Sabaa Tahir, ALL MY RAGE

Sabaa Tahir, ALL MY RAGE

New York Times bestselling author Sabaa Tahir returns to talk about her latest novel, All My Rage, which she worked on for the last fifteen years whenever she got angry. She shares which real facets of her own life she wove into the story, from enduring xenophobia to the ebbs and flows of lifelong friendships, and which scene was written when she was the angriest she had ever been. Sabaa and Zibby also talk about empathy in this day and age, what they think about their kids reading their writing, and which projects Sabaa is working on next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sabaa. Thank you so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss All My Rage: A Novel.

Sabaa Tahir: Thank you. I’m very happy to be here.

Zibby: Fabulous title, by the way. This is great. It’s a nice thing just to leave on someone’s bedside or something to gently .

Sabaa: Like a subtweet but in book title form.

Zibby: Totally. I love it. We last spoke about your Ember in the Ashes series when we did a live event. Since then, you haven’t just written this. This is a labor of love that’s taken you a long time. Tell listeners about All My Rage and the journey to getting it out into the world. Congratulations now that you’re doing live events and all the good things.

Sabaa: Thank you. All My Rage started many years ago. It took me about fifteen years to write. I was thinking about this the other day and doing math. I actually started writing it more than fifteen years ago. It began right after college. I wanted to write but didn’t think it could be a real job. I was just sort of doing it because I’d always written. I’d always told stories. My parents had this motel that I had grown up at. They had recently sold it. It was very weird for me because I didn’t a chance to go say goodbye to it or have any closure. It was such a formative part of my childhood experience that I started thinking about it all the time. Then I started writing about it. Initially, I started writing about the tenets at the motel, all these different people who would come through and all the beautiful and awful things that they might do. Then I ended up shifting to the people who ran the motel.

That’s where the character of Misbah was really created. It was so long ago that it’s crazy to me that she stuck with the book for so long because that’s not always the case. Sometimes you create characters, and they sort of wander off the page and never come back. With Misbah, she stayed. Then slowly over time, I began to find these other characters who peopled her world. That’s really how the book started. I would write it when I was angry. I would call it my anger book, which, from the title, I’m sure you could tell. When I was frustrated with the world, when I’d have a terrible experience, I would turn to that book. I would pour myself into it because I didn’t owe that book to anyone. No one was expecting it. No one knew about it. It was this safe place for me to get out what I was feeling. Then eventually in 2017, 2018, I started seeing it come together as an actual full story. The story as it is now, that’s really when it came together.

Zibby: Wow, oh, my gosh. Some of the scenes were just so visual, vivid. I know this is how you write anyway, but really heartstring-tugging, emotional scenes, particularly the one at the hospital where every — I’m really bad with names. I’m going to forget all the names of the characters.

Sabaa: That’s okay.

Zibby: I’m sorry, this is my biggest flaw as a podcaster. Sal is there. His mom is admitted. He’s biked there. Ran there, sorry. He was going to bike. Then he ran there or whatever. He has to deal with his father who then slaps him accidentally — we don’t know — in front of this policeman. It’s so early on. I’m not giving anything away. He has to choose. Do I stay with my mom? Now I have to get my dad home. You could just feel this sense of being so stuck and there not being a right choice. It just felt so overwhelming. This sense of desperation and this predicament, I loved the pain of that moment.

Sabaa: I think it’s reflective of what happens to many teenagers. As adults, we really do like to think that we protect and shelter our children and that they’re okay and they’re safe and they’re fine, but there are so many who are not. They don’t have that protection. Then they have to make these very adult decisions when they’re not prepared to. There’s bound to be fallout from stuff like that because they don’t have life experience to really make a good and safe decision. As I was writing, I thought a lot about how much I didn’t want these kids to make certain decisions. I was like, no, don’t do it. I also realized that in that situation, I would probably make the same choice that they did. It’s not a good choice. Then I would probably have to deal with the consequences of that. There’s a lot of those moments in the book where these kids are really faced with no good choice. There’s no way to make what they’re dealing with any easier or lighter, but they find their way through. That’s ultimately what the book is about. It’s about hope and what happens on the other side of bad decisions and on the other side of grief and on the other side of sadness. That’s really what the story is about.

