Five Lessons in the Fattening Room’ features a lush second world fantasy, ‘Concessions’ a mix of magic and science, parched desert and dystopian city, and ‘Boris’ Bar’ an intergalactic world teeming with addiction, artificial intelligence and space travel. What inspires your worlds – do the characters come first or the settings? The world of ‘Concessions’ is particularly compelling with its religious intolerance, hinterland of exiles, black market organ harvesting, and the push and pull between magic, religion and science. How did you begin and develop Bilqis’ world? Are there more stories (existing or forthcoming) set in these worlds?
Characters typically come first in my stories and sometimes it boils down to something as primitive as a single emotion. The story blossoms from there, usually over a considerable period of time. I am a slow writer and I tend to wait for the MC to tell me what is on her mind before I sit down to write.
Bilqis and the hinterlands has been with me for about ten years in one iteration or another. And Concessions, the idea of a world at war with all faiths (not just Islam) has been with me since 2011 when I started writing a serial, with the artistic accompaniment of my daughter, called Honor and Truth. I never completed the serial, because I wrote it without an outline and it had a hellish amount of plot holes. I stopped writing because I wanted to make it a more mature work, fill in those plot holes and combine it with the world of Bilqis.
There are indeed more stories planned in Bilqis’ world, and hopefully a novel series one day.
Bilqis, the protagonist of ‘Concessions’, is amongst other things a badass midwife, an accomplished but troubled scientist, a suffering would-be mother and a powerful avenger. How important was it for you to create and tell the story of a Muslim female character? Why did you choose to have her make the Concessions at the end of the story, and thus literally bury her own religion?
It was incredibly important to me to write a story about a Muslim woman. First of all, I want to write the types of stories that I would like to read. I think Toni Morrison said this and it has always stuck with me. I would like to read stories where I can see people like me. A woman of color who is Muslim, and yet so much more. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I have had someone say to me, ‘You’re not like other Muslims.” And even the dreaded, “You’re not like other Black people.” By no stretch of the imagination are these compliments. And these statements are also not entirely true. In the sense that I am a singular human being with unique thoughts and experiences, I am exactly like other Muslims and Black people. Neither group is a monolith.
I wanted Bilqis to reflect back the same types of emotions that every other human being experiences. I wanted her humanity to be the first thing any reader recognizes about her.
As for Bilqis burying her religion, she didn’t. Not really. She buried the outward signs of her faith, much like her mother did, much like so many Muslim Americans do in order to safely interact in a society that isn’t always tolerant and welcoming. Bilqis resigned herself carrying that faith in her heart. And… in subsequent stories, that may become a problem for her.
What do you think of the current state of Muslim representation in Speculative Fiction (SF)?
I feel the same about Muslim representation as I do about representation of just about any “other” group. It is sorely lacking, but not invisible. There are some fantastic Muslim authors out there in genre fiction and out. And there are some phenomenal characters being written as well. Besides the typical biases, which sometimes work to our benefit, there is also the fact that many Muslims don’t feel welcome in the SF world. This is no different than with any other so-called minority group. That’s the way it is, but not how it must remain. We have something to offer that the typical same old white straight male storyteller does not. A fresh perspective informed by a different lifestyle, set of beliefs and experiences. And while there are folks out there who rail against this very necessary change, there are also people who embrace it and are hungry for it.
You’re a breast oncology nurse – how much do you draw on your own profession and science background for your fiction, if at all? What have been your biggest influences in writing?
Hmm. I do draw on my personal expertise as a breast oncology nurse, but not more or less than I draw on my experience as a mother, wife, woman, fat person, black person, gamer, gardener… I think it is inevitable. All of my experience gets cooked down and distilled into me. It’ll all make it onto the page at some point, I think.
Many of your stories feature women struggling with inner conflict, either succumbing to it or overcoming it, and you tackle the idea of womanhood from different angles. Is it a conscious choice to write from the perspective of female narrators? What do you think of the ‘strong female character’ trope? For you, what constitutes strong?
Several years ago I wrote a self-published novel entitled An Unproductive Woman. I recall one review in particular, which I think was 2 or 3 stars, wherein the reader was particularly disturbed by the portrayal of my main character. In brief, the MC was married to a very selfish and troubled man, and she remained pretty forgiving and long-suffering for the duration of the book. This reader was horrified by this portrayal of the MC and the other women in the book as well. I think she called them boring?
This was the first and only time I consciously wrote with creating a strong female character in mind. She wasn’t some kick-ass, knife-wielding, leather clad woman, hacking down all the bad guys. That kind of character often has no depth. In my opinion, the MC was a woman who demonstrated fortitude in the most difficult of situations. I thought she was strong.
I no longer write with the intention of creating “strong women”. I write with the intention of creating complex women. I allow them to rise to the occasion or buckle to adversity as they will. As we all do at times. Their strength isn’t a conscious choice for me, but at the same time, I think that strength is so subjective. It doesn’t mean the same thing for us all, nor does it mean the same thing for all of my characters. So to answer your question, I don’t think much at all of the “strong female character” trope. It doesn’t really factor into my writing. And I always write women. Perhaps that may change in the future, but it is definitely my preference for now. Just as I will always write my MCs as a POC.
Do you identify as a WOC in the SF community? Have your identities in any way affected your experience as a writer and editor in the SF community, whether positively or negatively? How do you feel about terms like WOC and POC?
I am definitely a WOC and a POC and I proudly identify as such. I’ve seen some ugly things on social media, people being abused, attacked, doxxed and stalked. It can be vicious, particularly in a field once almost entirely dominated by aging white men. Some folks aren’t ready for the change that is surely happening.
You’re an editor at Podcastle – how did that come about? What would you say the difference is between reading versus listening to a story? How does narrating a story from the page to audio change it?
I started as a first reader for Escape Pod about three years ago at the encouragement of my good friend and fellow writer Rachael K. Jones. Shortly after that I moved over to PodCastle as a first reader. The I was given the opportunity to guest co-edited Artemis Rising #2 (a month long short story extravaganza across all of the Escape Artists podcasts dedicated to women). At that point I accepted a position as assistant editor and this year as co-editor. I never thought that I would become an editor, but I am glad that I am. I have learned so much.
Somewhere in the midst of all of that, I also started doing some narrations, which I LOVE. Narration shouldn’t change a story. Narration should instead compliment a story, opening up all those little nuances that can only be realized with a real live voice. I appreciate audio as much as I appreciate words on paper/screen.
What do you hope to see more of in SF? What’s on your reading wish list?
In general I am eager to see more stories written by women and about women in SF. Women are better at writing women, and that’s a fact. I am particularly excited to read the conclusion of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. I admire the bravery with which she writes, the mix of science and fantasy, the delicious world and character building. I would read pretty much anything she writes. I have a lot of books, audio and digital, that I haven’t read yet but that I am practically drooling to get to when time allows. Books by Kameron Hurley, Sabaa Tahir, Fonda Lee, Nnedi Okorafor, Divya Breed, Malka Older… Like, can we move to Deep Space 9 and have 26 hour days? I could put those extra hours to some terrific use.
Tell us what you are currently working on and what you are excited about.
I have a handful of stories slow baking in the oven of my brain. A couple of them are set in the Hinterlands, as in “Concessions”. And one that has been poking me for about a week or two that is in some small way based ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan.