Interview with Naseem Jamnia (THE BRUISING OF QILWA)
Naseem Jamnia (they/them) is a Persian-Chicagoan, former scientist, and fiction MFA graduate from the University of Nevada, Reno. Their work has appeared in The Washington Post, Bitch Media, Cosmopolitan, The Rumpus, The Writer’s Chronicle, and other venues. A Lambda Literary, Otherwise, and the inaugural Samuel R. Delany Fellow, Naseem is the managing editor at Sword & Kettle Press, and their debut novella, The Bruising of Qilwa, will be released from Tachyon Publications in 2022. Find out at more at www.naseemwrites.com or on Twitter/Instagram @jamsternazzy.
Welcome to the Hive, Naseem. Let’s start with the basics: tell us about your upcoming debut novella The Bruising of Qilwa – why should readers check it out?
Thanks so much for having me!! The Bruising of Qilwa is a standalone novella introducing my queernormative, Persian-inspired secondary world, and follows Firuz-e Jafari, a nonbinary refugee healer who gets a job at a free clinic in their new home—while hiding their affinity for blood magic, which is dangerous but also misunderstood and stigmatized. The city-state of Qilwa is hit not only with a migrant crisis but also a plague (which the migrants are being blamed for), and Firuz also discovers a disease that seems to be the result of the misuse of blood magic. If Firuz doesn’t figure out what’s going on, both the migrants and the rest of the city will suffer—but they have to do so while battling medical racism and raising both their younger brother and a precocious blood magic user they find on the streets. If you like found family, grumpy caregivers adopting powerful orphans, an all queer and BIPOC cast with nonbinary trans and binary trans mains, scientific magic systems, complicated discussions of colonialism and empire, and quieter slice-of-life stories, then I think you’ll like Qilwa! (Full list of representation and content notes is on my website.)
And for a bit of fun, if you had to describe it in five words?
Queer, Persian, traumatized, bloody, tender 🙂 Up to y’all to put those things together, haha!
Firuz is a nonbinary refugee, can you tell us about them?
I’d love to. Firuz, the main character of the novella, flees to the city-state of Qilwa a few months before they turn 30 with their younger brother and elderly mother, having only completed some of their healer training in their home country. Firuz is a blood magic user, which is a science kept close by the ethnic group they belong to, but hides it for fear of how Qilwans might react. They seek employment at a clinic run by Kofi, a kindly middle-aged healer who takes Firuz under his wing. Firuz is deeply anxious but also deeply traumatized—and not only from their experiences as a migrant. They’re grumpy and overly cautious and sometimes a bit of a pushover, boxing up their feelings in favor of working too much, but they are really trying their best!! I like to describe them as having “Ben Affleck smoking” vibes, but also a bit like Hoggle from Labyrinth.
I’ve never heard that meme used to describe a character before but wow is it affective!
How important was the representation of things like nonbinary gender, refugee status, and immigration when you came to write this story?
Thank you for asking this question! I’ll tackle the easy part first, which is the point about gender: as a nonbinary trans person myself, I’ve only in the past few years started to see representation of nonbinary genders in books. Despite the existence of nonbinary genders throughout history across many different cultures, our current English-driven language describing such genders is relatively recent. (The first time I even heard anyone discussing nonbinary genders was in 2013—I remember when NPR first started trying to talk about being nonbinary around 2014.) Because of this, I think that despite authors being interested in representing nonbinary genders, the lack of available language has limited their portrayal of them—I think, for example, of Tamora Pierce saying that Alanna the Lioness would be genderfluid had that label existed in the ‘80s, or of the portrayal of The Fool in Robin Hobbs’ Realm of the Elderlings.
Anyway, all this to say: writing nonbinary genders into my secondary worlds is really important to me. I wanted to make sure there was a host of multiple pronouns used, including neopronouns (pronouns outside of he/she/they) to indicate that gender in this world is a bounty. Because my world is queernormative, though, there isn’t discussion of gender as such—it’s completely normalized that there are people of different genders, binary or otherwise. That was also important to me: it’s not “new” to be nonbinary when forces like colonial Christianity were responsible for stomping out the presence of nonbinary genders, and I don’t feel the need to reproduce that in a secondary world. There is a transition-related plotline in Qilwa, but I was less interested in the transition itself and more interested in what it means to medically transition when your resources are stretched thin and the ability to do so is hindered by forces outside of your control. That plot was another complicating responsibility for Firuz (sorry, Rooz) rather than a way to explore the trauma and gatekeeping that can (but doesn’t have to!!!) come with medically transitioning in our world. But really, I just wanted to show nonbinary and trans people living their lives as part of society without anyone caring about their gender.
