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Sunday, April 29, 2018

Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali, author and editor

I was really thrilled to have Khaalidah on the show to share her insights with us. I asked her what she liked in the arena of worldbuilding and she said that she has no specific likes, but says, "I want to feel something." She wants to feel how the story is going to capture her, to be intrigued by where it's taking place, and she says she needs something to be happening pretty quickly.

I always enjoy talking with people who are "pantsers," i.e. people who don't do a lot of advance planning, because as someone who does a ton of outlining, I find it fascinating to learn about how people develop their worlds in real time as they write. Khaalidah explained that when she writes with Spencer Ellsworth, he does the planning, and she concentrates on writing the character and feeling.

She explains that she starts by writing, and then does research while in the midst of the process. "I rarely finish and do research later." She says that she doesn't write something until it's finished and then revise it afterward, but tends to rewrite as she goes along, so that by the time she has a completed draft, it's "pretty clean."

She told us she's in the midst of writing a story with Spencer, which was inspired by Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad. The story features a Muslim sword-wielder. The two of them started by emailing ideas back and forth and then it turned into a novella. It's a Wild West fantasy story with a middle-aged mother who is a magic-wielder and a sword-wielder. She referred to the character as Hijabi Zorro.

This story is a post-slavery alternate history. The main character lost her father, who was an immigrant Muslim, and not a child of slaves. She is an outsider, and lives on the edge of a small town in a place where Native Americans live nearby. Her husband is a deadbeat, and she finds herself financially strapped, so she decides to do a train robbery.

This is a world where magical creatures have lived, but are dying out.

I asked Khaalidah what kind of people her main character meets during the story. They include former slaves, a Native American woman and a Japanese criminal mastermind.

One interesting aspect of this main character is that she can do magic, but was taught that it was forbidden. She struggles with spirituality and faith, right and wrong. Loneliness and grief also make it more challenging for her to deal with the external problems she faces. In the first story about her, her children are quite young, which means they don't play as large a role now as they will later in the timeline when they wield their own magic.

There are different schools of magic, some of which are not allowed. A djinn is involved...

Her writing process involves writing, worldbuilding, using that worldbuilding to inform the story, writing more, and then worldbuilding more.

One of the issues Khaalidah described was the question of where the magical power originated. There are mysterious bones buried under the earth, but it's tricky to decide whether the main character is drawing her power from them, or drawing it directly from the earth itself. This way of drawing power is unique to the character. She is protected by a djinn guardian.

Because this character is a practicing Muslim, she has an abiding love and respect for her father, who really impressed upon her that she should not use her magic. She was born with it, and it came from her mother. She doesn't know much about it, or how to control it. Her husband proposes that she should use her magic, but for religious reasons she knows she shouldn't. In fact, she was present when her father was killed, and she feels guilty for not saving him with magic.

Problems arise for the main character in part because she's considered a heathen black woman, and has no father to protect her, and has twin girls to look after. When the criminal mastermind is broken out of prison, he offers to teach her to use magic. She's intrigued by the criminal mastermind, because he is not what he seems.

This sounds like a fascinating story, and I really appreciate Khaalidah's focus on character, and on the internal conflicts that drive her.

I asked Khaalidah what she felt was her favorite story she'd written, and she told us it was "Concessions." She says she wants to write something bigger in the world than she already has. Her initial ideas for the story changed. She was thinking about fear and disappointment, and how we respond to people different from us.

The world featured in Concessions is an America-like place that has just gone through a religious war. A few major cities are thriving, but the land is scorched. People who want to live in the cities must renounce their belief systems. The main character in this story is a doctor named Bilqis, who lives in the desert hinterlands. She's a Muslim but cares for people of all faiths, particularly for women, who are having difficulty having children. When she herself becomes pregnant, she has to decide whether to renounce her beliefs for the sake of herself and her unborn child.

The story asks difficult questions. What would you be willing to do for security? Is it enough to carry faith in your heart? Is it fair to ask for such a concession? Khaalidah pointed out that some people have to make difficult concessions of this nature right now, as when women feel they have to remove hijab in order to live and work in society.

Faith plays a large role in Khaalidah's work. Sometimes characters are Muslim but not as obviously so; their faith shows in their culture, judgments and practices. She explained that the characters in her story "Talking to Cancer" are Muslim, but that it's not really mentioned explicitly.

We also spoke about a story Khaalidah co-wrote with Rachael K. Jones, "Regarding the Robot Raccoons Attached to the Hull of my Ship," which was featured in Neil Clarke's collection of the year's best stories in the year it came out. It's about two sisters feuding in space. Khaalidah explained that she'd had it on her bucket list for them to write something together. The two sisters, Anita and Ziza, are written by Rachael and Khaalidah, respectively. They emailed back and forth until the story was done.

The story features the two sisters' letters as they race each other to Mars and argue about whether to terraform the planet. It also involves them rehashing stuff they have done to each other. Anita comes across as crabby and mad, while Ziza has a more hippie, love-everyone vibe, wondering, "Why so mad?" Khaalidah and Rachael are working on a sequel to the story. The focus of the stories is less about terraforming Mars and more about their relationship, even as Ziza sends nanites to eat the hull of her sister's ship, or Anita sends a fake video of their mom to trick Ziza into going home (Ziza is not fooled).

The interpersonal relationships between the characters reflect the nature of the world. In Khaalidah's view, what is happening in the world only matters insomuch as it influences the characters. Details matter when they affect how people move through the world. In "Concessions," for example, you see Bilqis trying to grow crops in the desert because she is desperate to grow and hunt food. It shouldn't be shown if it doesn't affect the characters.

We asked Khaalidah if her perception of a story changes when she reads or records it. She told us that she's had two stories podcasted. It doesn't change how she feels; she sees the story but it doesn't sound the same as if she were reading it herself. She told us she's a person who reads her stories aloud to check them for tone, inflection, and nuance. She said she likes that readers will read their own thing into a story, and that it's cool to see people trying to pick apart the meaning of the story, even if what they find doesn't match her intention. She says it's hard to know if she'll ever have a chance to narrate her own stories... maybe, if her voice is right for it.

Thank you so much to Khaalidah for coming on the show and telling us about her work! Thanks also to Spencer who provided backup on the topic of the worldbuilding in their joint story.

Tomorrow, Monday, April 30 at 4pm Pacific, guest author Henry Lien will be coming on the show to talk about his novel, Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword. I hope you can join us!


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