Maiya Ibrahim is the debut author of YA fantasy novel Spice Road, releasing January 24th. The book follows Imani, a djinn slayer who ventures on a quest to find her missing brother with the help of her nation’s spice magic. APA conducted an interview with Ibrahim about the central role of Middle Eastern and Arab cultures in her worldbuilding journey.
Firstly, congratulations on your debut novel! What did your writing process look like while writing Spice Road?
Thank you so much for having me! My writing process was pretty chaotic in the beginning. I wrote the first draft of Spice Road while still working full time, so I wrote on my lunch breaks, in the evenings, and on weekends. Writing was (and is) very precious to me, so I tried to ensure I was carving out regular time for it.
Even when I went full time with writing and was working on revisions, I still didn’t have everything quite set up to be an ‘author’. For a good while, I didn’t even have a writing desk and wrote wherever I could fit my laptop, which sometimes involved propping it on books or cans of tinned peaches. I had no set times for when I started or when I finished writing, I just woke as early as I could, started writing as soon as I could, and worked for as long as I could tolerate, while still trying to spend enough time with my family. I always write while listening to music, and my partner gifted me excellent headphones that block out most of the world regardless of where I am.
Things are a little more structured nowadays. I have a writing desk! And a schedule—I tend to rise at 7am and try to squeeze in an hour or two before I have breakfast with my family, then I return to writing and work until the early evening. Occasionally, I’ll read over what I wrote the day before first thing in the morning so that I stay immersed in the story and maintain momentum, something I find particularly important in the drafting stage (which I’m currently in for Spice Road’s sequel!)
You graduated from the University of Technology Sydney with a Bachelors in Law. Did any class in particular shape your research approaches to Spice Road?
Law as a whole drummed into me the habit of ‘proving’ everything, so when it came to writing epic fantasy like in Spice Road, I tried to make the worldbuilding’s logic as sound as possible. I wanted the geography to make sense, the logistics of travel to work, the themes and politics to feel grounded in familiar concepts. Relatedly, I learned a lot during my degree about the functions and operation of the judiciary and government, and that also helped inform my worldbuilding.
Jurisprudence in particular was a class that influenced some of the thematic explorations in Spice Road, namely equitable and fair access to the legal system, corruption, and systemic power imbalances.
Law also taught me how to conduct thorough, targeted research, which was immensely helpful in keeping me from getting too lost in my many (many) google tabs!
Spice Road has an Arabian-inspired setting and is centered around tea magic. In a previous interview with The Quiet Pond, you’ve mentioned that you didn’t see many Arab or Middle Eastern stories growing up. To you, why is it important to write stories that spotlight Arab and Middle Eastern cultures?
Representation in media matters. It raises self-esteem, validates experiences, and breaks down harmful barriers and stereotypes. I think if you never see your identity reflected in fiction, you feel invisible, especially because popular fiction and pop culture overall is reflective of the zeitgeist—so if you don’t exist in fiction, you start to question your self worth. Equally harmful is seeing your identity in fiction, or a coded version of your identity, but it’s a negative portrayal.
That was a huge problem particularly in the early 2000s for Arab and Middle Eastern representation. I grew up feeling very much an outsider, totally alienated and isolated, and fearing for my safety and that of my family and community. Though it may have existed, I can’t recall a positive depiction of my identity in fiction from that time—if Arab and Middle Eastern cultures appeared in stories, they were portrayed as villainous, or at best, as the exotic ‘other’, a portrayal rife with toxic stereotypes and misinformation.
So, for readers who identify with some part of my identity, I really hope that seeing themselves in fiction affirms their voice, their experiences and worth. Seeing themselves in fantasy especially, I hope, reinforces that they, too, can be the heroes of epic tales.
For readers who don’t identify as Arab or Middle Eastern, I think it’s extremely important to introduce them to settings, characters, and storytelling elements they may not have encountered much before, if at all. It’s as much about entertaining and captivating readers as it is about normalizing Arab and Middle Eastern cultures in fantasy, and breaking down harmful stereotypes.
