Background: Part 2 of the interview with Muslim American writer G. Willow Wilson which was conducted by Rebecca Hankins. Part I of the interview is here. Her official website is at the following URL: http://www.gwillowwilson.com
R. Hankins: There are statistics that suggest there is general low readership and literacy period in the Muslim World; your perception and perspective?
G. Willow Wilson: I believe the two percent thing, whatever it was, that we represent ten percent of the world’s population, but only two percent of its books. I would believe that, but I think it’s changing very fast. I think even in the past five years you’ve seen the Dubai Books Festival, there trying to put together– I think this is a very contemporary issue. I think that has been a problem in the past, certainly, but I’ve seen more and more. Every time I go back, people are sort of talking about books a little bit more, you see more books on people’s shelves, and it’s an incremental thing. I think it’s– In the Arab world I can’t speak for instances Pakistan or Indonesia or any of these places. In the Arab world I think this is something that is changing rapidly. I can see how they would arrive at those conclusions. Certainly I think books that are not religious, hold less of an honored position in many parts of the Muslim world than they do in the West. I think this holds true across religions. I think this is true among Christians in the Middle East as well. I have heard this from Coptic friends, but if you’ve got time to read you should be reading the Bible. That’s echoed among Muslims, you know if you have time to read then you should be reading the Qur’an. I think there’s a cultural factor at play there that sort of crosses religious lines. The Middle East especially, is sort of the birth place of Abrahamic religions and people there no matter if they’re Muslims or Christians or Jews are very, very serious about religion. I think that there’s that at play. I have no idea what the culture is like surrounding books in Malaysia or Indonesia or Pakistan or India. I think it’s difficult to make one kind of general observation. I think that there’s been in the past fifty to a hundred years kind of a tragic displacement in the role of imagination in a lot of these societies where they think it is not important and it may even be dangerous. I think that’s starting to change now where people are starting to realize that without imagination you have no technological innovation, you have no economic progress. Because it takes imagination to envision how society might work differently and better. So I think now people are starting to realize that it may hold them back. I think if the money was there in a lot of these places that the science would fall. Even in Egypt, for example, they’ve produced on, at least two, Nobel winning chemists in the past decade. The first surgery to separate twins conjoined at the head was performed in Egypt. When I was there I was amazed talking to my students when I was teaching there who were middle school age and high school age. To see that there were no gender gaps when it came to science and math. When I talked to the girls and I said, what do you want to study in college, they all said some kind of math or science. I was a history major so I was like nobody wants to study literature, and they look at me like, what would you do with that. I don’t think that there is no interest there I think the lack of resources really hurts people. My husband studied astrophysics in college and was telling me that they would go to an observatory out in the desert, and there was paint spattered on the mirrors, they couldn’t see the stars and, because there was no resources, no political will, but I think in the places where they do have the resources to fund scientific endeavor, even in very conservative countries like Saudi Arabia.
R. Hankins: The role as a Muslim, or a woman writer, or do you see either of those or those in combinations as being central to your identity as a writer? What about the depiction of Muslim women in literature?
G. Willow Wilson: Yes, I think so. I try to first of all be true to whatever genre I’m working in. So if I have an editor who calls me up and wants me to do an issue of Superman; I’m not going to immediately sit down and say well oaky how can I bring a Muslim perspective into Superman. It’s just not relevant in situations like that, or with Mystic, this new mini-series, that I’m doing with Marvel, that I’m very excited about it. It’s about two young girls on kind of a different planet and there adventures, and that has nothing to do with it. All of the time I think you can’t help but be influenced by your experiences. I think even when the subject matter these are not present; how you write and what you write and the way that stories develops in your mind. The emotional tenure of those things is directly related to your own experience, and of course you can’t separate out your religion, your gender, or your background. So I think all of those things are there even when the subject matter is completely different. It’s just that it may come out as certain emotional tenure or– I’ve seen in my own experiences, I wear the hijab, you know the head scarf and in the US– never in the US have I ever had a bad reaction from a man, I have gotten many dirty looks from women, and I think part of that is because there is no reason for men to feel threatened by a burka or a head scarf, or a nikab, or something like that because they’re never going to be forced to wear it. But in the women’s mind, the very existence of this stuff is encroaching on her identity and her self-determination in her own mind and that can be very for her. So I’m not surprised that comes up in science fiction and in science fiction you’ve got that added dimension of atheists are much more heavily represented in science fiction and even in fantasy to a certain extent than they are in other genres of literature. I think it is women feeling threatened by the way Muslim women dress and I also think it is also the preponderance of atheists in science fiction. Which I actually think is good because it helps religious communities shape their responses and also realize you really got to answer for stuff. You can’t sit there in an echo chamber where everyone believes the same and go oh well; you really are required to provide an explanation. I think it is really very healthy. It actually doesn’t bother me, but what does bother is some of the malicious bigotry that doesn’t help any kind of dialogue or doesn’t help anyone understand anybody else. It’s just people talking past each other. I think a lot of atheists especially those that were raised in religious households were traumatized and they act out that trauma. I almost can’t blame them and I think that that should be a lesson well learned for religious communities that you can push people out.
