G. Willow Wilson is perhaps most known for creating Kamala Khan in her 2014 relaunch of the Ms. Marvel comic book series, but her writing tackles many forms and subjects. Her debut novel, Alif the Unseen, garnered a World Fantasy Award, and she earned a Hugo Award and American Book Award for her work on Ms. Marvel. Her 2019 novel, The Bird King, was published to much acclaim. In addition to her memoir, The Butterfly Mosque, Wilson has written for Sandman, X-Men, and Wonder Woman, among others. She visited Butler University in fall 2021 and sat down with Booth to discuss her creation of Khan, as well as her own conversion to Muslim, and her time in Egypt.
Jeff Marvel: I saw that you were born in New Jersey. I’m also from the northeast originally, and being from a place and then leaving is an interesting thing for me in terms of trying to consider where I’m from. Where would you say you’re from? I know you’ve been all over the place.
G. Willow Wilson: Where I’m from, yeah . . .
JM: Yes, as a person, as a writer . . .
GWW: It’s interesting you should say that, because I’m not entirely sure how to answer that question. New Jersey has had a big influence on, probably, my most famous bit of writing—which is Ms. Marvel—because the co-creator, Sanna Amanat, and I are both from NJ. She’s from Edison, while I’m from Monmouth County. We’re the same age, so it was really kind of a touchstone for that character. Certainly, because I lived there until I was thirteen, going to elementary and middle school in a place like that certainly shaped my worldview.
The middle part of New Jersey, central New Jersey, is very, very diverse. Bell Labs is there; it’s a bedroom community for a lot of the financial-service industries in Manhattan. So, most of my elementary- and middle-school classmates were South or East Asian or Eastern European or descendants of Jewish immigrants from various parts of Europe. So, it was diverse in the true sense of the word. Therefore, moving to Colorado, which is very white—at least in Boulder, though there are, of course, parts that are not—was quite a shock. We lived right near the University of Colorado. It seems similar to Butler University, in that it’s not a closed campus but a discreet one which kind of blends out into a neighborhood of houses that are of the same vintage. It was just very different from what I’d known, so when I went back east for college, I didn’t know what to tell people when they asked me, “Where are you from?” Because it was like, really, I’m from New Jersey, but my parents still live in Colorado, and the rest of my family is there, and that’s where I go home when I “go home” . . . so there are a lot of different influences.
Then, of course, I kind of fled the country right after graduating from college and went to Egypt; I fell in love with the place and lived there for five years and got married. So, I don’t know where the heck I’m from! I’ve stopped trying to answer that question for myself, but I assume it’s some combo of those. The Pacific Northwest, where I live now, does not demand a whole lot of you. It’s a very laid-back place, so I really don’t feel like I’m from there, even though I’ve lived there for nearly thirteen years. It still feels oddly temporary.
JM: Is that something that you, at some point, stopped worrying about? As if being from this or that place isn’t as important to your identity at this point?
GWW: Well, it is! However, I think, we’re in a time now when I feel like having a certain schtick, like having a very definable look and feel, is super important because everybody’s advertising themselves at all times. Therefore, Southern writers are really into being southern writers, and Californian writers are really into being Californian writers, and people who grew up in various places . . . it’s this big thing. However, I’ve never stayed anywhere long enough to feel like there was a sense of permanency.
JM: I like that you used the phrase “fled the country” after graduating from Boston University. What does this term mean to you?
GWW: This student movement and associated movements really tried to stop the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Really, really tried. I was part of those protests, which at the time were the largest—I could be lying about this, but as far as I know, numerically, they were the largest anti-war protests in the country at that time. And it didn’t work, it didn’t work. It was shocking how we had gone through something like Vietnam and known what a debacle that was and how many innocent lives that cost, and we still went rushing back in as if we’d learned nothing. To punish not the guilty but the convenient. That was stunning to me.
At that point, I had converted to Islam and not told anybody. I’d been interested in it before 9/11, and then when 9/11 happened I realized that that was a very dangerous thing to talk about. So, I didn’t, and when the wars broke out and I graduated, I was like, I don’t want to be here for this. I wanted to study Arabic and religion in a Muslim country. An opportunity opened up in Cairo, so I said, “I’m leaving.” I just didn’t want . . . it seemed like something that I could do, sort of vote with my feet. Even though we couldn’t stop the wars, I could at least leave.
