The Global Cyber Muslim Feminist Punk Fantasy World of G. Willow Wilson
There is a climactic moment in G. Willow Wilson's new novel Alif the Unseen, in which a female character, Dina, lifts her hijab and allows the protagonist, Alif, inside. Alif is about to be separated from her, perhaps forever, and has realized that he loves her. He asks for a moment of intimacy: he doesn't ask to kiss her; he just wants to see her. The moment is powerful and revelatory:
He could not have guessed the world she had created for herself. Sewn into the underside of her longer outer cloak were patches of bright silk: patterned, beaded, spangled with points of light; they hung above him like a tent...
In this one passage, Wilson accomplishes what innumerable trashy neo-Orientalist "Behind the Veil" books cannot: she invites us into a space that is both personal and spiritual. For Dina, her hijab is like an outer skin that protects her; allowing someone to see inside is not a sexy stripping act but an invitation to deeper knowledge. Dina is contrasted throughout the novel with Alif's former girlfriend, Intisar, who is from the upper classes (unlike Dina), and also wears hijab. Her hijab is fancy: it's trimmed with beads that clink together when she moves her head. She has decided to cover her face as a kind of affectation of spiritual vanity, unlike the down-to-earth Dina, whose life is rendered more inconvenient for it.
I doubt there is anyone else writing American fiction right now who cares to sympathetically explore the subjective experiences of women in hijab, and it's fine distinctions like these that make Alif the Unseen more than just the cyber fantasy potboiler that it undoubtedly is. With its nuanced portrayal of life (albeit cyber fantasy life) in a fictional Middle Eastern kingdom, Alif the Unseen, as an accessible work of popular fiction, will be helpful in giving Americans a more positive view of Muslims, Islam, and the Middle East. But what the novel accomplishes is much more important than simply an act of positive representation of the other for the consumption of a majority population veering sharply toward the Islamophobic.
Wilson, an American convert to Islam who is married to an Egyptian, seems to me to be most urgently addressing young Muslims in America, but also elsewhere, who find themselves caught in the rhetorical crossfire between Islamophobia, Islamic fundamentalisms, and the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East. Wilson's Alif, an atheistic "gray hat" hacker, who sees nothing of interest for himself in religious belief, learns lessons in faith through Dina, but also through a trash-talking jinn called Vikram the Vampire and a host of other mythological creatures. Wilson takes pains to situate the jinns and the worlds in which they travel within the universe of Islamic theology. Alif's journey is not portrayed as an explicit embrace of Islam so much as an embrace of faith as credulity, and credulity as a state that can embrace technology but also see technology as another manifestation of mystery and of the divine. Wilson thus eschews the facile and common distinctions between "modernity" and faith in Islam that pervade the US media (think of headlines like "In the Teeming Souks of X-istan, Signs for Cyber Cafes Jostle with Framed Quranic Verses," with accompanying photos of veiled women talking on cellphones), instead forcing the reader to see technology and the mysteries of faith as inextricably linked.
Alif the Unseen is not the first time that Wilson has entered this territory. With illustrator M.K. Perker, she produced the graphic novel Cairo, as well as a three-part comic called Air. Cairo can be seen as a precursor of the jinn theme in Alif the Unseen, for here, again, a jinn appears in the life of an unbeliever, this time a Lebanese American of lapsed faith traveling to the Middle East. The jinn helps him discover in himself both faith and a sense of his own personal power and purpose. The jinn is responsible for leading him away from a mission to launch a suicide attack in Palestine and gives him a much more fulfilling path that ultimately endows him with superhero-like powers.
Air is a fascinating comic about a blonde American flight attendant with acrophobia named Blythe and her mysterious olive-skinned lover, a sort of Global South everyman named Zayn, who may or may not be a terrorist, and who happily reminded me of Basil, the mystery-man lover of my childhood cartoon heroine Brenda Starr (star reporter). Air is a much less overtly Islam-focused work than Alif or Cairo, though it also touches on some of the same themes of feelings of powerlessness for Muslim young people and the difficult choices they face in the world today, especially in the person of Zayn. What it brought to life for me was Wilson's capacity for seeing the modern world for the multiethnic, multicultural, multi-religious thing that it actually is, as opposed to the simply drawn mono- or bi-ethnic universe that we usually see in popular culture. Racism, sexism, violence, humor, and materialism are all colliding in the transnational aviation world of Air, and despite its clear allegiances to the sci-fi genre, it feels entirely more realistic than most fictions purporting to portray life in the global village these days, including those written by very serious and celebrated postmodern transnational authors (one of whom is invoked in the opening panels of Air). It's not politically correct; it's just correct.
For all the talk of jinns and Islam, and the implicit battle against Orientalism in Wilson's works, her narrative style and characters owe more to Joss Whedon (is it because her name is Willow? Can that be a coincidence?), comics, and genre fiction than they do to Islamic theology or Edward Said. You can still sense the graphic novel precursors in Wilson's novel writing, which often feels like comic writing; there are times when the descriptions read like pointers for the artist: make this person's eyes glow yellow, make that one fly screeching through the air. But to be honest, Alif the Unseen is such a page-turner, Harry Potter-style, that sooner or later one will find one's inner critic switching off in the race to find out what will happen next. Wilson has written one other book, The Butterfly Mosque: A Young American Woman's Journey to Love and Islam, which I also ordered when I was preparing to write this review. It looks like a good book, but by the time I was done reading all her fiction, I didn't want my G. Willow Wilson fantasy world to be diluted by reality, so I decided not to read it until later. There is no need to read her work through the lens of her life, because, like Blythe, the flight attendant heroine of Air, this fictional world needs no help from reality to fly on its own.