Author Shamim Sarif is making huge waves in the YA thriller and screenwriting worlds

Award-winning Canadian/British novelist/screenwriter/director Shamim Sarif embraces all the hyphenates. A brown/feminist/lesbian/of South African/Indian/Muslim heritage, her books and films have always been about inclusion, support, and creating non-stereotypical and authentic representation for underserved voices—not only black and brown but also female and LGBTQ.

In THE ATHENA PROTOCOL—the first book in Sarif’s heart-pounding YA feminist thriller series—Jessie Archer faced down death to prove her dedication to Athena, the elite organization of female, international, multi-ethnic spies fighting for social justice. Published in hardcover by HarperTeen last fall, THE ATHENA PROTOCOL (HarperTeen Paperback; September 8, 2020), is currently being adapted by Village Roadshow and Mark Johnson (Breaking Bad) as a major series for television.

And now in the upcoming sequel, THE SHADOW MISSION (HarperTeen Hardcover; October 6, 2020), Jessie’s back on the team, in time to head to Pakistan to take down the man whose actions spurred Athena’s founders to create the secretive squad. But his connections spread farther than anyone knew, and when a girls’ school in Mumbai is bombed, a shadowy far-right organization reveals itself—and its evil plans to continue attacks. When someone close to the investigation betrays Athena, Jessie knows that their time to save everyone is nearly up. Once again, she’ll have to risk everything to protect the vulnerable and prove herself.

GLAAD was first introduced to Shamim when her screenplay, Polarized, was one of 10 feature film finalists for Toronto’s Inside Out festival’s fourth annual Finance Forum, which provides LGBTQ-identified producers and/or producers creating LGBTQ content an opportunity to pitch their projects directly to top decision-makers. (Inside Out is one of the world’s leading LGBTQ film festivals and Canada’s largest distributor of LGBTQ content)

And we caught up with Shamim again this fall to find out more about her big upcoming season of novels and screenplays.

GLAAD: YOU HAVE AN EXCITING FALL COMING UP, WITH THE PAPERBACK RELEASE OF YOUR YA NOVEL, “THE ATHENA PROTOCOL,” AND THE HARDCOVER RELEASE OF THE NEXT BOOK THE SERIES, “THE SHADOW MISSION”! FOR THOSE READING THIS WHO ARE NOT YET FAMILIAR WITH THE BOOKS, COULD YOU LAYOUT THE GENERAL PREMISE?

Shamim: The Athena Protocol and The Shadow Mission center on six women. Three of them - wealthy, influential - have founded a rogue agency, called Athena (after the Greek goddess of war and wisdom). And working for them are three younger agents, sent out on carefully chosen, secret missions that are always focused on helping women and children around the world - the kind of people that fall through the cracks for governments everywhere.

There’s a strong social justice element, but I also wanted to write a mainstream thriller that just happened to have a young, queer protagonist at its heart.

Jessie’s super smart and highly skilled when it comes to wielding weapons but she has to navigate all the highs and lows, attractions, and confusions that every young woman goes through, and it’s that part of the story that I hope draws readers in emotionally.

WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO WRITE THESE BOOKS? AND WHAT DO YOU HOPE READERS TAKE AWAY FROM THEM?

Looking at today’s world, it felt like a good time for a story that – beneath the action and the relationships between the characters - looks at the way power is shifting in the world today, from governments down to individuals.

In this pandemic, for example, a lot of us are tuning in to what Bill Gates has to say. He’s not a world leader or even a scientist. But he has the means and the will to make a difference and he alone can decide where to put his money and focus.

In a similar way, I wondered what would happen if you had a group of women with the means to make a difference who crossed a line into a kind of vigilante justice as they try to help others; suddenly they have to make these constant, difficult decisions about who to save in the world and how far to go. 

And The Athena Protocol also seeks to ask whether individuals who think they know better should have the power to usurp governments.

AND VILLAGE ROADSHOW HAS OPTIONED THE BOOK TO BECOME A SERIES! WHAT'S THE STATUS ON THAT?

My wife and I are also feature filmmakers (Hanan is a producer and I write and direct). Our mission is to tell stories aligned with our ideals of feminism, social impact and humanism - but we didn’t have much experience in the TV world. So we were really delighted to partner with Village Roadshow and also with Gran Via (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul). I always saw The Athena Protocol as being about very real, conflicted characters, whose flaws and weak spots as well as their spy skills, are exposed by the missions they run, and this team is very invested in that vision too.

The process with these two amazing teams at Gran Via and Village Roadshow has been fantastic. I’ve been working hard on the pitch for the TV show with their input, and we’ll look at going out with it this fall.