R. Hankins: Let me ask you about the X-Men character Vixen, an African character, so how do you write her? How do you get into that mold, writing about this African woman??
G. Willow Wilson: Well I had originally began to write that series because at the time I was the only person writing at DC who lived in Africa, even though I’m not myself African. It was tough because you want to reflect the perspective of someone with experience, you may not be able to relate to on all levels, but there were experiences that I had as a women in North Africa, even though I was a convert, and white, and from the US, and very different from the character Vixen, who’s born in a fictional West African country and has super powers, which I do not have. There are tensions that arise from being a woman in North Africa, and kind of what that means that I tried to transfer in an abstract way; knowing that you can’t compare the experiences of someone who is American or white in an African country to someone who is born there and has to kind of deal with things on a different level. The tensions are there and the tensions are kind of similar, and so I tried to reflect that in some way; that kind of relationships between men and women and some of the things she might face. It was tough and some people loved it and some people didn’t. It’s always tricky when you’re dealing with a character like that, that’s got a long history, before you came along and you’re kind of coming in and layering on these new stories so, I think superhero comics are very difficult to write.
R. Hankins: Has the current political climate affected how you portray Muslims in your writing?
G. Willow Wilson: Not consciously, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened on some level. I try to be conscious of the reader of anything that I’m writing, and to not do anything that is unfair to the reader. Expect them to swallow too much and they’re not capable of understanding or there is just too much de-contextualized. So I try to kind of simplify things when I‘m writing a Muslim character in such a way a non-Muslim could say, “yeah okay I get that”. Sometimes that would come off as simplistic to a Muslim reader. I try to write characters that are involved in some way or put things in there that are kind of inside jokes, or references that are just there for Muslims; little threads of stories that I realize that probably most non-Muslims, unless they are really educated will not get. The fact that they are there does not harm the overall comprehensibility of the story to the general audience.
R. Hankins: Who are some of your favorite authors?
G. Willow Wilson: Within comics, one of my very favorite authors is Peter Milligan, who’s written X-Force and he is doing at least one book now for DC. He is a British author who writes fantasy urban stuff. I got a chance to meet and hang out with him. Right now I am deep in the middle of Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin who is very popular now because of the HBO King of Thrones series.
R. Hankins: Do you have any advice for the young and upcoming Muslim authors?
G. Willow Wilson: It was very easy. This is what I tell people, I think there is a misimpression that the book world is this closed shop and you have to know somebody in order to get an agent, and that it’s this whispering game, but that is not true. I got my agent out of the agency phonebook, there is a big book called Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents and I found five agents that had agented books that I enjoy, and I contacted them and one said yes. I have been with him for five plus years and he’s great, so honestly it’s about writing; you have to sit down and write things and as Neil Gaiman says “you’ve got to finish them” and that’s eighty percent of it. A lot of people who want to be writers have trouble writing and sitting down and finishing things and not leaving off when they get frustrated, but if you write a book and it’s good someone will publish it, guaranteed.
Something that is really important to me is bringing a new perspective, and putting combinations of characters together that would not occur to one. That’s really a reflection of my own life, you know, I’m lucky enough to have a very broad diverse set of interests and they come with a broad diverse set of friends and so the idea of very, very different kinds of people coming together and sort of being forced by destiny to interact and cooperate, is I think one of the biggest themes in all of my books. Certainly it’s there in Cairo, where you’ve got, so a would be a suicide bomber whose sort of on the run and kind of a naïve American girl who thinks she’s going to kind of, you know, go to Egypt and cut a swath, and everything will be great; a journalist and an Israeli soldier. To me, the thing that I think is so urgent right now in the world is this reminder that there are these core parts of the human experience that really do transcend culture and religion. People get restless and get hurt and fall in love and fall out of love, and in kind of some of the same essential ways even though they express them very differently, and so that’s important to me to communicate through these very varied cast of characters that I put in my books.