Zibby: Do you feel hopeful?

Sabaa: I do, yeah. It’s funny because amongst my family and friends, I’m sometimes known as the little raincloud. I’m the one who’s like, no, everything’s going to go wrong. For some reason, I think that’s a defensive mechanism. I actually think that deep, deep down, I am hopeful. I think you have to be hopeful to write a book for so many years, as I wrote both Ember and All My Rage. Something inside you has to think, maybe one day. Some part of you has to believe. It might be hope that’s really deeply buried, but it’s definitely there.

Zibby: When you kept coming back to the book over time, was there one part of it that you remember writing when you were at your most raw-rage moment yourself that you wrote that’s now in the book for all to see? Which scene was that, or many scenes? Pick one.

Sabaa: There are quite a few. The one that stands out to me, actually, I was probably the angriest I’ve ever been. It was chapter forty. It’s actually a very quiet scene, which is what’s sort of interesting about how it translated into writing. I wrote that years ago. I’m talking very beginning of this journey. It’s this scene where Salahudin is really contemplating the beginnings of his friendship with Noor and how he and Noor met and what she’s meant to him and what he’s meant to her over the years. It’s not meant to be this really loud, angry chapter, but it is meant to reflect reality just hitting this kid like a meteor when he realizes that the choices he’s made has had this awful effect on somebody who he loves. That’s something that I remember writing when I was really, really upset about something. I was happy I got to keep it in the book. I actually built a lot of the book knowing that I want that scene in there. It’s an important scene. It’s an important realization. How do I make that happen?

Zibby: Wow. I loved their whole dynamic from the first — I just really wanted them to get back together. I was like, these people have got to get back together. How long are they going to stay apart? There is too much. Even just the feeling of, I can’t even go to school today because this person — I’d kind of forgotten that whole stage of life, having your homeroom or your English class have somebody you’re having this intense thing with, whether you broke up or you’re together, you have a crush, or whatever. How are you supposed to also focus on the book or whatever you’re supposed to be doing? Oh, my gosh, it’s really a miracle anyone graduates from high school with all the hormones and all the relationships.

Sabaa: It is such a miracle. I think that it was hard for me because I wanted to give them this happily-ever-after. I wanted to bring them back to each other. I also kept thinking, what makes relationships really strong? I think that it is realizing that you can weather difficult things. Friendships in particular, I think about a lot of my oldest friendships, and we’ve absolutely had fights. We’ve absolutely not spoken to each other for a few weeks or a few months, even. Somehow, we find our way back to each other. There’s a level of depth that the friendship then has, almost like a seasoning. It’s like a cast iron pan.

Zibby: Oh, I love that.

Sabaa: Everything you go through is a little bit of oil. Then you season it. You cook it or whatever. You become more nonstick. That’s kind of how I see that.

Zibby: But with a cast iron pan, you have to let it sit afterwards, too, because it smolders. You can’t quickly wash it and have it all go away. The cast iron, you got to sit and wait.

Sabaa: You got to be patient. It is really the same with friendship. Salahudin had to learn that maybe he doesn’t deserve forgiveness. Maybe that’s not a choice he gets to make for somebody else. That’s an important thing that I had to learn as a kid. I don’t get to decide if somebody forgives me or not. That’s between them and themself, basically. Then hopefully, I’ll be the recipient of that forgiveness. If not, that is not my choice. I can’t change it. That’s a hard lesson to learn.

Zibby: Can you share any of the reality behind some of the angry moments?

Sabaa: Sure. Jamie, who is a character that Noor is dealing with, Jamie is this popular, very, very intelligent girl who is a little racist and doesn’t really realize it, sort of thinks that she’s equal opportunity and very woke, but she’s not. She doesn’t know it. There’s a moment with her where she — Noor’s green card falls out of her purse. It happens to be Noor’s old green card because as a lot of immigrants will know, you keep all your green cards. You don’t just throw one away. It used to be that you didn’t have to return one before you got a new one. You could keep the old one, and they’d just put a punch in it so that it wasn’t valid. Noor has her old one so she can have her number on her because her uncle keeps her current green card. Jamie sees it and is like, “Oh, my god, your green card is expired. You’re here illegally.” I remember something like that happening to me. They didn’t see my green card, but they were questioning whether I had one or not and had said that I was probably here illegally. I just remember the scorn that this person had for me.

