When it comes to writing fantasy fiction, Arab-American author Saladin Ahmed never had an ‘aha’ moment. Becoming one of the genre’s strongest Middle Eastern authors was a gradual process, he says, that started with writing comic book-inspired stories as a child for his father. ‘He was a science fiction and fantasy geek himself,’ says Ahmed. ‘He always had comic books laying around.’
Ahmed was born in Detroit, Michigan, and grew up nearby in Dearborn, a city known for its dense concentration of Arabs and Muslims. While Ahmed’s mother is of Irish descent, his father is a third-generation Lebanese and Egyptian American. ‘My great grandmother was born in South Dakota in 1910,’ he explains, ‘And she often went back and forth between the US and Lebanon. It’s likely that her family was one of the first Arab Muslim families in the states. She was from the Bekaa Valley, but we also have relatives in Jbeil.’
Growing up in a mostly Lebanese community provided Ahmed with a strong sense of identity and connection to his own roots. Dearborn brought the sounds, smells and religious elements (like the adhan) to life for Ahmed to experience first-hand. His father, too, directed a community centre for immigrants. It was this ongoing interaction – in and outside of his home – that allowed Ahmed to explore Middle Eastern culture.
Today, he’s the author of the award-winning ‘Throne of the Crescent Moon’, a trilogy centred on Dr. Adoulla Makhslood and his assistant, Raseed bas Raseed, who together with three others are pitted against a sorcerer. As the plot grows, political tensions between the Falcon Prince and the Khalif rise. Set in the fictional city of Dhamsawaat, book one (published in 2012, with book two slated for 2016), has been praised for its ability to bring reality to a fantasy world.
‘The novel emerged from the natural blending of being a Dungeons & Dragons geek and the cultural influences around me,’ says Ahmed. ‘When people produce their first novel, they mime a lot of their own background. But I wasn’t going to write just a contemporary memoir-ish novel. I like fantasy, so it was inevitable that would be the first book I was going to publish.’
Anticipating readers can expect the second installment of ‘Throne of the Crescent Moon’ to be published sometime next year, and Ahmed confirms that the story’s setting will be expanded (‘it’s in the manner of George R.R. Martin, but with an Islamic twist’). While Dhamsawaat was based on Baghdad, book two will incorporate more elements that are reflective of the wider Middle East and North Africa.
‘I did try to write a first novel that stood by itself,’ he explains. ‘Even though it’s a series, people can read the first book and get a satisfying ending, but there are threads and questions that are left open that I follow up with in the later books.’
So far, ‘Throne of the Crescent Moon’ has received rave reviews, with three-star and above ratings lighting up most of the online lit platforms, such as Goodreads. The first book’s ability to draw in readers to the Arab inspired world has led some critics to praise it for being ‘refreshingly in a non Anglo-French environment’.
And while there has been a slight undercurrent of backlash from more conservative readers, Ahmed has mostly enjoyed a positive reception. ‘It’s been really wonderful,’ he says. ‘Sometimes you get bogged down with other things and you start to forget just how wonderful it is. When I have to write promotional stuff or send people links, I get a chance to see some of the nice things people say and it’s really incredible.’
He adds, ‘There are some writers that say they don’t read the reviews and that you can’t pay any attention to them – I’m not one of those writers. I need that feedback, and it’s very nice when it’s positive. If it’s negative, you just have to try to not be immobolised by it.’
However, praise also comes with its own set of pressures. Many are reaching out to Ahmed to be a representative of sorts for the Arab-American community. It’s a strange reality for the author, who admits he’d rather not be pigeonholed, although he says he understands the responsibilities that come with being a ‘minority writer’.
‘I do feel that I have to represent my people – broadly imagined. And that’s the trap of being a minority writer. On one hand it’s not an insignificant part of your identity or your writing, but at the same time, you don’t want something labelled as being your shtick. It’s a balancing act.’
While he works on book two, Ahmed is also taking a stab at video game writing, working on a collaborative project for a game titled, ‘Together: Amna and Saif’. ‘There are some Arab elements there, quietly in the background,’ he says. ‘That is, aside from the fact that the main character is mehijiba.’
With five-year-old twins at home, Ahmed has his hands full outside of work, too. But, just like his own father, the writer enjoys passing down his love of fantasy fiction to his children.
‘There’s a lot of story-telling,’ he says. ‘I’ve told them the stories of Star Wars and The Hobbit, and they were really into it. I want to read Arabian Nights to them, and I think they’re just at the age where they’ll get that. The real versions are pretty gruesome, so I’ll have to clean them up a little bit. But I think that’ll be the next big collection of stories.’
This article was originally published in the September/October 2015 issue of Brownbook magazine. Photo credit: Nick Hagen.