A Great Outdoors For Everyone : Short Wave Fatima's Great Outdoors, a new children's book, centers on a girl named Fatima, who's struggling to adjust to her new life in the U.S. But on her very first camping trip with her family,
Fatima unexpectedly discovers courage and joy in the outdoors. Today on the show, Emily talks to Ambreen Tariq about her new book and her social media initiative, BrownPeopleCamping. For Tariq, both efforts are a part of a common vision — to increase diversity in the outdoors and challenge definitions of what it means to belong in nature.

This conversation is part of NPR's collaboration with the Library of Congress National Book Festival.

You can email us at shortwave@npr.org.

A Great Outdoors For Everyone

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MADDIE SOFIA, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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EMILY KWONG, HOST:

When Ambreen Tariq was about 8 years old, she left India with her family and immigrated to the U.S., specifically to Minnesota. And it was a transition for the whole family - learning new American customs...

AMBREEN TARIQ: Whether it was the public transit system or, you know, how to use a drinking fountain, as well as, like, Halloween and Easter and all of these things.

KWONG: And then came springtime.

TARIQ: And everybody in Minnesota just went outdoors, so my parents thought this is also a part of being American. This is also a custom.

KWONG: So Ambreen's parents, each working two jobs at the time, saved up and bought a tent and, as she puts it, just sort of stumbled into the campground.

TARIQ: It wasn't some sort of great planned adventure. It was very much like everything else in our life as immigrants, which was stumbling forward into the unknown and finding our way through it.

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KWONG: Which meant doing the outdoors the Tariq way.

TARIQ: For example, when we went camping, we made Indian food. My mom made Indian food. We brought dishes and pots and pans from home. You know, we had blankets. We had pillows. We didn't have the money for gear.

KWONG: But that stuff didn't really matter because, Ambreen says, all of the anxiety and stress her family felt adjusting to this new country - it shrank in the big outdoors.

TARIQ: We got to be children again. My sister and I got to explore. And the best part was that we could see our parents enjoying themselves and feeling joy and feeling curiosity. And we laughed, and we felt adventure together.

KWONG: Ambreen captures that joy in a new children's book called "Fatima's Great Outdoors." It's loosely based on her own childhood experiences growing up with her family.

The main character is this girl named Fatima, who's struggling in school, but then goes on her first-ever camping trip. She sets up a tent with her dad, learns to build a campfire from her mom.

TARIQ: And those sort of pieces get strung together to show that she has a new sense of self and a strength that she found in a place that is completely nontraditional in what she views as life.

KWONG: Wow. This book's got range.

TARIQ: I know (laughter). It's just a kids' book.

KWONG: Isn't that true about a lot of children's literature? There's so much going on.

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KWONG: Yes, there is. I'm Emily Kwong. Today on the show, we talk to author and activist Ambreen Tariq about the power of the outdoors and why everyone should get to experience it in their own authentic way.

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KWONG: This is SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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KWONG: Ambreen is a first-time author, but she's been writing about the outdoors for a long time. Back in 2016, when the National Park was celebrating its centennial, Ambreen started a social media community called BrownPeopleCamping, all about promoting diversity in the outdoors. For her, diversity is not just about who gets to enjoy the outdoors; it's also about challenging ideas of what going outdoors even looks like.

TARIQ: You know, this very stereotypical, white, masculine image of going outdoors is trying to conquer it, you know. It's trying to bag that peak. It's trying to hit the whole Appalachian Trail. It's trying to go backpacking for days. Because that - those are the images that you see. Those are the stories that are romanticized. But what about people who actually have outdoor culture in their lives and didn't even recognize it? Like always - you know, the summer cookouts, the gardening, the fishing at the pier with your family - these are all outdoor joys. So deconstructing that model is super important to me.

KWONG: Well, I love how you mention this in the book, too. There's this moment where Fatima is sleeping in her tent - or trying to - and her mom is washing the dishes. And there's this line - the Khazis didn't use paper plates because they were too expensive. And I thought that was such an honest admission on your part, just acknowledging how expensive it is to camp. You know, the gear - there's getting out there, for one, but then the gear itself is not cheap at all.

TARIQ: Gear is extremely expensive. But there's also something that I like to talk about a lot through my storytelling, which is the psychological barrier. And there are many of them. As a woman, I think about, OK, I'm going to have protection. I have to protect myself with something. I have to make sure I tell people where I'm going. I have to make sure I have a map downloaded and a map on my phone and so many things to make sure that I'm safe because, ultimately, when I'm thinking about fear and vulnerability in the outdoors, I'm not afraid of a bear or a snake or spiders. I'm afraid of being attacked by a man. That's what comes up in my mind.

And I have found through the work that I do that there are a lot of people who also are - that's what they're afraid of. And it keeps them from going outdoors because they are afraid of violence...

KWONG: Yeah.

TARIQ: ...In wilderness. And that is a historic experience for communities, for several communities in this country. And if you have to overcome the financial barriers, the anxiety, the fear, the discomfort of simply looking around and not seeing anyone else like you and feeling out of place, how do you overcome all of that and then come back again?

KWONG: Yeah, yeah.