Much of the external conflict in Spice Road revolves around colonization and its impacts. To what extent do you think that storytelling — even fictional — has a social responsibility in representing such truths?
I hesitate to call it a social responsibility, because I don’t think storytelling has to ‘do’ or ‘say’ anything to be worthwhile. I think if an author is setting out to include or allude to real-world truths in a fictional story, then they should do it honestly. I’m always mindful of the impact I can have on readers by exploring that kind of subject matter, so I try to tackle it thoughtfully. For me, that means a lot of research and engaging with different perspectives so that I can (hopefully) deliver a well-rounded perspective in my storytelling.
Along those lines, do you view Spice Road as a resistance to a dominant Western lens? Why or why not?
My first instinct is to say, yes, Spice Road is a resistance to a dominant Western lens—it centers brown faces and spaces, and critiques colonialism and imperialism, both policies that have significantly impacted the MENA region. But with more thought, I think the answer is no. I was born and raised in Australia, my parents having immigrated here to escape war. My perspective has been shaped by my background and their experiences, as well as the Western context in which I grew up, so whatever I create reflects that.
As an Arab-Australian, Spice Road is my attempt to claim the Western lens, and I say that because I think it’s critical that we normalize the Western lens as something comprised of many varied identities and experiences. It’s no longer homogenous.
Imani struggles with her duty as a Shield, which often conflicts with her innate sense of morality and justice. Why do you think that this struggle is so central to her character?
Imani’s internal struggle mirrors the plot’s exploration of the extent of our responsibility to others, and what we are willing to sacrifice to honor the truth. Imani’s entire world is built upon a foundation of values that she’s been taught since she was a child. Being a Shield is the embodiment of it all: she comes from a prestigious clan, as most Shields do; she uses exclusive magic; she fights to protect her nation and only her nation, and she believes there is nothing but a wasteland beyond their borders. Discovering that reality is the exact opposite shatters her worldview and in turn, her identity. It’s a kind of coming-of-age, this transition from a child with an inward, sheltered gaze, to a young adult who is confronting the world, engaging with it, and reforging her identity into something stronger, more adaptable, and more encompassing of these new truths.
Spice Road has received a lot of anticipation and praise on Twitter thus far. What’s it been like engaging with your readers’ reactions online?
So much fun and very emotional! I’ve dreamed of being an author since I was a kid, so to finally be telling stories to others on such a big scale, and then seeing their reactions and predictions for the sequel—and the clever, hilarious memes—I’ve simultaneously achieved a lifelong dream and feel like I’m living in one.
Learning from readers what landed and what didn’t quite work on the page as I’d hoped is also pushing me to keep refining my craft.
You’ve posted your aesthetic vision of Imani and Spice Road on Instagram. Did you have these aesthetics in mind before writing, or did they come to you as you worked?
A little bit of both. The vibe of an Arabian-inspired fantasy with spice magic, and a fierce, stubbornly loyal, dagger-wielding female main character was one I had in mind from the very beginning. With editing, and me maturing as a writer and person, that aesthetic vision developed and became more specific. I think stories have a way like that, where they eventually come to life, and you feel less like you’re pulling the strings as the author and more like a scribe being narrated to by the characters themselves.
Aside from Spice Road (of course!), what are some of your most anticipated YA book releases for 2023?
I’m really looking forward to Amélie Wen Zhao’s, Song of Silver, Flame Like Night, Lauren Blackwood’s second novel, Wildblood, and M.K. Lobb’s debut, Seven Faceless Saints.
What do you hope readers will take away from reading Spice Road?
I hope they enjoy the thrills and adventure, get lost in the magic and worldbuilding, fall in love with the characters, and connect with a story about the unbreakable bonds of family, the power of truth, and the responsibility we have to look after one another.