My favorite novel of the summer is G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen, which follows the adventures of adventures of Alif, a young hacktivist in a repressive Emirate, who finds himself in trouble after the state censor, known as the Hand of God, appropriates a computer program he wrote and starts tracking down dissidents, and with a broken heart after the upper-class girl he’s in love with becomes betrothed to someone else. Alif flees his home one step ahead of the state security forces, with Dina, his neighbor, only to find that he’s stumbled into a version of his city where djinns exist, and where computer code and Arabic text have taken on unprecedented power. I spoke with Wilson, herself a convert to Islam, about the power of text, writing Arabic characters as a white author, and imagining the Arab Spring before it even took place. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
One of the things I really enjoyed about Alif was the novel’s sense of the power of language, whether to summon, reinvent, conceal or wound. Do you think there’s something particularly powerful or incantatory about Arabic? About computer code?
Those things have always been very present in my mind, particularly since moving to Egypt right out of college and having to wrestle with this language, which was so, so, so different from English. I’d studied French for about six years, and even though they’re two different languages, there are enough similarities that there are very few things you can say in French that are impossible to say in English. In Arabic, you’d need a bunch of different words to translate a single word. Some languages expand not only your ability to speak to different people, but what you’re able to think. That was a very interesting idea for me, and it certainly carried over to Alif in a big way. The way computer code carried over was from a conversation with a friend who writes computer code by day and comic books, mostly for the Indian market, by night. He was trying to explain to me in layman’s terms quantuum computers and how it’s different from computing we have today. He began to make allusions to monotheism and polytheism and our computers and quantuum computers, and I just said that’s really cool. I’m not a programmer myself, but I am a very, very picky end user of technology. I like my machines to work they way they’re supposed to, all the time. It made me really interested to learn more about how these machiens work, and how they talk.
Well and of course technology and social media are changing the way we speak in the real world, too. You’ve got all these abbreviations from texting that have crept into everyday language.
There’s a whole parallel universe of Arabic text-speak, which uses English letters but substitutes in numbers.
As someone who writes about the power of culture and stories to determine our worldview, I was really tickled by Alif’s conversation with Vikram the Vampire, a djinn, about how censors forget to crack down on fairy tales. Was that a detail that was drawn from your experiences?
It is absolutely drawn from truth. In many countries in the Middle East, and this is changing in the wake of the Arab Spring, but for a long time censorship of books and film was a very big deal. There were books you couldn’t buy, things with political content would be censored, but there were some genres of books and film that the censors just didn’t understand. They didn’t understand that below these fantasy themes which they thought to be very childish were these popwerful political messages. There were these English news journals and things you couldn’t get. Anything critical of religion, whether Islam or Christianity, you couldn’t find. No Christopher Hitchens. And yet you could walk into an english-language bookstore and find America Gods or the The Chronicles of Narnia. All they see is the surface metaphor. They don’t really get what these books are saying.
Do you think that inability to read subtext speaks to a larger poverty of imagination among dictatorial regimes?
The Hand of the King kind of reprsents this awful pragmatism that exists, not just in the minds of dictators themselves, but in the apparata that prop them up, including the people who live in these dictatorships and don’t want trouble, and don’t want the status quo to be disrupted in ways that are threatening. I sort of had this sad feeling that maybe the Hand was right, that freedom was kind of a dead, outdated contept, and people weren’t really willing to fight for those things, and if they had the right, would vote for these things to be taken away from them. And then we had the Arab Spring, and I thought my God, it’s not true, freedom is not dead. It sounds so cheesy. But that scene with the Hand, when he’s talking to Alif and said ‘you’re just a dreamer,’ part of me was afraid that would end up being the truth. He does represent that amoral pragmatism, that ‘this is the only way to run things. Yeah, torturing people is bad, but the other option is chaos. You don’t understand what you say when you say you want democracy, or more freedom.’ It is certainly a reflection of the complexity that exists around authoritarian regeimes, which was not something I expected when I went to live in one. We tend to think of tyranny as one-dimensional when some of these people who run these regimes are, in a very creepy way, very clever.
Your portrait of the convert who helps Alif, Dina and Vikram is really warm, but also somewhat critical, particularly your observations about the inflexibility of Westerners, and sex and exhaustion in literature. Do you think these are sort of long-term civilizational flaws that are coming to a head?
I’m not sure it’s at the end of its usefulness. This sort of practicality and need for facts and need to have open debates in which things are criticized and in theory the person with the best argument wins has served us very well. When you try to lift that out of our own culture wholesale and replicate it somewhere else, the results tend to go from funny to disastrous. When I was writing the book, I was conscious of the fact that even though I live in the Middle East and have relatives there through my in-laws, I’m still writing as an outsider. If I was going to set a book in this place and uses these characters from this place, I had to show I was able to take that laser beam of authorial insight and turn it on myself. I thought there should be someone there who was from the other side, and I could poke fun at her and unpack her in the same way I was doing with these Eastern characters, because I felt like that was fair. I get asked a lot, is the convert you? And the answer is not really. She’s a person that I tried hard not to be for a long time, in terms of that inflexibility and earnestness, that wanting to make peace but going about it in a bumbling way and exhausting yourself. The place she ends up in the book is where I have ended up. But the place she started out is not a place I connect with, but she embodies the pitfalls of Westerners, expecially converts to Islam who come to the Middle East and expect one thing and find another.