I think about now, what’s happening in the world and the state of the world and the number of refugees in the world. My family was not a refugee family. We came to America because my father was looking for a job here. I just kept thinking as I was writing, there are people who really don’t have any empathy. They just don’t. They cannot put themselves in other people’s shoes. They just don’t know how to do it. I think Jamie is one of those people. I wanted to throw a bunch of my childhood and high school villains into this one uber monster. The thing about Jamie is that she’s very quietly awful. She becomes louder as the book goes on. When you first meet her, you’re not thinking, she’s so horrible. You’re thinking, oh, she’s a little competitive. She probably wants to know more about this girl who she’s so competitive with and where she’s going to college. As time goes on, you realize it’s a power thing. She believes she deserves to know what’s happening in Noor’s life. She deserves to be better than Noor. That’s because on her sense of superiority. That’s something that a lot of us have dealt with. Definitely, if you’re a woman, you’ve dealt with it. In general, I think a lot of us have all seen that person who thinks they’re better and makes sure that you know it.

Zibby: Have you seen the movie Bad Moms?

Sabaa: I saw it a long time ago, but I don’t remember it.

Zibby: Christina Applegate plays the mean mom. She is just terrible at every turn. At first, you think, maybe she’s going to be okay. She’s the head of the PA. Then at the end of the movie, she ends up breaking down, and you see why. You don’t always get that scene with people. You don’t get to crack the surface and find out that, oh, the reason this person is like this is because this horrific thing has happened to them, or this inherited trauma. Not that it makes it better, but it would be so much more helpful if we could see, oh, this person has no empathy because — sometimes, I feel like some people are just, unfortunately, born with that. I know some people like that. It’s very frustrating. There’s often a reason for being really mean all the time, and that need for superiority. I think the world would be a better place if we could crack in and be like, aha, that happened to you.

Sabaa: There it is.

Zibby: Take the hate, and let’s turn that around. This is sounding much hokier than when I started talking about this.

Sabaa: No, no, I feel you. The thing is, as a kid, I wanted that. I wanted to know, why are you so awful? I never got that answer for a lot of these kids. I never got the answer. I would meet their parents. Their parents would be perfectly nice people. They seemed to have everything. There had to have been some root reason, I would think, but I never found it. I wanted to also, in the book, kind of reflect that. These kids don’t always find a reason for why their tormentors are so horrible.

Zibby: It’s true. I had someone be really mean to me at a summer camp once when I was eight. I kind of have never got over it because it was so hurtful. I didn’t know people could be mean like that, that mean. This person recently came back into my life tangentially on an email. I said to her, “By the way, you probably don’t remember because we were eight, but you did all these things that were really, really hurtful.” She wrote back and said she was sorry and she was going through a lot at that time too.

Sabaa: It’s usually the case. It’s usually the case someone’s going through something. They’re experiencing something. We just have no idea. That’s why I’ll tell my kids and I myself will try to — if I feel myself getting heated with somebody else, I try to be like, okay, what might they be going through? What might their day be like? Maybe they’re going through something and you’re really just making it worse. Do you want to be the person who puts the straw that broke the camel? Do you want to be that guy, or do you want to be someone who makes their day better and who makes the world a little better for them or makes the day a little less worse? It is something you have to learn over time. It took me forty years to learn that lesson.

Zibby: Me too, forty-five. I was trying to teach this to my kids last night, actually, because one of them was really angry about something. The other one went over to make them feel better. It didn’t work at all. I was trying to explain it after. I was like, “Listen, your sibling was so upset that they’re like a teapot with steam or smoke coming out. You just got in the way of the smoke. It didn’t matter who was going to come in the way. You were going to get smoke in your face.” Sometimes when you see people exploding, nothing good can come of it. It worked enough that they fell asleep, so whatever. That’s all I cared about.

