Interview with Omar Zakaria
Omar Zakaria is the author of Shaken, a short story we have previously published.
Expanded Horizons: Tell us a little bit about yourself as a writer. How long have you been writing? Have you always written speculative fiction?
Omar Zakaria: Ha! Like there’s any other kind of fiction.
To me, all fiction is “speculative.” As an author, you’re playing a what-if game in your head at all times. Some of us just take it… well, a little further than others. I know that’s not quite what you’re asking, but it brings up an interesting point.
In my copy of Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, she has a forward which talks about, among other things, Science Fiction. “All fiction is metaphor,” she says. “Science Fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life.” If you’ve read The Left Hand of Darkness, you should have at least a vague understanding of what she means. If you haven’t, shame on you. Go do so now. I’ll wait. Good.
Science Fiction — Speculative Fiction, if you like — is about metaphors. Using things we see on a daily basis, things we take for granted, and warping them into interesting shapes, designs, patterns. It works much like a caricaturist’s rendering does; it exaggerates, lies, embellishes, all while remaining alarmingly, wonderfully true-to-form. It’s like one of those optical illusions where if you close one eye, it appears one way, but if you close the other it appears a different way. In fact, I posit that all fiction is like this, but that Science Fiction excels at it because we go all out. You can’t really get a feel for a person’s dominating features by looking at a Realist painting of them… but see a caricature of them and you’ll never forget it.
That’s what we do. We look at humans, squint and twist our heads, and then play “what-if.” “Normal fiction” writers do this and twist people into beautiful realist paintings. Speculative fiction writers do this and twist people — and sometimes all of humanity! — into awesome impressionist renderings.
Having said that, let me now attempt to answer you questions. I’ve been writing since I was first able to read Science Fiction. Asimov and Tolkien were my heroes growing up, and I had just as wild an imagination as any kid. I’ve always had a way with words, so my parents encouraged me to write my wild flights of fantasy down, and fantasy it was; I didn’t really recognize any other type of fiction. As I indicated above, to me, it was all either Science Fiction or Real Life. Real Life presented itself pretty easily, but the stories in my head had no one to present them but me, and so there you had it.
As embarrassing as it is to admit, my first “real” attempt at writing was probably when I tried to novelize a video game I’d just finished. It was a Speculative Fiction game itself, as you might have guessed, and had made such an impact on me that I felt it deserved to be cast in book form. I got about a third of the way through it before I got bored and decided to write a fanfic sequel instead, and at that point — sometime in high school, I think — I was hooked. By the time I’d finished the fanfic, I’d started maybe three other novels, all of my own invention, and written dozens of essays, poems, and short stories. Creation is addictive, and the more you do it, the more you want to do it.
Expanded Horizons: Who/what have been your influences as an author? Favorite authors, favorite books/stories, personal experiences?
Omar Zakaria: Oh man. There are almost too many to mention. I draw on a lot of experiences and influences in my writing, and often it’s not clear to me what influenced a particular work until after I’ve finished it. I’d have to say that growing up in the Middle East and living among many different cultures and ethnicities is a major factor for me. Not only do I use the cultures I’ve experienced as inspirational source material, I seem to always add a variety of cultures and peoples in my stories. A close second in terms of major influences would probably be boarding school. I spent three years in a boarding school in Connecticut and it was probably the best thing that could have ever happened to me. My experiences there manifest themselves in my writing in several ways that are apparent to me, and probably dozens of ways that aren’t. Of the apparent ones, the easiest one to point out is that in almost all my stories, there’s at least one character who was “sent away” for further education and who came back a much changed — and much better — person. This is, of course, by design! What can I say? I like the pattern.
In terms of major literary influences, I can cite the usual suspects: Asimov, Tolkien, Alexander, Heinlein, etc. Head and shoulders above these, though, is the author of my favorite series, Frank Herbert. I cannot describe how much I enjoy reading and re-reading Dune and its sequels. More so than anyone else, Herbert introduced me to the concept so explicitly put forward in his books of “plots within plots within plots.” I try, as much as I can, to layer my stories so that there’s always something more than meets the eye. Herbert was the Grand Master at this. Me? Not so much.
