Islam Sci-Fi Interview of Amal El-Mohtar
Image Source: University of Exeter
Background: Amal El-Mohtar is an Arab Canadian autor, poet and fiction writer. Her poetry has won the Rhysling award, and her fiction has appeared in Cabinet des Fées and Shimmer. While her primary focus is on the fantasy genre, she has also published in the Apex Magazine’s special issue on Muslims and Arabs in Science Fiction. She is currently pursuing a PhD in English at the Cornwall campus of the University of Exeter. She also co-edits Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly devoted to poetry of the fantastic with Jessica Paige Wick.
Aurangzeb: Your story “And Their Lips Rang with the Sun” has some underlying themes about the Arabic alphabet, can you tell us about the main idea of the story?
Amal: Certainly. When I was little, my father taught me that the Arabic alphabet was divided into Sun letters and Moon letters, which I found fascinating; I loved the idea of the Sun and Moon participating in the construction of language, and the idea that letters could have loyalties to one or the other. It felt like this language in which I was being instructed was itself built of stories – a medium made up of messages.
What was even more fascinating to me was that the Sun in Arabic is a feminine noun, and the Moon is masculine – but nevertheless, the Sun letters are the strong, assertive sounds, while the Moon letters were the soft, yielding ones. I thought, look, here is the Arabic alphabet teaching me that women can be powerful and loud while men can be gentle and quiet. I thought, take that, stereotypes! My language inverts traditional gender binaries!
I didn’t realise, when I started writing a story about sun-dancers who raise the morning, that I was also writing a story about the alphabet – but there it is. My childhood finds its way into many unusual places.
Aurangzeb: What attracted you to writing science fiction in the first place?
Amal: It’s what I’ve always loved to read, though I don’t think I’ve yet written something that qualifies as SF per se; my writing is more grounded in myth and fantasy. That said, I am currently working on a story about sentient diamond oceans on Neptune, so I’m hoping to stretch those SF muscles somewhat. It’s just that science is a language in and of itself, and I don’t feel as fluent in it as I need to be yet to produce quality writing, while fantasy is my mother tongue.
Aurangzeb: What are the main themes that inform your work?
Amal: The last two years have taught me a great deal about marginalized and silenced voices, and I want my work to always challenge those doing the marginalizing and showcase the dispossessed, whether I’m writing about alphabets or diamond oceans or book-women or singing fish.
Aurangzeb: What are your main literary influences?
Amal: I think everything I read and enjoy influences me to a certain degree and makes me want to step up my writing game.
Aurangzeb: Can you tell us about your other literary endeavors?
Amal: With pleasure! I co-edit Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly dedicated to fantastical poetry; I have a story forthcoming in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities next year, as well as a poem in Ellen Kushner and Holly Black’s Welcome to Bordertown; a story of mine appeared in the November issue of Apex, and another is forthcoming in Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories later in January.
Aurangzeb: Do you think the current political climate affected portrayal of Arabs and Muslims in science fiction?
Amal: Well, it’s certainly affected portrayals of Arabs and Muslims everywhere else. But yes – I think of the blatant racism and cultural appropriation in Bill Willingham’s Fables, of the synonymity of “terrorist” and “Arab,” of the fact that I still haven’t seen Iron Man and am unlikely to, because the trailers have me convinced that I will be mightily pissed off by the representation of Arabs therein, and I prefer not to pay for the experience of being frustrated. I am, however, fortunate enough to be surrounded by enough thoughtful, intelligent writers and artists that the negative portrayals get filtered out, and I can instead see the tremendous effort put out by people of good conscience to counter them. As a result we get people like Catherynne Valente editing an Arab/Muslim issue of Apex in response to Elizabeth Moon’s anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim nonsense, C.S.E. Cooney and John O’Neill of Black Gate offering me space to interview Saladin Ahmed on their blog [http://www.blackgate.com/2010/11/17/fantasy-the-middle-east-and-a-conversation-with-saladin-ahmed/], and Wiscon offering new scholarships in order to make it possible for more Muslims and people of Arab descent to attend the convention. Ultimately I’d rather focus on the positive.
Aurangzeb: You are currently pursuing a PhD, can you tell us about your area of interest?
Amal: I’m writing about representations of fairies and other supernatural creatures in Romantic-era British writing, exploring the ways in which those representations intersect with constructions of national identity.
Aurangzeb: What advice do you have for young and burgeoning authors who may be interested in writing Fantasy or Science Fiction?
Amal: Read widely, but don’t feel you need to write what you read. Don’t be afraid to read critically, and to explore why an aspect of a novel you loved makes you uncomfortable; let that discomfort, as well as that love, lead you to write more.