Recently, English teacher Sahar Mustafah won the Willow Brooks Grand Prize, which comes with a publishing contract for her collection of short stories, New And Gently Used Hijab, and $1,000.
Mustafah has been working on both a novel and a collection of short stories. Her work focuses on the lives of first and second generation Arab Americans.
“I love listening to other people’s stories and other people’s experiences and then I fictionalize them, and I recreate them with different characters and different settings, but it’s really about what it’s like being an immigrant in America and that being very specific to my culture,” Mustafah said.
While she focuses on immigrant stories, anybody from any culture can still take away something from Mustafah’s writings.
“A lot of my stuff my students read and my colleagues read and my friends read, and they all find something that they connect to, so you don’t have to be Arab to relate to it. I’m so interested in the issues that Arab Americans face in terms of racism and stereotyping and those things that make us human, like sibling relationships and being challenged by your parent expectations,” she said.
Before her writing was able to turn into what it is today, she began writing when she was a child.
“I was a reader at a very young age, and I think that was what kind of opened the door for writing for me. It wasn’t just creative writing. I loved writing essays and would actually win awards for my essays when I was in high school,” Mustafah said. “I was always enthusiastic about writing assignments no matter what they were.”
The accomplishments that Mustafah made when she was a kid didn’t stop there.
She went on to win multiple other awards, like first place in 2012 for her fiction story Shisha Love and a grand prize winner for her fiction collection Life, Move Leisurely.
However, with all the achievements it can be a hard balancing act trying to keep up with the life and schedule of a high school English teacher and author. Nevertheless, Mustafah has found a great balance.
“I feel very fortunate because I feel like they have really fed into each other,” she said.
While it can be a challenge, Mustafah has finally developed a system to help her balance the work of an author with that of an English teacher.
“I actually look forward to those big breaks like the summertime, spring and winter break, but I also make sure that I am writing everyday, so that means waking up early or writing at night,” she said. “Now, I have disciplined myself enough, and it’s valuable enough to me that I will stop the grading and planning to make time for the writing.”
Having two different lifestyles has given Mustafah an immense advantage in the classroom when it comes helping her students.
“It’s amazing. I think everything that I have experienced in terms of successes, challenges and failures I always share with students,” she said.
Mustafah finds that Creative Writing class is where she can implement what she has learned as an author and blend it smoothly with her teachings in the classroom.
“With creative writing it’s easy. They’re writers, I’m a writer too so that transition is seamless,” Mustafah said.
Senior Braxton Williams has seen firsthand how well Mustafah has mixed her teaching styles with what she has learned as an author.
“As a writer and teacher she is amazing, but in class, more specifically in Creative Writing, I was able to see her more as a person. A person who is really interested and involved in our lives and our writing,” he said.
While Williams doesn’t consider himself a writer, he still finds the tips and advice that Mustafah has given him and his class to be very helpful.
“I’ve never been the best writer, and poetry is extremely hard for me. I’m not sure if she can really help me with that. However, she has helped me feel more confident about sharing my work. I am more excited about writing than I have ever been in my life,” he said. “If I were to take one thing out of my experience of having her as a teacher, it would be: to be real and do what you love to do.”
Mustafah also continues to influence students who also share the passion of writing their own book, like senior Riley Farkos
“I have been in Mrs. Mustafah’s class for three years now, and I can say she’s changed my writing for the better. She is very honest when it comes to helping students with their writing and she won’t tell you something that she doesn’t think will help you in the long run,” she said.
While Farkos doesn’t recall specific tips or advice that Mustfah has given her, she can say that Mustafah has always encouraged her to think differently as writer in order to improve her writing.
“She always tells me to pull out of the story and add in something from the past or the characters’ thoughts. It’s been very helpful because I am always constantly stuck in the now and she always makes sure to pull me away from the now. It’s really enhanced my writing,” she said.
Having two different lifestyles has given Mustafah a new sense of happiness that she hadn’t discovered until later on in life when she decided to become an author.
“I’ve learned that I can plan this role and I can also be a writer. I think it was Mr. Leyden who said this last year. He is the one who called it “another life”. I have this other life that I am pursuing with passion,” she said. “I don’t want to misquote him, but I think he’s right. I do think we have more than one life. This idea of having multiple lives is what makes us complete. I think that is where contentment and satisfaction come in. Real contentment really just comes from the core, what makes you really happy.”
Mustafah has been a big help to students when it comes to helping them in what they what to accomplish in their writing. However, as her career as a writer continues, she still learns new things herself.
“I think that a human being can have more than one life. You don’t or shouldn’t restrict yourself. If you are passionate about something you should really pursue it. You may not be able to pursue it as much as you can, practically speaking, but if it’s something that you get a lot of joy from and it’s meaningful to other people, you just got to do it. You have to make it happen,” she said.
As Mustafah rides along on the road to success, she can still reflect on the troubles and stress she dealt with in the beginning of her journey.
“Challenging, rewarding and stressful because I feel like I’m a late bloomer. That’s like the joke because I’m an older writer, so I didn’t go back to get my Masters in Fiction and Fine Arts until 2013 from Columbia college,” Mustafah said.
While she did become player in the writing game a little late, Mustafah feels in reality it was the right timing for her to come in.
“I’ve come to it at a perfect time so all these experiences I can write about too. I’ve lived a lot, and now I can write about it and so that journey has really been incredible. There were two and half years where I was teaching full time and then going right into the city for a full time graduate load of classes. That was stressful, and I was doing a lot of balancing,” Mustafah said.
Mustafah’s efforts have not gone unnoticed by her coworkers. If anything, they have been huge supporters in her work.
“If any student that has any interest in writing, you should definitely take her [Mustafah] creative writing class, and she’ll bring out the best in you,” English teacher Mary Kate Pack said. “She knows her stuff, and I’m just so proud of everything she’s done. She’s an amazing author, person, friend, and I love all her work. I can’t wait to see it in print, officially.”