New Client Alert — Alaa Al-Barkawi

  • By: Jenissa Graham | Date: Oct 28 2022

Alaa Al-Barkawi


What you Write:

YA contemporary 



Jenissa Graham


Why BookEnds? 

I had the honor of being a 2021 Bookends Literary Fellow and worked with THE incredible Emily Forney. I was able to see how much the agency cares for mentoring new professionals, provides resources to writers, and fosters community. That experience provided me a new outlook on what publishing could be—collaborative and fun—and I knew if I ever got the chance, I’d be honored to be a client at Bookends. 


Where can readers find you on the web and social media?

You can find me on Twitter at @AlaaBarkawi and my website


Describe your experience with “The Call.” What do you write? When did the agent catch you? What was it like to get the call of your agent offering on your book/work? How long had you been querying/submitting, etc? Share as much as you’d like!

 I had been querying on and off since June 2021. When I first started, I considered myself strictly a YA literary writer who loved writing about depressing, realistic stories, but I’ve since expanded my writing interests to other genres and age categories—and happier stories too! All of my work now revolves around Iraqi characters, but it took me SEVERAL years to accept that those characters—and my identity as an Iraqi American—were worth writing about. Growing up Iraqi Muslim American post 9/11 and during the US occupation of Iraq, I was constantly flooded with images of my people as the villains, and it affected my work as a writer. In fact, the book that got me my agent started off as a story centering white characters. It wasn’t until college, when I accepted my identity as something to be proud of, that I slowly transitioned that sentiment in my writing too. First, I planned to only change the main character to Iraqi and then came the snowball effect. The entire story changed—and it truly became an exploration of the feelings I had been harboring for so long. It became a story about refugees, about Iraqi culture, global conflict, and the estrangement of identity and community. I realized I had a lot more to say—more than could fit in one book, and here I had been denying myself for so long!

When I began querying, my first batch garnered a decent number of fulls/partials, but I wasn’t getting any feedback on what I could fix or what was wrong—just that agents weren’t quite connecting to the voice which ultimately led to vague rejections. At this point of my career, I was very new to the writing community, and I wasn’t part of any formal critique groups or writing programs but had recently met my incredible critique partner (shout out to Narjis Sheikh!). So really, by the time I queried, only two humans in total had read my book because I was still very nervous about sharing my work. But when the vague rejections kept coming, I knew there must be something wrong with the manuscript. I asked my friend Aamna Qureshi (who writes the most gorgeous books) if she could read the novel and provide feedback. When Aamna suggested I quicken the pacing of the story, I decided to ultimately withdraw all my queries in October so I could go back and revise it. 

Now might be a good time to mention that this book is sort of my nemesis. It took me four years to get to draft 1 and each time I had to revise and revisit it, I felt like I was fighting for my life! It’s not the most cooperative book I have, and I wrote another YA contemporary while I was in the query trenches so I thought, maybe I should just give up on this one? Then, in December, after almost shelving the book, an agent I really admired asked for the full—despite my withdrawal—and I knew it was a sign to continue forward with this book, even if it is my enemy. 

Through many edits and incredible beta readers feedback—I wrote two new drafts and started my querying journey again in March. The nature of querying had really slowed down, so I didn’t really have any responses on the new draft. Then, in May, I saw Jenissa opened to queries, and I got the chance to submit to her, too. About a month later, the rejections flooded in again. But this time, with really great feedback and options to revise and resubmit. Three agents I really admired, including Jenissa, said I needed to fix the pacing (cries). Jenissa was really enthusiastic about the book and kind enough to offer me a call to go over her feedback in detail, which led to an exclusive R&R. 

During my first call with Jenissa, I was like “oh my God, she really gets my book!”. Instead of feeling creatively cornered, I felt like she had given me so much room to really play with this new draft. At that time, I only had a small batch of queries out so I decided to revise my book once again. Through many trials, plot changes, and mental breakdowns, two months later, not only did I have a newer, shinier draft—but a new story I didn’t know existed in this book! For the first time in four years I actually liked my book! It’s still one hundred percent my nemesis, but I like my nemesis now.  

I had some incredible beta readers and friends (CJ Ishani!) who gave me the love and encouragement to polish it off and send it back to Jenissa. In less than twenty-four hours after I sent the new draft back, Jenissa responded to me about how much she loved the changes and that she wanted to chat! During our first call, I instantly knew that if she offered after I revised—I’d take it. By the second call, I knew it would take a lot to be swayed away from Jenissa. I was so honored she gave my book a second chance, helped me unlock a layer I didn’t know existed, and believed in my story about the complicated feelings the Iraqi diaspora have living in America. I’m so grateful to start this journey with her to bring Iraqi-American stories to publishing! The sad ones and the happy ones, too.