As for the refugee and immigration status, which are not the same thing but sort of related in this case: I’m a child to Iranian immigrants, and my mom fled the Iranian Revolution as a refugee. I’m extremely privileged (in multiple ways, but in this story as well): my mother was granted political asylum when she arrived in the US without having to fight for it, and my father was already here as a student. I don’t have a refugee or immigration story that’s full of trauma, and while I’m extremely grateful for that, it’s disingenuous to write a story about refugees without acknowledging that in our current world, Black and brown migrants are treated inhumanely and without compassion by many governments. (I will spare everyone the history of how immigration in the US has only become racially based in the last ~100 (and enforced for fewer) years, but I recommend Natalie Molina’s How Race Is Made in America, Nick Estes’s Our History Is the Future, Sarah C. Bishop’s Undocumented Storytellers, and Siobhan B. Somerville’s work for more reading on this topic.)
SFF, as genres, have long been tools to view the problems and possibilities of our own world through alternative lenses. Regardless of being in a secondary world, the world of Qilwa was going to necessarily be influenced by our own world because I am a human living here. The larger story of a genocide in Firuz’s home country of Dilmun might be specific to the universe I’ve created, but the reality of migration is not. There are many complicating factors to the reception of the Sassanian refugees in Qilwa, which I discuss in my author’s afterward, but I’ve seen how Black and brown migrants have been treated in our world when fleeing atrocities happening in their homes. Migration has been a staple of humankind since the literal dawn of our species, but nowadays, there’s a vital difference between voluntary emigration and refugee crises: no one wants to leave home—family, friends, culture, familiarity—for an unknown future. People do so because they have to. People do so because their lives and safety are at risk, because they’re trying to protect their children, because they want the same opportunities to thrive as anyone else. I wanted it to be clear that Sassanians were fleeing for Qilwa not because they were trying to recolonize the island but because they were terrified they’d be among those slaughtered back home.
Yet, despite all the pain that this necessarily entails, it was also important to me to show that people can be happy, no matter what their circumstances. Trauma does not mean that people cannot build themselves new lives. Hardship doesn’t mean a new place can’t become home. Firuz and their family don’t have an easy time of it, but they’re able to carve out a place in Qilwa to call their own.
Anyway, this is a very long answer to what is essentially a simple question: it was important for me to give nuanced portrayals of these issues in The Bruising of Qilwa because these issues are nuanced in real life.
Thank you so much for taking the time to give us such a detailed and interesting answer!
Give us a glimpse into the world of your story – is your world building inspired by anything specific?
Very specific! Originally, the queendom of Dilmun was inspired by a (magical) take on what Iran might have looked like if the Arab Muslims had never been kicked out. It’s definitely become its own thing—pretty sure my people were never beholden to an angry bird monster in the sky, but heck, I was born in the States—but that is still the kernel of inspiration from it. Dilmun is a more-Arabicized Persianate culture, though as time has gone on, I’ve made it more and more Persianate because I’m not Arab, and my understanding of Arab culture only comes from the overlap between Arab and Persian cultures that happens in Islamic cultures, and Persian culture heavily influenced overall Islamic culture anyway.
To be frank, linguistics is not my strong suit—I fled from my conlang class in my MFA to take a Latinx literature course (which was excellent, so no regrets, but had I stayed, this issue might have resolved itself). As such, I tend to steal names from historical settings. The Sassanian people from The Bruising of Qilwa is a direct nod to the Iranian Sasanian dynasty that was ruling when the Muslims invaded; “Dilmun” is an ancient Arabian polity.
