Monday, 22 December 2014

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

There is an uncertainty I feel about some books, a desire to go out and see how they were otherwise received, because I don't trust my own judgement. On one hand, sometimes I think that I should shoot from the hip, as I mostly do, and record my own reactions. But on the other hand, sometimes I think that's a healthy recognition that while my own reaction is valid, it may be a topic, or a culture, or an issue I don't know enough about, and me saying "Yup, sounds like the Middle East to me!" may be more indicative of cultural arrogance than self-confidence.

And these are the types of situations in which it arises - when there are books about groups I do not know enough about, and know that my own reaction about whether or not it "rings true" may say more about my own biases and stereotypes than it does about the book, or the author's depiction. In these cases, I do go looking for "in-group" reactions, to compare my own reaction to them. This is one of these cases.

What I found in this case was interesting. Wilson is white, and American, but also Muslim, and has spent a fair amount of time in Cairo. That's promising, but in and of itself is not a guarantee that this book will be culturally sensitive - it's certainly possible to live in a culture and yet still carry the kind of creeping orientalism that continues to shape perception. So I went looking further, and had trouble finding Muslim reaction to Alif the Unseen, except for one article by a Muslim man who is upfront about also being a good friend of the author. Still, he heralds the book as a good example of modern fantasy emerging from the Middle East, and in the absence of other voices (and the fact of that absence weighs on me), it's all I have to go on. I didn't find any diatribes.

So I guess we're back where we started, back to me and my white pagan Canadian reactions, but at least I've done some homework, and if there is a dialogue to get in on, I'd love to be included. Even if, and perhaps especially if, just to listen.

So out of this mishmash of influences, we have Alif the Unseen, which takes place in an unnamed city, except that we know that there is a ruling royal family, and also that it's got a large Indian population, in addition to the Arabic population. In that city, Alif is a hacker, running security for whoever needs to get past government restrictions, anywhere in the world. He has lingering affection but a lot of condescension for his next door neighbour, Dina, a young woman who has adopted extensive veiling, despite her parents' protests.

He is in love, however, with a rich young woman, and that relationship comes to a predictable end, and in reaction, he creates a piece of software that the government will do just about anything to get its hands on. As he and Dina go on the run, however, they find help from someone who may or may not be a vampire. Or, you know, a djinn. They are increasingly pulled into a world where creatures from Islamic folklore and religion still exist, side by side with the "real" world, which is side by side the "virtual" world, and these barriers become fuzzier the longer we go. Dina has less trouble accepting these characters than Alif does, while she chides him for reading fantasy without being willing to accept the fantastical when it's Islamic and right in front of him.

There is a book, One Thousand and One Days, (instead of Nights,) written by the djinn, that the head of computer security wants, and Alif has. It has insights that apparently can be used for programming, and this seemed to stretch credulity a bit on my part, but it works as a metaphor.

This is a fantasy book about, essentially, the Arab Spring, in all its messiness, and with a hefty dose of cultural commentary. It's hard not to feel like the author has written herself in, with the character of the convert, an American woman who converted to Islam and moved to the City. She's never given a name, and the discussions between she and Alif are fascinating by the assumptions both make about each other. (The fact that the author's acknowledgements thank her mother for being there as she had her baby, and that the convert is pregnant doesn't lessen that feeling.) It's often dangerous to say a character is there to represent the author, but it feels like it in this case.

This isn't a perfect book. The edges are a little messy, and there were parts that lagged a bit. Despite that, however, I enjoyed it quite a lot. I'm always on the lookout for new voices in fantasy, and I'll be interested to see what she does when she gets back to writing fiction.

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