JM: Sure, another way to make a personal statement.
GWW: Yeah, yeah.
JM: So, that was . . .
JM: I was still pretty young at that point; I don’t really have a memory or conception of those protests. So, what was that like? Especially in a city like Boston—kind of a liberal environment?
GWW: You know, there was a lot of jeering from people who surprised me. I remember there was one protest—I want to say it was right down Commonwealth Avenue, but it might’ve been along the river, sort of that general area, not far from the Boston campus—and this person who looked very professorial—the whole sport-coat and sweater-vest thing—was walking by and said in a very posh, Frasier-esque Boston accent that you don’t really hear anymore, “Take that over to Cambridge where it belongs! We don’t want that here!” I was kind of stunned: Wasn’t it the academics of your generation who were so proud of protesting the war in Vietnam, and now you’re telling us to get out? That’s kind of when I knew that things were going to go sideways. Yeah, it was not good, but those were huge protests.
JM: That seems profound, especially as you were finding Islam right around the time of the terrorist attacks.
GWW: It was bizarre. I was taking Arabic courses prior to 9/11, which seemed extremely eccentric to my friends. They would say, “Why the heck would you do that?” There was only one instructor at Boston who taught it, and the textbooks were all typed out, like on typewriters, and they kept referencing these cassette tapes that had been lost, that nobody could find. It was as though nobody was interested! It was like taking Greek or something; it just seemed very weird. Then 9/11 happened, and literally the next month there were all these poly-sci kids, CIA people of the future, taking the same classes that I was. Everybody was in this huge rush to expand the Arabic program—for very cynical reasons, I think, because they knew that this was going to be . . . not a lucrative field of study but a relevant field of study for all the wrong reasons.
So the Arabic program there, as it is at a lot of places, is quite robust, but at the time, it was non-existent: one language class, and, I think, halfway through they added a literature class. However, as soon as 9/11 happened, all of a sudden, EVERYBODY was taking Arabic classes. It just felt like a very bizarre coincidence to me; it was like entering a parallel reality. It was no longer just something that I was very interested in, that was very strange and individual, in the sense that nobody that I talked to about religion knew what I was talking about. Generally, being interested in religion was not a popular thing at the time. Most people tended to have been brought up with one and then left it, and I was going in the opposite direction. So, yeah, it just seemed profoundly eccentric to my friends, and I didn’t talk about it a whole lot.
JM: So, you came to Arabic and Islam because you were looking into religion in general?
GWW: Well, not exactly. I knew what I believed, I had a grasp on what I thought God was like, and I was sort of looking for something that reflected that. I knew that I was obviously not the first person to ask these questions, that they had been asked and answered for thousands of years, in many different ways! However, I was very uneducated. So, I wondered, “Who else has thought these things? Where else has this been described by people who know better, by the philosophers of the past?”
I found that in Islam. At the time, nobody who was not Muslim—or who didn’t live in a part of the world where it was a common religion—really knew what it was, even down to, like, what they believe: one god, no gods, many gods? It was an unknown quantity, and it seems strange to say that now. However, nobody who had not had direct contact with a Muslim part of the world really understood. So, to me, it was a matter of, I know that answers to these questions are out there, but I don’t know what they look like. Therefore, I essentially stumbled into Islam by accident. I didn’t know anything about it; I was just looking, and there were answers there that, at the time, were quite profound to 18-year-old me.
JM: That sounds like such a surreal experience.
GWW: Yes, very surreal.
JM: For this faith to almost find you, and then this terrible thing happens . . .
GWW: . . . and the world totally changes, yes.
JM: Another thing that seems like a surreal aspect of this part of your life is your medical struggles. In your memoir, you talk about how that experience ties into how you found a faith and your understanding of God and the universe.
GWW: Yes, and it’s funny how common that is. If you look at conversion stories throughout history, some calamity like illness is a common component, especially at that age. Conversions typically don’t happen in midlife. They don’t happen at childhood, and they don’t typically happen at midlife or late-life; they typically happen right about early adulthood, around a person’s late teens or early twenties. At that point, people are just starting to want answers to questions that they’re only just starting to understand how to ask. Teenagers are also finding their way in their own time, through their own methods.
