First Flames: An Interview Between Debut Authors Hafsah Faizal and Nafiza Azad

Hafsah Faizal and Nafiza Azad are debut Muslim fantasy authors, and both of their #OwnVoices YA novels are out this week. Here, they talk to each other about world-building, intersectional feminism, subverting stereotypes, and more.

Hafsah Faizal and Nafiza Azad are debut Muslim fantasy authors, and both of their #OwnVoices YA novels are out this week.

An American Muslim living in Texas, Faizal has been immersed in the YA scene since she was a 17-year-old book blogger, which spurred her to write We Hunt the Flame. In a world inspired by ancient Arabia, Zafira is a storied hunter who must disguise herself as a man as she travels into a treacherous forest to feed her people. When she is tapped to embark on a journey to restore magic to her world, Nasir, the legendary but reluctant assassin and crown prince, is sent by his father to kill her.

Azad identifies as an Indo-Fijian Muslim Canadian, and her navigation of multiple identities is evident in The Candle and the Flame. After a brutal attack that killed nearly all humans, Noor is a vibrant multicultural city along the Silk Road, protected by the Ifrit Djinn. Eighteen-year-old Fatima is one of the few left alive, but when she witnesses the death of a powerful Ifrit, she finds herself transformed and is drawn into the ruling class, just as the city’s peace is threatened.

Here, Faizal and Azad talk to each other about world-building, intersectional feminism, subverting stereotypes, and more.

Hafsah Faizal
Hafsah Faizal

Hafsah Faizal: I know The Candle and the Flame isn't your first manuscript, so I'm curious: while writing it, did you have a gut feeling that this manuscript would be the one?

Nafiza Azad: My first novel was actually the thesis I wrote for my Master of Arts in Children’s Literature. There was never a moment that I felt it wasn’t the one while I was writing it, because I believe entirely in every project I work on. I wrote The Candle and the Flame because I wanted to. The idea that other people would be reading it and forming their own thoughts on it came later. When I started it and while I was writing it, the novel was an answer to the demands the story made on me. The fact that it sold and is now going to be a book is a very happy coincidence.

HF: When did you start writing? I'd love to know more about your journey to getting published.

NA: I have been writing for a very long time. My earliest memory of writing is way back before I started going to kindergarten. I made my mom a book of poetry that featured poems like “Cows go moo” and other genius stuff like that. I have taken a number of writing classes along the way to learn the craft but, honestly, even just five years ago, I was convinced I would only ever write poetry. I got the courage to write a novel through my postgrad degree. My thesis supervisor was Maggie de Vries, who is also an author and editor. Her advice and teaching were invaluable; through her guidance I learned the mechanics of storytelling. I believe that writers constantly need to improve their writing and, thankfully, nothing teaches writing quite like writing. I have written five books now, and each project has been a wonderful learning experience.

HF: The Candle and the Flame is set along the Silk Road with a mix of Middle Eastern and South Asian influences, rife with political intrigue—what made you decide to write a fantasy as opposed to historical fiction?

Nafiza Azad
Nafiza Azad

NA: Writing fantasy wasn’t a conscious decision. It was a matter of fact that if I wrote a novel, it would be in the fantasy genre. I am the kind of writer who follows reason and logic no matter how fantastical the world. Fantasy gives me greater creative expression compared to historical fiction that presents boundaries due to the reality of the events that choreograph history. I wouldn’t say The Candle and the Flame is set in the real world; it would be far more correct to say that it is set in an alternate version of the real world that contains some of the countries we are familiar with and others that are wholly made up.

HF: What I love about fantasy is world-building, and I particularly love fantasy worlds inspired by cultures that give us insight into clothing, languages, and my favorite: food! What's your favorite part of world-building?

NA: I adore world-building and do it extensively. I don’t think there’s any specific aspect of it Ilove more than the other. I find that world-building helps plotting and increases the complexity of a novel. From the names of the characters to figuring out how trash is disposed in the world you have created, all of these are important to me. The better you know your world, the easier time you will have writing. Not everything has to be included in your narrative, but as the author you really should know even the tiniest details. The confidence you have in your world will be echoed in the flow of the story you are telling.

