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Myth, Djinn & Migration; Diversity in Storytelling, Maeeda. T. Khan

Maeeda. T. Khan is a speculative fiction author with a penchant for all things myth, science, and philosophy. She focuses on stories that combine all three, dreaming of evocative worlds and dark possibilities.

When she's not writing, Maeeda has her nose deep in physics textbooks or glued to her CAD computer as she majors in Mechanical Engineering. Born in Lahore, Pakistan, she currently resides in Toronto, Canada, with a hyperactive cat and an ever-increasing selection of tea.

We talk to Maeeda about the importance of diversity in children’s literature, sharing migrant stories and Muslim experiences and highlighting social justice issues including child labour.

You majored in Mechanical Engineering, how did you become a writer?

I’ve always enjoyed both the arts and sciences. Although some might think them different, they’re more similar than people like to believe. The process of writing a book contains the same ceaseless passion that an engineering experiment entails, so it was only natural for me to be drawn to both. Becoming an author has always been a childhood dream of mine, but more than English literature, science was my favorite subject, so I studied engineering in university. For a while I believed writing would just be my side hustle, but in the past year the tables have turned irreversibly. It’s a challenge to juggle both, but I don’t think I’ll ever drop one completely—they’re the two halves of my heart.

You have a penchant for all things myth, science, and philosophy. How did you develop an interest in these disciplines?

I think the intersection of all three of these disciplines is their pursuit of truth and explanation. I grew up a curious kid, always pondering why things were the way they were. Science was able to answer my inquiries about the world and its workings. Philosophy gave me a space where I could ask as many tough questions as I wished, and with every new layer of knowledge unlocked, the deeper the cavern of the unknown also became. Similarly, myths have historically been used by cultures to make sense of mysteries, and I admire the creativity and lasting imagery present in them.

You were born in Lahore, Pakistan, and currently reside in Toronto, Canada, how has your heritage and experiences of migration influenced your creative practice?

As an immigrant, I spent much of my life trying to erase my heritage to fit in with western customs. But while growing older, I’ve realized the views I had of my own culture were misconceptions brought about by negative depictions in the media. Writing Nura and the Immortal Palace was my way of reaching back to my culture. It’s a celebration of everything I love about it—the food, the clothes, the community. In my future works, I plan to expand more on the immigrant experience and sentiments of diaspora, topics very personal to me.

Nura and the Immortal Palace follows the story of 12-year-old Nura who has worked all her life in a mine. Can you tell us more about your protagonist and the inspiration behind her character?

I stumbled upon a mica mining documentary and was shocked to learn about the deadly labor behind products like car paint and shimmery makeup. I knew immediately I wanted to critique the global child labor crisis, and I easily could’ve done so from the viewpoint of an adult. But I wanted to write a novel from the perspective of a child who is living through it, and how she copes and overcomes the increasingly narrow options laid out for her. Nura is a Pakistani Muslim girl, and we see so little of those identities shown in media; and more often than not it’s in a negative light. Unlike the mica mining documentaries where foreigners try to tackle these issues, I wanted a brown kid at the center, the protagonist of her own life, destroying the misconceptions society has of Desis and Muslims.

The story is a fantastical, magical and hugely exciting adventure which includes the world of the jinn. This is a magical twist on the creepy jinn tales your mother used to tell you as a child. Do you think this is a familiar experience for Muslims?

I think it’s safe to say we’ve all curled under the covers after listening to a jinn story. It’s a universal Muslim experience to shudder even at the mention of them. I was very much like this myself before writing Nura and the Immortal Palace. But during the research process, jinn have become more like subjects of study instead of the fear-inducing beings I grew up hearing about. Nura herself undergoes this process—as she ventures deeper into the realm of jinn and meets more of them, we learn that they can possess a certain human quality.

This book is a celebration of your desi culture, with nods to Islamic traditions. Why is it important to tell our own stories?

There is so much beauty in Desi culture and Islamic traditions. But the media has distorted them, pushing a harmful agenda which leads to all the false impressions we see today. Writers that don’t possess a Desi or Muslim background may not realize the way they depict characters who do can be detrimental, but there are very real and intense fallouts as a result. One of my biggest hopes with Nura and the Immortal Palace is for readers to see the normality of Islam—it’s not the extreme dogma that media likes to portray it as. It can just be kids making time to pray, getting excited about Eid, or trembling at a late-night jinn anecdote.

Do you think there is a need for more diversity in children’s literature?

I think children’s literature especially should be pushed towards a more inclusive and diverse future. It’s been a trend that newer generations are more open-minded than previous ones, and I think that largely has to do with the diverse media that newer generations consume. As with the accessibility of the internet, voices that were once subdued now have an outlet to speak on their own issues. A lot of what we absorb at a young age lasts with us forever, and so I hope that with the rise of diverse books, the next generation grows up even more informed and accepting.

What do you think of the representation of Muslims and inclusion of Muslims in mainstream literature and stories?

I think very lowly of what I’ve seen of Muslim representation in the west. Excitement for a project that includes a Muslim character quickly dies down once I learn the anti-religious narrative pushed onto them. But Muslim authors are trying to change that—a few authors with brilliant books that include Muslim rep are Hanna Alkaf, S.K. Ali, and Sabaa Tahir’s upcoming release.

The story also raises awareness of issues around child labour. Can you tell us more about why it was important for you to highlight this?

I think the largest reason I find child labor such a disheartening problem is because it’s preventable. There are ways in which we can change the lives of the victims suffering from it, but most of the times the situation requires the cooperation of many different people and organizations. I hope that shedding even a little light on this problem can start a conversation.

What advice would you give to any aspiring writers?

Write what you’re passionate about. If an idea hits you like a storm, whisk away with it. If you’re passionate about a certain story, that passion will lead you to being the best writer that story needs.

What does the future of Islamic art look like to you and how can storytelling progress its development in the future?

Islamic art is going to be increasingly diverse, with voices and artists from all over the world and with a variety of experiences. I can only see it getting better—there are so many talented Muslims with stories to tell. Inshallah, they can tell it soon.

NURA AND THE IMMORTAL PALACE, hits shelves on July 5th 2022 from Little, Brown.

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TWITTER: @maeedakhan

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The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.


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