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November 21, 2018

Teen Board Member Rachel D. Interviews Somaiya Daud at the Miami Book Fair


Somaiya Daud's debut novel, MIRAGE, is a beautifully written fantasy about royal and colonial politics where a girl is forced to be a body double for a despised princess. In a world dominated by the brutal Vathek empire, Amani is a dreamer. But when adventure comes for Amani, it is not what she expects: she is kidnapped and taken to the royal palace, where she discovers that she is nearly identical to the cruel half-Vathek Princess. The princess is so hated by her conquered people that she requires a body double. As Amani is forced into her new role, she can’t help but enjoy the palace’s beauty and her time with the princess’ fiancé. But Amani must play the princess to perfection...because one wrong move could lead to her death. Teen board member Rachel D. got a chance to talk to Somaiya about writing and identity in her debut novel. Keep reading to see their conversation! What was your favorite character to write?

Somaiya Daud: I don’t know if this is surprising to readers but Maram was my favorite character to write. She was also the easiest character to write. Amani is super empathetic and compassionate and Maram is very angry. I understood a lot of her anger from the get-go because it’s so difficult to exist between two worlds when one of your parents is one thing and the other one is another.

TRC: I felt like that came out in your writing as well; the scenes with Maram were so exciting. I think it was also because the dynamic between her and Amani was always evolving, which brings me to my next question---do you think forgiveness is always acceptable? Was it an important part of your book?

SD: Their [Amani and Maram] dynamic was so interesting because it wasn’t just that Maram was in a position of power over Amani but that because Amani looks exactly like her, she’s constantly forced to look at the ways in which she’s failed as a person. Personality-wise and compassion-wise: this girl is literally walking around with her face and is capable of all these different kindnesses, and it forces Maram to think about why Amani is like that and she herself is not.

I think forgiveness under a colonial regime to people of your community is so important. Occupation preys on breaking up communities and occupation has taken advantage of the fact that Maram refuses to connect with her mother’s side of the family. Amani’s capacity to interact with her in a compassionate way then opens up the door for Maram to be a much better person and, as a person in power, to do things that Amani couldn’t do because she is just a farm girl.

TRC: In your novel, there’s examples of mystical storytelling sometimes blending religion. How did your background help to influence your writing?

SD: My mother is Moroccan and my father is African-American; my mother’s family is Muslim and my father’s family is Muslim. The Moroccan stuff is really self-evident --- they all wear kaftans, Amani cooks foods that I can’t cook but my mother cooks and she speaks Arabic and loves poetry. My mother and my aunt were both Arabic literary majors in college so for the poetry in the book I would call them up to help me translate classical Arabic words.

The book is also very much about living under colonialism and under occupation and how those things affect cultural practices, language acquisition, community formations and religion. I think it’s really easy to take for granted the ways in which those things are freely available to you, if you’re part of the majority party. Amani’s investment in all of these things is that she understands that the minute they disappear, they lose any chance of standing up to the Vath and any chance of reclaiming their planet back and their history. For me, as a brown and Muslim person living in America, I understand the ways in which assimilation is so easy. It would be easier to do things the way they [everyone] want, but that resistance is so important because that’s how you connect with other people in your community and preserve your way of life.

TRC: I also wanted to talk about identity, specifically how your own biracial identity helped you write Maram.

SD: The thing with being biracial is that both sides of the aisle are don’t think you’re enough. There’s this constant refrain where I constantly get asked if I’m Sudanese and it’s because I wear the hijab and I’m brown-skinned. On the other side, because I wear the hijab most people don’t clock me as black. That creates a volatile psychological space and I was lucky in that I had parents who were very firm about the idea that ethnicities matter but it matters most that I am Muslim. So I had a stable center, whereas if you don’t have that it’s so easy to believe the horrible things that both sides of the aisle say about you. Maram is a person who is no getting no support from anyone --- her father is an evil dictator and her mother died early. She [Maram] visibly looks like her mother so all of her father’s people think she’s a mutt. She’s been cut off from her mother’s people so she hates everyone and she hates herself because represents this awkward regime in the worst way. A lot of my high school experiences and experiences of people that I know that occupy that space came into Maram; what would a person look like who also had no checks? She does the worst things because nobody is there to tell her otherwise.

TRC: Are we limited to our parents to tell us who we are?

SD: I think as a kid yes. As a kid you’re so dependent on your appearance for a sense of self. There’s also a point---which is important to Maram and her difference with Amani --- where you become responsible for your decisions. You can say you had a bad childhood but there comes a point where you have to choose what you’re doing and Maram has moved past that point. She’s 17 years old; she should know better. There comes a point where you decide the person that you are going to be and how you’re going to move through the world, if you’re going to be kind to people and how you’re going to change the world. Your parents can give you the tools for that but at the end of the day that’s up to you.

TRC: This is the first novel you’ve gotten published, but I assume it’s not the first you’ve written.

SD: This is actually my eleventh one! I’ve been writing towards publication since I was 18 and I finished my first novel when I was 19. My fourth one got me my first agent and then I wrote 4-5 in between that and my second agent and my book deal.

TRC: If you don’t mind sharing, how do you think this book differentiates itself from your first few unpublished ones?

SD: I’m a better writer. I keep everything that I write --- I don’t delete anything --- so I’ll look back and they’re bad. I’ll continue to get better. I have a better understanding of how to construct a prose and how to make it lyrical; I have a better understanding of plot and characters. I’m an English PhD so it’s constant learning process. I think that everyone wants the first book they write to be the first book they publish and for some people that happens, but even if that’s not what happens, it’s a learning experience. Finishing books after my first one was so much easier because I realized it’s not a magical, impossible task --- I know how to get to the end. I think this [novel] is my tightest plot-wise and most crystal clear in terms of prose.