"A Conversation With Novelist Saladin Ahmed About Muslim Fantasy, Transcending Tropes and Writing Women"
Saladin Ahmed wrote my all-time favorite essay about race and Game of Thrones, so I was terrifically excited to read Throne of the Crescent Moon, his first novel. The first installment in a series, the book follows Dr. Adoulla Makhslood, a hunter of monsters called ghuls who do terrible violence for the men who create them. Raseed bas Raseed, his dervish apprentice, struggles with his religious devotion even as he admires some aspects of the more profane Adoulla’s life and work. The world in which they do their work isn’t ours, nor is the religion that shapes their lives Islam, at least not precisely. But Throne of the Crescent Moon is a riff on and a response to everything from our contemporary conversations about Islam to the tropes of the Western fantasy canon. Ahmed and I talked about everything from his mythological influences to the way he thinks about writing women. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
When you started thinking about the novel, I’d be curious what kind of research you did into the mythology? I feel like Western readers are familiar with non-Western myths like djinns as they’ve been shoehorned into the edges of fairy tales, but they’re not often at the center of the frame.
In some ways, it’s two separate questions. What the research was going in was a hodge-podge. Growing up in Arab immigrant communities, my grandmother would, in halting Arabic, try to tell me stories. But [I also read] also translations of the Koran and stuff like that. Some of it was from my heritage. And some of it is integrating bits of, dare I say, Orientalist use of quote unquote Eastern mythologies…It’s very Arab-American novel in the mix of mythology that’s in there. And that made it easier to connect with a Western audience because there are a whole swath of things in there that nerds who read a lot of Western fantasy recognize.
The monster stuff, a lot of it’s my own stuff. The ghuls, which are the main creatures in there, they’re really just using the name. In actual Arab mythology, ghuls are sentient, and they’re dimwitted but cunning. They’re cannibals. I’ve had a lot of people in there use the zombie metaphor for them. They are these kinds of mindless hordes of creatures, but they’re not raised from the dead in the same way. They’re more like golems than anything else. There is probably some intra-Semitic mythology going on there…There’s definitely a take on the djenn in the later books…I’m interested in the theology issues that the Koran has with the djenn.
Similarly, a lot of fantasy relies on readers having some cursory knowledge of European history and geography, like George R.R. Martin’s use of the War of the Roses as an analogue for the concepts in Game of Thrones. What kind of knowledge did you assume on the part of your readers?
It’s a funny thing becuase so many aspects of this book, and discussing this book are counterpoints to European fantasy this and European fantasy that. Most people don’t actually know that much about European history, and most European geography. [In Western fantasy novels] where’s people’s terror of salvation, for instance? That seems like it would be a pretty big thing. I’m pretty much assuming nothing [about what people know]. In some ways, that’s freeing. This is very intentionally not historical fantasy per se, because it felt extremely constraining in ways I didn’t want to be constrained. The kind of straight-up analogues will start to come in more in later books. There’s a central Crusades analogue that will come up in books two and three. And the [series' version of the] standard trope of a dark army that’s on the rise where there will be the final clash will be the Crusader analogue. But hopefully I’m not just flipping the sides. In the Muslim world, [the story of the Crusades is that] there’s these savages that came. That’s not entirely accurate either. It’s proving thorny to write.
Dervishes are, of course, a real thing rather than a fantasy or cultural creation, but it’s not quite clear in the book whether your characters are Muslim or not, or whether they follow an analogous but not identical faith. How much did you want the novel to be directly tied to and function as a reflection on contemporary understandings of Islam?
