, I always enjoy an author’s afterword and factual vignettes that tie in to the narrative (when they are included) and your work was no exception. Can you recommend other books or articles for anyone (me) who is interested in learning more about the Arab Spring in general and Syria in particular?

There’s the graphic novel Muhammad Najem: War Reporter. I can’t think of a book that would explain the entire revolution, along with the conflict– for teens. Maybe that needs to be written. Some of the best journalists during the war were women. I especially loved the reporting of Rania Abouzeid, Anne Bernard, and Lina Sinjab. Rania wrote a book called No Turning Back: Life, Loss and Hope in Wartime Syria. She also wrote a Middle Grade/ YA book based on that book called Sisters of War. I would definitely recommend reading anything she wrote! Sisters of War would be a good start.

The themes of speaking up in the face of inequality and social justice are woven throughout Tagging Freedom. Do you have any recommendations for young readers who may wish to do the same but are not sure where or how to start?

History is constantly being rewritten as different groups are able to tell their own stories. Watching what is happening in Palestine right now speaks to that. As Arabs, as Syrians, the story of what happened in Palestine has always been close to our hearts because we know people who have been displaced, people who have lost their homes. We know people from Gaza. They are our best friends. So, I would say that the first thing we need to do is ask questions. Look at stories from different points of views. Even stories that you have grown up with. Then, as you learn more, you will naturally find others who are interested, others who want to know more. And it will build. With time, you will find your people who care about the same issues that you care about. Whether it’s the environment, or what is happening in your city or schools, or anything that you’re interested in. First learn as much as you can about what has happened. The more knowledge you have, the more you can contribute to the narrative that exists about that subject. It will grow organically– finding others who care about the same subject, others who want to take action.

There is a small (but growing) group of Muslim authors writing books for younger readers in the US, are you able to recommend any personal favorites you may have?

I have so many!! I think if you’re talking about picture books, I absolutely love Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow (YOUR NAME IS A SONG and ABDUL’S STORY), Hannah Moushabeck (Homeland: My Father Dreams of Palestine), and Aya Khalil (THE ARABIC QUILT and THE NIGHT BEFORE EID). For Middle Grade, there’s Reem Faruqi’s novels in verse. I absolutely love her work. And for YA, there’s Huda Fahmy, of course! Huda F Cares? and Huda F Are YOU? and Malaka Gharib (graphic novels), Zoulfa Katouh and Reem Shukairy. It’s so hard to mention only a few. The Kidlit space for Muslims is very exciting right now!

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions! I really enjoyed Tagging Freedom and was wondering if you had any plans for a follow up novel or sequel?

I do not have plans for a sequel, but I do have two picture books coming out this year. One is called Insha’Allah, No, Maybe So (Holiday House) and another is called Umm Kulthum, Star of the East (Interlink Publishing.) I’m also working on a new Middle Grade but prefer to keep that a secret for now! Thank you for your questions!

Tagging Freedom is published by Union Square Kids, it is available now in the US and is published in the UK on Thursday February 22nd.

You can find out more about Rhonda and her work on her website: https://www.rhondaroumani.com/

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