Islam Sci-fi Interview of G. Willow Wilson (Part I)


Background: Our latest interview is with Muslim American writer G. Willow Wilson which was conducted by Rebecca Hankins. Wilson is a writer and scholar, a convert to Islam whose commentary often addresses Islamic and interfaith issues. An avid supporter of new and alternative media, Wilson has written for political and culture blogs from across a wide spectrum of views. Her official website is at the following link:

R Hankins: Tell us a little about your background.
G. Willow Wilson:
 I was born in New Jersey and we moved to Colorado when I was a child so I’m sort of a hybrid east coaster mid westerner. I went to college at Boston University, graduated with a degree in history, and I had been kind of a closeted spiritual person for most of my life, you know I say in the book, I tried to be an atheist, and just wasn’t very good at it. I was not raised with any kind of religion, but in college I began to get a little bit more serious about exploring religion and what it meant. I knew that I was a monotheist, but I didn’t know what kind of monotheist I was.   Islam to me, on a theological level, embodied the kind of relationship that I had to God, and the things that I believed about the nature of God.  It was a slow process. I was not enthusiastic at first about the idea of converting because I knew, even before 9/11, what kind of hardships would come along with it, and questions, and potential risks from people I loved and I didn’t want that. So I really resisted for several years, the idea of converting, and especially– 9/11 happened my junior year of college and that really pushed back my conversion process because I said “wait a minute I have to go back and really make sure that this religion isn’t actually about terrorism and that it’s not about killing innocent people or hijacking airplanes” so I had to really be firm in that because if that’s what it’s about then it’s not for me. It took a couple years after that to really reassure myself that these people really were aberrations and that there was nothing in the religion that could possibly justify what they had done. I was approaching Islam through a purely textual route. I really didn’t know any Muslims at the time. I had never been to a Muslim country; I had never been inside a mosque. I didn’t know any sort of contemporary issues. I knew that I had a sense and I watched the news; I saw women in Burkas and those kinds of things, but that was– my knowledge was pretty cosmetic when it came to gender relationships within Islam. I thought, well okay I’ll go into it with an open mind and I’ll see, and that’s part of the reason I went to Egypt after I graduated. I got a job in Egypt to teach; moved there a couple of months after graduating college. It’s because I wanted to kind of see first-hand, what the situation was, and what it was like for women in a Muslim country, and come to my own decision that way.

Hankins: How did you begin writing in the genre of graphic novels and comics?
G. Willow Wilson:
I have been a fan since childhood. I think I was maybe ten years old when I first got a sort of PSA, little six page comic book in school that featured the X-men talking about how bad it was to smoke and how you shouldn’t smoke, so it really had nothing to do with comics as a medium.  It was really to get kids to not smoke, but I was so fascinated by these characters that were in these costumes, running around, they were so strong, and they knew everything that was going on. I started watching, at that time, there was a Saturday morning cartoon show on Fox of the X-men, and I watched it religiously, no pun intended, every Saturday for years or at least a couple of years. So that was really my introduction. I was a big reader as a kid, of all kinds of books. I loved fantasy. I loved the Lloyd Alexander series: The Chronicles of Prydain, The Children of Llyr, and all those wonderful books based on Welsh mythology for children.  My father read me Lord of the Rings when I was two or three and so, I was really sort of dedicated.  I didn’t know what geek culture was at that age of course, I just thought these are what good books look like. Comics kind of stood out to me because they were so multi-sensory; you had pictures, you had words, even at that time a lot of comic books were being adapted into cartoon shows or movies, so it seemed almost like a kind of mythology that crossed the boundaries of media; and the characters were sort of alive in all these different ways and in books, and in movies. I love comics, it was really an X-Men addiction for a long time and then in high school I branched out and started reading a lot of the Vertigo books that were coming out around that time; Sandman by Neil Gaiman, which of course transformed the whole genre. Shade the Changing Men by Peter Milligan, which is another fantastic postmodern, more mature literary oriented comic.  In high school, I figured out if these books exist then there must people who make them for a living, so I sort of set out on how to do that.

It is true that women are really underrepresented in the creative side of comics and in fact right now there is kind of a big brouhaha, going on because DC is re-launching, DCC is the company that does Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, a lot of those big characters. They’re re-launching a lot of their monthly comic books, and women creators have dropped to one percent of the total number of creators on these new books. One percent of these books are written or drawn by women, and there was a lot of fall-out from that, because lots of people said this is ridiculous, you know, women are underrepresented to begin with and you’ve got a mere one percentage of books are going to be drawn by women. However, there are quite a few women editors in comics, who don’t get the proper credit that they deserve, and who do an amazing job steering and guiding a lot of these, you know, really mythic characters and the stories and that kind of thing. So I have been lucky enough to work with several women editors in the industry. Joan Hilky, edited my first graphic novel Cairo. Karen Burger who is a legend in her own industry and the editor of Vertigo, I did a book with her, Air, that was nominated for an Eisner Award. The first issue of my first Marvel project at Marvel Comics, Mystic, which came out yesterday, was edited by Janine Schaffer. Things are starting to change, and I think more on the editorial side rather than on the creative side where there is still a huge gender gap, but more and more women are filling those positions within the big comic company as editors, so that’s a good start.