That’s been probably one of the most interesting things that’s kind of been raised and discussed about this book. Some people reading the book feel like they’re mentioning God every couple of pages, it’s getting annoying. It’s a secular reading that wants an anachronistically secular reading of pre-industrial fantasy world. And there are some people who are reading it who say ‘I expected it to be more Islamic.’ It’s a secondary world. It’s a made-up world. It’s not Islam. It’s not the Middle East. It’s not Earth. It’s a made-up world in the way that Robert Jordan or George R.R. Martin, that most people writing today are writing in made-up worlds. It might look like historical periods in our own Earth, but they’re made up. And that’s very intentional. And I didn’t want to wrie a book that’s about Islam. I’m choosing to write a religion that looks like a religion that gets maligned a lot in the culture the book is being read in. At the end of the day, this is an adventure fantasy novel that can’t bear the weight of truly depicting Islam in such a problematic world on its little shoulders.
But I feel like we’re in the midst of a nice boom in fantasy set in the Muslim world, whether it’s Matt Ruff’s alternate history novel The Mirage, or G. Willow Wilson’s hackers-and-djinn novel Alif the Unseen coming out this summer. Do you feel like your work, and that boom, is responding to the broader cultural conversation into which that work is published?
I’m not that writer who will say I’m a mystery writer, or I’m a horror writer, but I happen to be black, or I happen to be Puerto Rican, or I happen to be a woman. I’m not that person. Being Arab and being a Muslim is part of my consciousness on a daily basis. You’re telling your story in a world where stories are always being told. There are small attempts in this flimsy form of an adventure fantasy [to say something different.]…
Not to say that there’s not all sorts of oppression that’s specific to Muslim women, but there are fears and hatreds that are very specific to Muslim men in our culture. And on the other side, there are these stories about genre heroes, and what men should be. And a lot of my fiction straddles that line. I’ve got a story where there’s a Muslim gunslinger. This book is about a badass Paladin with a sword, to use my Dungeons and Dragons history here. Part of the sadly radical gesture, that phrase about feminism being the radical notion that women are people, a lot of my work is about the fact that Muslims and Arabs and people who look Arabic are heroes.
I really loved your essay on race and Game of Thrones, a franchise I love but that just utterly falls down on this issue. Do you think there’s a way to make the Western fantasy tradition more diverse? Or is it just a matter of getting to a point where Westernized fantasy isn’t the default position when we talk about the genre? I’m often finding myself super-bored by the standard complement of knights and witches.
I have dear, dear friends, Elizabeth Bear who has just put out a novel called Range of Ghosts, Howard Andrew Jones has written Arabian fanstasy called The Desert of Souls. There are white writers writing diverse settings, and I think we need more of that. I also think we need more writers of color in this field. I’m one of a few guys of color and not many more people of color writing fantasy novels and getting them out to national markets. That’s kind of a problem…And even in the meat and potatoes fantasy, I’d like to see more range of skin tones…First, the Middle Ages was much more diverse than people understand. Second of all, these stories aren’t set in actual historical fantasies. There’s a whole tradition of fantasy that’s really not interested in historical details. But even to people to whom that is important, there are things they ignore. The physics of dragons, it just can’t happen. But somehow, that exception can be made, but some brown people here, that’s alarming…If you can have a setting where half your characters don’t have scroffula and aren’t worried about eternal salvation, you can make that exception.
Speaking of writing experiences that aren’t yours, you’ve spoken publicly about some of the challenges you’ve faced in writing women.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot very recently because I’ve gotten a couple of blistering reviews about the gender depictions. There’s some of it that I internalize and say yeah, that’s probably true. And there’s some of it where I say they don’t really understand. There’s that danger of mansplaining here. There are a whole bunch of cultural angles for me. When you start telling stories, the very specific stories about Arab and Muslim women, and about their relationships with Arab and Muslim men..There’s all sorts of constitutive mysoginy in Arab culture, as there is in American culture. But the fetishization of that story is something I am very, very reluctant to add to.
It’s why I’m practicing what I preach in creating warrior women and badass grandma alchemists. I punted to a degree in that the book spends more time thinking out loud about class and religion than it is about gender…I found that I had a fine line to walk in terms of depicting their fears in a preindustrial society they’d face that men don’t face. And I probably erred on the side of Xena. I like liking my characters, I like enjoying reading the book. I like going with the option that’s not purely grim.