“Untold histories live in shallow graves” and in Sparks Like Stars (William Morrow) by Nadia Hashimi, life’s secret traumas hidden below the surface haunt Sitara. As a young Afghan girl, Sitara loses everything and everyone in her beloved country; she was the sole survivor in a government coup where all her close friends and family were murdered. With the unexpected help of a soldier assigned to kill her, she was whisked off to a safe place. Antonia (Nia), an embassy worker, and her mother, Tilly, take Sitara into their home and help her escape the country.
Sitara starts anew in the United States, becomes a successful doctor, and is in a flat romantic relationship. She chooses not to share stories from her childhood with anyone, which has created barriers and limitations to her ultimate happiness and trust. When someone from her past shows up in her life, old wounds open and Sitara feels a burning desire to face her history, get closure on the murder of her family and travel back home to see for herself the destruction of her Afghanistan.
A moving story about a beautiful culture forever changed by government and war, Nadia Hashimi gives us another wonderful dose of history with a vivid backdrop and deeply emotional characters. Sparks Like Stars had me from page one, and all the special touches mined from Hashimi’s family’s culture, her experience with politics, and her life as a physician enrich an already incredible story of Sitara’s personal journey. I am a huge fan of Hashimi’s work and I loved this one!
Q&A WITH NADIA HASHIMI
Q: You have written such wonderful books (I’ve read and loved them all!) set in Afghanistan with Afghan characters. In Sparks Like Stars, you make Afghanistan feel homey, lovely and wonderful until the coup. Did this really happen and how did it make its way into the story?
A: The Afghanistan depicted in Sparks Like Stars is the dreamy Afghanistan of my parents’ youth and a far cry from what I grew up seeing on the news. I chose to write about this time in Afghanistan’s history because in discussions with readers around my other books, I found people surprised to hear about a Kabul where girls and women could walk without veiling, where women graduated with degrees in engineering and medicine, and where music was celebrated. To know this is to feel the heartbreak for all that’s been lost in the decades of conflict.
Q: Sitara loses everything in her country and with the help of others, takes risks to start anew. My concern for her safety felt so real as I was reading the book. The soldier who helped her escape danger and the women who followed through to ensure her safety could be considered incredible heroes. Can you tell me more about that theme of heroism in the book?
A: Heroism is sometimes as clean-cut as a firefighter rescuing a kitten stuck in a tree. But in real life, and in stories that mirror real life, heroism can be murkier. The soldier who helps Sitara escape from the besieged palace is also part of the military faction seeking to overthrow the president’s authority by brute force. Antonia, who seeks to ensure Sitara’s safety after the coup, represents an American presence in Kabul meant to bend the country’s ideologies toward its own liking and subvert the influence of the Soviet Union. While personal motivations may be pristine, there’s a lot of gray in the motivations of heroism as well, and that’s the area that interests me as a writer. Sitara is, however, her own hero, propelled by the love of her family.
Q: Sitara ends up practicing medicine. Knowing you are also a doctor, but realizing you were born in the United States and your background is very different brings up a question: how much of you is in Sitara?
A: Like Sitara, I was in New York City, training to become a physician on 9/11. Like her, I remember feeling bewildered by the way some in this country were suddenly questioning the allegiances of their Afghan American neighbors, restaurant owners and taxi drivers. I made her a physician because that’s what so many parents want their children to become, and I had her present in New York City on that day because the Afghan American experience changed dramatically after 9/11 when Afghans went from being largely anonymous to becoming infamous as descendants of the land that sheltered the mastermind of the attacks. But our similarities, superficial ones at that, end there. Sitara has endured deep heartbreak and loss, and to write her, I had to lean into her grief. Over the months I spent writing her story, I could hear her voice in my head and my goal was to transcribe her words accurately.
Q: The foster-care home environment was anxiety-inducing, and I wondered where the idea for this came from.