TARIQ: Right? So the bar is so high, which is why I like to promote - when you get out there, do you. Do what you enjoy. If you enjoy eating kebabs and rotis at the campsite, then do that. There is no singular way of being outdoors. It is so important to me to show people that every part of themselves can belong in the outdoors.

KWONG: Yeah. You know, this is kind of reminding me of the character of Fatima's mother in the book.

TARIQ: Yes.

KWONG: She's kind of the...

TARIQ: Absolutely.

KWONG: ...MVP of this camping trip, right? So...

TARIQ: Absolutely.

KWONG: ...The story says she grew up in a small town in India using a wood-burning stove. And that comes in handy when the dad can't really get the fire going, and the girls are scared of a spider. And the mom just steps in with all of her knowledge. And it seems to be saying...

TARIQ: Yeah.

KWONG: You seem to be saying in the book, in that moment, look; immigrant communities, they not only belong in the outdoors, but they might even have more skills to thrive in that space through life experience or separate cultural traditions that are inherently rooted in the outdoors.

TARIQ: I don't think I could have said it better myself.

KWONG: (Laughter) Well, your message came through loud and clear in the book. It was great.

TARIQ: You would never think an immigrant mom with two jobs is an outdoors hero. And that's what this book is trying to convey, is let's deconstruct those stereotypes and what you can imagine. And this is someone you can imagine. She could make a fire because that's what she's been doing as a child when they ran out of gas for the inside stove. That's what I'm trying to get across with Mama, that she can excel in the outdoors, and she doesn't have to look like or act like anyone else but herself.

KWONG: I love what you're saying so much, especially to contrast it with the idea of public land and the Find Your Park campaign, which is very cool in its message. But you know, when you think about how there are tens of millions of acres of national parks land and national park sites available for public use, not everyone relates to the land in the same way.

TARIQ: Absolutely. And that is a great lesson that I learned as I started doing my work through BrownPeopleCamping and continue to learn. And it's based heavily - it's based heavily in also trying to understand my role as an ally.

So my stories are about my immigrant experience. But outside of that, there are communities that have very different relationships to land that are not captured when I'm romanticizing or celebrating the immigrant experience. Like Native and Indigenous communities - their relationship to land is one where their land was taken away from them. And so understanding whose land it was when we arrive at a national park, or any park - when you're appreciating a mountain or a river, it didn't just appear out of nowhere and was made into a park. It was taken from someone.

And then there's the story of people who were brought to this land and made to work this land and then were denied access to that land as African Americans. Learning those stories about the generational trauma that exists in wilderness and how bad things happen to Black people in the woods is an extremely important part of learning to be American. And I cannot talk about what I do without contextualizing it in this larger narrative of BIPOC communities in this country.

KWONG: Really appreciate you walking through all that. And I think this is a really important conversation to have as a science podcast because so many people are first exposed to nature and the possibilities of a scientific career through experiences like these - right? - through camping, through hiking. They find crickets, and suddenly, they want to become a biologist.

TARIQ: Yeah.

KWONG: If the outdoors is not accessible to a whole segment of the U.S. population and a bunch of young people who are part of those groups - BIPOC groups, Indigenous groups - they're not able to get on board with imagining a future for themselves in science. It's kind of - the door - the door's just heavy to open - even heavier.

TARIQ: It is extremely heavy to open, and it's the most primary way for a child to experiment in the earliest of ages. You look at something. You're curious what it is. You explore it. You follow it. You analyze it. You learn so much through - I mean, nature is experiential learning. Being outdoors is experiential learning. And missing that is missing a huge part of the learning process for kids who don't have access to the outdoors in the same way as others who can be nurtured in the outdoors and allowed to be curious with a sense of safety associated to it. It's so important.

KWONG: OK. I want to end this interview in the same place that you end "Fatima's Great Outdoors," this incredible book that you've written. It's the moment where her camping trip is winding down, and she's kind of processing the feelings of leaving the outdoors. So can you read just that little bit?

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TARIQ: (Reading) Being outdoors reminded her of how she used to feel in India. She had fun. She didn't feel sad or scared. And she loved how adventure was around every corner. At the campground, Fatima felt like a superhero. But now she had to leave it all behind.

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KWONG: Why was it important for you to include this idea? And I guess, what do you hope you leave people with at the very end of this book?

TARIQ: So one of my most prominent childhood memories is the feeling of when those trips were coming to an end. She says she has a heavy heart, and that's how I used to describe it to my sister. But what I want to leave kids with now, which I wasn't able to see as a child, is hope - that there is so much you've actually gained through this experience you can bring with you. It doesn't - you don't have to leave it there and go sadly away. You bring it with you. Integrate it into your life. Find ways to bring it back. Find ways to engage with these skills during the week. You know, Fatima didn't think of it then, but she could go on walks and hikes. They go biking around the neighborhood. They go sledding with the neighborhood kids. These are all outdoor activities that she could integrate into her love for the outdoors and keep building on it.

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KWONG: You can kind of carry the outdoors with you, like inside.

TARIQ: Absolutely, in an active way.

KWONG: This conversation with Ambreen Tariq was part of NPR's collaboration with the Library of Congress National Book Festival. For information and more author interviews, visit loc.gov/bookfest.

This episode was produced by Indi Khera, edited by Viet Le and fact-checked by Berly McCoy. The audio engineer for this episode was Kwesi Lee.

You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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