However, I think when you’re that age, and you don’t have a conception of suffering and death—maybe not death, that’s a little dramatic—there’s the stereotype of feeling immortal and taking silly risks. You don’t really understand that jumping out of a moving car and dying isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you; jumping out of a moving car and living the rest of your life in horrible pain . . . that’s the kind of thing that doesn’t really compute at that time. So, being really sick occurred at a time when previously, I had been sort of living in this innocence of, “Oh, bad things generally don’t happen to me.” If you get sick, you get better; if a bone breaks, it gets better, and you move on with your life. Being ill and having to carry on, having to still go to class, was quite revelatory at that time. I didn’t realize, of course, that that’s a fairly classic feature of conversion stories.
You know, some of my favorite thinkers were epileptics. Karen Armstrong was a huge polestar for me at that time: very religious as a kid, went through a kind of awakening, discovered kind of late that she had epilepsy, and realized that that was behind a lot of her thinking about the world at large. So, yeah, it was all very new and fresh to me. However, now, with the benefit of hindsight, I know that illness and adolescence are a powerful combo.
JM: Interesting that you’ve gone through what might be seen as a classic experience, because it also seems like you try in your work not to depict experiences that are stereotypical, that aren’t troped to death. It seems like you intentionally go against that kind of writing or character design.
GWW: I suppose. I don’t know that it’s on purpose, necessarily. I think I do try—and I think most writers do this in their work—to make characters feel like individuals rather than representatives of a certain group. I think that’s part of why Ms. Marvel was so successful, because when Sunna and I went in—when she originally called me up and said, “Hey, we want to do a new, young American Muslim superheroine, would you do this book?”—there was no set of criteria or a note that we were trying to hit. It was very important to both of us that this be a character who felt like a real person, not like a checklist, because I think it’s the quirkiness in any character that resonates with people. Nobody’s looking for cookie-cutters when they go read a book. They want an experience that feels unique, individual, and real, because nobody lives a cookie-cutter life. So, I do try to make those characters feel relatable and flawed and unique.
JM: She’s a superhero, but more than that, she’s a girl who is a Muslim American rather than being a Muslim American girl.
GWW: Yes, and that’s by design.
JM: Does Kamala Khan come from your adult experiences of being Muslim American? Did you sort of send those experiences back in time to your teenage self?
GWW: Not especially. I mean, the New Jersey bits are very New Jersey, and, certainly, her family and those characters are very much like the kids I grew up with—very much like the kids I grew up with. However, a lot of the specificity comes from Sunna, you know? That’s why I always say “we, we, we” when I talk about Ms. Marvel, not to sound like the Queen of England, but because she’s the work of many hands.
I knew that it was going to be a heavy lift as well, because when you create a character in a shared universe, you go in with the knowledge that you will not be in control of this character’s destiny. Other people are going to write this character, draw this character. Inevitably, you will come to a point twenty years, thirty years later where the character is completely ret-conned and given a new set of powers and a new origin story, with a new background and all that stuff, so you really cannot be too precious about it.
This is not something that belongs to you personally; this is something that ultimately belongs to a big corporation, but in an immediate sense it’s something that belongs to the fans. So, I think it was important to capture a mood and an energy that young American Muslims could relate to but that non-Muslim readers could relate to, as well. Even the ones who probably thought, “This is not going to be a book for me.” That required a very careful dance of making sure that the experiences were real and that they reflected some of the actual challenges that American Muslims face, some of which I have faced. Certainly, one of the big things that I was worried about is that Sunna’s and my experiences as American Muslims were both colored by the post-9/11 years, when everyone was terrified. People were disappearing in airports; elderly uncles were being interrogated for putting a $20 bill in the wrong charity box. Everybody I know, including me, had some kind of contact with the FBI. Our little micro-generation was so fear-driven, and because of those circumstances, I feared we were going to color the character in a way that would make her unrelatable to younger Muslims who don’t know anything else besides this current era, and who I think are a lot braver than our generation was.