That’s a novel approach to what seems to be a particularly pernicious problem: white writers who get so paralyzed about not making mistakes that they refuse to write characters of color, or who write characters of color with a confidence they haven’t really earned.
I’m writing in English, I’m writing for a Western audience, but the people I’m surrounded by in my daily life are mostly non-white. A lot of people either tend to go totally one way or another. Either they try to be so PC and so careful that nothing ends up being communicated, or they speak with this false authority. But for years, I have tried to be what I try to call a cultural passenger. We’ve become obsessed with eeryoner being a leader, that’s the way you become a fully realized human being and all that good stuff. What is the car company that says ‘On the road of life there are passengers and there are drivers’? When I saw it for the first time, it stuck in my mind because in a cheesy, consumerist way, it’s how we see ourselves. We need more passengers. We need more people who, when they live in or enter other cultures, are willing to just look and have a sense of humor about themselves and the mistakes they’ll make, and be willing to reflect on the good and bad in the culture they see. When we criticize America or American pop culture, people don’t assume we’re passing judgement on the entire culture. It’s tricky to get to that point with a culture that’s not your birth culture. It’s assumed you’re criticizing the entire culture or making a generalization, and if you complement, it’s taken to be PC.
Well, I think we’re often very reluctant, or ill-equipped, to take criticism of things we say on race or about other cultures, that turn out to be misguided.
I think you’ve hit on something very crucial. When we hear these criticism of books we love or movies we love, and someone says this portrayal of a character or of people, we think ‘Oh, that makes me a racist.”’It’s difficult to realize that the work is not over. People think we’ve got a black president, the civil rights movement was 50 years ago, so we’re good. I think that’s a dangerous assumption, and it’s made people complacent, but also a little bit prickly. Whenever someone points out that a particular portion or character of a book or movie is racist or racially biased, that disturbs their whole worldview. This is something that’s supposed to be over, and it’s not. They see it as a comment on thmselves, which in a way it is. We don’t realize how much even the most liberal sides of our media pick into other people with whom we have no direct contact. We see it as looking out at the world and picking apart what works and what doesn’t. And we have to let other people do the same thing without shutting down or having it put our entire worldview into crisis. We do not stand apart from that. We do not stand apart from the rest of the world. And having a healthy sense of humor about it is good. You can look back at yourself and realize how strange you must look to someone who is radically different from you.
Now, you said when you were writing the novel, you didn’t think something like the Arab Spring could happen. Did you rewrite the ending of the novel in response to those events, or was this the original ending?
This was my optimistic plea to the universe. The original impetus for writing the novel were always the amazing conversations I was seeing that were enabled by the internet. People from extremely different political and cultural camps were suddenly talking to each other from across the Middle East and across the world. You had dialgoue, suddenly, between secularists and traditionalists. And instead of being nasty and hostile and militant, peole were trying really hard to find common ground. And that was not supposed to be possible, according to the standard old media punditry. Change was going to be impossible in the Middle East because the camps of people who wanted change were too different. I saw for years, serious evidence that it was not true. They would be able to band together to at least make the old regimes very nervous. Even I could not have predicted that the revolution would come together in such spectacular fashion. To me, before the Arab Spring broke out, I was always very conscious of the pessimism of, especially the Western media, but even the media in the Middle East, of the ability of these dissident groups to form a coalition. I wanted Alif to be right. I had a terrible feeling the Hand was right. But I was going to write the happy ending anyway. I cannot tell you what a joy it was to have the happy ending turn out to be right in the real world.
Even though we did get the happy ending, some of the sexual assaults on women we’ve seen in places like Tahrir Square are sort of foreshadowed in a moment when Alif loses Dina in a crowd, and some boys strip of her of her headscarf.
Projecting forward, I thought, just given the nature of revolutions in the past, or mob actions of any kind anywhere in the world, there’s always the potential things will get ugly, no matter how noble the initial intent of the protestors was. I think especially in a place like the Middle East where there traditionally has been more gender segregation than in other places, to have an event that brings men and women together in a public space from a place of anger, it might be particularly dangerous. Two things emerged from that, one is the scene where he loses Dina in the crowd, and the second is when he thinks New Quarter [a fellow hacktivist] has been killed by vigilante violence…I didn’t particularly plot it out well, if you had the mob overthrowing this dictatorial regime, this this and this would happen. [Rather, Wilsons says she was thinking about the concerns she might have if she were caught up in a crowd] As a woman, am I safe? If I reprsent something that this mob is against, are they going to take it out on me even if I’m on their side? Crowds are dangerous. I have this theory that every time you add someone to a crowd, the collective IQ goes down by 10 points.You have a huge number of epople in a small space and no law. It was very important to me that the basic thrust be positive…That’s a weird thing about being human. Our highest ideals tend to go hand in hand with our worst actions.