Q&A with Day Al-Mohamed on fantasy and queer disabled representation
Below is an interview with Day Al-Mohamed, author of The Labyrinth’s Archivist: A Broken Cities Novella (2019). You can hear more from Day in a 2018 episode of the Disability Visibility podcast about Star Trek: Discovery.
You are seriously a woman of many talents (policy wonk, filmmaker, writer) and a big-time nerd. How long have you been writing fiction, fantasy and sci fi in particular?
I love ALL THE THINGS! My first published science fiction story was “Touch of Love” in 2012, but I think, like so many other people, I caught myself scribbling notes, and story ideas, and scenes for years before that.
Who are some of your major influences in fantasy and speculative fiction?
My first fantasy ever was Anne McCaffrey’s “The White Dragon”, and my first science fiction was Ray Bradbury’s “All Summer in a Day.” Loved them. I read many of the “classics,” such as Andre Norton, Isaac Asimov, Octavia Butler, Ursula LeGuin etc. But I really love some of today’s authors who are reminding us that fantasy and science fiction can be so much more than the primarily white cis, and stereotypical settings. Some of my favorites include: Saladin Ahmed’s “Throne of the Cresent Moon,” Malinda Lo’s “Ash,” Aliette de Bodard’s “The Tea Master and the Detective,” and, just to toss a short story in there, P. Djeli Clark’s “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington.”<–yes that is a link so you can read the story yourself. IT IS AMAZING!
Tell me a little bit about the protagonist in The Labyrinth’s Archivist, Azulea. How did you develop her character and story?
I love Azulea. Like many marginalized writers, I wanted to write a character who looked like me. It is 2019 so why aren’t there more protagonists in fiction with disabilities? We have people with disabilities climbing mountains, diving into the deepest depths of the oceans, actors, athletes, detectives, soldiers, and heroes. But that wasn’t translating into fiction; instead I was finding books that followed along the same tropes: victim, villain, inspirational, a metaphor, or a lesson for the “real” protagonist. I wanted to have a person with a disability BE the hero. I also didn’t really want their disability to be the purpose of the story. Yes, it would impact her life, because our disabilities DO impact our lives, but that wouldn’t be her entire story. Also, I wanted to find a role that was unexpected for a blind protagonist without it being “superhuman” and what better way to intrigue readers than to place Azulea in the role of detective.
The Labyrinth is part of the “Broken Cities” series from Falstaff Books: “The central setting is a giant labyrinth eaten into the corpse of a fallen goddess. Her fall broke the web connecting thousands of worlds, which now cling to her body like spores, slowly merging and shifting. Each one has a gateway that leads into the labyrinth, and some connect to each other. There’s a lot of potential for really disparate worlds to be forcefully merging, as well.”
What caught my attention was the question, “In a universe with worlds connecting to each other, what would have value?” The answer was information; maps and information. There’s a story about the Great Library of Alexandria that said that every ship that docked, if it had books on board, they were taken to the library where scribes would copy their contents. Every. Single. Ship. Thus was born the idea of the Great Archive and the Archivists, would then transcribe the journeys of travelers through the Labyrinth.
As I mentioned, Azulea is in the role of reluctant amateur detective. Someone is killing off Archivists using strange and unusual poisons and weapons from unique worlds whose histories are lost in the darkest, dustiest corners of the Great Archive. Azulea is in a race to find out who the killer is and why they are killing the Archivists, before they decide she is too big a threat to leave alive.
I intentionally set out with Azulea as a blind woman. The world was based on the Middle East and North Africa so it seemed natural that she would be a woman of color. What I didn’t expect was for Azulea to be queer, but as the story progressed it sort-of just happened. The relationship between Azulea and Melehti blossomed on the page and I have to admit, I had a lot of fun playing with the “ex-lovers forced to work together” trope.
What is challenging and joyful about world building? How did you go about creating these worlds and all the details needed to make it feel real?
I love worldbuilding. It is one of my favorite elements in fantasy and science fiction…which might be why I write in that genre. 🙂 With a bit of alternate history too. Creating the world in SFF (science fiction/fantasy) is not always where I begin. At the end of the day, regardless of how fantastic a world is, people keep reading for the story. They want to know how things turn out for the characters.
For this novella, the premise is based on living in this specific world with its gates into the labyrinth and the value of information when it comes to trading between very different cultures. But once you get past the broad ideas, a story has to be real and tangible.
For me. one of the best ways to settle into a world is through the senses. Writing about how the world looks and sounds different is one thing, but when you start thinking beyond the surface, THAT is when your writing can come alive: foods and what they taste like; are the streets paved or cobbled or dirt; do they value commerce or military might? How does faith play a role in the world? Those are real and tangible and spending time on these is what will move your reader from merely observing the action to being immersed in it.