Similarly, Qilwa draws its name (but not its history—this is all still secondary world fantasy!) from the historic Kilwa sultanate, now off the coast of modern-day Tanzania, which actually has its own Persian and Arab history. According to a manuscript in the British Museum (which, you know, gets complicated), Kilwa was potentially founded by a Persian emir’s son from Shiraz and then later ruled by an Arab family before the Portuguese arrived. Kilwa became not only a huge trade center, but also a place where Persian, Arab, and Bantu cultures could collide and mingle (which was why I originally gravitated toward the name). The name “Qilwa” is a nod to this important historical center of trade and culture while also reflecting its own history as a trade center important to first the Sassanians and then Dilmunis—and the struggle for independence that results from centuries of colonialism.
Tell us more about your blood magic system!
Blood magic in any book is an automatic draw for me, but it’s a big part of Qilwa and the world I’ve created in general. Blood magic is one of three major magical philosophies in the world, the other two being environmental and structural. All of the magic systems in the book are strongly scientific, operating on principles of thermodynamics. In that way, “magic” could be synonymous with “energy manipulation,” since the central concern of magic in this world is energy that is gained from and lost to the universe. While all magic is drawing upon the same central tenets, the different philosophies act as different approaches for the magic user. Environmental magic users allow the natural world to work through them (think air/earth/firebending and orogeny a la Broken Earth), and structural magic users use a medium like runes, words, or equations to direct energy to do a thing.
Blood magic, specifically, harnesses the energy inherent in bodies. Electrical and chemical signals in the body create and use so much energy, so in a magic system that harnesses energy, it made sense to have one that specifically tapped into that. As energy can be converted to different types, so, too, can the energy in bodies; however, it’s extremely difficult to do so using blood magic, so the most practical uses of it involve use within bodies, such as in healing. That’s how Firuz uses blood magic, as they’re an average blood magic user, though we see some examples of their trainee, Afsoneh, being able to potentially use blood magic in other means. But blood magic is also hugely dangerous precisely because it involves tapping into bodies—a complicating factor throughout The Bruising of Qilwa. Other stories in this world, including the novel I’m working on for the Samuel R. Delany Fellowship through CatStone Books, will see blood magic being used in other ways by someone who is more powerful than Firuz.
In my universe, the big staying that is repeated often is “magic is a working of the will.” (Fun note: this is also the saying that’s on the preorder incentive enamel pin!) The idea here is similar to if there’s a will, there’s a way—if there’s a theoretical pathway to a thing, then magic can make it so.
We always appreciate a beautiful book cover! How involved in the process were you? Was there a particular aesthetic you hoped they’d portray?
Let’s take a moment to applaud Elizabeth Story, the in-house designer at my publisher Tachyon who created my incredible cover. I love it so much! And the inside of the book is JUST as beautiful, so I can’t wait for people to see that.
It’s funny, because after I turned in a round of edits, I was twiddling my thumbs wondering what I would say when the inevitable cover discussion happened—I had no idea what I would want on the cover of the novella. Originally, this story was called “The Last Free Clinic in Qilwa” because to me, it was always much more about the trials of Firuz at the clinic rather than Firuz themself. So I had no idea how I would even begin to approach the conversation about cover.
And then, in mid- or late-August last year, a cover appeared in my inbox when I wasn’t expecting it, and I think I burst into tears upon seeing it. It captured everything I could have hoped for, even though I had no idea what I was hoping for. The idea to capture a skyline of the city of Qilwa didn’t even occur to me, and it was truly the best possible choice—plus that hand with the blood drip?? Incredible. I even turned the city from the cover into my last tattoo!
Let’s talk about the writing process; do you have a process? Tell us a little something about how your story comes together.
Every story comes together a little differently—it depends on how long I’ve sat with it, how many drafts it’s gone through, how familiar I am with the world, etc. For The Bruising of Qilwa specifically, the process was actually a bit haphazard. I was trying to learn how to write a short story (I’m very much a novelist) and had just finished playing Dragon Age 2 (best game in the series, fight me), so I combined my efforts: write a DA2-inspired story set in queernormative Persian universe I’d been playing in for a while. When I looked up, the short story was 12,000 words long, and there was more I wanted to say. I did end up writing a short story version of Qilwa later—it’s published here—but I took that novelette and fleshed it out into the novella. Qilwa as a setting was one I hadn’t done much with yet, so I had to explore that, but I was familiar with the magic systems, what kind of background Firuz would have as a Sassanian blood magic user, and the overall world. It did help that while Qilwa was on submission, I was working on my MFA thesis novel, which is set in this world but 40 years after the events of Qilwa, and had to flesh out worldbuilding questions I’d been avoiding figuring out. A lot of little details came into way later drafts of Qilwa rather than the early ones as a result.
