On February 7, Saladin Ahmed’s highly anticipated Muslim-inspired fantasy debut landed on bookstore and library shelves. The first title in a projected trilogy set in a medieval Islamic world, Throne of the Crescent Moon introduces readers to Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, the last of the true ghul (ghoul) hunters, the dervish Raseed, and Zamia, a young shape-shifting desert tribeswoman, as they hunt the malevolent force responsible for a series of brutal supernatural murders. A Nebula and Campbell award finalist for his short fiction, Ahmed joins a group of exciting new writers like N.K. Jemsin, Lauren Beukes, and Nnedi Okorafor who are revitalizing the fantasy genre with fresh perspectives and original stories.
You started your public literary life as a poet, eventually becoming a member of Detroit’s National Poetry Slam team. How did that experience lead you to writing fantasy?
Writing fantasy has been a sort of return for me. It’s what I read as a kid, and it’s what I wrote in junior high. Even when I branched out of genre in my reading and writing as a teen and twentysomething, I was most attracted to literary work with fantastic elements. And my own poetry featured djinn, werewolves, and Valkyries.
Did your family background (Lebanese/Egyptian/Irish/Polish) inspire you to write an Islamic-themed fantasy? Did you incorporate family stories, legends, and folktales into your fictional world?
That’s a sort of long story. I was born in the States, as was my father, but I grew up in the most Arab American city in the United States‚ Dearborn, MI. Some of the sights, smells, and sounds of Dhamsawaat are lifted from my own youth in that community. Even though my own Arabic is almost nonexistent, I grew up hearing it all around me, and it inflects the way my characters talk. And yes, I recall hearing half-believed stories of household djinn from a couple of the neighborhood’s old folks.
But the family history that most directly influenced this novel comes from my father, who instilled in me not only pride in my heritage, but a love of fantasy. There was at least as much Tolkien as One Thousand and One Nights in our household growing up.
What challenges did you face in your fantasy world-building, especially since you were drawing on Middle Eastern cultures that are still unfamiliar to most Americans?
On the one hand, [I had} the same challenges anyone writing secondary world fantasy faces: how to reveal just enough of your creation to intrigue the reader rather than boring them by showing your work.
On the other hand, there’s the weight of disabusing readers of stereotypes without being ham-fisted, introducing them to elements that are borrowed from Islamic cultures but tweaked heavily and made into something different. I think I made a good go of it, but it’s hardly for me to decide whether I’ve succeeded. I will say that Book II is proving more difficult along these lines, as it deals heavily with the Djenn, my world’s equivalent of djinn/genies.
Where did your protagonist Doctor Adoulla Makhslood come from? He’s a rather unusual fantasy hero. Neither young nor handsome, he’s ready to retire and kick back with his buddies.
A dash of the Continental Op in his later years, a heaping tablespoon of Falstaff, a pinch of Sallah from Indiana Jones, and just a few grains of Gandalf. Simmer over the flames of my own premature cranky old manhood. Serve.
Another unusual element in your book is your characters’ spirituality. With the exception of the hidebound Raseed, they have a strong faith but are not sanctimonious about their piety. How difficult was it for you to create earthy protagonists who maintain a strong spiritual core?
I’m so pleased that you noticed! In fantasy novels, as in life, I can’t stand seeing an entire culture portrayed as fanatical. It’s offensive and dangerous, but it’s also just dumb. One of the things that I’ve tried to show in all my work is that faith and piety can mean a hundred different things. I grew up around Muslims who were pious but also earthy, funny…even occasionally irreverent. I want to see that variety of depiction in both the real world, and in the inevitable pseudo-Arab/Muslim peoples who appear in fantasy worlds.
In depicting this myself, I’ve been profoundly influenced by (English translations of) the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, whose work is a massive influence on Throne.
Although Eurocentric epic fantasies remain popular, there is growing interest in non-Western cultures and historical periods. What do you think accounts for this shift in the genre?
Well, it’s still quasi-Europe that dominates the best-seller lists. Nothing wrong with that‚ I wolf down traditional epic fantasies myself on a regular basis. They’re my bread-and-butter reading.
But it does seem that readers are taking unprecedented notice of non-Western fantasy (which people have been writing for decades). If this is the case, I suppose the easy answer is that people want to read something different. But I don’t think that’s entirely true. I think it’s more accurate to say people want a mix of the new and the familiar. A mix of old wine in new bottles and new wine in old bottles. That’s what I like as a reader, and‚ in both my short fiction and the “Crescent Moon Kingdoms” books‚ that’s what I aim to serve up.‚ Wilda Williams