Jo Walton’s Among Others brings up an interesting point within its narrative. The protagonist muses that everyone is a product of the landscape in which they grow up. How have the landscapes Zafira and Nasir grown up in affected the people they are when we meet them?

HF: The landscape of a world involves more than just the terrain—we're talking politics and how it affects society, all of which shapes us in so many ways. For Zafira, the constraints of her society are what define her—they've negatively impacted her upbringing, which also fuels her anger and her desire to rebel against these misconstructions. But she's smart—she's waiting for the right moment. She just doesn't know what it is yet. Nasir, on the other hand, is the crown prince, and one would expect him to have a bit more freedom. He's anything but free, however. Because of his father, he's less affected by the landscape he's living in. Rather, his world revolves around the tight leash his father has him on, and it takes a journey to a mysterious island to realize he has more power than he thinks.

Where did you draw inspiration from as you wrote Candle? Was there a single moment or question that sparked it?

NA: There wasn’t one thing specifically that sparked the novel. There were many. The first was Shakespeare’s rhetorical question, “What’s in a name?” Quite a bit, if you think about it. Then there was the toxic rhetoric surrounding Muslims and other minorities on media and social media at the time I was writing. I was very tired of the hostility constantly directed our way, so I decided on a Muslim protagonist. Too, I wanted to challenge the notion that a strong heroine is one with physical strength. I wanted to show the kind of feminism, the intersectional kind, that I believe in. I also wanted to write a city that is unconditionally accepting and perhaps by doing so show that such a place is possible not just in fiction but in reality.

Both We Hunt the Flame and The Candle and the Flame contain feminist themes. As authors of color, as Muslims, our flavor of feminism is intersectional. How does this intersectionality manifest in your novel and in the characters of the world of We Hunt the Flame?

We Hunt the Flame coverHF: As Muslims living in a society that sees Islam as restricting towards women, I believe we're—sometimes subconsciously—inclined to subvert that view. If anything, that's how feminism makes a stand in We Hunt the Flame.

NA: When I was writing The Candle and the Flame, a critique partner brought up my characterization of one of the male characters, which she asserted was problematic. I was reluctant to believe and to accept her analysis, so she broke down my prose and showed me the ways in which the subtext said everything I refused to believe it did. Ultimately, thanks to her, my character became a stronger and better person. Have you had similar experiences? Do you pay attention to the subtext in your narrative?

HF: I like to think I'm aware of the subtexts in my narrative, and I owe this insight to my editors because of how they pull apart my characters and their relationships in order to flesh them out as strongly as possible.

NA: Are there any stereotypes you are trying to subvert with We Hunt the Flame?

HF: Oh, certainly. The Middle East is so often demonized or romanticized. It's also constantly meshed so closely with South Asian cultures, which peeves me to no end! With We Hunt the Flame, I wanted to create a world that felt like home—which it is, for thousands and thousands of people. At the same time, I aimed to cement a world inspired by Arabia alone, avoiding any ties to South Asia.

NA: I find writing relationships to be both difficult and satisfying. What relationship, aside from the romance, was the most difficult and the most satisfying one to write?

HF: Relationships are my favorite to write. Playing with emotions and how they affect all parties is just so fun! So while I enjoyed every single one, I think the most difficult for me was the one between Zafira and her mother. I have a close relationship with my own parents, and tugging on the grief and pain Zafira feels for neglecting her mother after a childhood tragedy was hard, because I can't imagine doing the same to my own mother.The Candle and the Flame cover

We tend to write for ourselves, and I never truly believed that until I really dug deep and discovered the (sometimes subconsciously woven) messages in We Hunt the Flame. Are there any messages in Candle that makes you wish you could go back in time and share with your teen self?

NA: Rather than a message, I wish I could go back in time and give the teenage me this book. I wish she could see a reflection of herself in literature and know that it is possible for her to have an adventure, too. I want her to take pride in her brownness, in her Muslim-ness, and see herself as a person with beauty, a person with a story.

Author Image
Katy Hershberger
Katy Hershberger (khershberger@mediasource.com) is the senior editor for YA at School Library Journal.

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