Interview: Sami Shah, author of Boy of Fire and Earth

Sami Shah’s Boy of Fire and Earth is a dark, funny, and compelling fantasy tale. A young boy, coming to terms with his unique abilities, sets out on an adventure to recover the soul of the girl he likes from vengeful djinns. The novel is set in Karachi and features an amazing cast of human and supernatural characters.

DWL’s Islamabad Readers’ Club is reading the novel for the month of August and we felt it was an opportunity to reach out to the author for a chat. We spoke with Sami Shah about the process of writing Boy of Fire and Earth, his literary influences, and his current projects.

Q. I believe you wrote and published Boy of Fire and Earth as a duology first. How did you come up with the idea for the story, and please talk us through some of this interesting journey from a duology to a single published novel.

Sami Shah (SS): So the book was originally written as a single novel. That was the way I intended for it to be published. However, whenever I’d send it out to editors or agents, they’d all react with, “It’s good but I don’t think there’s a market for it.” There’s a long rant I can get into here about how Western publishing is dedicated to paying a lip service to diversity, but runs in panic from anything that isn’t anglo-centric. One day, out of frustration after receiving over 30 rejections, I went on Twitter and said, “Turns out no one want a novel about djinns”. An indie publisher here in Australia saw that and said, “Hey we’d like to give it a try!” I was about to send them the full manuscript, then I wondered whether it might prove less intimidating for a non-desi reader if it was half the size. So I literally just cut it in half. No wrap-up at the end of book 1, no recap at the start of book 2, just a single book split down the middle. They happily accepted it, and so in Australia and New Zealand, it came out as a duology, Fire Boy and Earth Boy. When later I was asked by an Indian publisher if they could take a look at it, I decided it was worth trying it out as a single book one more time. Which is how they loved it, and how it’s been released. Boy of Fire and Earth is the book I always intended it to be, and the format I love the most!

Q. Most of the supernatural beings and places mentioned in the book are directly connected with Islamic mythology. How much research went into incorporating these into a fictional narrative? I was especially intrigued by the different types of djinns and the physical descriptions of the supernatural characters you included in the book. Were some of these types and descriptions from your own imagination?

SS: I’ve always been obsessed with those Islamic mythological beings. From Dajjal to the djinns, and then the more cultural ones like the Pichal Pairee—I’ve collected those stories in my head for ages. Everyone in Pakistan has a unique tale to do with those, often told by their mother’s brother’s friend. Without realising why, I was cataloguing those stories since I was a child, so finding the ones that worked for this book was more about not putting all of them in, but choosing my favourite ones. The physical descriptions and types was a mix of imagination and taking the more interesting elements from the stories I’ve heard. An Islamic studies teacher once told me Dajjal was chained up against a wall, and that was a striking visual. An uncle once described djinns as being incredibly tall, another as being completely black with eyes of fire. I took bits here and there. I also researched some other regional creatures we might not be as familiar with, ones from Saudi Arabia and Iran.


Q. What in the world of ifrits is a Grine? I mean, there must be a back story to it, right? Possible spin-off short story idea? Would love to hear your thoughts on it.

SS: Creating a hierarchy of djinns was important to me. I wanted to see their world as one with almost species-like divides as well, with weaker djinns being distinct from stronger djinns. And what one type of djinn can do, perhaps another cannot. To that end, I researched all the types of mythological creatures in Islamic countries I could find, and picked ones that fit my imagined menagerie. The Grine is, I believe, native to Morocco. The description of it I found was that every person has a Grine, a creature that lives the opposite version of your life. So your life is half of a whole that is completed by what the Grine also lives. I thought it was visually interesting to take that literally, with a creature that is just half formed. The one I loved reading about was the Palis, a goblin-like creature that licks the soles of bedouins’ feet, drawing blood from the cuts its abrasive tongue makes.

Q. The last time I vaguely remember reading something similar to a Dajjal character in local fiction was probably Ishtiaq Ahmed’s Batil Qayamat Khas Number (which I am sure had bigoted and hateful plot lines). But I’m interested in knowing if any Urdu genre fiction influenced you as a reader or in the writing of Boy of Fire and Earth?

SS: All the Urdu genre fiction I read growing up was in risalas with awesome stories like Tarzan aur Superman and Ali Baba aur Urran Tashtari. They had beautiful covers and rapidly moving fun stories that made no sense, crossed genres, and cared not for your delicate sensibilities. I loved them, and my attempts at crossing over a bit of the superhero-ic into the religious with this book was a homage to those. The idea to include Dajjal was, frankly, not even part of the plan when I sat down to write this. He just sort of appeared in Qaf by himself, forced his way into the story as the big bad, and stayed until the very end almost. I tend to have only the first line or so thought out when I sit down to write, so a lot of this is discovery for me too!

“For me, world building needs to have a consistent logic to it. Once you explore the reasons behind why things will be a certain way, it becomes easier to go about creating the details.” — Sami Shah

Q. World-building is a major element of the craft of fantasy writing. The protagonist’s quest takes him through another dimension that’s filled with unfamiliar objects and fascinating landscapes. How did you go about the world-building aspect of the novel and do you have any tips for budding South Asian fantasy writers about it?

SS: The world of Qaf took a great deal of thought, because my intention was originally to have it be marvellous and full of amazing wonders. Then I started thinking about what separated humans from djinns in Islam. What made us, according to the Quran, “ashraf ul makhlooqat”. The answer I kept coming back to was imagination. Djinns could travel between dimensions, they could change shape and become fire, they could even possess humans, but if they lacked imagination, then could they even build something as basic as a house? Or would they just exist without the joys of creativity. And that defined the look of Qaf then. I saw their world as one filled with the abandoned parts of our world; old houses, empty apartments. That made sense within the rules I had heard about how djinns live in abandoned parts of the house. If you leave a room empty and unentered for forty days, a djinn occupies it. Why, I wondered. So for me, world building needs to have a consistent logic to it. Once you explore the reasons behind why things will be a certain way, it becomes easier to go about creating the details.

