Hey there, Diverse Reader Friends!
Hope you had an awesome weekend! Today, I’m sharing an interview I did with the awesome, Dina (D. L.) Sleiman. We’re discussing her novel, Dance from Deep Within. I can’t wait to share! Let’s get started.
About the Book
The Blurb: “Despite her conservative Muslim heritage, Layla Al-Rai longs for a chance to earn her degree in engineering and perhaps even…dare she dream…to choose her own husband. But young women from her background rarely enjoy such freedoms. When she finally talks her parents into letting her attend college, she is drawn to fellow twenty-something students, Allie and Rain, over a class project.
Allie, the blonde ballerina, faces her own struggles as she deals with an ex-fiancé and a church she had hoped to leave behind. Rain, the bi-racial hippie chick, longs for something to believe in, but her questioning could cost her the love of her life.
When Layla’s childhood sweetheart reenters her world, it seems her dreams might become real. Until everything falls apart. When she meets truth face to face, will she find the courage to accept it even if it requires the ultimate sacrifice?”
Toni: Thank you so much for joining us to talk about Dance from Deep Within. When I saw your novel in the WhiteFire Publishing Scavenger hunt, I was bouncing in my seat. I LOVE discovering diverse Christian fiction and your book seems to have it in spades. How did you even come up with this story idea?
Dina: My husband is from Lebanon, and I’ve been there several times. I always wanted to tell the story of a Muslim woman. But at the end of the day…like most of my books…the idea just sort of popped into my head, and I had to get it down on paper.
Toni: That is so awesome! As you stated above, Layla Al-Rai is Muslim. Wow, just wow. I can’t decide if I want to ask you about her religion or heritage…hmm, how about both? Is she American by birth or an immigrant? How does her religion factor into the novel?
Dina: Layla was raised in the states in a moderate Muslim family, originally from Lebanon. She’s the type of Muslim girl who wears the headscarf and modest clothing, but still manages to stay in the height of fashion. I modeled her after a stylish young Muslim woman I saw wearing a red mini-dress over a long sleeved black turtle neck and leggings once in Lebanon. Her religion and heritage, and even the difference between the two, play a huge part in her story. There are aspects of it she loves, and aspects of it that really bother her. I talked to a lot of former Muslims and even had one critique the book to make sure I got Layla right.
Toni: Yay! So happy you could talk to former Muslims. I’m sure it helped add authenticity. So Rain is biracial! Eek! Seriously, you gave us a melting pot in one novel! Was it difficult to write Rain’s background? Did it feel too far removed from your own? (Why can’t I stick to just one question, lol?)
Dina: I know, this book covers a lot! I modeled Rain after a few zany characters I loved from television: Freddie Brooks from the old A Different World series, and Dharma from Dharma and Greg, even though Dharma was white. Rain is the typical flower child of aging hippies, and that’s what stands out most about her. I think her bi-racial heritage really captures the post-modern spirit and new age type beliefs I was aiming for. Rain pretty much wrote herself, and she’s hysterical. I felt like since she had both black and white in her background, I had more flexibility in how she might think and feel. And African-American readers have really enjoyed her.
Toni: I loved Freddie in A Different World! Rain sounds like an amazing character. But she’s not the last one. The last young lady featured in your novel is Allie, a ballerina. I see church is her struggle. How did you create her character?
Dina: Allie is a lot like me, so she was fairly easy to write in some ways, but I also had to be careful how I presented her for a Christian audience. She loves God, but has a lot of hurts and hang ups due to her uber-conservative religious upbringing. She’s a ballerina by training, but she actually prefers contemporary dance and heavy metal music. She’s a free spirit at heart. Not a great fit for her traditional family and church. I needed to portray her woundedness in a sympathetic manner that wouldn’t alienate the reader. It took some work to hit just the right note.
Toni: *Sigh* Wounded people tug at my heart strings. *Adding to library hold list* Was there a particular theme you were shooting for, or did it all just fall into place?
Dina: I started the writing process with the main characters and their early conversations. I focused on what would happen when these three diverse cultures collided. As I like to say, “A Muslim, a hippie, and a Christian walk into a coffee shop…” But the theme of discovering who you really are and what you really believe and living from deep within emerged early in the process.
Toni: Love the line! How do you think our cultural perceptions are skewed? Do you find most people hang on to stereotypes or are willing to meet a person on their own merits?
Dina: Wow, that’s a loaded question. I mean, everyone enters a new situation with their own baggage and history. Our past experiences are a natural part of how we understand the world and make meaning out of it. I think a lot of people have a hard time seeing past their preconceptions, but all three of these girls were pretty special in that area. It did take them a while to adjust to one another and to learn to understand one another, but they were all open and curious and willing to learn. By the end, they became more than friends; they were sisters.
Toni: Hope you didn’t feel put on the spot. Love your answer! It’s always important to be “willing to learn.” How about some easier questions? Chocolate or candy?
Dina: Ha! I like fruity candy better most days.
Toni: They do have their place. 🙂 Favorite season?
Dina: Summer. I love summertime activities like the beach and swimming, and I like the laid back, lazy feel of summer.
Toni: Yes! Take me to a beach. Favorite soda?
Dina: Fresca, actually. Is that weird?
Toni: Lol, no. It’s actually good. I can’t remember the last time i had one or saw them. Is it a regional thing? I don’t think Virginia has them. Anyway, I digress. 🙂 Last but not least, what message do you want readers to receive after reading Dance from Deep Within?
Dina: This book is really a journey of discovery that you take along with the characters. Amidst the drama, romance, and humor, I hope that readers are challenged to develop a deeper level of intimacy with Christ and that they will desire to live from deep within like Layla, Rain, and Allie.
I’d like to also mention that this is the first book in the series, and book 2 will be releasing in November. It will add to the already diverse cast Fatima, who comes from a radical Saudi Arabian Muslim family, and integrate more African-American characters as well.
Toni: Hooray for more books! Hopefully, you’ll come back and visit with us. 🙂
About the Author
Award-winning author, Dina Sleiman, writes stories of passion and grace. Most of the time you will find this Virginia Beach resident reading, biking, dancing, or hanging out with her husband and three children, preferably at the oceanfront. Since finishing her Professional Writing MA in 1994, she has enjoyed many opportunities to teach literature, writing, and the arts. Her debut novel, Dance of the Dandelion with Whitefire Publishing, won an Honorable Mention in the 2012 Selah Awards, and her cross-over YA novel, Dauntless, won the 2016 Carol Award in its genre from the American Christian Fiction Writers. Also look for her books, Love in Three-Quarter Time, Dance from Deep Within, and the rest of her Valiant Hearts series with Bethany House Publishers including Chivalrous and Courageous. Dina serves on the editorial board for WhiteFire as well, and during the day she utilizes her writing talent with the humanitarian organization Operation Blessing International. Join her as she discovers the unforced rhythms of grace.
Interview conducted by Toni Shiloh