Hankins:  Have you found that there is any pushback or negative reaction to your writings?
G. Willow Wilson:
I think that part of the reason I haven’t is because number one I’m writing in English and that limits your audience somewhat and people who, number one can read and access stuff and would go and pick it out are generally not people who are antagonistic to it.  I think if I were writing in Arabic I’d have a different experience.  But at the same time one of the original works of fantasy in world literature was written by Arab Muslims, the Thousand and one Nights, so I think, there is this discomfort in the community with the idea of magic, that I had some conversations about, but certainly there is so much in the Islamic cannon when it comes to things like the Jin and there are things that we can’t see. There is a belief in most of the parts of Muslims world that magic is quite real, but that it’s very dangerous and that’s it sort of irreligious and you should stay away from it. Ironically I think some of the discomfort with fantasy is the genre that exists in some parts of the Muslim world arises not from a particular rejection of some of the ideas behind fantasy, but it’s because a lot of people really believe that this stuff is true; that you can be hurt for instance by the Jin, by the Unseen, that there is black magic, that it can be very damaging, and so I think it really comes from a belief rather than from disbelief. But I think it’s changing, for example in the Arab world there’s been some; I think I saw a piece on this on NPR, but this is something that I hear also from friends and family. Living in Egypt for example, there’s been a new wave of young authors that are producing more novels that are becoming more popular. A great example is Yacubian Building, which of course is translated into the English Yacoub and was made into a movie. It was the closest thing the Arab world had to a bestseller in a while, and it was made into a movie with a bunch of very famous actors. The English title is the Yacoub Building. I’m not sure that it’s too great a leap to say the fact that in the Arab world at any rate people do seem to be reading more and at the same time we have this wave of revolution. I don’t think those two things are disconnected.

Hankins: Do you think there is a general lack of interest in Science Fiction in the Muslim world?  What has been your experience?
G. Willow Wilson:
I have been very surprised by the level of interest and support that I’ve gotten. For a long time I thought it was just the American Muslim community, because there is a lot of geek cultures, generally sci-fi fantasy comics, is really big in the Muslim community because it’s an outsider culture. That really resonates with American Muslims who are kind of struggling to reconcile too often conflicting identities. I mean that kind of thinking is at the core of sci-fi and fantasy. You’ve got the kid who’s kind of on the outside, but he has super powers; he discovers he’s got this great destiny or you know, things really aren’t that bad after all, and I think that really appeals to Muslim, especially youth, Muslim youth in America. I had always thought, “gosh it’s a good thing that people abroad, and Cairo, and the Middle East are not reading this stuff because I’m sure I would just get skewered, and then I started, just before last year, I got a message on Twitter from a couple of guys in Cairo who said we really want you to do a signing in Cairo. We love your books and we’ve read Cairo the graphic novel and some of the other stuff and we want you to come do a signing. I said “Oh my God and I was planning to travel there to see family. My husband’s family is Egyptian. We had been planning to travel there anyway, and so I said okay let’s set something up while I’m planning on being in Cairo. The event, which was in an English language bookstore, was packed. There were more people there than at a lot of my US signings that I’ve done. There were probably 50 people in this very small little space, asking very good questions and they were really engaged. One guy actually got up and he had written a little speech about how he’d been studying abroad in the US in the winter, it was snowy and cold, he had never seen snow before, and he was kind of miserable. Reading Cairo the graphic novel had given him kind of a taste of home and made him feel less homesick and had inspired him to do his own comic book, which he had just sort of drawn, written, and laminated on a home computer. He gave me a copy and it was probably one of the best moments for me as a writer ever, to hear that from him, and I thought at that time that “oh my God, this could really work”, I think things are really starting to change. Sure enough six months later, those same kids who came to that signing were over-throwing the government. It was really amazing for me.

Hankins: How did you write your graphic novel Cairo? Is this opportunity to breakdown stereotypes where you even include a sympathetic portrayal of a female Israeli Special Forces soldier.  Tell me a little bit more about how you wrote that dialogue and was it difficult to write dialogue for the male voice?
G. Willow Wilson:
Yeah it is kind of tough and I did have to think very very carefully about exactly what I was saying. Are people from one side going to be able to attack me about this, and are the other people going to be able to attack me about this stuff. It was tough, I had to think about it very carefully, but I was lucky enough to give part of the early manuscript to one of the original, Refuseniks who had served time in prison for refusing to serve in the Occupied Territory. He read it and gave me some good feedback. It’s a really tough call with anything like that and anytime you try to include a conflict like that you’re really kind of borrowing trouble, and I kind of knew that. I was in Cairo doing a reading and somebody asked me about that; she  said you know this could never happen right, this love affair between an Israeli soldier and an Egyptian guy?  Probably not, but that’s part of the fantasy, you get to write a happy ending.  On the other hand I think people are a little bit in denial, you go to Sinai and you see tons of Egyptian/Israeli couples.

Something that is really important to me is bringing a new perspective, and putting combinations of characters together that would not occur to anyone. That’s really a reflection of my own life.  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 a would be suicide bomber whose sort of on the run, kind of a naïve American girl who thinks she’s going to 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.

It struck me once, and this is partially the inspiration for Tova, even though it has nothing to do with soldiers or anything like that. I was in Sinai at a little beach resort-camping site basically, and there was a little Israeli girl there with her mother; the girl was maybe six or seven. They were sort of keeping things very much on the down low trying not to say where they were from. They were very cagy because they didn’t want to get into it with people, so I could tell the little girl was speaking Hebrew to her mother and the mother would speak back in English trying to get the kid to not speak in Hebrew.  There were eels in the water and the little girl was frightened, the automatic response of the Egyptian guy was to comfort her because it’s a child who is afraid and he needs to comfort a child.

Why an American of Lebanese descent? Number one because I wanted to make him kind of on the down low Shia so that I could have some religious variety within the Muslims that I was portraying. I also wanted to have an Arab character that looked non-stereotypically Arab because there are blonde haired, blue eyed Arabs, Arabs with very dark skin. It’s a extremely diverse ethnic group so I wanted to have one character that was an Arab that didn’t look like what a Western reader would envision an Arab looks like. There wasn’t any sort of deeper stick than that.

(End of Part 1)

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