Mhani Alaoui Interview: Dreams of Blue Boots, Orange Blossoms, and Feminist Heroines

Maryam TairNot such a long time ago, in not such a faraway place, and yet a world so completely different, a girl was born. This girl is the heroine of Dreams of Maryam Tair: Blue Boots and Orange Blossoms, a new novel by Mhani Alaoui (published by Interlink Books).

Dreamy and otherworldy, the novel takes its reader on a journey through Casablanca, Morocco, Earth, and to a world that lies in between reality and stories. Dreams of Maryam Tair boasts a number of storytelling twists, changing perspectives, interlaced stories, and also offers up something different from your traditional fantasy novels: a queer, disabled, non-white, female hero.

The titular Maryam is a powerful character in a way that contradicts fantasy hero archetypes; she is not strong of body, but strong of heart, and her words (and the words of the book) seem to hold much more power than anything else in the universe. The novel plays on classic mythos of tales from the Quran, the Bible, One Thousand and One Nights, and other stories, creating a narrative that is as much about storytelling as it is about telling the story of its characters. In a way, Dreams of Maryam Tair represents a new generation of fantasy novels that, in “deviating” from the norm, are creating a “new normal” one page at a time.

I was lucky enough to have a chance to talk with Mhani Alaoui about Dreams of Maryam Tair: Blue Boots and Orange Blossoms, storytelling, and creating feminist interpretations of ancient texts.

-Spoilers follow-

Acts of Geek: I’d like to start off by touching on the framing device you use with Sheherazade. The majority of her scenes seem to exist in a place outside time, and these chapters emphasizes how stories function in the rest of the book. Why did you choose to use this story-within-a-story style frame? What inspired your application of Sheherazade as both a major character and architect of the story?

Mhani Alaoui: Sheherazade, in Arabo-Muslim tradition (and this should be seen as encompassing North Africa all the way to the Far East), herself probably Persian or Indian, represents the Story Teller. She tells stories to stop a mad king from beheading her. I like that metaphor. Stories are a tool against uncontrolled, irrational power. And the storyteller, a woman, becomes herself the symbol of the resistance of words, imagination, creativity against brute, unthinking force and suffering. It’s nice, especially in a time like ours where violence threatens people everywhere.

One of the most beautiful stories I have ever read is the Mahabharata, one of the two main Indian religious texts. The Mahabharata uses the story within a story structure and I liked the immediacy, the ‘humility’ of this structure. It was also an enjoyable way for me to mingle the real and the magical, the past, present and future and allows the heroine ‘Maryam’ to acquire a knowledge no-one otherwise would have given her. Finally, it was a way, for me, to give a ‘cosmic’ dimension to the story of a ‘poor, little Arab girl’ whom everything in life predisposed to an inconsequential life but who acquires, through the story of a story, agency, power and meaning.

AoG: Another prominent story within the book is the biblical story of Adam, Lilith, and Eve, which plays out both in a more literal sense (with the given names of Adam and Shawg) and also in an interpretive sense (like Leila’s attempted divorce from Adam and the betrayal between the twins Shams and Hilal–who are parallel to Cain and Abel). However, you subvert the biblical story by presenting Lilith, in a sense, as the more heroic figure. What was your intention with having Maryam as the daughter of a traditionally “evil” (or at least witchy) character? Was this choice an intentional feminist interpretation/cooption of the Bible story?

MA: It was intentional. In fact, when the idea of this story first came to me, this was the initial part. It seemed to me that, whether we are atheist, agnostic or believers, those of us raised in Judeo-Christian cultures (and that, of course, would include Islam: people to forget the proximity between these cultures and religions), all know the story of Adam and Eve. And Eve, the woman, is, despite all progressive rereadings, the ‘temptress’ and inferior to a ‘purer’, corruptible man. In the US and in Europe, very broadly, the feminist revolution, the gay revolution and gender awareness all have contributed to advance women and minority rights. However, in my part of the world (the Arab/Muslim World), these revolutions have not yet happened, even though their premises are there. In fact, quite the opposite. For religious narratives continue to dominate and render inferior all other narratives and stories. As such, it is very hard for the ‘couple’ and the ‘individual’ to emerge as the core of society.

Lilith, in Jewish mythology, is both a she-demon and the first wife of Adam. She was his equal until she refused to submit. Her rebellion, in these myths, is what makes her a demon. It made sense to me, then, to trace the ‘new, first family’ from an equal, even though broken, couple. I wanted Maryam to have a mother she could be proud of, even if she was absent from her life.

AoG: Your book is an absolute sensory delight. There were moments when I was reading out where I craved the food described or felt the sensations written in the pages, like bread with olive oil and honey or riding a rickety bike. The sensation with the greatest emphases seemed to be smell. Why does smell seem to play such a major roll (like the scent off Maryam as opposed to Shams and Hilal)? And what made you choose orange blossom as the emphasized, titular scent?

MA: I had a dear friend, who passed away recently, who once asked me what was the most important sense for me. I answered ‘vision’. He said it was ‘scent’, it had to be ‘scent’. Without it, we could not be sensual or sensuous. There would be no pleasure or taste. We would not know nostalgia and would forget our past. And when I thought about it, I agreed. Very often, scent triggers sensations or memories we think we had forgotten. Scents allow us to day dream, in all senses of the word. A story, like this one, that is a kind of dream, would have been incomplete without the predominance of scent. Scent becomes the condition of being of the dream and of the story-as-dream.

