Sheba Karim’s new novel, The Marvelous Mirza Girls, follows the gap-year adventures of Noreen, who moves to New Delhi from New Jersey with her hip single mom, Ruby, to recover from the recent death of her beloved aunt. During their time in India’s ancient capital, mother and daughter come to terms with the family’s deep loss, deal with the stifling values of the family matriarch, and most importantly – learn about love. Against the backdrop of Delhi’s complex society, Hindu–Muslim tensions, and its glamorous arts scene, Sheba Karim weaves an insightful tale.
Kirkus reviews says this: “Filled with beautiful imagery, sensory language, clever structuring, and humor, this is a romantic coming-of-age story… An engaging and perceptive story of love, grief, and personal awakening.”
Dead Darlings is pleased to introduce Sheba Karim!
Rishi Reddi: From where did you draw your inspiration for writing this story? As I was reading about young Noreen’s adventures in Delhi, I was tickled to realize that the novel reflects my own teenage fantasies during family trips to India. I always wanted to meet a handsome young man who would introduce me to the rich history of my native city, without my parents interfering!
Sheba Karim: I moved to Delhi in 2009 on a Fulbright for Creative Writing. It was a life-changing experience for me in many ways, not least of which because I started dating my now-husband there. I wanted to write a coming of age novel that explores how seeing a new city through the eyes of your beloved informs both your love of the person and of that place. Some of it was drawn from my own experience; my husband used to take me to ruins in Delhi I otherwise would not have known existed, just as Kabir does with Noreen.
RR: The characters of 18-year-old Noreen; her mother, Ruby; and her grandmother, Azra, are revealingly distinct, and depict so much about how many immigrant families are simultaneously attached to their old society and attracted to their new country. You so successfully capture the humor (and sometimes the horror) of how mothers and daughters speak to each other. And – no small feat – you skillfully braid in South Asian culture, politics, Islamaphobia and the #MeToo movement. How did you conceive of these three generations of women?
SK: As a mother of two girls, I think much more about what kind of parent I want to be than my parents did. Part of this is generational difference, part of it is that my parents were too focused on trying to build a life in a new country to afford their kids the privilege of one day becoming angsty parents. Another reason I worry about my children’s emotional well-being is a result of therapy; when I started therapy as an adult, I was surprised to find how much I talked about my childhood, how much my upbringing had shaped me. They don’t call it the “formative” years for nothing! I look at my own kids and think, what am I doing to you now that you will be working through with your therapist in 30 years? Ruby is very aware of this—in raising Noreen, she doesn’t want to repeat what she perceives as her parents’ mistakes, while knowing she’ll also make new ones of her own.
Azra is someone who’s pretty fixed in her ways, and Ruby has accepted they’re never going to be close. And though Ruby has become more forgiving of her mother, there’s a part of her that still feels like a perpetual teenager when she visits her parents, hoping for an emotional resolution that will never come. With Noreen, Ruby wants to foster the kind of intimacy she craved while growing up, wants her daughter to feel supported, be open about her life and her feelings. Ruby and Noreen’s relationship is also loosely inspired by the mother-daughter relationship in the show Gilmore Girls—I wanted Noreen and Ruby to have a similar closeness and banter.
RR: Your book contains a great degree of openness about the blossoming of Noreen’s sexuality. I love that! Was this aspect important for you to depict, and if so, why?
SK: Generally speaking, it’s hard for people to speak frankly about the body and sex, and post-colonial South Asian culture has a very uncomfortable relationship with female desire. To me, this makes it even more important for South Asian writers to address these subjects in our work, as a way of countering the stigma and shame attached to female pleasure, particularly for readers who may not even be allowed to talk about sexuality. Sex isn’t just a physical act, it’s also a form of communication. When you’re writing about a first love in which the two people are having sex, but ignoring (or vaguely alluding to) the sexual aspect of the relationship, it can send a message that it’s too shameful to write about, when in fact it’s a normal and healthy act that can foster deeper emotional intimacy.
As a parent, Ruby is also very intentional about raising Noreen with sex positive/feminist values, so Noreen has a leg up compared to some women her age. Ironically, she’s discovering her sexuality in a city where the public space is dominated by men, where being a woman in public is often fraught and discomfiting, and where women are constantly subjected to the male gaze.
RR: Delhi is almost a character in the novel. You depict its modern presence so vividly – the descriptions of its residents, the importance of the air quality index, the influence of current politics – along with the constant backdrop of the city’s historic monuments. Even though the old mosques and palaces belong to a by-gone era, they come alive on the page. How did you go about researching this novel?
SK: I’ve lived in Delhi off and on for a total of almost four years since 2009. My husband is an anthropologist with a deep knowledge of medieval Delhi and its ruins, so my research was often as easy as going into another room and asking a question. When I was living in Delhi in 2018 and working on this book, I revisited all the places that Noreen and Kabir visit in the novel.
As for the political aspects, when you’re from a minority community, you’re very aware that the government’s platform is one of communalism and bigotry. Nearly every morning, when Noreen opens the newspaper, she’s reading about violence against Muslim, Dalit, and Christian communities, as well as violence against women. Though her ex-pat status grants her a certain privilege, politics and the rise of extremism is frequently discussed by the people in her circles, and is part of her everyday.
RR: Your main characters are born into the Muslim faith, and they each have a different orientation toward the practice of the religion and their belief in the divine. Could you comment more about that? Did you feel that you had something to say in the context of modern American society?
SK: The characters each have different relationships with religion in the book. Azra’s relationship to Islam is rooted in community, with a heavy emphasis on “What will people say?” and the desire for belonging, and the fear of judgment. Noreen’s aunt, Sonia, is a practicing Muslim who has a more spiritual and intellectual relationship to Islam. Ruby doesn’t consider herself religious, but finds herself praying after Sonia’s death. Kabir has an affinity for Islamic mysticism. In Delhi, Noreen has a spiritual experience inspired by the sacred geometry of Islamic architecture. Given that Delhi has an integral, centuries old relationship with Islam, I wanted to explore how religion (expansively defined to include things such as dreams, mysticism, art, ethics, architecture), can touch people’s lives, even if they don’t practice Islam or ascribe to its beliefs.
RR: What else would you add about this book?
When I was writing this book, I never could have imagined that when it came out, Delhi would be in a catastrophic Covid second-wave, with people literally dying on the street and pyres burning 24-7. It’s been heartbreaking to watch from afar. Though my book is contemporary, it feels, in a sense, like historical fiction; the Delhi it portrays may never exist again. Who know what Delhi will look like on the other side of this pandemic, or the rest of the world, for that matter?
About Sheba Karim
Sheba Karim is the author of the YA novels Skunk Girl, That Thing We Call a Heart, which made several Best Book lists including Bank Street and Kirkus, and Mariam Sharma Hits the Road, which was named a NPR Best Book of the Year. Her fiction and essays have been featured in 580 Split, Asia Literary Review, Femina, India Today, Literary Hub, Off Assignment, Shenandoah, South Asian Review, The Rumpus, Time Out Delhi and in several anthologies in the United States and India. She has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is a Writer-in-Residence at Vanderbilt University.