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Interview: S.A. Chakraborty

S.A. Chakraborty is a speculative fiction writer from New York City. Her debut, The City of Brass, was the first book in The Daevabad Trilogy and has been short-listed for the Locus, British Fantasy, and World Fantasy awards. When not buried in books about Mughal miniatures and Abbasid political intrigue, she enjoys hiking, knitting, and recreating unnecessarily complicated medieval meals for her family. You can find her online at sachakraborty.com or on Twitter at @SAChakrabooks where she likes to talk about history, politics, and Islamic art.

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The Daevabad Trilogy is your very first. Tell us about what the experience of writing The City of Brass and The Kingdom of Copper has been like.

They’ve been very different experiences. The City of Brass was the first book I ever wrote, my first true foray into creative writing, and it started simply as this weird little worldbuilding experiment I never intended to show anyone. It was a passion project, and the story that resulted was the work of several years of tweaking. The Kingdom of Copper was the opposite. Though I had an old draft, it was the first time I wrote on a deadline, trying to manage publisher and reader reactions, as well as find a way to grow creatively. And it was a shock, I’ll be honest, and far more stressful than I think healthy, but I definitely learned a lot by going through it.

What have reader reactions been like so far?

The reaction has been amazing. It’s still astonishing to me that I’m now sharing characters and stories that were in my head for so many years with the rest of the world; it’s a gift that has made the difficult parts worth it. I really didn’t think I’d sell this book; you can probably imagine the reaction from American agents when I pitched a six hundred-page epic inspired by anything called a “caliphate” in 2016. But I landed with an agent and publishing team that believed in it and pushed it.

Especially heart-warming to me is the incredible enthusiasm and support I’ve gotten from fellow Muslim fantasy readers. I really wrote this book for my community first, envisioning it as sort of the swashbuckling adventure tale we don’t often get to see in the West, and when I see people connecting with the book, cosplaying the characters with their own hijab, running RPG campaigns in Daevabad . . . it makes me want to do this for the rest of my life.

That’s so cool! Now, you’re a history buff who grew up reading science fiction and fantasy. What were some of your favorite books?

Ironically enough, though I’m a fantasy writer now, science fiction was my first love. I devoured Animorphs as a kid and then moved on to pretty much any SF book I could get my hands on at the library, from the old Star Wars expanded universe to the Rama series. I joke that I’m a speculative fiction writer because I like to secretly write science fiction, even if it never sees the light of day.

Your trilogy began as a historical fan-fiction project to explore medieval Islamic history. Did you always know this story was going to expand into three books?

I did. Though much has changed in terms of characters arcs and lore, all three books are set to have largely the same beginning and end that I envisioned for each. I wanted to tell an overarching story of the clash of these peoples, of the way history repeats itself and empires destroy, rise, and fall, but I also wanted each book to feel somewhat contained. Our characters complete part of their journey—Nahri embraces her heritage to fight for her people, Ali finally stands up to his father—only to have the political gameboard thrown over at the end of each book.

What attracted you to medieval Islamic history?

I’ve loved history since I was a kid, but the medieval Islamic world grabbed hold in my teens and hasn’t let go. For one, the period I particularly enjoy—the Abbasid Caliphate—was in many ways a bridge between the ancient world and the more “modern” medieval era, witnessing an incredible syncretism of different cultures, languages, religions, and customs. I like seeing the way places and people change: that a proudly Arab Muslim court might be modeled on a Persian Zoroastrian one, led by a wazir whose family had been Buddhist priests centuries earlier, and that it would have employed Greek scholars and Hindu surgeons and sent trade missions to China. I don’t have any illusions that this was always peaceful, but these were teeming, fascinating, and diverse cosmopolitan cities.

And quite frankly, it’s fun. There are figures in the political and cultural landscape that would make Game of Thrones seem dull, from the world’s most backstabbing mother to foodie princes, poet courtesans, and “let’s collect my dead enemies in a secret chamber” caliphs. These people’s lives jump from the page, the snark and wit of a courtier, the wonder of sailors exploring the Indian Ocean, the cunning of thieves. It’s incredibly rich world to explore.