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO YOU TO HAVE YOUR FICTION WRITING OUT THERE? HOW DO YOU HOPE IT WILL CHANGE THINGS FOR QUEER WOMEN OF COLOR HOPING TO SEE THEMSELVES REPRESENTED?

My writing is all about character and story, and underneath that, inclusion and giving authentic representation to voices that have traditionally been underserved in books and also film. I truly believe that stories help us all to make sense of our lives and the big questions. When we meet characters who face similar stresses and dilemmas to our own, we learn a little more about how we could deal with them.

But, when I was growing up, I literally thirsted for books that had some kind of overt representation of me and the way I felt. In terms of sexuality, there wasn’t much at the time, so I guess I wrote the kind of stories about LGBTQ+ women that I wanted to read.

It’s been well over 10 years since The World Unseen and I Can’t Think Straight (Shamim's first two feature films) came out as books and film but still, every day, I get at least one message from someone who tells me that seeing someone they could relate to in a queer love story changed their outlook and, sometimes, their lives. That’s the power that stories have for us, and that’s why my mission will always be to write LGBTQ+ characters who just are who they are. 

CONGRATULATIONS ON HAVING YOUR SCREENPLAY, POLARIZED, ACCEPTED TO INSIDE OUT'S FILM FINANCE FORUM THIS SPRING. WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT IT AND WHAT COMPELLED YOU TO TELL THIS STORY THAT'S SET IN THE U.S.?

We all know how polarized the world feels right now. It feels as if you can only be one thing or another; Democrat or Republican, Christian or Muslim, liberal or conservative, and it feels as if the middle ground is getting worn away.  

It also bothered me that in America (and all over the world) people who inhabit the same town can live entirely separate lives in different worlds, divided from each other by economics and race.

So, Polarized is set in a small, farming town, where Lisa goes to work at an ‘urban farm’ – the kind of controlled production that has helped push traditional farms like her family’s out of business. The political climate - leaning against immigrants - feels threatening for the urban farm owners - Dalia and her successful, Muslim family. Just a few weeks before Dalia’s wedding, a heated encounter between the two women exposes deep prejudices and results in Lisa losing her job.

But it’s only the start of a passionate, unexpected connection between these two women from the same town, but very different worlds. As they each face a growing attraction to the other, they have to deal with fallout from their own beliefs and the lines separating their families.

YOU'VE ALSO WRITTEN AN INCREDIBLE SCREENPLAY TITLED ARRANGED ABOUT A QUEER ARRANGED MARRIAGE IN INDIA? WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THAT PROJECT?

Arranged is about two young Indian women who are set up by their despairing mothers and a matchmaker. But the two protagonists have nothing in common and decide to pretend to be a couple, to keep their families happy…It’s a fun twist on cultural wedding comedies like My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Crazy Rich Asians. No-one expects to see a gay marriage being arranged by Indian families. We’re hoping to shoot this early next year in India and the UK, and hopefully, it will be a fun, smart romantic comedy that gives us a bit of relief from politics and pandemics…

YOU HAVE CENTERED WOMEN, PEOPLE OF COLOR, RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY, AND LGBTQ CHARACTERS IN YOUR WORK FOR THE PAST 15 YEARS NOW; HOW HAVE YOU SEEN A CHANGE IN ATTITUDES FROM AUDIENCES, STUDIOS, AND FINANCERS IN RECENT YEARS? ARE THINGS HEADING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION?

I can’t tell you how many meetings Hanan and I have sat in over the years where execs have said things like ‘Could you just de-gay the main character?’ or ‘Could you make one of them white?’

Things have definitely progressed over the past two years. I think some of that is to do with the cultural zeitgeist around Trump and Weinstein, and some of it is the expansion of high-end streaming and TV into serving audiences that were previously considered too ‘niche’ (like LGBTQ+ audiences!) to warrant high budgets and production value.

There’s still quite a way to go, but it’s encouraging that the industry as a whole is embracing the idea that diversity and inclusion can be fundamental to stories and creators, not just a tick box.

From the time we made and released I Can’t Think Straight, I never felt I was making a niche movie. I don’t refuse to watch a rom-com because I already saw a ‘heterosexual movie’ that month, but there was this kind of assumption that straight audiences could not respond to queer content. I want that to change even more. In some ways, I feel that we were ahead of our time in terms of mainstream acceptance, but it’s great the tide is finally turning. But, as in politics, when we get comfortable, repression can creep in, and I think vigilance and using our voices remains important.