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February 28, 2018 at 10:00 AM EST

Five years after her award-winning debut If You Could Be Mine, Sara Farizan is returning with another powerful YA novel about identity and prejudice.

Her new book is Here to Stay, a sharp and nuanced exploration of how one’s race can impact their high school experience. It centers on Bijan Majidi, a student known for flying under the radar. He gets good grades, reads comics, hangs out with his best friend, Kenji, and secretly crushes on Elle, one of the most popular girls in his school. When he’s called off the basketball team’s varsity bench and makes the winning basket in a playoff game, everything changes in an instant. But not everyone is happy that Bijan is the man of the hour: An anonymous cyberbully sends the entire school a picture of Bijan photoshopped to look like a terrorist. His mother is horrified, and the school administration is outraged. They promise to find and punish the culprit. All Bijan wants is to pretend it never happened and move on, but the incident isn’t so easily erased.

Farizan, who was born to Iranian parents, tells EW that while Bijan’s experience doesn’t totally mirror her own, it is reflective of the treatment she’s faced in the past and informed by stories from friends and family. And unfortunately, the idea for the book is rooted in a very real tragedy.

The author spoke with EW about her new book, from its inspiration to its themes, as well as where she’s seen YA go in the five years since her celebrated debut. Check out our conversation below, as well as Here to Stay’s official cover (designed by Neil Swaab and with art by Patrick Leger), which Farizan has exclusively shared with EW.

Here to Stay will be published Sept. 18. Pre-order it here.

Algonquin Young Readers

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did the idea for Here to Stay and its story come from?
SARA FARIZAN: I started writing this story in February of 2015 after the murders of three young people, Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I felt incredibly heartsick, and it was the exact same heartsick feeling I had when Matthew Shepard was killed in the late ’90s when I was a closeted teenager. I have always selfishly written with the purpose of making myself feel better, and creating the character of Bijan was a way for me to channel how I was feeling.

Do you believe it’s important for books, and specifically YA, to speak explicitly to our moment?
I don’t think a book has to be set in the present to speak to issues that are happening today. I do think it is very important for young people to have stories and characters that speak to their experiences and perspectives. Young people are dealing with incredibly daunting challenges today, directly and indirectly, and any story or book that’s entertaining and helps facilitate a dialogue about those challenges is valuable.

Has your approach to writing changed at all since your 2013 debut?
I am a lot slower and a lot more anxious than when I debuted. My first two novels were written in graduate school, when I didn’t have an audience. Now that I do have one, however great or small, I worry about whether I am saying the wrong thing, whether I am qualified to tell a story I want to, whether I am going to be well received by readers I want to reach. In my first drafts of this story, I shied away from a lot of the things I wanted to say, and it wasn’t working. I have to trust myself enough to tell a good story that feels authentic; once it is out in the world, I should let people do with it what they will. I still do and probably always will use a lot of humor in my work.

How have you seen YA change in the five years you’ve been in it as a published writer?
I have seen YA publishing change through more own-voices books appearing, which makes me so happy. There is still a long way to go, but it has been really wonderful to see authors share the same (often underrepresented) identity as their protagonists, and to see these books be commercially and critically successful. I hope that the myth that you can only have one title per identity group succeed has been debunked.

You explore race in particular in your new novel; how did your own experiences inform the book?
Bijan and I have a lot in common in that we are both asked the same questions over and over again. “Where are you from?” for example, which is usually not asked in malice, but I understand in my own case people don’t mean Massachusetts. Bijan and I also share a reluctance to be a token representative for a group of people in a Western environment and for a Western audience. It’s unfair for a teenager to have to educate and teach other students and adults, be a model student, and represent a whole group of people that the West see as a monolith when, like any other teenager, you just want to read comic books and figure out how to talk to your crush. Thankfully I have not had to endure the things Bijan does in this book, but what does happen to him had been informed by current events, news stories, and stories from family friends.

Who are you reading right now that’s inspiring you, or that you’re just loving?
I’ve been very happy to see read the works of other Iranian-American young-adult writers starring Iranian-American characters, like Down and Across by Arvin Ahmadi and The Authentics by Abdi Nazemian. I also loved Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan, A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, The Sidekicks by Will Kostakis, Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert, and I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez. A favorite graphic novel I came across this year that was published a while ago was Tomboy by Liz Prince.

What do you hope readers take away from this?
I hope that readers feel for Bijan when he is hurt and root for him when he is triumphant. He’s a good kid, and I’m very fond of him. I hope readers are too.

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