We see such varying opinions from authors when it comes to the time of editing their books. How have you found the editing process? Enjoyable, stressful or satisfying?
I’m the type of writer who edits until literally someone wrenches the story away from them. (I am SO sorry to Elizabeth for having to update my layout after pass pages. I didn’t change a lot, but I did change some key sentences!) I infinitely prefer editing/revision to drafting; while I’m no longer a pantser, I’m not good at plotting until after a draft comes together (so I’m definitely in team “plantser” here). I have noticed that as I work on my craft, it’s become more and more important to me to have a lot of pieces in place and to do this extra-writing work, but whether that happens at the drafting stage or not is yet to be determined. (The projects I’ve worked on during and since my MFA have been ones I’ve worked on for a while, so we’ll see how much info I need to get down before I work on something totally new. I have been sitting on a totally new idea since August 2019, which is mostly vibes right now and occasional strokes of inspiration.)
Since I’m also an editor myself, though, I guess it doesn’t surprise me that I prefer editing to drafting. While the end result is satisfying, the journey can be stressful—particularly because my best reader is my husband, who is also my absolute harshest critic (but makes the work so much better as a result).
One of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
I love this question!! Allow me to introduce the glory and the magnificence of the mighty Simorgh, whom I can only hope will deign to allow me on her back as she ululates into the sky. The Simorgh is a mythical healing bird from the Persian Book of Kings, the Shahnameh, like a phoenix but infinitely more badass. She’s been my favorite fantastical creature since childhood—I’ve got two pictures of her on my wall and plan to get a tattooed Simorgh sleeve once I sell my middle grade fantasy retelling of her big story!
Love this answer! She sounds incredible!
Are you planning anything fun to celebrate the release in August? Do you have any upcoming virtual events our readers may be interested in?
I’ll be doing a book launch at my local indie bookstore, Sundance Books & Reno, on August 6, which is actually earlier than the book’s release! (If you’re in the area, stop by!! Get it early! Gloat about it to your friends!) I’m super psyched for that and hope we’ll get some new faces turning out (not least of all because my preorder campaign is through Sundance, and the enamel pin incentive, designed by KWT Designs, is INCREDIBLE). And on August 13, I’ll be in San Francisco doing Writers with Drinks with Charlie Jane Anders, one of my favorite writers and humans on the planet. I actually turn 31 a week after The Bruising of Qilwa releases, so I feel like the SF trip is like a birthday present AND launch present!
I do have plans for after, too—I’ll be at ChiCon in the beginning of September, hopefully on some panels (that’s yet to be announced, so I have no idea if I will be or not), and I hope to meet some amazing readers there since I plan to do some book signing at my favorite bookstores. (I’m from Chicago, so it’s a homecoming for me.) I’ll also be at the Northern Nevada Literary Crawl in Reno on September 10, though I can’t yet spoil who I’ll be in conversation with. 🙂 And I’ll be going to New York in mid-late September to do some events with incredible authors there, including fellow Tachyon author Sam J. Miller, whose debut short story collection Boys, Beasts, and Men comes out June 14! (If you’re in NYC, please hit me up—I want to go to ALL the amazing milkshake spots.)
Virtually, I’ll be chatting with the amazing bookstagrammer Bris from Bris Bookish in August. I’ll also be doing an event with Tuma from Tuma’s Books and Things in September, with proceeds for the event going to a TBD mutual aid fund. I’m hoping to do more virtual events too, so the best way to join those is to follow me on social media, @jamsternazzy.
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
I hope they’re excited to see more in this world, because it’s coming! But if not, then the message I end the book with—our world is so fraught, and marginalized people need others to stand by us in order to make meaningful change.
Thank you so much for joining us today!
Thank you so much for having me!! I’m so happy to be connected to other SFF readers and writers 🙂
The Bruising of Qilwa is out in August 2022
You can enter our Twitter giveaway HERE
You can check out the Tachyon page and pre-order information HERE