Editor’s Note: Other Words for Home was named a 2020 Newbery Honor Book by the American Library Association.
The setting for writer (and born-and-raised Cincinnatian) Jasmine Warga’s newest novel was an easy choice. Other Words for Home follows an immigrant girl from Syria adapting to her new life in the Queen City. With the novel coming out May 28, Warga discusses her writing history, inspiration, and beloved Graeter’s ice cream.
How did you start writing? I have always wanted to be a writer. I have this really distinct memory when I was in first grade, I was playing near the bookshelf in my classroom, and I had this epiphany moment that the name on the cover was someone’s job. My father is an immigrant from Jordan, and I sort of grew up around this idea that I needed to have a “real job,” which in my household, was being a doctor. So, for a long time I would tell people that I want to be a doctor and a writer on the side. Eventually, I went to college and I got slated to teach sixth grade, but I was just dissatisfied and didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know what ultimately I wanted my career to be. My husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, said to me, “You’ve always wanted to be a writer. Why don’t you write something?” That set me down this path of trying to take writing seriously.
I started writing in fall of 2010, and sold my first book in the summer of 2013. The thing about our dreams is that we have to have a willingness to own them, and realizing that was a big turning point for me to make this thing I’d always wanted to do a reality.
Why did you choose Cincinnati as the setting for your new book? When I actually wrote the book, I was living in Cincinnati. In 2016, we bought a home in Clifton, and I wrote the book in that Clifton house. I was completely immersed in that environment. Clifton was a community I came to really love, and it is a really unique part of Cincinnati. With University of Cincinnati so close, it is a really diverse environment.
Is Cincinnati a special place to you? I was born and raised in Cincinnati. It is home for me. We moved to Chicago for my husband’s job, but for me, home will always be Cincinnati. No city in America is perfect, and Cincinnati does have a flawed history, but I love Cincinnati with open eyes and I believe in the promise of our city. I am also, like everyone in greater Cincinnati, stupidly attached to Graeter’s ice cream.
What inspired you to write this book? Where did you start? I had the initial seed of an idea for this book in the fall of 2015, but at the time, I was working on another book and put this idea on the back burner. My father is Jordanian, but his best friend here in America is Syrian. My dad’s Syrian friend’s family came over because of the conflict. We hosted them for meals at our house, and I remember being really interested in the dynamic between his children, who were born in America, and their Syrian cousins, which reminded me of the dynamic between me and my Jordanian cousins. I started thinking about families that exist on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, and it became really interesting to me. Then, when the crisis became more known nationally, I started having strong feelings about the way certain people and media were reacting to children fleeing from a war zone. It unearthed a lot of feelings I have about Islamaphobia and racism in the U.S. I poured all of this into the book, but at the heart of it, it is a story about a little girl who has this dream, and about the validity of dreams for women of color.
Jasmine Warga will be at Joseph-Beth Booksellers June 1 to discuss Other Words for Home.