Exclusive Interview: “The Bruising Of Qilwa” Author Naseem Jamnia
In their new fantasy novella The Bruising Of Qilwa (paperback, Kindle), writer Naseem Jamnia introduces us to the queernormative, Persian-inspired secondary world of Firuz-e Jafari, a nonbinary refugee healer. But as they explain in the following email interview about it, while Qilwa may be your introduction to this fictional space, it’s not the first story they’ve told from there.
To start, what is The Bruising Of Qilwa about, and what kind of a world does it take place in?
The Bruising Of Qilwa is a stand-alone novella set in my queernormative, Persian-inspired secondary world, and follows Firuz-e Jafari, a nonbinary refugee healer who seeks employment at a free clinic in their new home — while hiding their affinity for blood magic. Firuz comes to the city-state of Qilwa at the time of a plague, which is being unfairly blamed on the migrants, and then is confronted with a mysterious disease which leaves bodies with overactive bone marrow even after death. Firuz realizes this disease is the result of the misuse of blood magic — which is dangerous, but also deeply misunderstood and stigmatized — and has to figure out what’s gone on while also battling medical racism, navigating political unrest, raising their younger brother who is trying to transition, training a young orphan blood magic user they find on the streets, and working at a too-busy clinic for too-little pay. Despite all this, it’s definitely a quieter story, with lots of slice-of-life moments.
The Bruising Of Qilwa is set in a queernormative world, while Firuz is nonbinary. Did you start out wanting to write a story about a nonbinary person in a queernormative world, or did you start out with the plot and then realize it would add a lot if Firuz was nonbinary and the setting was queernormative?
I’ve been playing in this setting for a while, and The Bruising Of Qilwa specifically came about because I was trying to learn how to write a short story (I’ve always been a novelist) and thought doing so in a world I was already vastly familiar with would help facilitate the process. Obviously, it didn’t, since Qilwa became a novella, but that’s how the story came about. I had recently finished playing Dragon Age 2 for the first time, and I was really struck by the long-term plight of the Ferelden refugees fleeing the Blight and Anders working away in his clinic, trying to secure mage rights while also helping people daily. I already knew there was a genocide happening in Dilmun, which means there would be migrants fleeing it, but it was Dragon Age 2 that inspired me to focus on a healer working in a free clinic trying to help them.
That Firuz is nonbinary was a natural choice for me. I’m a nonbinary trans person, and that doesn’t mean that all my protagonists are, but such representation would have saved me a lot of gender dysphoria as a child and teen, so it’s important to me to have trans and queer people in every story I write. As my best friend said during an MFA workshop, “I think we should just assume any character Naseem writes is queer.” Identity is complicated, but it’s not about adding something to a character. There are real, living people with these various identities trying to thrive in our world, and being inclusive in writing means including even a fraction of the vastness of the human experience on the page. I have no interest in portraying the experiences of straight or cisgender or white people because 1) we have a gazillion of those books already; 2) we live in a world that centers those experiences constantly; 3) I am none of those things.
Honestly, I think it shows a serious lack of imagination to create a secondary world and then reproduce the systems of oppression in our world. Oh, there are dragons, and people still freak out if you’re gay? Oh, brown and Black people are still oppressed even though you can turn yourself into a kettle and fly? That doesn’t make sense to me. N.K. Jemisin’s introduction for The Best American Science Fiction And Fantasy in 2018 talks about speculative fiction’s revolutionary potential, and I subscribe to that belief. That doesn’t mean we can’t explore real-world issues in sci-fi — obviously, writers have been doing that for generations. But queer / trans antagonism and oppression (or white supremacy, for that matter) isn’t a real-world issue I feel like exploring when I can, instead, create a world that’s safe for us.
The Bruising Of Qilwa sounds like a fantasy story, maybe even an urban fantasy one. How do you describe it?
It’s funny, because in a sense, I do think of it as an urban fantasy — the city-state of Qilwa is its own type of character in the book. But as urban fantasy has a (very!) different meaning in the genre sense, The Bruising Of Qilwa is definitely, solidly, a secondary world fantasy. I also describe it as a medical fantasy since it is about a healer and clinic and figuring out the mystery of a disease, but it’s also quite slice-of-life — I’m a big fan of quiet stories in fantasy, and despite all the wildness contextualizing the book, Qilwa is a quiet story overall.
As you mentioned, while The Bruising Of Qilwa is your first novella, you’ve written some novels. What writers, or maybe stories, do you see as having a big influence on The Bruising Of Qilwa, but not on anything else you’ve written?
Oh man, limiting me to influences of only the novella really narrows it down. When I was doing the work for my comprehensive exams in my MFA, I put Neon Yang’s The Black Tides Of Heaven on my list. Neon is a terrific human (and very generously blurbed Qilwa), but I hadn’t read their Tensorate series yet. Black Tides is truly a masterpiece, collapsing thirty-five years in its slim pages, and helped me think about the structure of Qilwa and what I was trying to accomplish with the time skips.
