Sunday, June 11, 2023

Q&A with Zohra Nabi




Zohra Nabi is the author of the new middle grade novel The Kingdom Over the Sea. She lives in London.


Q: What inspired you to write The Kingdom Over the Sea, and how did you create your character Yara?


A: I was inspired to write The Kingdom over the Sea when I first had the idea for the city of Zehaira – I had written a scene about a girl getting off a boat and exploring a market, and I started to imagine what the rest of the city would look like.


I was very influenced by the cities of the golden age of the Islamic world, and knew there would be a grand university and library there too. But I didn’t know what the story would be, or why this girl was exploring.


So then I wondered – what if this is a girl who was born in Zehaira, but grew up in our world, and this is the first time she’s coming back?


I think the character of Yara was really borne from that process. I knew she would have grown up here, and I knew that would affect her character – she would be passionate about social causes and have a strong sense of justice.


And also have this vulnerability about her – her only access to her culture all her life has been her mum, and when we first meet Yara, her mum has just passed away, and she’s desperate for somewhere to belong.


But it actually took a while for Yara’s character to come through on the page – it wasn’t really until I worked with my editors that Yara started to feel like a real person.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, in part, “The setting—an Arab-coded world that simmers with magic—is richly described and populated by complex people and jinn.” What do you think of that description, and how did you create the world in which the book takes place?


A: It’s a lovely description! I really wanted my world to have this rich quality – I did so much research and so many different worldbuilding exercises.

I like the idea that it’s “simmering” too. With a magic system, I think there’s definitely a temptation to be very expositional, to try and make sure your readers are with you – and you definitely need to have clear rules – but it’s lovely to just have magic existing naturally in the world.


And I really liked creating my complex characters! I liked the idea of having adults in this world who didn’t always make the right decisions, and had petty squabbles.


Part of growing up is realising that the adults around you don’t know everything, and that sometimes you have to take responsibility for yourself. And of course the jinn in this book are just as complex as the humans, and wrestling with some of the same dilemmas.


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


A: I had a strong sense of the ending – I knew Yara’s arc was one of finding community and belonging and I knew her ending would relate to that.


I also knew that somehow it would come back to Yara working out the secrets the adults in her life had been keeping from her, and coming to terms with them.


But in terms of the action and how it unfolded, I think a lot of it really came together as I was writing it for the first time – each bit of dialogue and each action led to the next, and the solution to the problem they’d been facing only really came after I’d finished writing the whole book, and could see the action and plot more clearly.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: I hope readers take away that words have their own magic, and that used in the right way they can lead to incredible power. I also hope they realise that feeling different or like an outsider is a superpower – it makes you brave, and it makes you see the world in a different ways.


I hope they realise over the course of the book that the movement of people is a natural, necessary thing, and we should help those who need it to the best of our ability. But also, I hope there are readers who don’t take any moral message away from the book, who just feel swept away by the adventure.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m currently working on the sequel to The Kingdom Over the Sea! It goes further into the history of Zehaira and its magic, and further into Yara’s own family history – I want it to be a book about how we come to terms with the past, and what we should learn from it.


But also there are flying carpets, and magic, and epic adventurous exploits.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Thanks so much for the questions!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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