The concept of love is universal. And the idea of being free to love whomever you choose has been battled for centuries in many different countries on many different platforms. At its heart, that’s what Atia Abawi’s The Secret Sky is about—the freedom to love.
This book was inspired by many real events, but the reason it exists is because of a New York Times article published in July of 2011 called “In Afghanistan, Rage at Young Lovers.” The article is about two teenagers from different ethnic groups who met in an ice cream factory and whose romance incited a riot of three hundred people that called for the teens’ death by stoning. Michael Green, Philomel’s publisher, came into my office with that article and said, “Have you read this?” (I had.) Then he said, “I think there’s a novel here. Do you know anyone who could write us a forbidden teen romance set in Afghanistan?” I figured the ideal person to write this kind of story was someone who was Afghan and who had spent a considerable amount of time in Afghanistan, but also grew up speaking English. And, of course, was a professional writer. Not necessarily the easiest person to find. I went through my mental rolodex and landed on Nick, a college friend who was then living in Islamabad and Kabul, reporting for ABC News. I thought perhaps he might know someone, so I sent him an email. He, in turn, sent an email to Atia Abawi. She was an Afghan-American journalist living in Kabul, reporting for NBC, and had been wanting to write a novel based on her experiences. Nick had found my ideal author for this project.
He connected me with Atia, and the result was The Secret Sky, inspired, in part, by the Times piece, but mostly inspired by the people and the villages that Atia visited during her five years reporting from Afghanistan. The story, which follows Fatima, a Hazara girl, and Samiullah, a Pashtun boy, as they fight their families, their village’s traditions, and the local Taliban to stay together, is not real, but it could have been. In fact, this past year, in March, The New York Times ran another article about forbidden love in Afghanistan, this one called “2 Star-Crossed Afghans Cling to Love, Even at Risk of Death,” which details a very similar story: two young people from a rural village whose declaration of love put them—and their families—in grave danger.
What is most powerful about The Secret Sky is that it is so real. It captures, in beautiful, raw prose, what’s happening today, a fourteen-hour plane ride from New York City. I’ve been editing books for the past decade, and I think Atia Abawi’s The Secret Sky is the one that has most changed me. It made me think—really think—about the privileges I take for granted every day and about how different my life would be if I had been born in a rural Afghan village.
I know this is a book about teenagers, written with a teenage audience in mind, but I think it will appeal to readers of all ages. As of the writing of this piece, The Secret Sky has already received a starred review pre-publication from Publishers Weekly and advanced praise from journalists and novelists alike. The power in Atia’s words has touched so many readers already. I’ll leave you with one of those reactions, from Andrea Mitchell, NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent and anchor of Andrea Mitchell Reports. She said:
“The Secret Sky brilliantly captures the magic and the heartbreak of Afghanistan as only someone rooted in its mystery can….This first novel by a top foreign correspondent has the authenticity of raw journalism and the poetry of a gifted writer.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Start Reading The Secret Sky here!