A: The worst days for a pediatrician are those in which we’re called upon to evaluate a child intentionally hurt. Over the years, I’ve documented hand-shaped bruises and cigarette burns on young bodies, and I’ve done evaluations on children who had been touched in ways that left no marks. Some children came into the emergency room escorted by social workers more than once. I had the sense that early tragedies seemed to predispose children to further trauma or hurt — sometimes at the hands of those who have been entrusted to care for their wellbeing. Perhaps this part of the story is the pediatrician in me longing for better ways to protect the most vulnerable.
Q: Sitara is in dire need of closure when it comes to her past, and she spent most of her life not being open about all she had been through. I was wondering how you think her romantic relationship may have gone differently had she shared her history up front.
A: Sitara could certainly have used a good therapist, though I don’t think she would have been very open with one. In my mind, she had a hard time believing any good would come of speaking about her past. Like so many people I know who have emigrated from Afghanistan, she puts all her energies into her work. Would Adam have been a different person if he had learned about Sitara’s history before he developed political aspirations? I doubt it. Intense situations are revealing. I don’t think Adam is a terrible person. I just don’t think he was “the one.”
Q: How long did it take you to write Sparks Like Stars, and what was your research process?
A: It took a couple of starts to get this story going. I walked away from an earlier draft that just wasn’t working. In that break time, the characters continued to live in my head and I got to know them better. When I know my characters in and out, the storytelling flows. The writing took a bit over a year.
For the research, I read interviews with American foreign service officers who had been stationed in Kabul at the time of the coup. One woman was kind enough to allow me to interview her for details that enriched my knowledge and the story. She told me about the party mood in Kabul in those years and about their performance of the musical, Oklahoma!. I spent lots of time looking at aged photographs of hippies and reading a guidebook that instructed fellow travelers where to score the best weed. I also interviewed family members who lived in Kabul at the time of the coup and could speak to the fear of expressing any criticism about the new government for fear of being punished. I learned so much in researching this story and have been really excited to share these rabbit holes with readers, so I’ve linked them on my website.
Q: All your books would make wonderful movies; if Sparks Like Stars made the big screen, who would you want to play the parts of Sitara, Nia and Tilly?
A: This is a terrific question. I would cast Jessica Chastain as Nia, and in my dream of dreams, the inimitable Betty White for Tilly. I have watched every episode of The Golden Girls at least twice. As for Sitara, I would want her to be played by someone with Afghan roots. To have that representation in casting would be so gratifying.
Q: As a physician, married to a neurosurgeon and raising four children, you still found time and energy to stand up for women’s rights and diversity in the government arena. Can you tell us a bit about your participation in politics?
A: When a local seat opened up, I made the decision to run because I felt an opportunity to bring a needed perspective to the table. I’d seen the failures of our healthcare system as a physician treating children in an emergency room and as a business manager for a medical practice. (Don’t get me started on insurance companies!) We all benefit by having different perspectives in the decision-making rooms, and we simply do not have enough women in those rooms. I’m currently serving on my county’s health care commission, addressing issues like racial equity and school health locally. I’m also a member of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council and a founding member of Afghan American Foundation, an organization that promotes civic engagement in our community. Getting off the sidelines is a great way to change the narrative and to meet like-minded friends.
Q: Adam gets caught up in ulterior motives related to his social media presence during his political efforts. Did you see this or fall into that pattern as well when you were involved in politics?
A: Inside the political arena, money and image are all-consuming priorities. Candidates are forever hunting for money and fundraising tallies seem to matter more than ideas. Image is so important that it easily becomes synthetic and forced. One candidate showed up at a major protest, snapped a selfie with the crowd in the backdrop, then hopped back into the car and disappeared. That’s not to say everyone running for office is disingenuous. I met plenty of good people with integrity but also some just dripping with ambition. Adam is somewhere along the spectrum.
Q: What have you read lately that you recommend?
A: Against the Loveless World by Susan Abulhawa is bold and riveting, as her work tends to be. The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar is truly a tender story with complex dynamics. The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah offers some truly startling characters caught up in a tense situation — a school shooting.
Q: Are you working on anything new and can you tell us a bit about it?
A: My work-in-progress is a YA story that further explores the Afghan American experience. It’s my first time writing for this category and has been slow going with my children schooling from home for the past year. I’m still hoping to get this one out in the next year.