S. A. Chakraborty is the author of The City of Brass: an adventurous new fantasy about a young trickster and her introduction to a hidden realm of magic and the mysterious beings known as djinn. With the book due out next Tuesday (11/14/17) we caught up with Chakraborty to learn more about the world of the novel.
Unbound Worlds: Is it just me, or are the djinn having their moment? Over a relatively short period of time, we’ve seen The Golem and the Djinn, Djinn City, and your own book. Why are the djinn on our minds right now?
S. A. Chakraborty: Haha, I think it might be more a matter of Western media catching up with a tradition prevalent in a good chunk of the rest of the world. Djinn stories have existed for millennia, in places as disparate as Malaysia and Morocco, and I’m not surprised: they’re fascinating! This idea of a shadow world existing unseen besides our own is both terrifying and thrilling. As a history nerd, I’ve always loved the idea of these long-lived spirits just sort of dispassionately watching the rise and fall of our various civilizations—it was what sparked my own story. And that they’ve existed in human tales for so long—from ancient rock drawings to modern techno thrillers—speaks to a popularity I don’t think will fade anytime soon.
UW: I have to admit that I’m only familiar with “The City of Brass” from having played Dungeons & Dragons as a kid. In that game, it was the homeland of the ifrit. What is it really?
SAC: Oh, it comes from such a good story! “The City of Brass” is one of the original tales from One Thousand and One Nights; my favorite, in fact. It’s the story of what is basically an archaeological expedition, a party of adventurers sent off to find the bottles in which the Prophet Suleiman once imprisoned rebellious djinn. They get lost in the desert and then in what is one of the eeriest, most forbidding accounts I’ve ever read, come upon “the city of brass:” an ancient dead city where the corpses of merchants lay where they died in the bazaar, whose walls and castles are filled with murderous metal automata who’ve out-lived their creators, and where a long-dead queen still appears to be alive due to some clever engineering.
It’s meant to read as a cautionary tale about the illusory nature of wealth, but there are some aspects that wouldn’t be out of place in modern horror or science fiction movie. Another reason I enjoy it; however, is because as someone who loves history, I get a real kick out of seeing people in the past explore their own history. Interestingly, it might even have some real roots. There’s a record of one of the military leaders in the early conquests of Spain coming across such mysterious djinn-filled bottles…and then getting rid of them… in what strikes me as a major missed opportunity to be part of an adventure!
UW: Your story begins in 18th century Cairo. What made this time and place such an attractive setting for your tale?
SAC: I chose the late 18th century for a few reasons. First, I hoped that a quick reference to Napoleon in the first chapter might help orient readers otherwise unfamiliar with the time period. I also wanted to explore the history of medicine a bit and there were a lot of changes and advances going on at this time. Finally, a lot of this book deals with occupation and setting it at what is roughly the beginning of European colonialism in the region seemed appropriate.
And I always knew it would start in Cairo. Egypt is close to my heart, and it was the American University of Cairo’s magnificent rare books library that turned me from reading sensible accounts of trade to adventure tales!
UW: Your hero, Nahri, is a bit of a rogue. Her abilities enable her to use people’s belief in the supernatural to take advantage of them. How does that perspective aid (or hinder) her when real magic reveals its head?
SAC: I think it hinders her—because she’s so used to conning people that she assumes everyone is doing the same to her! A lot of the book is about trust, particularly Nahri’s lack of it, and how that puts her at a disadvantage when she’s taken to an entirely new world in which she needs to make alliances to survive. Additionally, I think Nahri’s abilities have given her an edge of arrogance in the human world; one that throws her when she gets to Daevabad, and she’s around people who can do things that seem completely beyond her grasp.
UW: As a Muslim writer, do you feel any extra – and maybe unwanted – responsibility to explain your culture through your fiction? Is there any pressure on you to do something more than just write an entertaining story — maybe more than a writer from a different background might feel?
SAC: Yes and no. I really wrote this book for my community first; I wanted to tell a story for us and about us, one with all the grandeur and magic of a summer blockbuster. Of course, I also wanted it to be accessible to outside readers, but I felt like this could be accomplished by explaining things in the text and adding a glossary, rather than editing out what might be unfamiliar.
That being said, I do feel some responsibility. I’m a convert to Islam, and so I try to hold myself accountable to fellow Muslims first, and to showing respect and justice to a culture and history that I never forget isn’t mine despite how much it might have inspired me.