For the Labyrinth’s Archivist, because I wanted to model the Great Archive off of the Library of Alexandria, I pulled from images of the library and stories about what it looked like. The souq and foods are also more MENA influence, and it is also why the majority of characters are of color. Even for a fantasy world, I couldn’t resist adding a bit of alternative history from our world…what if? What if, before the original library of Alexandria was destroyed some of the librarians, academicians, and archivists had escaped through a Labyrinth gate to the Shining City where they built the Great Archive and continued their work? 🙂 There’s a nod to the “original” Library in Azulea’s mother’s name: Hypatia. (Yeah, Go google her, a total badass woman)
The Labyrinth’s Archivist that’s described as a Broken Cities novella. Do you have a trilogy or series in the works already? And why did you decide to have your work as a novella as opposed to a short story or novel?
Right now, Azulea’s tale in “The Labyrinth’s Archivist” is a stand-alone novella. The Broken Cities was created to allow multiple authors to write in “one world” (well, really lots of worlds that are kind-of interconnected). I don’t have a series in the works yet, but who knows, if the book is popular, perhaps the publisher will ask for more. 😉 I WILL admit, in my head, I do already have additional adventures for Azulea, with sea monsters, pirates, politics, a charming rogue…and a very jealous girlfriend who may or may not punch said charming rogue.
This novella is published by Falstaff Books, an independent publisher. What led you to this publisher and what was it like working with them?
Falstaff Books is great! The entire team: owner, editor, copy editor, cover artist, series creator…everyone. While being published by one of the “big houses” sounds great, it is the independent publishers who are out there buying new and unique stories. You get to know them and they work closely with their authors.
Jaym Gates, the editor, put out a call for story ideas for the Broken Cities novella series. I pitched the idea of a blind detective. She was intrigued (her words). She asked to see a first chapter. I wrote it and sent it in. She read it and told me to go finish the book. 🙂
There seems to be more disabled writers in speculative fiction and fantasy more than ever. For people who want to discover more, what books and writers do you recommend?
Seanan McGuire – SO MANY THINGS but I’d recommend the October Daye series
Marieke Nijkamp – This is Where it Ends and her upcoming The Oracle Code (Yes, it is about THAT Oracle!!!!)
Ada Hoffman – The Outside
Mishell Baker – The Acadia Project (and its sequels)
Nicola Griffith – Hild
Corrine Duyvis – Otherbound
Fran Wilde – Riverland or Updraft
Jacqueline Koyanagi – Ascension
And yeah, they’re all women. 🙂 We’ve seen those “Best of” lists that are all men, this is my small but tiny revolution. An ALL WOMEN list.
What’s your vision of the future when it comes to disabled writers and disability representation in fantasy?
On a positive note, I don’t have to imagine too hard. Within Science Fiction and Fantasy as a genre, there are more and more authors with disabilities who are being published; there are also more and more disabled authors who are willing to be more open about their disabilities.
*points to list above*
And that is just who I could think of off the top of my head. Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, a deaf-blind editor won a Hugo award this year (for those of you who don’t know, the Hugos are kind-of like the Academy Awards for science fiction), there were several nominees over the last few years with disabilities. More agents and publishing houses are asking for #OwnVoices novels and they ARE including disability in their broad search for increased diversity in the genre.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we’re THERE yet. There are still far too many novels written with NO characters with disabilities. Despite the advances people with disabilities have made, there are still too many writers who ask “Why should I include a character with a disability?” There is still a view of a future that does not include people with disabilities. Whether that is through “cure” or simply invisibility, it doesn’t matter, the problem is our right to exist. We aren’t seen now, so being seen in an imagined future can be even more difficult.
I’m excited to see more and more disabled people pushing the boundaries of fiction and seeing the industry respond. 🙂 I have no doubt that people with disabilities will slowly drive change until the idea of us in science fiction, or fantasy, or romance or any other story is part of the industry. We are here, we exist, and you WILL hear us. New York publishing today, Hollywood tomorrow.
Day Al-Mohamed is an author, filmmaker, and disability advisor. She is co-author of the novel Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn (soon to be re-released by eSpec Books, May 2020). She is a regular host on Idobi Radio’s Geek Girl Riot with an audience of more than 80,000 listeners, and her most recent novella, The Labyrinth’s Archivist, with a blind protagonist was just published July 2019 by Falstaff Books. In addition to books, she also writes comics and film. She is a member of Women in Film and Video, a Docs in Progress Film Fellowship alumna, and a graduate of the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop. However, she is most proud of being invited to teach a workshop on storytelling at the White House in February 2016.
Day is a disability policy executive with more than fifteen years of experience on working legislation and policy in Education, Healthcare, Technology, Employment , and International Development. She presents often on the representation of disability in media, most recently at the American Bar Association, SXSW, and New York ComiCon. A proud member of Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 24-01 (5th District Southern Region), she lives in Washington DC with her wife, N.R. Brown.
Website – www.DayAlMohamed.com
Twitter – @DayAlMohamed
Short Films – https://vimeo.com/user88018754
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