Somaiya Daud published a debut novel that lit up the YA world this year. “Mirage” is the story of Amani. Born on a sleepy rural moon of the planet Andala, she’s grown up in a society under the control of interplanetary conquerors. When Amani is abducted by the imperial Vathek forces, she discovers she’s a ringer for the cruel Princess Maram, and is expected to serve as a body double for the princess as political tensions heat up on Andala. As she makes her way through an unfamiliar and oppressive world, Amani is challenged by Maram’s dashing fiancé, Idris, and a desert warrior woman who asks just how far Amani will go for her planet.
The book left us breathless, but even that couldn’t prepare us for an hour in the company of Somaiya Daud. She sat down with us at Portland Book Festival 2018 for an hour of sparkling conversation on world-building, the joys of the YA genre, Victorian vs classical Arabic literary forms, and much more.
Also in the show: We meet one of Daud’s early inspirations and catch up on the top publishing story of the week.
On her favorite “Star Wars” heroine — 2:46
“The original trilogy terrified me. My dad made me watch it on VHS and I had nightmares that Jabba the Hut would eat me. So I was not a Leia fan until I was much older. But Padme showed up and I was, like, ‘I want to be her. I want to be a senator at 14!’”
On working as a bookseller at the Washington, D.C.-area shop Politics and Prose — 4:25
“You get a real sense for who’s buying books: grandparents and parents, often, because teens don’t have money to spend. But every once in a while you get a parent who’s dragged a reluctant reader into the shop. If you pitch it right, you can watch their face light up. This young 14– or 15-year-old boy who clearly did not want to be there, rolling his eyes. I gave him [the “Gone” series by] Michael Grant, and he eventually came in and got the whole series.”
On books that shaped her ideas about female heroism — 6:27
“The ‘Dragon Milk’ series by Susan Fletcher — I loved that series. It was a series only about women and their relationship to other women, and what it means to have this legacy and connect to your history.”
On imagining a new future — 7:57
“The question for me was, if you have a society that has achieved space flight, it’s a really old society. So why are we telling stories that are not attached to that history, and about that history, and about that culture that made that possible? Our default for progressive science fiction is a Westernized future. Brown people hold onto their traditions. They’re not going to modernize by becoming Western. They’re going to modernize by taking their cultures and practices forward. So what does that look like?”
On building Andalan society — 11:00
“My mother is Moroccan, and in Morocco and most of North Africa, the prevalent Arabic dialect is Darija. And if they’re not speaking Darija, they’re speaking an indigenous language. Both my mom and my aunt were Arabic literature people. I went to an Islamic school where alternately my mother or my aunt was my Arabic teacher. I was learning Arabic from people who said things like, ‘Grammar is the cake of literature.’ The way the language shifts and transforms, and all the dual– and triple-meanings in the words are really linked to how Arabic-speaking cultures are. I was thinking about traditions I’d experienced as a child, or things my mother had talked about, and the language that was attached to it.”
On why Amani’s faith was key to the story — 24:12
“It was less about Amani having a faith tradition in a secular time, and more about the ways in which, when you’re part of a minority faith tradition, holding onto that is much harder. I grew up in Fairfax County, which has a lot of immigrants. But at the same time, I had a lot of friends whose parents said, ‘You don’t have to wear hijab, it’s really hard’ … Truthfully I don’t care about whether you believe in God or not. But I also think it’s important to open up intellectual spaces for people who do believe in God.”
On addressing oppression in fiction — 28:47
“We live in a time when there is this weird push to be, like, ‘Everyone deserves a seat at the table to talk about stuff.’ Listen, if you believe in genocide, you don’t! You don’t deserve a seat at the table. You’ve automatically failed the human test. Amani assumes the reader agrees with that. At no point is Amani, like, ‘I wonder if I talk to [the Vathek emperor] Mathis, I could convince him to be easier on us.’”
On how Amani comes into her own power — 33:32
“The biggest facet of her agency is her empathy. It opens so many doors for her, because she’s able to try to see the best in people who deserve it. It’s the thing that allows her to have the most success: her capacity to see how she’s not the only person in a difficult situation.”
On writers who are exciting to her right now — 39:05
“Sabaa Tahir and Leigh Bardugo. Has anyone read ‘The Bone Season’ by Samantha Shannon? I got an arc of her new one, which is straight fantasy. It’s called ‘Priory of the Orange Tree.’ It will kill all of you. It is so good. It doesn’t come out till February. I cannot over-recommend this book. There’s a point, 80 pages in, when a dragon shows up, and I literally threw the book across the room. I was so excited.”
A Mother of Dragons: YA Pioneer Susan Fletcher — 44:26
While we were working on this week’s show, we got to thinking about something Daud said about the books she loved when she was a tween reader: the novels of Susan Fletcher. Starting with “Dragon’s Milk” in 1989, Fletcher awakened a generation of young readers to the joys of fantasy fiction. And as Somaiya Daud pointed out, they often did so through stories populated by women, concerned with women’s interactions with each other. Fletcher spent most of her writing years in Oregon, part of a community of YA and children’s book authors that included Ellen Howard, Margaret Bechard, Pamela Smith Hill, Carmen Bernier Grand, Dorothy Morrison, and Fletcher’s mentor, the great Eloise Jarvis McGraw. We tracked down Fletcher in Texas for a conversation about her inspirations, and how much has changed in the YA market.
It’s the end of an era in Oregon literary history. The publishing company Tin House announced this week it will end publication of its vaunted literary magazine next summer. A beautifully produced volume of fiction, essays and poems, Tin House championed up-and-coming writers alongside the greats. The 20th anniversary issue will be available next June.