We were worried about not going to jail, kind of holding the line. There was this idea that “American Muslims are Americans just like you!” Now that it’s twenty years out, I can see how different the sort of Gen Z Muslim experience and what our strategy was, because they’re all like, “Burn it all down.” They are adamantly and admirably against any kind of appeasement, any kind of compromise, any kind of explaining to anybody what we’re about; they’re of the mindset, “We don’t care, we really don’t.” Because that was their whole childhood, they didn’t experience the world before this, and it’s made them really pissed off—rightfully so! Therefore, I think there’s a generational aspect, where the particularity of that combined pre- and post-9/11 American Muslim experience colors that character for sure, in ways that will probably change, as she’s handed from writer to writer, as they too will have different experiences.
JM: With you “handing her off,” as you put it, will she still continue to be that same character? Is that kind of the idea until, like you said, twenty years down the line …?
GWW: Yeah, she’s still there. Well, she belongs to Marvel; I have no control over what happens or doesn’t happen. I think the surprise popularity of that character means she’ll stick around as she is for a while, but nothing in superhero comics is permanent—including death. So, it’s difficult to say. She’s going to be in a live-action series on Disney+, and there are rumors that she’s going to be in the Phase 4 of the Marvel movies. I can’t talk about anything more that I know about her future, but in a lot of instances, it actually doesn’t matter, because I don’t know, either. I find stuff out on Twitter along with everybody else! However, yes, she inevitably will change and evolve based on the needs of the fanbase.
JM: You’re working in comics, it sounds like, pretty consistently, but you write your own novels as well. Do you think you’ve learned anything from that experience of not owning characters, anything that transfers over to more of a classic storytelling form, like a novel?
GWW: They’re very different. In a novel, I get to be selfish, you know, because the whole universe is something I’m creating from scratch with nobody else, and then I do own it, in the sense that I have legal rights to it. So, it does feel quite different, and it requires a different set of muscles versus working in a shared universe, where you know you build in flexibility, because the character has to change or die, change or become irrelevant.
JM: So, I know there was that . . . I don’t want to call it a “debacle,” but the dust-up with Marvel execs talking about the lack of success with their “diverse” characters, and then you stood up for authentic representations rather than just checking a box. How does that work when, again, you’re handed this kind of pre-formed character?
GWW: You have to do right by that character. You have to do right by that character. That, I think, is one of the things that is interesting and most fun about working in a universe like that: You want that character to feel like the character that people know and love, and yet, at the same time, you want to find something new to say, something that hasn’t been said a million times. When you get to a character like Wonder Woman, that becomes really difficult! There are certain characters that have been around now for seventy-five years, and you come up with this great idea, and you find out that that exact thing was done thirty years ago. So, that’s quite tough, maintaining a voice of a character who’s been around for longer than you have and yet at the same time finding a new story to tell about that character.
JM: It sounds like a bit of a puzzle, maybe.
GWW: Yes, and I don’t always do a fantastic job. I was a little bit frustrated with the work that I did on Wonder Woman, because I felt like it was very hard to hit those high notes and say something new. Also, characters who are that old have, by that point, been all things to all people. So, you can take it in so many different directions: You can go slapstick, you can go corny, like, “BAM! BOCK!” lots of different sound effects, classic superhero stuff. You can go very dark and meta. You can go fantastical, you can go super-realistic . . . you can kind of do anything, because so many stories have already been told and because they’ve been through so many iterations. You’d think that’d make it easier, but in fact that makes it much harder.
JM: Even if a story has already been told, is there any merit in retelling it in a new context of, like, “We’re in this year now, and it’s sixty years later, and the world is so different?” Do you ever find nuggets of gold in that?
GWW: You can, but if you aren’t doing it first, you have to do it best. If you’re retelling something, you better do a really good job, because it’s going to be compared to the original, to which a lot of people get very attached. So, it’s a pole vault: The older and more established the character, the harder they are to write, because you’re trying to fill the shoes of not one but multiple giants.
JM: As soon as you said that, it clicked in my head that that’s the complaint people have with the newer Star Wars movies: Oh, this is just Episode V all over again.
GWW: Exactly. People will say, “This is the same story!” They’ll compare it scene-for-scene.
JM: And if it’s not better . . .
GWW: . . . then you’re screwed: It’s nothing! It’s nothing.
JM: So, again, you’ve been working as a comics writer as well as writing your own stuff. Was that by design? Did you think, “I want to be a career writer, and this is a way I can do it?”
