“Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books,” Rudine Sims Bishop said in her essay “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Doors”.
In the essay, Bishop illuminates the importance of diverse and nuanced representation in literature and how people take in books differently depending on how they are represented. I first learned about this essay in my A.P. English Literature class this year. It was a way to set up our independent reading assignments, trying to pick books with varied and fruitful perspectives. After our whole class discussed the idea of how books can act as mirrors, windows, or sliding doors, our English teacher Ms. Brooks asked us what types of books we have been reading.
It was at this moment that I realized I had mostly been reading books that acted as windows. Despite never being able to drag myself away from a good book, I had not found too many where I could relate to the protagonist — a book that felt like looking into a mirror.
However, up-and-coming author Tashie Bhuiyan ’16 molds more representative mirrors for young women of color. As another Bangladeshi-American girl at Bronx Science who loves young-adult novels, her upcoming debut novel Counting Down With You sparked my interest, so I caught up with Bhuiyan to talk more about her journey towards her debut novel and her career as a whole.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
For those who may not know about your upcoming debut novel, could you tell me more about Counting Down With You?
Counting Down With You is a YA contemporary [novel]. It follows the main character Karina Ahmed after her parents go abroad to Bangladesh and she somehow gets roped into a fake dating facade with the bad boy of her high school Ace Clyde. There’s 28 days until her parents come home and a countdown ensues. Obviously, it becomes very chaotic, very quickly.
Why did you choose to become an author and what sparked your passion for writing?
I had always been an avid reader growing up. I used to be in ESL [English as a Second Language] when I was in elementary school. I remember when I started reading books, my English improved a lot and I got to leave ESL. I’ve always loved reading and storytelling as a concept. I remember in sixth grade we had this English assignment where we had to write a short story. I think that was my first fiction writing I ever done. It was six pages, but I was so proud of it.
When I got into college, I was like maybe it’s time to seriously try to see if I could do this as a career of sorts. I tried writing my first original novel and it didn’t go well, because I didn’t know how to do that. Writing a book by itself is a whole different thing. There was a learning curve, but by the time I got to Counting Down With You, I feel like I had a good grasp of craft and a good understanding of publishing as an ecosystem. It felt like a right time, right place kind of thing.
What has been your favorite part about the journey towards publishing this novel?
I think my favorite part was holding the book for the first time. We get advanced copies before the book comes out for promotions. The first time I got to hold it and see it as a real, physical book, I was like What is happening right now? That was very surreal.
What has been your biggest challenge then?
I think the biggest challenge is waiting. The way that publishing works is that you sign a book deal eighteen months before the book comes out, in traditional publishing at least. When I signed this book deal, it was September of 2019, so I was still a senior in college. That is obviously so long ago, compared to now. I think the waiting period is very difficult to navigate because you get antsy. You know that it’s a process and it takes time even though you want people to read it. The challenge is being patient.
How did you balance between being a debut author and a full-time college student?
When I wrote Counting Down With You, I wrote it during my junior year. I wrote it in April and was taking six classes while interning three days a week. I think it was because I knew that I wanted this — it was my dream, and I wanted to make it happen. I set aside time, making sure to write X amount of words each day. Ask for reprieve when you need it. I remember my initial sets of edits were originally due my finals week. I told my agent, that’s finals week, so is it possible to move it? My agent was like, of course, so they moved it to winter break instead, so I wouldn’t have to have my edits due during finals. Being communicative and open also helped with that process.
Why did the idea for Counting Down With You click?
My favorite genre is actually fantasy, so I’d never written a contemporary book before Counting Down With You. The first few novels I wrote were all fantasy because that’s what I liked reading — I like reading contemporary novels as well, obviously, but my favorite genre has always been fantasy, so that’s what I was writing. When I was writing, I was like maybe I should try writing contemporary because I’d never done it before.
I just went at it — what would have I wanted to read when I was in high school? What would have made me feel seen and understood? I’d drawn on stuff that I’d been through in high school, even though I didn’t actually go through what Karina went through. When I’m envisioning high school myself, I’m always envisioning Bronx Science. I remember [in the book] that they [the students] swipe their cards to get into school, and my editor was like, what is that? I was like, is that not a thing at other places? But, I kept it in.
It’s especially ironic to be envisioning a school like Bronx Science in these YA novels. We don’t even have a football team!
I feel like when you watch shows and stuff, there’s always this jock stereotype and nerds getting beaten up in the hallway. That would never happen at Bronx Science! It’s actually funny because Karina in the book is like, “I’ve never seen someone get food thrown at them or beat up in the hallways,” because in her life that’s not a thing she witnesses, because I’ve never seen that either.
