Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Q&A with Shannon Chakraborty

Photo by Melissa C. Beckman



Shannon Chakraborty is the author of the new novel The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi. She also has written The Daevabad Trilogy.


Q: What inspired you to write The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi, and how did you create your character Amina?


A: I’ve had Amina whispering in my ear first looking for an agent for my original trilogy, nearly seven years ago, but I didn’t get to really starting writing it until 2019.


The story follows the escapades of a former pirate and ship’s captain, the eponymous Amina al-Sirafi, when she’s pulled out of retirement and hired to track down the kidnapped daughter of a late comrade.


Offered a fortune and a righteous cause, Amina seizes on the chance to have her “one last adventure.” But she no sooner starts getting her gang back together, then it becomes pretty clear the assignment is both more dangerous and more supernatural than they expected.


I wrote it as the sort of book I’ve been craving in the past few years: a madcap adventure tale that offers excitement and escapism, but also a good dose of heart.


It touches upon plenty of serious topics: class and societal oppression, the struggle to balance parenthood and your dreams, and perhaps most obviously, the “crafting” of history and one’s legacy. But it’s also a story about a deeply flawed woman who finds faith and family in later life, about clinging to humor and hope even in the bleakest of circumstances.


I knew I wanted my next project to focus on an “older” female character, specifically someone who was also a mother. Not only is there an unfortunate dearth of both older female characters and mothers in science fiction and fantasy, I also felt like the tension and challenge of balancing parenthood and one’s career and outside passions is something we don’t see mirrored enough in my genre, even though it’s what life looks like for most of the people I know.

Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, in part, “If readers are not won over by the playful plot twists and thrilling action sequences, they will fall for the charmingly crooked cast and dry humor.” What do you think of that description, and what do you see as the role of humor in the novel?


A: I will confess I pretty much always need a little humor in my media, even if it’s occasionally bleak—is that not how people get through difficulties? But I also went into this story with the intention that it would be light and joyous, even as it touched upon serious topics.


Too often we associate the medieval world with grim visions of dark, dirty castles and constant misogyny. These people had colorful lives and the historical accounts they leave are often hysterical and entertaining. I very much wanted that sentiment in the voice of the characters.


Besides, my family has always commented that I’m a bit too sarcastic and now I get to point to a major trade magazine in my professional field listing it as a commendation.


Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: There were a lot of changes along the way. I had originally envisioned the book taking place along two linear narratives: the past when we see what led Amina to a life of piracy and the present where she’s returning to it after retirement.


But the present story kept tugging at me more deeply—it felt more joyous and rambunctious and personal; I really wanted to create a fantastical mirror for parents and older characters still determined to leave their mark on the world.


Q: In an interview on Tor.com, you said, “The book is inspired by and meant to be in conversation with the travelogues, adventure stories, and ‘wonder literature’ so popular in the medieval Islamicate world...” Can you say more about that?


A: Certainly! I think many people have this perception of the medieval era that it was all isolated villages, but places were far more connected than we realize and the Indian Ocean was an incredibly cosmopolitan sphere of traveling scholars, merchants, pilgrims, and diaspora groups. A great number wrote accounts of their journeys—Ibn Battuta being the most famous.


Such distant lands also inspired fantastical tales and provided routes for their spread, an example being the South Asian and Persian roots of many well-known Arabic language stories retold and transformed into collections such as the 1001 Nights.


I’ve long adored these stories—very little brings the past alive more than extremely relatable travel disasters, clever con artists, and devious magic—there’s a reason we have our own contemporary versions of these genres.


But I wanted to center on the people who got talked about, rather than traditionally did the telling: the sailors and porters who carried these scholars, the local women made into scandalous gossip, the “criminals” and pirates often pushed to the sidelines or made into villains.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on the sequel to The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi and have a final volume on the horizon after that.


The second book is still in the early draft stages but I’m aiming for something that feels like a cross between a ghost story and a murder mystery, and one that delves even deeper into the malleability of the past and who gets to determine what history truly is.


The research has gone in a bit of a different direction than I expected, particularly when it comes to the unsung aspects of women’s lives and I think it’s going to make for an interesting tale.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: This is the history nerd in me, but I hope at least some readers will be intrigued enough about the medieval Islamicate world and larger Indian Ocean history that inspired this book to go and learn more about it!


This is an incredibly vast, fascinating, and cosmopolitan slice of the human story that doesn’t get explored often enough and hopefully I shared enough resources in the “Further Reading” section to help curious people on their way.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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