GWW: It’s kind of by necessity. Very few people can make a living full-time as writers doing one thing and one thing only. Most of us in what you might call the middle class of the writing world have to diversify in order to survive financially. I’d love to be one of those people who can disappear into the wilderness, write a book every five years, it’s a best seller, go back into the wilderness. Donna Tart, she’s one of those and an idol of mine. That is living the life. You don’t have to have a social-media presence, you don’t have to give interviews except for when you have a book coming out, you don’t blurb anybody. You literally just live as a hermit. There’s no time pressure. You can take all the time you want, because you know that whenever you put a book out, it’s going to be a literary event. However, the number of writers for whom that is true is tiny, and the rest of us have to hustle. So, I write what I can, when I can, and I didn’t really plan it; it was just sort of, “How can I get to this number?” because I have kids to feed. Still, I love everything that I do, so I feel quite lucky. This is not to run down the career that I have had, but I keep waiting for the year when I don’t have to hustle. Thus far, it has not arrived.
JM: Do you still do other kinds of freelance work?
GWW: I do less of that now, fewer of the smaller pieces. In a typical year, I’ll have a book—without pictures—and two ongoing or limited comic-book series, and the way it’s shaken out, not on purpose but more or less by coincidence, is it’s usually one superhero book and one creator-owned book. So, that’s what a typical year looks like for me, and that just keeps the ball rolling.
JM: I’m interested, too, in how you tackle diversifying your writing, style- and subject-wise.
It seems like a lot of your work deals in, or just kind of goes at, a particular genre or blending of genres. Superheroes are a very established thing, but you’ve got Cairo and Alif the Unseen, both of whom have this kind of cyberpunky, Middle Eastern mysticism.
GWW: In those two, yeah.
JM: So, is that something that from the get-go you keep in mind, that you’re trying to work in a specific genre?
GWW: Not really, no. Everything I do is a little bit different. There’s Wonder Woman, there’s Invisible Kingdoms, which is about space-nuns, and X-Men is X-Men, so I don’t really have a niche, which is a little bit alarming, because having a niche is marketable, and I don’t really have one. So, I kind of bop all over the place. I do some Young Adult, I do some adult stuff . . . I’ve never really settled. I think that, you know, people focus on the stuff that I wrote while I was in Cairo, because it does have a kind of a bit of a vibe. If you’re just thinking about Cairo and Alif, those two books, the ones I wrote in Cairo, feel like they were written in Cairo. Well, except for Air! Air kind of goes all over the place, even though it was written during the same time period.
JM: Do you think that’s more a product of being in a certain place?
GWW: Oh, yeah, it’s the influence of place—the influence of Cairo, specifically. It wasn’t an attempt to carve a niche, and, in fact, as soon as I started . . . I don’t know. It was a bit of a push; I kind of got lumped in with . . . I don’t know what. I began, at some point in the mid- to late-aughts, seeing myself referred to as like an “Arabic writer” or a “Middle Eastern writer,” and I was like, “Uh oh, this is not good.” There was a huge renaissance in Arab, Middle Eastern, and Muslim writing that I could see coming, because most of them were my friends, but nobody else could see it coming, because nobody was really paying attention at that point.
I think we were still stuck on this idea that the Middle East was still this place where people rode camels to work. I’m being crass, but I heard almost that exact thing from editors of that era, and I think there’s still this racist attitude toward the Middle East in general that has persisted since 9/11, this attitude that there’s no culture there, that writing doesn’t happen there, art doesn’t happen there, they’re anti-art and they’re anti-music and they’re anti-writing, and all this stuff which is simply not true. Any time that an American, and particularly a white American, leaves that orbit and goes somewhere else, there’s this rush of interest: “Why would you do that?”
