About The Author
G Willow Wilson was born in New Jersey in 1982. After graduating with a degree in History and coursework in Arabic language and literature, she moved to Cairo, where she became a contributor to the Egyptian opposition weekly Cairo Magazine until it closed in 2005. She converted to Islam and wrote a memoir about her experience, The Butterfly Mosque. She has written for politics and culture blogs across the political spectrum, and has previously written a graphic novel, Cairo, illustrated by M. K. Perker, and a series of comics based on her own experiences, for D.C. Comics. She now lives in Seattle with her husband and baby daughter and is now expecting her second child.
Alif the Unseen features a half-Arab, half-Indian, 23-year-old hacker working in the Arab Emirates whose job is to provide security to enemies of the Arab states, ranging from pornographers to militant Islamists. When he falls in love with the aristocratic Intisar, he also falls foul of the man her father has arranged for her to marry, the state's leading censor, a shadowy and powerful figure known only as 'the Hand'. Soon he is pitched into a dangerous other world of demons and djinns with only a book of old world magic, The Thousand and One Days or Alf Yeom, given to him by Intisar, and which may prove to be his saviour or his undoing.
Here, G Willow Wilson tells us about the real-world origins of the Alf Yeom, how it felt to be writing about government suppression during the Arab Spring and the relationship between the politically unseen and the spiritually unseen.
You can read the first chapter here.
Author image courtesy of Kenneth Wilson
The Author At Foyles
Can you tell us about the origins of the ancient book, the Alf Yeom at the heart of your novel?
The Alf Yeom is quite real -- or at least, the French edition is. It was written in the early 18th century by a diplomat and linguist named Francois Petis De La Croix, and alternately titled Les Mille et Un Jours (The Thousand and One Days) or Contes Persans et Turcs (Persian and Turkish Tales). They were originally two separate works but are sometimes lumped together. De La Croix claimed to have heard these stories from a Persian mystic, but the general consensus is he was making it up to cash in on the Thousand and One Nights craze. There was an English translation, but it's been out of print for 200 years. I managed to get my hands on an early 19th century edition -- it's one of my most prized possessions -- and I used the frame story of Farukhuaz and her nurse in Alif the Unseen. However, the tales her nurse tells (aside from the first one) are pretty different from the ones that occur in the book, since this is the 'jinn' version.
What was it like writing your book, which contains among other things, an uprising by the people against government suppression, during the Arab spring?
The first draft of the book was already pretty much complete by the time protests broke out in Tahrir Square. I'd started writing it a year and a half beforehand, when it seemed like everybody -- inside the Arab world and out--was pretty dismissive of the idea that the youth of the Middle East would amount to anything. The 'texting slackers with no social consciousness' meme is a global phenomenon. That frustrated me, because I could see what was percolating across blogs and social media in the Middle East, and it was very exciting. These were not disconnected, ambivalent young people. They were angry and idealistic. In part, it was my frustration that these voices were not taken seriously that drove me to write Alif. Eighteen months later, Egyptians and Tunisians I talk to are referring to the young revolutionaries as the greatest generation since the fall of colonialism. Much has changed.
Much of the action hangs upon the characters' skill in computer programming. What research did you have to do to get to grips with this highly specialised language?
I nagged a lot of techie friends. I'm not a programmer, though I am an avid end user of technology. Some of their advice I incorporated, and some I sacrificed - -Matrix-style -- for the sake of the story. The result is a fantasy that is not actually possible using today's technology, but it does provide -- I hope -- a meditation on our relationship to information and the line between science and magic.
Were you nervous about pulling off the very difficult trick of combining the everyday 'seen' world of suppression, state intervention, class war and so on, with the unseen world of magic and djinns? Which was easier, or more fun, to write?
You know, to me they seem deeply interrelated, as weird as that may sound. Especially in the Middle East, where the realm of djinn and angels is considered very close to our own. For a long time, anyone who wanted to speak out against governments across North Africa and the Middle East had to do so anonymously and remain unseen, or risk threats, imprisonment or worse. That overlap between the politically unseen and the spiritually unseen was interesting to me from a storytelling perspective.
Do you share the view of one of your characters that, rather than belief, it is actually superstition that is thriving?
I do, yes. There's been a disturbing trend in recent years to approach religion 'as one would engineering', to quote an email a pithy Egyptian friend wrote to me recently. People are under the impression that you can actually calculate the number of good deeds you need to rack up in order to get into Heaven, and are prepared to accept extremely irrational and morally under-evaluated rules about behaviour and social mores, but discussion about the transcendent makes them nervous. There are actually modernist interpretations of the Quran that translate djinn as 'energies.' I mean, really. The spiritual core of religion -- and thus its moral core -- has been excised in favour of a very mechanical, academic, amoral understanding of what a believer must do and not do. I hear a lot of discussion about how to be right, but not a lot of discussion about how to be good. That, to me, is dangerous.
According to one character, your unnamed city in the Persian Gulf is divided into 'old money, new money and no money', people either living in desperate poverty or still benefiting from the oil boom. Do you think he is right, and if so, do you think this will change, especially in light of recent events, or will the divisions deepen further?
That all depends on whether or not the Arab Spring reaches the Persian Gulf, where the oil money is. There have been uprisings in Bahrain, but other than that the region has been pretty quiet. Since guest workers from Asia and North Africa now outnumber native-born Gulf Arabs in some parts of the region, these issues of class, race and income inequality are things they will have to address eventually. The question is when.
Above all else, your book is a hymn of praise to the power of language and stories to change the world. How does this sit within today's 'post-fictional' era, a state of 'constant reinvention' facilitated largely by the computer?
It is, ironically, an orthodox little book, despite the modern high tech elements. I think we are re-inventing memes and ideas that have existed for centuries -- it's only that our historical memory has grown woefully short. We always come back to the same stories. We are all retelling Gilgamesh and Exodus. We are asking questions that have been asked before. That, to me, is inspiring rather than restrictive. It means that we, the human race, are so powerfully connected to our past that we can't get rid of it; the most we can do is confront it. That tension is where all good stories come from.
What do you think of your UK publisher's description of your genre-busting book as reminiscent of Harry Potter, Stieg Larsson, Neal Stephenson and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, among others, while the book itself references Philip Pullman?
I usually reference authors whose ideas I'd like to challenge in some way. I began my comic book series, AIR, with a Rushdie reference; Alif begins with a Pullman reference. I have to say that the flurry of comparisons was unexpected -- that's a lot of reverend company.
Alif the Unseen would make a brilliant film. Do you know if there are any plans afoot, and did you have this possibility in mind while writing?
Thanks! It would be fun to see Alif as a film, though there are no concrete plans as yet. I didn't really have a film in mind as I was writing, though I have to say that when I envision Alif, he looks like Dev Patel from Slumdog Millionaire. Make of that what you will.
You've also written a graphic novel; will your next work see a further change of direction?
Comics will always be my first love, but I had so much fun writing Alif that I started another prose novel as soon as it was done. Unless I magically grow a talent for poetry or screenwriting, both of which frighten me a little bit, I think comics, prose fiction and prose nonfiction are going to sum up what I do for a long time.