S.A. Chakraborty's The City of Brass started out as history fan fiction

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Nov 13, 2017

Shannon Chakraborty didn’t want to be a writer when she grew up. “I wanted to be a historian, but I’ve been a bookworm since I was a kid,” she said. She originally wanted to be a historian, with a specialization in the Middle East. “That plan got a bit derailed for a variety of reasons, one of which was graduating in 2008 when the economy collapsed, so I figured I’d work while my husband went to medical school and keep my mind occupied with a little world-building/historical fan fiction,” she explains.

It’s that experience that led Chakraborty, who was born raised in New Jersey by blue-collar Catholic parents, to the seed that became The City of Brass. “It sprouted the day I set foot in the rare books library of the American University of Cairo,” she explains. There she lost herself in the stories and lore around her. “As a homesick, homework-laden, and rather wide-eyed new Muslim myself, I found in these stories a refuge; they spoke of a history that dazzled, a faith of breathtaking diversity in which my weird background was nothing new nor particularly noteworthy.”

Once she returned home and graduated college, Chakraborty embarked on a fan fiction project that combined the history she’d immersed herself in with an entirely new story — one that she never planned on showing anyone. The story was also informed by her own experiences learning how to be a Muslim. The heroes of the story — Nahri and Ali — were inspired by the people she met at the mosque. “Nahri and Ali — who would become the main protagonists of The City of Brass —began knocking in my mind,” she explained. “A sly heroine capable of saving herself, a dashing hero who’d break for the noon prayer. I wanted to write a story for us, about us, with the grandeur and magic of a summer blockbuster.“

The City of Brass follows a young woman, the aforementioned Nahri, who lives in eighteenth-century Cairo. Nahri has the power to heal others, but she doesn’t really consider it magic. It’s just another part of the repertoire of skills that allows her to survive on the streets of the bustling city. But when Nahri accidentally summons a djinn named Dara, she learns there is a world entirely separate from us — a magical place that Nahri must now risk her life to travel to. It’s a spellbinding novel (and the first in a planned trilogy) with an incredibly intricate backdrop, one that has secrets spilling off of each page.

Nahri might see a change in status over the course of The City of Brass, but her roots — a street dweller in 18th century Cairo — are always something that will be a part of her. “I wanted to find a balance between a starry-eyed dreamer and a ruthless pragmatist; someone who’s learned to temper her ambitions with realism and is largely okay with the moral ambiguities of doing what she needs to survive,” Chakraborty explains. “I also wanted to explore the idea of someone being alone in a world that so strongly revolves around family and community.”

The world-building was real treat for Chakraborty, considering she calls herself a history nerd. But how did she keep everything straight, considering the world she presents in The City of Brass is so complex? “I took a lot of notes for one, because I didn’t trust myself to remember everything. I also wrote out a fairly comprehensive (and probably embarrassingly long) history of the world, including the characters and the magic.” When she was confronted with writer’s block, Chakraborty changed her pace by writing short stories set within her world, but at a different time and place. It helped navigate through frustrations while also fleshing out the corners of this world.

The novel is full of fascinating characters and locations, but Chakraborty is very aware of her status when it comes to representation of Muslim characters. “I don’t think anyone can adequately represent two billion people and if someone did, it certainly wouldn’t be a white convert from New Jersey whose heritage leans more Tony Soprano than Kamala Khan,” she says matter-of-factly. “I try to hold myself accountable to fellow Muslims first, and to showing respect and justice to a culture and history that I never forget isn’t mine despite how much I might enjoy it.”

The key, to Chakraborty, is lifting up other Muslim voices to ensure that representation exists, and to understand that as a white Muslim, she enjoys a certain privilege that others of her religion don’t have. “I’m very aware of the amount of privilege this gives me and try to act accordingly. Personally, I think this is best achieved by learning when to sit and pass the mic so that others may speak—and actively finding ways to support them.”

But this doesn’t just extend to highlighting other voices. “There are some stories and themes that I don’t believe I’m meant to write—not because of some arbitrary rule or misconstrued idea of censorship—but because I’d prefer to hear what those more affected have to say rather than offering the newest white take,” she explains. “I am routinely humbled by the experience and history of people of color in my community—they are the vast, vast majority. It’s not an embarrassment to fear being called out for a mistake, it’s a way to learn and grow.”