Sahar Mustafah ’13

Author. Teacher.

The Beauty of Your Face has been named a Most Anticipated Book of 2020 by Marie Claire, Bustle, Real Simple, and Literary Hub.

Sahar Mustafah, MFA Fiction ’13, has loved writing and reading all of her life. It wasn’t until she became a teacher that she considered following these passions as a professional career. Mustafah began writing short stories and joined Radius of Arab American Writers who supported her early publishing endeavors. Eventually, Mustafah felt that she wanted to dedicate more time to writing. She joined Columbia College Chicago’s Fiction MFA program when she realized she could get her Master’s while still teaching full time.

The daughter of Palestinian immigrants, Mustafah says she has many wonderful stories to pull from her background. Mustafah is celebrating her recent release of The Beauty of Your Face, a novel about Afaf Rahman, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants. She is the principal of Nurrideen School for Girls, a Muslim school in the Chicago suburbs. One morning, a shooter radicalized by the online alt-right-attacks the school.

The Beauty of Your Face has been named a Most Anticipated Book of 2020 by Marie Claire, Bustle, Real Simple, and Literary Hub. New York Times Book Review says "It’s a story of survival and hope, forgiveness and connection. It’s not just about the beauty of Afaf’s face, as the title implies, it’s about the beauty of her heart and the hearts of the people around her, no matter how lonely or scared they are." It was also recently selected as an Editors’ Choice by Elisabeth Egan, NYTBR editor.

Here Mustafah talks about her new novel and her experience at Columbia College Chicago:

What inspired you to write this book, is this topic personal for you? 

After writing a short story collection for my MFA thesis, I wasn't sure I could pull off a novel. I am steeped in the transient, yet robust nature of short fiction so I worried about the transition. However, I realized quickly how efficiently I could still employ those practices for writing short stories into the longer project. The seed of my novel The Beauty of Your Face is inspired by the tragic hate-murders of Yusor Abu-Salha, her husband Deah Shaddy Barakat, and her sister Rezan Abu-Salha, in North Carolina. As a public-school teacher, I've been long preoccupied with gun violence; the additional dimension of hate-mongering and bigotry was easy to address as a Palestinian and Muslim American. I'd been writing about that experience for some time in my short fiction. In this novel, I was able to accomplish many things that expand the narrative of my community as well as offer familiar, universal experiences for many readers. 

How did your experience at Columbia help you write and finish your book? Are there any Columbia faculty that helped you throughout the writing process? If so, how? 

As time passed, I sensed that if I wanted to make a meaningful goal of publishing my work, I'd need a program or professional mentorship. I came to Columbia College's program at an ideal time in my journey when I could devote my attention and energy to producing a body of work with hope of it entering the world. It offered a terrific fit for me as a still full-time high school teacher. There are many extraordinary faculty at Columbia and I was fortunate to have connected directly with some of them in classes or activities. My wonderful and brilliant mentor Patricia McNair guided my thesis work and kept my spirits and courage up concerning my short story collection which eventually won a publishing prize in 2016 (Code of the West, Willow Books). I also worked with Megan Stielstra, a bright-hearted teacher/writer/performer, who taught me that stories can take different forms, and with the patient and wise Christine Maul Rice who expanded my editing and publishing expertise while I worked with her on Hair Trigger. These mentors continued to support me outside of Columbia -- a testament to the long-term benefits I've gleaned as an emerging writer. 

How did your time at Columbia College help you become a better writer? 

It gave me a space to grow from stories I thought I should be telling and embracing my still-evolving writing identity. I was grateful for deadlines and feedback from instructors and peers, as well as forming long-term bonds with fellow writers in the program who continue to support me. 

Would you advise a prospective student (in your field) to attend Columbia College, and if so, why?

Yes, with a determined and strong sense that the timing is good and conducive to productivity. Along with amazing faculty, a peer community helps a student thrive and be meaningfully critiqued before their work enters the public realm. Feedback and collaboration are like the flesh and bone of a body of work. 

What advice do you have for current students? 

Embrace so-called failures or setbacks as part of the process of growth and the journey toward a compelling, polished product or experience. Be open and take risks within your creativity and avoid producing what you think others will only wish to engage. Celebrate your truth and authentic voice and vision.