On Writing Alif…

Author G. Willow Wilson, on writing Alif the Unseen

About two years ago, I sat down to write a novel. I was deep into a
wonderfully clarifying kind of rage.

The rage had been a long time coming. By this point, I’d spent years being
frustrated by two things: one, the fact that I was so often forced to speak to my
three primary audiences (comic book geeks, literary NPR types, and Muslims)
separately. There were things I could talk about to Muslims that most non-
Muslims wouldn’t understand; things I could say to fellow geeks that many of
my coreligionists would find shocking; and sociopolitical shop talk in which I
take a perverse delight, but which would probably bore to death people who
don’t consume the Sunday edition of the New York Times on a weekly basis.
The second thing was the mainstream media’s insistence that blogging and
social media were no big deal and politically would amount to nothing, especially
in the developing world. The global Gen Why was made up of texting
slackers with no social consciousness, or so the official story went. By 2010,
anybody who spent time on the Internet knew that this was, if you will pardon
me, total bullshit, and that Facebook, WordPress, and Blackberry had provided
a Petri dish for a seething new epidemic of social change, particularly in the
Middle East. In Egypt, the Mubarak regime was already wise to this, and had
been in the business of arresting hacktivists for several years. But here in the
United States, I couldn’t get anybody to listen. Anybody. When I tried to explain
to one very bright individual in the publishing industry why the Internet was
such a unique medium for conversation, his response was “I don’t understand
why they can’t just pick up the phone and call each other.”

And so was born the rage. Anger is not always bad. Hatred and malice are
always bad, but sometimes anger is the pure and determined light that shows
you the way forward—not unlike joy. At least, this is what I think I learned
from Les Misérables.

Out of the rage tumbled a story. If I couldn’t talk about the amazing things
that were happening online in nonfiction, I would do it in fiction. And I
wouldn’t stop there. I would draw in the pop culture I loved and the politics I
found interesting and the literary influences that are part of who I am as a
writer. I would write in my own inner voice, which does not distinguish between
audiences, and hope that when those audiences finally got their hands on the
finished product, they would see pieces of themselves in characters and situations
they did not expect.

The result was Alif the Unseen. The titular character is a hacktivist in an
unnamed emirate who battles shadowy, oppressive state security forces using
methods both digital and arcane. (There are jinn involved, and ancient texts
that are supposed to be hoaxes but aren’t. And at least one car chase.) While I
was writing, even I thought I was maybe overdoing it just a little, and assigning
too much importance to hackers and Internet junkies in the Middle East. But I
was fresh off a visit to Cairo, where a group of guys I’d met through Twitter
organized a signing for me at a bookstore that was packed to the gills. We talked
about comics and politics and the media, and I walked away with my heart
pounding, thinking “this is really going to work.” I wasn’t even sure what “this”
was.

Five months later, those same kids were overthrowing the government. I
finished Alif the Unseen just as Mubarak left office, Tunisia was under new management,
and uprisings had begun in Libya and Syria, in what would come to
be called the Arab Spring.

For good or ill, those kids were imagining a brave new world. And that is
what I’ve tried to do in Alif the Unseen: to imagine a world composed not only
of recognizable twenty-first century dangers, but of the supernatural threats
that inhabit our myths and dreamlives. Alif the Unseen is a story about the flow
of information, about the power and danger of coded knowledge in a time
when much of life is conducted from behind the anonymizing veil of a computer
screen. And it’s about stepping from behind the screen into the real world,
more fantastic than any fiction, where the choices we make shape the lives of
those we love and those we’ve never met, in ways both seen—and unseen.

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