Q. In many ways, the novel reads like a dark ode to Karachi. The scenes and descriptions that look at the underbelly of the metropolis are powerful and gritty. Please tell us something about what it meant to you for Karachi to be the setting of this story.

SS: This book was written in a white heat of homesickness. I had moved from Karachi to Australia a few months before, and was terribly homesick. A lot of that made its way into the book. Also, I unabashedly love Karachi. I think it’s one of the most important cities in the world and one of the most vibrant, while also being as dangerous as it is. New York, London, even Mumbai, these have their place in literary canon, it was time for Karachi to get there as well. I always love writing with a sense of geography. I’ve never been to Maine, but Stephen King has taught me in detail what it would feel like to walk through its towns. I wanted the same for readers of this book, that even though the Karachi depicted is frightening and dangerous, they should also feel the energy and colour and passion I have for it.

Sami Shah. Photo courtesy

Sami Shah. Photo courtesy

Q. One of my favourite characters from the book is Badshah, who appears to be this complex mix of badassery, entitlement, and generosity. In a sense, I also read him as a metaphor for Karachi. How did you come up with Badshah’s character? Also, who is your personal favourite character in the book?

SS: Badshah has been knocking around in my head long before this book, in a slightly different shape. I always had the idea of a someone being an urban tracker, a person being able to hunt through city streets by reading tire marks and sniffing the exhaust fumes lacing the wind, the way an experienced hunter would in the forests. When I started writing this book, the idea of including that character was too enticing to pass up. I don’t remember when I decided to make him the “King of Karachi”, but I enjoyed the idea that cities had their own avatars of sorts. The original plan was to make him a grown man, maybe even of Mohajir descent. Then I started thinking about the changing demographics of the city. Karachi was once a Sindhi city, then after Partition it became a Mohajir city. But in the last decade or so, Karachi has overwhelmingly become a Pathan city. I love that, the fact that who fills the city changes from generation to generation. And a lot of my friends who are of Mohajir background, or Sindhi background, are extremely ungracious about this change. For me, then, making the new King of Karachi a young Pathan boy was almost a jab at them for being so unaccepting. I also liked the idea that when we think “King of Karachi” we’d think some crime lord or major politician, but actually it’s someone so low down the social and economic order, we’d never suspect him of being the real power.

So yes, Badshah is definitely my favourite! Him and Iblis. The book was almost called, “The Lamentation of Iblis” at one point. What can I say? I’ve always got sympathy for the devil.

Q. What are your thoughts about contemporary genre writing, especially Science Fiction and Fantasy, in South Asia? Do you think there is a sizeable local readership for it or incentives for desi writers who want to make a career in SFF writing?

SS: The appetite is there, definitely. My book is proof of that. It came out from an indie publisher in Australia and only on word of mouth, continued to sell around the world, until an Indian publisher picked it up, seeing how wonderful the audience response was. All the emails and messages I’ve received from readers, including at book signings, have been desis going, “I never thought I’d get to see my culture in a fantasy book”. It’s something I relate to strongly, because it’s why I wrote the book in the first place. I wrote a book I wanted to read. I still have a science fiction book set in Pakistan knocking around in my head, and I am editing a crime noir novel set in Karachi right now. I think genre writing definitely has the space to exist and flourish. Heck, I’m still convinced Midnight’s Children by Rushdie was an X-Men book featuring kids with cool mutant powers, and Exit West is at its heart an urban fantasy of sorts.

“I wrote a book I wanted to read. I still have a science fiction book set in Pakistan knocking around in my head, and I am editing a crime noir novel set in Karachi right now.” — Sami Shah

Q. Your other books – I, Migrant, and The Islamic Republic of Australia – are hilarious and informative non-fiction accounts. Would you be returning to writing fantasy fiction in the future, and what are you working on these days?

SS: What’s funny is neither of those books were my idea. Both came out of publishers commissioning me to write them. The first is an autobiography, into which I snuck a history of Karachi, and the other is a book about religion, but actually a book about how we engage with free speech in this day and age. And while they were fun to write, neither was as much fun as anything fiction I’ve done. Since Boy of Fire and Earth, I’ve written a crime novel about the search of Bin Laden’s lost hard drive. That’s being edited now before I look for a publisher for it. In the meantime, I’ve written a couple of short stories for anthologies edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin. Both have djinns, but not in the ways I’ve previously depicted. The first, available now in an anthology called Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories, is titled Reap, and it’s about drone operators in the US Army watching a djinn possession unfold in a village in Pakistan’s north. The other, out next year, is about Karachi’s only professional exorcist unit. Writing both of those was immense fun and extremely challenging. I hope to bang out a science fiction story sometime soon, and a horror book for kids that my daughter asked me to write. I also keep my writing muscles warm by putting up free micro-fictions on every few days.

Q. Finally, what’s your advice for people who might someday find themselves in the company of djinns?

SS: Be polite, be respectful, but be careful. They are capricious and proud, and easily offended. Do not ask them for a favour, and do not accept one unless they seem adamant, being careful to show how grateful you are without offering to do one in return. That’s how they get you, the wily creatures.

Boy of Fire and Earth was published by Picador India (Pan Macmillan) in 2017 and is available for purchase online at Amazon and Liberty Books.