That can easily eclipse the voices that are rising naturally out of whatever that place is, and I knew that I was going to have to get the hell out of the way. It tends to be easy, because of that sort of gravitational pull of being a white American abroad, to swallow up everything behind it, so as soon as I started becoming associated with the Middle East or writing from there, I got out of the way and started doing other stuff. That’s part of why I stopped wearing a headscarf here, in the U.S., for non-religious events, because I began to get a lot of interest and resources from this general push toward diversifying, which I’m quite certain was never meant to be for exotic varieties of white people. Those resources are meant for other people. We’re so trained, I think, to associate particularly the headscarf with foreignness, so when I would wear one, people were seeing me through a lens that, I think, was somewhat duplicitous in a way. We’re still kind of glued to this idea that Islam means “people from somewhere else,” and there was an uptick in this when there was an uptick in interest in diversifying everything. I would get these invitations, “Hey, we need a little bit more diversity on this panel, or on this project, or whatever,” and I would say, “I can put you in touch with people who I think would be an excellent fit, but . . . ” I don’t want to take those resources that are still limited even though we’re talking about it all the time. Those resources are not infinite, so I really think they need to go to the people who need them most. So, yeah, I’ve been vigorously undermining my own career for years! For that reason.
JM: For the reason that you don’t want to represent these other people?
GWW: No, no, and I don’t want to take bread out of the mouths of other writers, frankly. It’s quite literally against my religion.
JM: The usage of cyberpunk as a genre, the hacking and the internet-controlled society, that was part of this larger movement at that time?
GWW: When I was in Cairo, it was really at the end of Internet 1.0, the beginning of the internet that we live in today, and there were young activists across the Middle East, in Cairo, in the Gulf, in Iran, especially, who were using the internet to circumvent state censorship. It was clear if you were there that this was going to be huge. This is what led to the Arab Spring, to the Green Revolution in Iran, and I was desperately—while I was there—trying to pitch pieces to magazines in the U.S. about this phenomenon. I would say, “This is going to be huge,” and that’s when I started hearing, from people who really should have known better, stuff like, “They have internet over there?” That was the reaction, that they couldn’t believe they had internet over in the Middle East and that the people there knew how to use it.
I was shocked, thinking, “This is embarrassing and super, super racist,” but it wasn’t in a way that was obvious, and these were people thinking they were educated, you know? They were like, “Wow, who would read a story about this? It seems so niche.” So, there was absolutely no traction; I couldn’t get anybody to pick it up. Even though bloggers and hackers who were in their teens were being arrested in Cairo, it didn’t matter; nobody cared.
Therefore, when I wrote Alif, I decided: “I’ll just put some genies in there, and then somebody will buy it.” And they did! We sold it, and then two days later the Arab Spring broke out, and everybody was talking about it—Arab hackers, Arab bloggers, all this stuff. I got all these calls that would say something along the lines of, “How did you know?!” I would say, “I tried to tell you for years. We could’ve been two years ahead of this story, and you didn’t want to hear it. Ask yourself why it took genies for you to listen.”
JM: What, in the end, led you to leave Cairo?
GWW: Honestly, I don’t know.
JM: The U.S. seems like a difficult country in which to be an artist, but you came back.
GWW: Well, the only thing that made it any easier there was the currency conversion. I was beginning to feel profoundly disconnected from my peers back here. I wasn’t having any of the experiences they were—I’d never had a credit card, I had no credit history.
JM: Oh, wow.
GWW: Yeah, I’d never had a checkbook! There were vital things that I simply didn’t know how to do because I moved to Cairo when I was twenty. I moved there straight out of college, and I stayed there. It was very surreal: I felt like I was at the other end of a telescope from everybody that I’d grown up with. They were renting apartments, they were doing this and doing that, whereas the adulthood that I was learning was an Egyptian adulthood, and it frightened me to think that I didn’t have any of the skills necessary to live in the United States as an adult. I’d left, you know, before I could drink! To this day I’ve never ordered a drink in a bar.
GWW: I don’t even know how you do that. I was at a hotel bar for WisCon, the Wisconsin Comic-Con, a couple years ago. Since I was a guest, they’d named this virgin drink after one of my characters as a gesture. So, I said, “I have to show up and order one of these things.” There was this carafe of one-dollar bills on top of the bar, and people would just sort of put money into it at intervals, and I was like, “What is that??” My friend had to tell me, “Oh, you just tip. Like, you’re there at the bar for a long period of time, and so you just chuck a tip in there for the bartender every so often.” I just had no, no idea.
Therefore, I really wanted to come back, at least for a certain period of time, because I didn’t know how to be an American adult. I dragged my husband along with me, and then we kind of got stuck, you know? We always intended to go back, but then there was a revolution, and we said, “We’ll wait a year.” We waited another year, and now we’re just kind of at that point that everyone seems to get to, where it’s just, “Next year.”
