Zahra Marwan’s debut picture book, Where Butterflies Fill the Sky (March 29, Bloomsbury), is part autobiography, part children’s book, part artist’s book and wholly captivating. Through bittersweet text and delicate, playful watercolor illustrations, it tells the story of how Marwan’s family left Kuwait for New Mexico when she was 7 years old to make a new home in Albuquerque.
Marwan was considered stateless in Kuwait: Though her mother is a citizen, her father’s family missed out on registering as citizens when Kuwait became an independent country in 1961. And because Kuwaiti citizenship is patrilineal, Marwan and her siblings aren’t citizens either. That meant they faced both open discrimination and discriminatory laws. Stateless people weren’t allowed to attend public schools, go to college, access health care, get married or leave the country for fear they wouldn’t be allowed back.
“Their only career options were working low-wage jobs or joining the army,” Marwan explains in an author’s note.
Her parents wanted a better future for their family, so they packed up and moved to Albuquerque, an experience that was profoundly disorienting for Marwan.
“I used to wait outside for a bus to take me back to my grandpa’s house,” she tells SFR. “I had no idea what was going on.”
But it wasn’t all grim, she says. Marwan has fond memories of how that early sense of confusion blended into a mix of magical thinking and reality that continues to influence her art.
“I used to think a boy in my class could translate my thoughts for some reason,” she says. “I was a really weird kid.”
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