STEELE INTERVIEWS: author G. Willow Wilson

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson is a mesmerizing novel where politics, religion and technology collide in a complex setting. A 23-year-old Arab-Indian hacker in a Middle Eastern emirate simultaneously finds his computer breached by the state’s security force and jilted by his aristocratic lover. A jinn (or genie) and his kind, intelligent neighbor Dina help Alif find out how and why this happened to him. His problems deepen while he learns eye-opening information that will change his future. Alif the Unseen is a beguiling page-turner.

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson. Publisher: Grove Press (July 2012). Fiction. Hardcover. 440 pages. ISBN: 978-0082120205.

A graphic novelist and author of the memoir The Butterfly Mosque, A Young American Woman’s Journey to Love and Islam, Alif the Unseen is G. Willow Wilson’s first novel. She studied history at Boston University then taught at an English language school in Cairo for several years at the request of a retiring professor. I spoke with my fellow BU alumna by phone recently.

Amy Steele: Did you convert to Islam when you were in Egypt?

G. Willow Wilson: I had thought about converting [well before going to Egypt] but then 9/11 happened and I couldn’t seriously convert when these people had done this to my country in the name of religion. It took me several more years of research and study to reassure myself that they had acted in a way that Islam would consider abominable and that Islam rejected. I thought I could keep it a secret. But I didn’t know how I was going to get through 30 days of fasting every year without anybody finding out.

Amy Steele: Religion is a private thing but then there are so many facets of it that are impossible to keep private.

G. Willow Wilson: Especially in the Middle East, religion is not private in the way we think of it in the United States. Here it would be illegal to ask someone their religion on official documents such as a driver’s license or anything like that. But in the Middle East your religion appears on everything. So I was going from a place where it’s mostly private to a place where the state gets involved.

Amy Steele: In your novel, Alif is non-practicing isn’t he?

G. Willow Wilson: At least ambivalent. The Middle East is the birth place of so many world religions that religion becomes intertwined in almost every facet of life. He probably has small bits of the Quran memorized that most people have memorized who are practicing Muslims but he’s very ambivalent about religion. He’s not really practicing.

Amy Steele: I think when Americans and Westerners think of the Middle East you think of religion and the people and the government hand in hand.

G. Willow Wilson: There’s a lot of secularism in the Middle East and I don’t think people realize it. Some people would rather that religion play no part in public life and you see these debates unfold in places like Egypt where there’s a big secularist contingent.

Amy Steele: Alif is bi-racial. Would that be unusual?

G. Willow Wilson: It would be somewhat unusual. The book is set in the Persian Gulf and the Persian Gulf plays host to literally thousands of guest workers from Bangladesh, the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia. The guest workers actually outnumber the native-born Persian Gulfers and it’s created a very interesting social dynamic. For Alif, I imagined if a wealthier businessman had a secret or unsanctioned marriage with a woman who was a guest worker from the Indian subcontinent. I think that sort of marriage is still pretty unusual. People do see those two groups as being very separate.

In this case, I wanted him to be both an insider and an outsider. It seemed like an interesting way to have it play out.

Amy Steele: How did you get the idea to write Alif the Unseen?

G. Willow Wilson: It came to me in certain parts. The big driving force for me was the fact that there was so much interesting stuff going on in the social media world in the Middle East among activists online in how they were using the internet to get around censorship in print media. The internet was really allowing different factions of people who normally had no reason or method to talk to each other [secularists, traditionalists, feminists] to share a common platform and communicate with each other.

It was a very exciting thing for me to see it happening because instead of what you’d expect to happen which is that they were all at each other’s throats because they had different beliefs, they were struggling to find common ground because they had common enemies in these horrible, entrenched, dictatorial leaders in places like Egypt who’d been in power for 30 plus years.

It was at the time a very hard sell in the United States. People were very dismissive of social media. I could see the potential of what was happening in the Middle East and I wanted a way to highlight that. And that formed the basis for Alif the Unseen.

Amy Steele: When you say that this novel takes place in an undisclosed Gulf emirate, what type of government is in place? A dictatorial regime like Egypt?

G. Willow Wilson: It’s vague. There’s a point in the book when someone says he can’t believe the government has this sophisticated digital surveillance but no mail service. That is something I pulled straight from Egypt under Mubarak where if you were a blogger and talking about politics, eventually state security would show up at your door and that would be the last that people heard of you. But try to get a letter delivered. I didn’t want to set it in a specific country or tie it to a specific country so I set it in a fictional country.

Amy Steele: Can you tell me about the Arab hierarchy among the various countries—the Gulf states being at the top– that you describe in the novel?

G. Willow Wilson: They certainly see themselves that way. There seems to be a perception among certain people—I don’t want to paint too broad a brush—who think that they have the oil, they have the money, so that people that show up to work in the Gulf are there to serve them. It’s a very feudal mentality where you’ve got the Lords and the Ladies on the top and the serfs on the bottom. Poorer countries, like Egypt and Libya, aren’t seen as existing at the level of the wealthier nations along the Gulf. It makes for an interesting dynamic and it’s the cause for a lot of frustration for a lot of people who work in the gulf.

Amy Steele: In the novel, you also speak of old money, new money and no money. That there is no middle class. Immigrants send money home as they do in the United States too.

G. Willow Wilson: It’s true. It’s really a commentary for globalization.

Amy Steele: How much did you know about the grey hat world before writing this?

G. Willow Wilson: Very little. I’m a very picky end-user of technology. I’m one of these people who bugs my tech friends a lot for advice and I also like to know what makes [computers/technology] work. I picked their brains about Alif. I knew I’d have to break some rules in the world of fiction but I did go in with some basic understanding of computer culture.

Amy Steele: How did the fantasy aspect, the jinn and Vikram come in?

G. Willow Wilson: I wanted to write about how we think about the unseen whether it’s the unseen world of computers and technology and things we don’t understand. Or if it’s the unseen world of spirits and things we don’t talk about. The parallel between the unseen world of technology and the unseen world of spirituality provided some really interesting fodder for storytelling.

Amy Steele: Did you influence the character “the convert”?

G. Willow Wilson: She’s not me. As a white Western writer writing a character in the Middle East and thinking of all the foibles and the shortcomings and the heroism, it behooves me to turn around and be able to reflect myself as well. The convert is the kind of person I try not to be in many ways. She’s very academic, very rigid and she’s very earnest but it kind of gets in her way. She’s living in this country so very different from her own and she’s making a lot of mistakes and that’s something I can relate to. She’s my way of having a sense of humor as an outsider about these issues.

Amy Steele: What do you like about Alif, Dina and Vikram?

G. Willow Wilson: Writing an ensemble cast, I made sure each character had its own arc and went through its own issues that pertained to that character. In a way it was a lot like writing comics, which I do a lot of, it was a lot of fun for me. You’re able to do that, have such a wide range of characters and have them interact in a dynamic way. I don’t really have a particular character who’s a favorite.

Amy Steele: What is a particular characteristic about them that you like?

G. Willow Wilson: I thought Dina would be the most difficult character to write but she ended up coming really naturally. I liked her stubbornness. For Alif, I like his impulsiveness. I like that he grows up. He’s transformed by his experiences. Vikram was the most fun to write because he’s a genie. He’s not bound by our rules and moralities. It gives him an opportunity to tell the truth. I tried to make them all true to themselves.

Amy Steele: What’s your favorite aspect of the novel?

It was really fun writing the car chase. As writers of literature we’re supposed to take ourselves so seriously. Putting characters in a car and in a car chase across the desert was the most fun thing to write.

G. Willow Wilson website

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