February 2013

Niranjana Iyer

features

An Interview with Saladin Ahmed

Saladin Ahmed was born in Detroit and raised in a working-class Arab American enclave in Dearborn, Michigan. He has racked up a number of achievements as a poet and a short story writer (including nominations for the Nebula and Campbell awards), and has taught writing at universities and colleges for over ten years. Ahmed's debut fantasy novel Throne of the Crescent Moon was published in 2012, and earned starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, a rave from NPR, and acclaim from readers.

Throne of the Crescent Moon is the first installment of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms trilogy, and features swords and sorcerers and shapeshifters aplenty... but wait! The sorcerer is sixty years old, the champion swordsman is five feet tall, the fierce shapeshifter is a tribal girl, the setting is the Middle East -- and the locals are the heroes rather than the villains. Ahmed's epic fantasy encompasses the clash between religious fundamentalists and moderates, power struggles in a land ruled by a dictatorial Khalif, ghuls and demons, a forked sword that cleaves the right from wrong in men, a master thief who steals from the rich to give (some of his loot) to the poor, and the tug-of-war between skepticism and faith. Throne is intelligent, original, and hugely enjoyable, and thrilling for both diehard fantasy readers and newcomers to the genre.  

You began your writing career as a poet; what drew you to fantasy? And how did your background in poetry play itself out when writing this book -- did your search for the perfect word or image ever get in the way of the action?

My poetry -- even my explicit social protest poetry -- always drew on mythology, magic, and monsters, and was often inflected with weirdly heroic tones, so it some ways it was a switch of form rather than content. And I tried to bring a poet's ear for language to Throne, but a hundred-thousand-word novel makes different demands than even a long poem.

The novel features a fat old hero, and a warrior-priest swordsman who's all of five feet tall... You subvert so many conventions about masculinity and heroism that dominate this genre. Did you have a particular agenda while planning the novel, or did it all flow organically from the plotting process?

I'm glad someone finally noticed that Raseed is short. That was very intentional, and few have remarked upon it! Yes, I had -- that most dreaded of things! -- an agenda: look at other (Other?) criteria for heroism and follow the sorts of heroes we don't usually follow. But to me, that's not mutually exclusive to flowing organically. A writer starts out writing with a set of suppositions and questions in her head -- even if she is unaware of them. But as one writes, these, one hopes, shift and squirm a bit.

Your short stories can be read in the ebook Engraved on the Eye, your novel is available in paper and electronic versions, and readers can pay you directly (if they wish) and read one of your stories on your website. Could you talk about the relationship between forms of your work, and the digital medium's implications for your creative process? And for reaching readers?

I have done some thinking about this stuff, but honestly, there are a lot of people out there pontificating about the brave new world of ebooks, and very few guarantees to be had as to where it's all going. All I'd venture at this point, then, is to say that most professional writers I know are carving out some sort of hybrid existence for themselves in order to survive -- putting out work in print, ebook, and audio, and working with both traditional and nontraditional publishing models.

You are of Lebanese-Egyptian-Irish-Polish ancestry, but your published prose mostly features Middle Eastern elements. Could you talk about your choice of setting in the context of our cultural climate being rife with prejudice against Islam and the Middle East?

This is sort of a book-length subject in and of itself, of course. But one way I approach this question is through the idea of, as you say, context. Writers don't tell stories in a vacuum, however much we might wish to pretend otherwise. So what already-told stories are your stories re-inscribing, which ones are they countering? Since long before 9/11, US culture has been saturated with stories about Arabs and Muslims as villains, as fanatics, as worthless, as better dead than alive. So yes, I aim to tell different stories in my work, and Throne is a part of that effort, however cloaked in swash-and-buckle it may be.

And when talking about representations of the Middle East in fantasy, I immediately think of The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis. Is Throne, in some ways, a response to that sort of Orientalism?

I've had a number of folks bring up that title, but I've never read it! But yes, in general, Throne very consciously aims to re-center the traditional western fantasy map, and to interrogate attendant cultural assumptions in the process. But, again, via monsters and magic rather than polemic.

NPR called Throne "The Lord of the Rings meets the Arab Spring." Your reaction?

I think it's a great shorthand blurb for a smart mainstream audience that has read very little fantasy. And I especially appreciate that it recognizes Throne's political edge, which the 1001 Nights comparisons fail to do. "Naguib Mahfouz meets Fritz Leiber" would probably be the most accurate blurb of this sort, but very few mainstream readers know who the hell those guys are.

The religious elements in Throne are intriguing -- Adoulla prays to a (male) god whose word works in tandem with holy objects (such as needles engraved with scripture) to defeat ghuls and demons. And the evil supernatural beings are said to be the servants of the Traitorous Angel.

The world of Throne is a theistic one, even if the characters have quite a range of responses to this fact. Part of this is politically and philosophically loaded -- I've found that speculative fiction often does a poor job of depicting piety with any sort of complexity. But part of it is also just rigorous world-building: preindustrial fantasy cultures that don't feature a lived-in religion (i.e., more than just characters saying "By the gods!" once in a while) tend to ring false to my ear.

Your novel reminded me that much of our life in the West has (largely unacknowledged) historical intersections with the Middle East. For instance, the characters playing bakgam made me look up the origins of backgammon, and hello, Persia! Did you consciously seek to incorporate such commonalities into the novel?

I did, but also the ability to play fast and loose with that sort of thing is a part of why I wrote a secondary world novel instead of a historical one. I can't get the details (historically) wrong!

Where would you point a reader looking to read more fantasy from (or at least set in) the Arab world?

The Haddawy translations of The Arabian Nights. Naguib Mahfouz's Arabian Nights and Days. Howard Andrew Jones's The Desert of Souls.

When, oh when, will the second installment of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms be out? Please tell readers something about the book that'll help lessen the trauma of the wait.

It's incredibly flattering that people are so excited for the next book! But it's been slow going, to be quite honest. It's less due to typical second-book writer's block, and more due to life circumstances, including the raising of twin toddlers. Unfortunately, it looks like it will be 2014 before the (as of yet untitled) next book is out. When it is, though, it will be full of cool stuff! Renegade female dervishes! The Queen of the djenn! And the fallout from the bloody end of book one!

Niranjana Iyer lives in Canada. She blogs at Brown Paper.