In the first book The City of Brass, Nahri, a talented con artist living in Cairo, and Ali, the idealistic yet naïve prince of Daevabad, are your point-of-view characters. In The Kingdom of Copper, you add Dara, the mysterious djinn warrior Nahri accidentally summons in the first book. Why did you want to add Dara’s POV to the narrative?

I didn’t want to originally; I liked the idea that although Dara is in many ways the most magically powerful character in the world, he’s also a pawn and only gets his story told through the eyes of others. But in the second book, I really wanted to delve into the ways a person’s choices in the face of adversity define them. I think we like to imagine we’d always be a hero, that we’d make the right choice even if it meant standing up to our families or a political system we knew we could never beat. The reality is that a lot of people don’t; that’s how systems of oppression survive. With Dara, I wanted to walk a fine line, creating a character I knew readers would initially sympathize with and come to love and then showing how this otherwise good man could make monstrous choices. And I wanted to do it in a way that didn’t let him off the hook; fantasy is filled with male heroes and their tortured backgrounds who are then redeemed, often by a heroine burdened with the task of doing so. Without spoiling things, that isn’t the direction I wanted to go with Dara, and I felt we needed to get inside his head to see this.

I like the dynamic you set up between Nahri and Ali. She’s a hustler turned doctor who saves the life of a naïve but well-meaning prince again and again. He’s sort of like the dashing prince in distress.

I think that’s my new favorite description of Ali, and a very apt one. However, this question gets more at the core of who Nahri is: that despite being a hustler, she’s a doctor, a healer who believes saving lives is her basic responsibility, no matter how she feels about the patient. This gets complicated with Ali, a man who should be her enemy ten times over, but one with whom she forges a genuine partnership that’s getting difficult to pretend is entirely political. And when things get to the point where saving him isn’t the pragmatic thing to do, I think how Nahri responds says a lot about who she is.

In The City of Brass and The Kingdom of Copper, I’m struck by how often homesickness comes up for your characters. Nahri longs to be back in Cairo; Ali pines for Am Gezira, the country where he was exiled for defying his father, after returning to Daevabad, his homeland. I was wondering if this stems from your experience studying at the American University of Cairo. You said in a previous interview that you were homesick but found refuge in the stories and lore you were reading.

This question is going to get me in trouble with my mother if I say my homesickness was cured by a library! But yes, I was certainly homesick in Egypt. I was homesick as well going away to college and then starting a family in a state away from my parents; I’m very close with my family, and I certainly pulled on how it felt to miss them, particularly when writing how Ali misses his own family.

But what I wanted to show with Ali and Nahri being homesick is that they’re not so much longing for other places as they are longing for other lives, other paths they might have taken. Everyone has their “what ifs” in life, fearing they’ve made a terrible mistake and should have done something differently. Nahri and Ali are walking difficult, uncertain paths; it would be difficult for anyone in their situation not to dream of the “simpler” life they might have enjoyed back home.

With shifting allies and political unrest in Daevabad—on top of homesickness—Nahri feels very alone, even though she’s living and thriving in a world that strongly revolves around family and community. Why did you want to explore this idea?

We have a lot of mysterious lonely orphans in fantasy, but with Nahri, I really wanted to dive into the effect that would have on someone’s personality. She grows up on the streets of eighteenth-century Cairo, a world that revolved around kin and community, not only alone, but with abilities that would rightly terrify anyone she ever dared get close to. That would be a profoundly traumatizing experience, one that would stay with her and impact how she formed relationships for the rest of her life.

Also, because so much of culture is under the surface and learned from childhood, I think it would take her years to feel fully “Daeva.” There are jokes and body language and all the small, unspoken markers of identity that take a long time to pick up. Being thrust into this—and then touted as a leader—would be an incredibly disorienting and intimidating experience. I mean, talk about imposter syndrome!

You’ve mentioned that Buffy from Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of your favorite female characters and that you like to see women who work with a team to save the day. In The Kingdom of Copper, Nahri has to collaborate with the Qahtanis—Ali’s family—and others to rehabilitate the hospital of her ancestors so that she can treat more patients. Tell us about what you like about seeing this kind of teamwork.

I like seeing this type of teamwork because quite frankly, this is how political progress actually occurs. It’s painful, incremental work with people who might drive you mad and work that often takes two steps back for every one step forward. As storytellers writing in some rather difficult times, I think we have a responsibility to point out that heroes who save the day aren’t just the lone ranger type who take out a corrupt sheriff—they’re the bickering civilians who crowd around a table for six months to hammer out a new town charter.

