G. Willow Wilson might be best known for her comics, as the founding writer and co-creator of Ms. Marvel and current scribe of Wonder Woman. But over the course of her comics career, Wilson has returned to prose again and again, and in this interview with SYFY FANGRRLS, we discuss her latest novel, a historical fantasy called The Bird King.
The Bird King is set in Spain, the year 1491, in the last European Muslim emirate. Things aren’t looking good, though; Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile have been on the doorstep of Granada for months, and they bring the Spanish Inquisition with them. Fatima, the mistress of the Emperor, is friends with Hassan, a royal mapmaker who has a magical ability: to create maps of places he’s never seen. But when he attracts the interest of the Inquisition, Fatima and Hassan must evade capture and look at starting an entirely new life.
Where did the seeds of The Bird King come from? What made you want to write this story?
I think for me, the seeds of the story came from the setting. The Empire of al-Andalus, which was Muslim-governed Spain, which lasted for nearly 600 years and had ups and downs, but is generally remembered by Muslims as being a golden age of Islamic history in which Muslims, Jews, and Christians not only lived side by side in relative harmony in some cases for centuries, but also cross-pollinated in terms of intellectual development, scientific development, philosophy, art, architecture ... in a way that produced this stunning hybrid civilization that in many ways took the best of all of those cultures and created something new and unique and dynamic.
And so, for me, as a European and a Muslim, that period of history is particularly poignant, because it’s at a time when these monolithic ideas, Islam and the West, were not really a thing, and were not considered quite separate yet. They were not considered to have hard and fast boundaries. There was more fluidity, and there was more hybridity. And so that was very compelling to me.
And what was also compelling were the parallels I saw between the end of that era and the era that we are living in now, in 2019. Because at the end of this fantastic civilization, there were slopes into a kind of decay. The economy got bad. People started asking these big questions about identity and who is a foreigner and who belongs here, in a way that happens, it seems, in all civilizations when they begin to decline.
And so reading through some of the documents of that era and seeing the kinds of questions they were asking, about identity, about borders, about geography, about who belongs where, it just reminded me so much of the questions that we are asking now in the United States as we kind of teeter on a very similar political precipice. And that was very compelling to me to want to write a story that was set in that era for that reason.
The novel starts out very grounded and historical and becomes more fantastical as it progresses. What’s the relationship here between the two, and between Islam and magic?
The power Hassan has, there’s a big discussion in the book about whether this is a gift from God, so it has a divine origin, or is it sorcery, in which case it has a Satanic origin. That’s a huge point of contention between several of the major characters in the book. And I don’t go out of my way to provide pat answers, like yes, this, this is what magic is, this is magic, this is not magic. To me, it was more about opening oneself up to the fantastic and the unknown and the frightening, and being present for those things, and accepting of them, even if they are things that scare us.
And that’s really what Hassan does. He kind of lives in that space, that unknowing, and that’s where a lot of his very profound faith comes from, despite the fact that he has these powers that kind of, people kind of look askance at.
The myth of the bird king plays a large role in the novel — so big that the book itself is named after it. It’s a universal myth, the idea of a mysterious island that opens itself up when it wants to. But at one point Hassan becomes dejected by that universality, because he says that in telling their own stories they were telling outsiders’ stories. And that was gutting.
Yes. I was thinking a lot about shared imagination while I was writing this book, and the ways in which your environment, even if you are deeply opposed to the politics, to the social norms, even if you stand in opposition to everything around you, that norm, that cultural norm, will get into your mind and become part of you, and you become part of it. And it’s something that’s very difficult to stop.
And I was thinking of that in terms of colonialism, and I was thinking of it in terms of, at this particular point in history, we’re at the end of the Reconquista, and so the Catholic Spanish monarchs are bit by bit slowly taking the Iberian Peninsula back from its Muslim rulers. And so it becomes very difficult, in situations like that, to escape the people that you think of as your enemies. That your enemies, almost in this really weird, disturbing way, become part of your emotional landscape, in a way that is very difficult to escape.
I think for Hassan, that realization, as you said, it really is crushing, because he is trying to use his powers as a storyteller to escape this inevitable Reconquista and find somewhere safe. And yet even at his most imaginative, those enemies are there, because they have been a part of his interior landscape, a part of his emotional landscape, and he realizes how much that has affected his own imagination. And I think that’s true, kind of, of all of us. That the things that we live in opposition to become as much a part of us as anything else, because they are part of our daily reality. And so even as we resist them, they become a part of what we are. And it’s disturbing.
Fatima is also an interesting character — you explore the link (or lack thereof) between privilege and consent in this novel. Because she’s seen as privileged by the rest of the court, because of her station as the king’s mistress, but her body is not her own.
You know, it was … it’s been something that I have been thinking a lot about in recent years, because it’s been a point of very contentious discussion in the American Muslim community. Obviously now, as we are, as a culture, having these broader conversations about slavery in the United States, American chattel slavery, the ways that it still impacts, not just the culture but economics, the status of African-Americans, even at the genetics, it really permeates, still to this day, all sectors of our society.
Having that conversation has been, I’ve noticed, difficult and delicate among American Muslims because of course, you know, there were many, many Muslim cultures who also participated in slavery, not in quite the same way as American chattel slavery unfolded, but slavery is still very much something that is … a point of discussion among Muslims and among American Muslims in particular, given America’s specific history with slavery.
And so it comes up in debates, it comes up in tension between generations … and there is this certain amount of apologetics that goes on, especially I think from people from the older generations among Muslims, because they have this idea that “Well, yes we had slavery, but we had nice slavery. We didn’t have nasty slavery, we had good slavery. Our slavery was benign and not a bad thing at all.”
And I think now we’re at a point where we kind of have to realize that there is no such thing as nice slavery.
It just is not a thing. Slavery is always the debasement of another human being. And so, in the case of this very particular social situation within the palace, I tried to be fair, in that … in recognizing that yes, this form of slavery was quite different from American chattel slavery, but by that same token, it’s still slavery.
You know, it’s, there’s nothing nice about it. There’s nothing kind about it. It’s still the complete possession of one human being by another. And you know, I tried to balance that. So I don’t … that’s not what, really, the book is about, I don’t set out to make a final, definitive statement about slavery in the Muslim world or anywhere else, I just tried to sort of strike that balance between, yes, recognizing that there were differences, but at the same time that slavery is ultimately a debasing institution, no matter where it occurs.
Stay tuned for the second part of our interview with G. Willow Wilson, where she discusses her comics work, leaving Ms. Marvel, and how writing Wonder Woman is a different experience.