Sabaa: I have two preteens, so it’s good to know that I have a lot to look forward to.

Zibby: I have older kids too, as you know. We just do our best. I think the more this narrative of compassion even for the most mean people — it can’t hurt. I’m sorry that happened to you.

Sabaa: That’s okay. I’ve definitely had my revenge.

Zibby: I’m glad you could expunge some of the memories in this form. It seems like a giant therapeutic case to throw that stuff in and then throw out somewhere else.

Sabaa: Absolutely. That is what it was. It was total therapy.

Zibby: What are you working on now? You said there won’t be another one for a while.

Sabaa: I’m working on the All My Rage script, the screenplay for the TV show, which is very exciting. It has been optioned by Picturestart. Me and my cowriter are working on that right now. Then I have a short story that I’m working on about very angry fairy who lives in the mountains. That’s almost done. Then I have a big project. I can’t share anything about it other than that it’s a fantasy. There are three main points of view. One is a very angry prisoner. One is a philosophical warrior prince. The other one is a kind of sardonic tracker type. It’s been so fun to work on. The thing about writing contemporary is that you can’t solve your problems with magic or dragons or a battle scene. I’m really enjoying being able to be like, ooh, battle scene here. It makes it really fun to write.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I love that. Do your kids read your books?

Sabaa: They are a little young. They’re twelve and ten. Their reading level is a little young too. I actually think that if my twelve-year-old was reading more YA, maybe he would be able to read it because he can handle pretty mature topics. He’s super into Percy Jackson and Rick Riordan and Roshani Chokshi’s series. He loves Skulduggery Pleasant. We’re a year away, I think. Then we’ll see. I’ve told him a million times, probably because I’m really insecure about it, I’m like, “If you don’t like it, you can put it down. It’s okay. My feelings won’t be hurt.” He’s like, “Your feelings will totally be hurt. I’m not going to put it down. I’m going to read the whole thing.” He knows me too well.

Zibby: I just got the galleys recently for my memoir coming out. I was sure my kids would care. No. My daughter, who I’m so close to, she’s almost fifteen. I’m like, “Did you start reading the book?” She’s like, “It was great. I skimmed it.” I was like, “You did not!”

Sabaa: There’s no mercy, man. No mercy from the kids.

Zibby: No. It’s crazy. It’s really thankless, this whole writing thing.

Sabaa: It really is.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Sabaa: My advice is — there’s two things I like to tell authors. The first thing is, if you are trying to write and you’re struggling, just start. Get anything on the page. Even if it seems like garbage to you, it can always be edited. I always say so much of writing is editing. Ninety percent of writing, for me, is editing. I throw a really hideous, embarrassing draft onto a page, don’t let anyone see, and then I go back and I make it better. I can’t do anything if I have an empty page. I can’t edit if I have an empty page. Just start. Just get something on the page. The second thing I’d say is I feel like there’s this — I don’t know what you’d call it. Not a movement, but there’s this thing where people are like, this was my word count for today. I’m on chapter blah. I finished edits. It’s very action-oriented writing. I think that we need to dream a little bit more. We need to let ourselves kind of go back to what we love about writing and the original storytelling of staring off into space and imagining a world or imagining a character. I think that that’s really the most beautiful part of writing, is the dreaming. My mother said this one time. I’m just going to say it to other people. Half of writing is dreaming, so let yourself dream just a little bit more. It brings the joy back to writing if you’re struggling as a writer. And patience because sometimes the story takes fifteen years. You never know.

Zibby: You never know. Somebody today in — I can’t even do the math quick enough. Fifteen years from 2022. 2037, your book is coming out, so get ready.

Sabaa: 2037, your book is coming out. Yes, exactly.

Zibby: That’ll be something fun to look forward to. Thank you so much for coming back on. Congratulations. I’m really excited for you to have such a personally based, cathartic, and also beautiful situation in this book. I’m really excited for you. Congrats.

Sabaa: Thank you so much, Zibby. It was a pleasure, as always.

Zibby: You too. Have a great day.

Sabaa: Take care. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

ALL MY RAGE by Sabaa Tahir

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