Although I had drafted Qilwa before reading it, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West also on my comps list, and I thought a lot about its portrayal of migrants. When I went into revisions, I kept that in mind, too.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? You mentioned Dragon Age 2 earlier…
Yeah, Dragon Age 2 was the biggest influence in terms of just about everything. I draw a lot of inspiration from video games, so it wasn’t a surprise to me that Dragon Age 2 came about somehow. I mean, really, Dragon Age 2 is the exact comp for Qilwa.
And how about your dog Terra and your cats Astra and Luna? How do you think they influenced The Bruising Of Qilwa?
Well, they certainly kept me company while I was writing. My husband is a bigger influence — he is my best editor and harshest critic. He actually didn’t read the latest draft of Qilwa until we had ARCs, and unfortunately I couldn’t implement all his suggestions, but there are a few moments in the final book regarding Firuz’s emotional growth that resulted due to his feedback.
Terra, Astra, Luna
Now, you said earlier that The Bruising Of Qilwa is a stand-alone story, but not the first thing you’ve written in this world. Does that mean you’re planning to release other stories connected to Qilwa?
As of now, The Bruising Of Qilwa is a stand-alone, although I do know what happens to the characters and may, may, consider returning to their story in the future. When I realized this story was going to be a novella, I knew I wanted to tackle the mystery of the blood-bruising (the disease Firuz is trying to figure out) amid a refugee crisis as the main plot, with training a precocious blood magic orphan and planning a medical transition as side threads. Of course, all the conflicts in the book are related to the political situation in Qilwa and its effects on Firuz’s work (and, therefore, the rest of Firuz’s life), but there are larger contexts — such as why Firuz fled their home country in the first place — the book does not tackle.
That’s because, although The Bruising Of Qilwa is stand-alone, I have other stories set in this world. I was awarded the inaugural Samuel R. Delany Fellowship from CatStone Books for my MFA thesis, You Came Out Of The Forest, which takes place 40 years after the events of Qilwa in Firuz’s home country of Dilmun. Forest has a sequel that’s actually a prequel, You Fell From The Mountain, which takes place during the events of The Bruising Of Qilwa and actually explains the genocide and what is going on in Dilmun at the time Firuz flees (though they’re not a character in that story). My agent and I are going to be sending out Forest to editors soon, which is exciting. And beyond that, I have another few story ideas for this world — about the Dilumni Conquest of Sassanid and about the founding of the Sassanian Empire, for example.
Earlier I asked if The Bruising Of Qilwa had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think The Bruising Of Qilwa could work as a movie, show, or game?
I think Qilwa would make an absolutely killer mini-series. There’s so much opportunity for episodic adventures or slice-of-life conflicts linking to the larger plot and so many elements I didn’t explore that a TV show could. Kofi’s backstory (how he came to run the clinic Firuz works at, for example, and their relationship with their dead Sassanian partner) could have its own arc; we might actually meet Firuz’s mother (who is not on the page in the novella because she wasn’t important to the story I was trying to tell, but was important context for why Firuz is parentified and is raising their brother) and flesh out their relationship more, too. I have a bunch of ideas for all the things a show could dive into and would love to see.
And if someone wanted to make that show, who would you want them to cast as Firuz and the other main characters?
I don’t have true fan castings yet — I don’t know of any binary or nonbinary trans actors of Iranian or Persian descent, though I’m confident they exist. I will say, though, that Ser Anzoategui [Vida] is close to how I imagined Firuz. (I use “imagined” loosely — I have aphantasia and can’t actually picture things.) I also have a giant crush on Vico Ortiz and would die for them to play someone, although they would probably make more sense playing one of the narrators from You Came Out Of The Forest rather than someone in Qilwa. (Or maybe they could be Kofi’s late partner in flashbacks??? Swoon!!)
Kofi and Firuz’s mortician friend, Malika, are a little easier. I was basically picturing Danai Gurira, in her role as Okoye from Black Panther, as Malika, and Idris Elba [The Suicide Squad] vaguely as Kofi (except he’s kind of buff and would need to grow out his hair; Kofi’s super tall and skinny).
And I think Maz Jobrani should be in there somewhere. I don’t know as whom, but I want him there. The story is so heavy, it could use a comedian to lighten things up.
So, is there anything else you think people interested in buying The Bruising Of Qilwa should know about it?
Just know there is more to come in this world, which hopefully explains why I crafted Qilwa the way I did.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Bruising Of Qilwa, what fantasy novella of someone else’s would you suggest they check out next?
As I mentioned, Neon Yang’s Tensorate series would probably be something to pick up (though it’s worth picking up anyway — I’m so excited to dive into the other books). It’s also got queerness in the world and nonbinary characters and is set in a non-Western environment. Plus, Neon is such a dang good writer, so you won’t regret it regardless.