As a writer, who’d you say are your major influences?
This is a good question. I don’t know if I have writer influences. There’s a lot of writers I admire, but when I look at my book, I’m not like, this writer inspired me to write this book. The influences are the world around me, I want to say, the media I consume, and the frustration I feel when I see all this media and there’s never anyone I can fully relate to. Stuff like that really inspires me to be like, I want to tell my own story. I also think I’m inspired by the friendships I have, and the relationships and bonds I have with the world. You put parts of yourself into your writing and there’s no way around that because it’s such a personal thing.
With both of us growing up in Queens, I think we know about its rich cultural diversity and how it impacts our worldview. How has your Queens upbringing influenced your approach to writing and your career as a whole?
I think it influenced my writing in that my stories are always diverse, not just with Bangladeshi characters, but with all kinds of religions, cultures, sexualities, genders, et cetera. I feel like that’s always been the natural mode to me. When I’m writing, I always go that route of having that diversity shown on the page. Also, most of my books take place in New York, like the ones that are contemporary at least, because that’s what I’ve always known. I feel like it definitely influences my writing in that aspect as well where I do put experiences I’ve had into the story. In terms of my career, it’s why I’m very vocal about issues. Going to Bronx Science, middle, and elementary school with diverse voices and people, it’s just natural to me to accept that as part of my everyday life.
What piece of advice would you give to your younger self, perhaps at the beginning of writing your book?
I would give her the same advice that I actually do give in the author’s note. The advice I’d give is stay as strong as you can, which I also think is the core theme of the book. It’s very easy to give up when you’re young and afraid and you’re scared and things aren’t going the way you want them to. I would tell her to stay strong as you can, not give up faith and hope, and just to keep going. Even though it’s going to be hard, that doesn’t mean one day you wouldn’t come out on top and that you wouldn’t have truly found what makes you happy.
A Review of Coming Down With You
A few days after that conversation, a balmy, spring afternoon became a breezy evening as I finally sat down to read the book. In the hours that I read Counting Down With You, I came to feel at home with this sparkling debut. With all of the rich Bangladeshi dishes brought up, I felt nostalgic for my own mom’s cooking. It was to the point where I texted her asking to make khichuri sometime soon, although my younger sister does not like it all that much.
For 462 pages, the novel was fleeting with smooth and fluid dialogue. The comedic quips sprinkled throughout were reminiscent of the conversations I have with my own friends, and the dialogue made way for character dynamics that were so real.
While the fluffy and fun fake dating trope reminded me of the beginning of the To All The Boys franchise (another young adult story) from Jenny Han, the fruitful character development from exploring a budding romance also reminded me of the 2020 Japanese romantic comedy Cherry Magic, where the main character Kiyoshi Adachi blossoms from his own insecurities on his path to finding himself.
Karina Ahmed, the protagonist in Counting Down With You, explores her path with people by her side, but Bhuiyan makes it clear through her clean-cut prose that this is ultimately Karina’s story. She depicts Karina’s struggle with anxiety in a grounded manner and includes a down-to-earth representation of diverse cultures, religion, and sexuality.
Karina’s Muslim background is additionally portrayed with nuance, which is significant because other stories, like that in Netflix show Elite, run into the issue of depicting Islam as a rigid religion and that young Muslim women need some love interest to save them from being stuck between two worlds. Bhuiyan on the other hand, not only shows Karina embracing her heritage, but also makes sure to clearly distinguish it from the struggles Karina faces in the novel.
This mirror of a book became a sliding glass door, with its more fluttery moments putting a silly grin on my face and its more serious ones, reminding me of what my own friends and I have gone through. Bhuiyan balances these moments incredibly well, writing not just a teenage romance, but a story of getting out of one’s shell and finding the power to stand up.
Her advice to stay as strong as you can rang dearly through its pages, reaching the end of the book. Making some paratha afterwards, I realized that not only had I found a mirror, but others would find theirs upon Counting Down With You’s release.
Counting Down With You is now available to pre-order on Indie Bound, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and Book Depository. Tashie Bhuiyan can additionally be found on Instagram, Twitter, and Tik Tok.
“I think my favorite part was holding the book for the first time. We get advanced copies before the book comes out for promotions. The first time I got to hold it and see it as a real, physical book, I was like What is happening right now? That was very surreal,” Tashie Bhuiyan ’16 said.