More recently, I’ve been reading Lois McMaster Bujold and Stephen Brust, who are both fantastic authors and of whom I cannot speak too highly. As much as I love Bujold’s “Vorkosigan” saga, her real treasures are the “Chalion” series, which are just shy of Dune in my mind in terms of literary magic. Brust is almost as good as Herbert in incorporating politics and intrigue into his novels, and has an unparalleled sense for adventure. His “Taltos” stories are a marvel.
As regards my short story, “Shaken,” I have to admit that The Left Hand of Darkness, and in particular Le Guin’s introduction, was a major influence. I’d already had the idea for the world in my head. In fact, I’d already started writing a novel set in that world. At some point, though, I knew I had to introduce the character of Black, and you can’t introduce a character to your audience without first meeting him yourself.
So I started getting to know him, figuring out how he’d gotten himself into these situations, why he was selling his services, and for that matter, where he was to begin with. Well, that meant I need a place for him to be. But when I thought about who he was, which was, ironically, someone not in control of his own identity, I realized that where he was needed to juxtapose that. In other words, where he was needed to be the opposite of who he was. Somehow, something about this reminded me of Le Guin’s introduction, and I thought, “well, some people in the Real World identify themselves through what they do or what they wear. Why not take that to an extreme?” So I made a caricature; Black would be in a place where everyone broadcast their identity through what they wore or did or seemed. By changing your shirt you could change who you were. Black, on the other hand, not only does not realize he has this control, he doesn’t even know what type of person he is. Out of that fell a really interesting story, someone pretending to be something he’s not meets another who doesn’t know who he is in the first place, which I decided to tell.
Expanded Horizons: How does your religious and/or ethnic background influence your writing and your characters?
Omar Zakaria: Heh. It provides a near endless source for material! As I vaguely mentioned above, I like to take familiar constructs and twist and warp them into interesting shapes. I know my religion and my culture, and so they make the most tempting candidates. I may be a bit of a unique case, though; I call several cultures my own, and I’m deeply knowledgeable about many religions. What this means is that source material for me is not one culture, but several. Like I said, it ends up being that the worlds I create for my stories are just as wildly multi-cultural as the worlds in which I grew up were.
Expanded Horizons: Please reflect a little on English-language science fiction and fantasy, past and present. Which works in your opinion do a particularly good job of depicting Arab and/or Muslim characters and cultures, and which stand out as doing a particularly poor job? Why?
Omar Zakaria: Hrm. That’s an interesting question.
The only novel I can think about that actually depicts Arab/Muslim characters is, interestingly enough, Dune. The Fremen are loosely based on the Arabs; their language even borrows some words from Arabic: “Mahdi,” “Sayyadina,” etc. It’s an interesting case, however, because of Herbert’s plots-within-plots. On some level, it’s clear he intended for them to represent the real Arabs, with the spice representing oil, but on another level, they can represent any ignored or marginalized people and explicitly not the Arabs. In one light, Dune is a book on econo-politics, and in other, it becomes a book about native statements and slavery. For this reason, I’m not sure it’s a good example.
I think Speculative Fiction doesn’t actually deal with the Middle East and Middle Easterners much. In fact, outside of Dune, I can think of only two other Middle Eastern people in SF; the Muslim Imam Al-Walid in Pitch Black, and Dr. Mahmoud in Stranger in a Strange Land, both of whom were fairly minor characters, but depicted in positive light.
That’s actually a topic of discussion all its own. Why doesn’t Speculative Fiction incorporate Middle Eastern characters that much? Well… I think it’s because — I hope it’s because — SF writers don’t think it’s necessary to bring it up. They’re speculating, after all, and I think part of their speculation is that while “Middle Eastern” or “Muslim” is an important personal category — as in, it helps define that individual’s identity — it’s inconsequential to the others around that person (at least, in so far as general interaction. Clearly, the Muslims aren’t going to be invited to the wine tasting, and that’s probably ok). In the two examples I cite, Pitch Black and Stranger, this is the case. None of the characters seem to pay the religion or ethnicity of the two Arabs any mind at all. It’s a heartening perspective; it tells me that all are welcome in the future.
Sort of a heartening thought, isn’t it?More stories like this by topic: Arab-American authors, Interviews, Muslim authors