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Spice Road: An Interview with Maiya Ibrahim

Spice Road is your debut. How does it feel to be a published author?

It’s the realization of a lifelong dream. It’s especially exciting because this book has been several years in the making, and the journey has had its challenges. I went through an extensive revision process with my editor during the COVID-19 pandemic, so I’m grateful to finally be here with a book that readers are enjoying.

This is two questions in one, but I'm curious: why fantasy and why the Middle Eastern setting?

I’ve loved fantasy since I was a kid. It’s magical being able to escape from day-to-day worries into new worlds simply by opening a book, but there was very little Arab and Southwest Asian representation when I was getting into the genre, so I still felt slightly disconnected. Once I began writing my own stories, I knew that I wanted to write the fantasy that I would’ve loved to have read in high school.

The title, Spice Road, actually made think of the fabled Silk Roads, perhaps because of my own background as a history student of the classical and Egyptian periods. Was this in your mind too when you decided on the title, or did you make the decision in light of the events that unfold within the story?

Yes, it’s both! The book examines the relationship between resources and conflict. Spice is the resource, and the desire to exploit it drives the foreign empire’s aggressions across the Sands from Imani’s home. Spice can be viewed as an analogue to real-world resources — oil, gold, clean drinking water, arable land — and the devastating conflicts that often surround the use and control of these resources. In the book, as in the world, people and the environment are the first to suffer and the last to be considered.

The title is also a reference to the Arab spice merchants of the Silk Road. I knew I wanted to write a fantasy novel inspired by my heritage, but I didn’t have a concrete plot until I learned about how these merchants would spread rumours that their spices grew in remote places guarded by fearsome mythical creatures. The intention was to ward off the competition and protect their lucrative trade, but I began imagining what it would be like if there were grains of truth in these tall tales. What if there was an isolated, mysterious land where monsters and mythical creatures freely roamed, and at the heart of this land grew a spice that could grant powers when ingested? Spice Road was born.

The book is described as being the first in a series — how many books can we expect? Without giving anything away, I can certainly say that by the end of Spice Road I had more questions than answers!

It’s planned as a trilogy. Having recently finished the manuscript for the second book, I can confidently say that many burning questions will be answered in the next instalment!

To the story itself. I love the opening pages with the description of the tea ceremony; a beautiful event, so evocative, peaceful and meaningful, and yet one also set with an undercurrent of tension. How did you manage to marry the two?

Thank you! The tea ceremony recurs throughout the book and is experienced differently by each sorcerer depending on their emotions. This allowed me to explore the characters and magic at the same time. The magic isn’t separate to their emotional arcs; it evolves, both positively and negatively, alongside them.

You take the reader straight into the action, into the issues, and then introduce us to the characters. Is this because the situation Imani finds herself in is important to share immediately, whereas the reader can gradually get to know her character and background as the story develops?

The worry of Imani’s missing brother is at the centre of her universe, so it’s in keeping with her character and the first-person present narration to introduce that conflict right away. It also lends the story an immediacy that draws the reader into Imani’s world and viewpoint, including her prejudices, although the reader may not realize it at first. It’s only when Imani clashes with other characters like Taha that her position of privilege becomes obvious. I think the nature of privilege is that people who enjoy it are often not fully aware of it (or aware at all), and I wanted to mirror the shock of confronting privilege in Imani’s journey.

I wasn’t sure what to expect regarding the magical thread of the story. We have been so filled with stories of fairy-tale genies — in the West, at leastbut yours is a more realistic character. Did you have to do a lot of research to make Qayn and the other demons, ghouls and djinn just right?

The mythical creatures are rooted in Arab and Southwest Asian myth and folklore from contemporary and ancient sources. I researched to get the basics right, but I also tried to make each creature unique and reflective of the Sahir and its history. That’s especially the case for Qayn.

There is family love and loyalty in the story, but there is also loyalty and love, from Imani at least, for her nation, her mission and her role. And then of course there is the bubbling resentment that could be love between her and Taha. How did you keep all the threads going, leaving enough clues but making sure not to give too much away?

It was tough! Love and loyalty are central themes that I wanted to explore in their different manifestations: love for our families, our communities and countries, romantic love, and the shadow aspects, like how loving and being loyal to someone, a place, or an idea can make it difficult to see outside perspectives. Each of these threads has its own reveals over the course of the trilogy; deciding when characters should learn integral information was and remains one of the hardest parts of the process. It took quite a bit of revising until I arrived at a point where I was confident that I’d planted the right clues and set the pace for the rest of the trilogy.

While writing a fantasy adventure needs lots of fantastical elements, there is also a lot of angst in this story — it is not an easy journey you send your characters on! Did you ever feel that you wanted to be kinder to them?

Haha, so much angst. Yes, definitely, but as a reader, I find it deeply satisfying and inspiring when characters overcome the impossible!

Your writing is both alluring — I wanted to keep reading because of the way you described everything and created the pictures in my mind — and strong — you clearly know what you are describing; the people, the places etc. Did you want your reader to feel that they were in safe hands?

Thank you! I wanted the fantastical elements to be, well, fantastical, and the realistic parts like the journeying, geography, and mechanics of the big action sequences to be as accurate as possible. It was a lot of research (and even more involved for the sequel), but I hope readers won’t ever be pulled out of their immersion by something that seems unrealistic or wrong.

I can imagine this book took some time to research. Have you been writing the next one at the same time? Can you give us any clues as to where it might take us?

I worked on an outline for the sequel while finishing the first book and started the draft in earnest once Spice Road was ready to go. It’s been a process; writing the sequel has taken me longer than any other project so far, but I’m extremely excited about it! With much of the story’s groundwork laid in the first book, the sequel has been my opportunity to really explore the magic, lore, and the world both in the Sahir and beyond. Readers can expect the magic to feature in exciting ways, the world to open up, big reveals, a LOT of action, and an exploration of some character motivations that were left open at the conclusion of Spice Road.

As a writer, do you get much time to do your own reading? Who are your favourite authors? Do you have a favourite genre or any book recommendations for our readers once they have finished Spice Road?

Sadly, reading is a luxury for me at the moment. I try to squeeze it in whenever possible, so I’m usually reading in fifteen-minute bursts, and often more through the lens of an author than a reader.

I wrote Spice Road in the hopes of contributing to a growing body of Arab, Southwest Asian, and North African representation in fantasy, so I’d love to highlight just a few of my recent favourites there:

- The Daughters of Izdihar by Hadeer Elsbai

- The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah, and

- Shad Hadid and the Alchemists of Alexandria by George Jreije


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