This line in The Kingdom of Copper really stuck out to me: “Egypt had been freshly subjugated by the French when Nahri left, ruled by the Ottomans before that—it was seemingly Nahri’s destiny to belong to an occupied people wherever she went.” We see this play out not only in the human realm but also in the realm of the djinn. What drew you to explore the theme of occupation in the series?

This is a rather complex topic I’m not sure I can do justice to in a few sentences, but it goes back to what I said about medieval history. So many of these cities and civilizations were the products of waves of conquest. How does that shape the societies that survive them generations later? How do conqueror and conquered influence each other and how do their stories and legends of what happened get transmitted? Can you ever make a new world that properly addresses the wounds of the past?

When it comes to Daevabad, I wanted to show how incredibly messy all of this is. The cause that brings the Qahtanis to Daevabad is an undeniably just one—freeing the shafit, people with mixed djinn and human blood, from persecution. But no war is bloodless, and their invasion seeds its own conflicts that continue to present day, when the newest generation of Qahtanis is oppressing the shafit, again in the name of security—the vague concept so many rulers use to ruthlessly control their people. How does this play out in the lives of our characters? How does Ali handle the slow realization that the father he loves might be a far worse threat than the long-dead Nahids he was raised to curse? How does Nahri break bread and make small talk with the people oppressing her tribe? Why should the shafit trust any of them, let alone risk their lives further?

Since djinn are long-lived spirits that have watched the rise and fall of many human civilizations, would you say that they’re like a time capsule or an archeological museum for humankind? This came to mind seeing how the djinn in your series built their cities taking architectural inspirations from a mix of bygone eras.

This was exactly what I was going for. I’ll go further and say it was my own type of wish fulfillment, because I envisioned them having copies of all the ancient texts, inventions, and secrets humans had lost over the centuries which I think would be very cool.

Your bio says that you enjoy preparing unnecessarily complicated medieval meals for your family. What’s one of the most complicated recipes you’ve come across?

A huge number of recipes and cookbooks have been preserved from the medieval Middle East. The culinary arts were highly revered, and among the nobility, a matter of often personal competition! A favorite dish that I’ve made, sikbaj, is a type of vinegar-based stew that can be adapted to many types of meat and vegetable. I was content with lamb and eggplant, but apparently the Caliph al-Amin preferred one consisting of “a sheep cut into five pieces, a whole lamb, three hens, five chickens, five chicks, thrushes, carrots, eggplants, onions, vinegar and saffron, various spices, herbs, cheese and choice cakes of wheat flour.” This, of course, was only after the cooking vessels had been relentlessly scoured, doused with musk, and the meat then smoked with amber and Indian aloewood.

I . . . did not do this. At a certain point there’s only so much you can do in a New York City apartment kitchen.

When does the third installment of the Daevabad Trilogy come out? And what can you tell us about it?

I don’t know what I can say about the third book that won’t entirely spoil The Kingdom of Copper. Nahri and Ali find themselves somewhere very unexpected and have to handle the ramifications of that. Dara, who has once again committed an atrocity in the name of “saving his people,” is learning the hard way the cause he’s dedicated himself might not be more than an illusion.

I can say we’ll be seeing more of the magical and the human world, including places both new and old.

Are there other writing projects you can tell us about?

The Daevabad Trilogy has completely consumed my writing time (and personal time!) as of now. I have a short story I’ve been toying that’s much lighter, but in general, while I’ll be sad to leave Nahri and Ali behind, I’m eager to step into some new worlds. I was working on a historical fantasy while querying about pirates and treasure hunters in the eighth-century Indian Ocean that I think will be fun to return to.

Is there anything else you’d like your readers to know about your trilogy?

One thing I don’t get to talk about often is that my decision to make Nahri a doctor was very deliberate. I was working in healthcare at the time and wanted to show another side of the “magical healer” trope—one that crashed with the realities of medicine. Nahri’s work is hard and unending, and it’s constant practicing that makes her good, not some innate gift. Medicine requires your everyday life to consist of the worst days of other peoples and not let that swallow you. And though Nahri is a survivor, I think she’s coming to a point where she can only distance herself so much.

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.