JM: Next year, next year, next year . . .
JM: Because you’re now so removed from there in terms of time, and geographically you’re so far away now as well, do you think the time you spent in Cairo still impacts your writing?
GWW: Yes, and I don’t think it’ll ever go away, because I think when you’re forced to live in a way that defies the very sort of laws of space-time that you were brought up with—not just about how basic facts of life work but how large forces, political forces, human forces all work—when you learn that all of the things that you’ve grown up being told were universal and true everywhere were, in fact, very particular to that time and place . . . that’s never left me. That sense of impermanence is still there. Any time and any place that anybody tries to tell me, “Oh, X, Y, and Z will never happen,” I feel as though everybody says that until it’s over and done with! When a shift happens, it happens fast. So, that time destroyed my sense of permanence but in a good way! Not in a cataclysmic way, but in a sense that everything in motion stays in motion.
JM: Sure, and it’s similar to the inheritance of characters, in that things aren’t necessarily yours to hold onto.
GWW: Things are unfixed. Everything is unfixed.
JM: In your most recent novel, The Bird King, there’s the theme of displacement, people having to flee because their society is changing.
GWW: On the verge of collapse, really, yes.
JM: What brought you to that as a subject when you were writing it? I hope that’s not too obvious a question.
GWW: It seemed like an appropriate story to tell in a time of upheaval because it’s about a time of upheaval. That era of history has been interesting to me for a long time because it was a time of profound hybridity in Europe. This idea of European history being all fixed and all one way—rather than, again, this idea of everything being unfixed and fluid—was most undermined in that time and the centuries immediately preceding it because there was such a massive cultural exchange between North Africa and Southern Europe. There were Arabic-speaking communities in Spain, large Muslim and Jewish communities in Spain. Obviously, the impact of architecture is still there to this day, and the impact on language and food is still there. Genetically, it’s still there, which everybody is now finding out thanks to Ancestry and 23andMe. It’s just kind of everywhere! However, after the Reconquista—The Bird King is set right before the formalized end of the Reconquista—the attitude was like, “That’s not real European history; that was just a blip,” and I’m thinking, “Well, that ‘blip’ lasted 700 years! That’s not a blip.”
Also, my husband is really interested in Islamic jurisprudence and reads the most unbelievable amount of very old Arabic texts. He was reading to me some of the questions that Spanish Muslims who had to flee Spain were asking of the ulema.
JM: What’s that mean?
GWW: It’s a body of scholars, basically. These people were asking the jurists of that day, “Is it permissible in Islam to lie about your religion so that you don’t have to leave your country?” Meanwhile, I was blown away: These people didn’t know how to be North African. They hadn’t been North African for hundreds of years, and they were so attached to Spain that they’d rather pretend to be Catholic than leave and live with other Muslims. So, that powerfully suggests, on one hand, the strength of that pull to stay in what is now your homeland, being willing to sacrifice all these other parts of your identity to stay there. Of course, the jurists were like, “That’s ridiculous! You have to come live among Muslims! What’s wrong with you? Of course it’s never appropriate to conceal your religion; you should want to live among other Muslims.” However, they didn’t want to leave, and it was that, really, that prompted this story, this idea of being kicked out of the only home that you’ve ever known and yet not really belonging to anywhere else, thus seeking somewhere fictional that’s safe.
JM: It’s interesting how that seems almost like an inverse of your own experience: not being kicked out but deciding to leave.
GWW: To flee!
JM: Yes! Also, taking that as, like, you had agency in that situation, whereas these people did not.
GWW: Yeah, for them, it was really that or the Inquisition.
JM: So, do you think you did that work to kind of explore that inverse side of your own experience?
GWW: I don’t know. I think, in the end, I wanted to tell a Muslim story that was set in Muslim Europe, from the point of view of European Muslims. The other stuff probably arose out of a part of my subconscious that I don’t really have access to except in fiction! I don’t honestly know, a lot of the time, what my motivation is. Sometimes, people are better at telling me than I am at determining it myself.
JM: That’s kind of a magical thing about fiction, I guess.
GWW: You don’t always know what part of you it comes from.