Ahoy there! Meet the writer launching a new nautical fantasy trilogy
WHEN YOU’RE BUSY, SOMETIMES ALL you want to do is take some time for yourself. This was the situation facing Shannon Chakraborty a few years back. Trying to find a literary agent as an unpublished novelist at a point in her life when she was also a new mother, she would grab precious moments to work on her fiction. “[I was] taking a couple of hours a week to go to write at a café,” she remembers. “It felt like that was almost a selfish decision. So I started thinking a lot about parenthood, specifically motherhood and the roles we put on women when it comes to what is your duty to your family, or other things that you want in your life?”
However dimly seen, the star of Chakraborty’s new novel, Amina al-sirafi – a legendary pirate who’s trying to leave her seafaring days behind her and focus on raising her child – had begun to sail into view. Of course, the call of the ocean is eternal, so when al-sirafi is essentially blackmailed into returning to the fray, she’s not as upset as she might be.
A second major inspiration for The Adventures Of Amina al-sirafi, the first volume in a new trilogy, was Chakraborty’s love of history. Specifically, she’s fascinated by the societies that grew up around the Indian Ocean in the medieval era.
A SINBAD MIXER
There was, she realised, an opportunity to “remix” stories associated with Sinbad, someone she doesn’t see as the intrepid swashbuckler of Westernised tales. “He is this man who just has the worst case of fear of missing out you could ever have,” Chakraborty says. “He goes on an adventure, it blows up in his face, and he tells God, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m never going to do this again, just get me out of it.’ He gets out of it, goes home, has a normal life and then wants to go for that one more adventure.”
It’s all too easy to assume she’s writing about a time and place about which we know little. The truth is more complex, linked in part to a Eurocentric view of history that’s often overlooked just how connected our forebears were. Researching the book, for instance, she came across a version of the Ra¯ma¯yana, a sacred Hindu text, associated with Yemen.
“We like to think that ours is the modern age of globalism,” she says. “It’s nonsense, there have always been travellers. The idea we were all living in isolated little villages and had never heard of other people, other religions or other languages, that’s just not what life was like for most of the past 2,000 years.”
This idea of going back to the source as a way to give new energy to the fantasy novel also guide Chakraborty’s first trilogy The Daevabad, which took readers to 18th century Cairo and a world of djinns far richer than the wishgranters of pantomimes. Finding an agent who wanted to sell the first volume City Of Brass was tough, because “nobody wanted to spend money on a 500-plus-page epic fantasy from a new author with weird Muslim terms”.
THE REST IS HISTORY
Faced with such difficulties, why did she persevere? Partly, it was simply down to the kind of person she is. An introvert who still doesn’t much like the public part of being an author, she read SF voraciously as a child. Chakraborty was also fascinated by Greek mythology, Egyptian history and the Titanic. She was the first person in her family to go to university, a working-class kid who grew up in New Jersey and spent a lot of time in the library; she was, she says, “that kid”. Unusually – and she specifically requests that SFX doesn’t ask her about why – she converted to Islam at a relatively young age.
In 2008, she graduated into a world that, economically, had just hit the wall. While she wanted to be a historian, she wasn’t sure how you went about that, and ended up working in a medical office. Writing was initially a way to relax, and she’s in the past characterised her early work as “historical fan fiction”, a description she now regrets. “I don’t think I like the implications of that, because people were like, ‘So do you write about, like, sexy Alexander?’ ‘No, I just write stories inspired by historical places!’”
Her husband and a Brooklyn writers’ group were among those pushing her on. For which we should all be thankful, because it’s helped to open up a space for fantastic stories that draw on different traditions.
Young readers from the Muslim community who found their way to City Of Brass and spread the word, were, she says, a big factor in its success. In the past, Islam has been misrepresented within speculative fiction, but Chakraborty – while she sees conversations about this as important – prefers to highlight new Muslim voices. “I want to focus on the 10 new authors who are doing wondrous things,” she adds – modestly, not mentioning herself.
The Adventures Of Amina al-sirafi is published by Harpervoyager on 2 March.