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.