I chose the orange blossom scent because it is usually associated with marriage, purity and innocence. Perfumes and scents are also associated with saints. Saint Theresa of Avila was said to have a
natural perfume that signified her presence to others, in special circumstances.

In a way, for me, Maryam both transgresses all these symbols and epitomizes them. Her quest is a ‘saintly’ one but her physical presence is disturbing, unchaste, may be considered by some as not
beautiful and not innocent. She is a superheroine. For me, a superheroine is the modern expression of the ‘saint’. He or she who fights for causes, despite all odds, and is there to protect the weak.
The powers of saints and superheroes ( and of Maryam) are in hiding, camouflaged. They only appear at times of great stress or need.

Maryam is a modern saint/superheroine.

The scent of Shams and Hilal (who are Cain and Abel) is the scent of the earth, of wet clay. They are of the earth, but an earth of violence and roughness. They are, also, the sculpted clay before it is
fully moulded. As such, they are imperfect. I chose their scent to contrast with the lighter, more delicate scent of their sister, Maryam.

AoG: That’s really beautiful, thank you.

I wanted to touch on the magical realism in Dreams of Maryam Tair. So much of the story is grounded in real-world happenings, like the 1981 Bread Riots in Casablanca, but supernatural demons play a major role in how the societal unrest is handled and punished. What made you choose Casablanca as the major setting, and why do demons play a co-antagonistic role alongside figures of male power?

MA: Casablanca is my city. I grew up here and spent the first 18 years of my life here. After twelve years abroad, I came back and rediscovered the city, its many paradoxes, beauties and terrors, anew.

In Morocco, whether in the countryside or in the major cities like Casablanca, there is an entrenched belief in witchcraft. People of all classes and education levels believe in witchcraft and sorcery. At various degrees, of course: from light superstitions (do not throw salt down the drain, you may scorch and anger a djinni living there, to the profound belief that adultery is the cause of a witch and financial problems the work of a jealous enemy). Anthropologists study witchcraft as though it were ‘real’. By real, I mean that because people and a society believe in it, they build a reality around it, and in that sense, witchcraft becomes real, a fact of society. This belief in witchcraft encompasses such diverse practices as talismans, the power of djinnis, witches, she-demons, omens and love potions. In a way, then, they become ‘real’ in so far as they are a part of people’s imaginaries, choices and actions.

AoG: How does the power of humans like Zohra, a sort of mystical midwife, figure into the magical landscape? What about the human/divine romance between the inhabitants of the Tair household and Hamza?

MA: In this novel, it seemed to me that magic realism worked well with what I was trying to portray. There is always a part of the ‘magical’ in the way people go through their days. But it’s also more than that, there is a political component to this choice. Demons are not just demons. They are the emanation of a repressive system. Whether the repression occurs through the police, the failing judicial system or society itself with its very traditional, bigoted, closed judgement of the world. The Tair household comes to represent a microcosm of Casablanca, of Morocco itself. It is a universe with its own cosmic laws and myths. In Morocco, we have a real problem with ‘child maids’, as they are called here. These are very young girls (they can be as young as 8 years old) who are sent to work as housemaids by their families, desperate for money and stuck in the poverty cycle. Zainab is one of these children whose childhood was taken away from her. By imagining a romance between her and the most powerful of beings, Hamza, I try to rectify the unfathomable injustice done to all the children robbed of their childhood. It may be silly, part of a fantasy, but it was my way of bringing in this aspect of our society without making Zeinab into simply a victim. Women like Zohra have always existed in Morocco collective imaginary. I think she may be one of the forgotten remnants of an African, matriarchal past. Morocco is as much an African country as it is a Muslim and Arab one, which people tend to forget.

AoG: And finally, there are moments when the book shifts tenses, most notably giving readers the first person perspective of Maryam or her mother Leila. It’s an effective tool to put the reader in the protagonist’s shoes, but you keep it from feeling jarring by having the transition feel like a natural journey into that moment. Why did you use first person on occasion, and was it meant to intentionally emphasize something about the passages where it is used?

MA: The shifting of tenses is linked to [the forgotten matriarchies of the past]. I believe that history is always among us, that we play and enact it daily, without even knowing it. We are both in the past and in the present.

Finally, I am not sure why the first person narrative popped up in the novel. It just seemed appropriate. Sometimes the characters want to have a life of their own, slip away from the control and authorship of the person writing the story… Maybe it’s like a play, where the story sometimes pauses to allow a character to put his/her own imprint on the stage.

She Can Fly: How Lois Lane Became Nancy Drew

Next month, Lois Lane—who’s starred in comics, cartoons, the silver screen, and small screen—will be gracing the pages of YA Fiction. May 1, 2015 will see the debut of what is implied to be an ongoing Young Adult series starring Lois Lane; Lois Lane: Fallout, by Gwenda Bond. The series focuses on a high school age Lois Lane who just moved to Metropolis, and ends up out to solve a mystery for the school newspaper.

Bond’s own autobiography cites Lois Lane as the inspiration for her getting a degree in journalism, and the book embraces the “girl detective” concept popularized by Nancy Drew, but adds its own modern, Veronica Mars-inspired edge, according to early praise from Entertainment Weekly. The book’s blurb also implies that Lois has already established a connection with Clark Kent (probably the only person who would actually have the screenname “SmallvilleGuy”), not only through her online chatting with him, but also through her survival or a “near-disaster she witnessed in Kansas in the middle of one night.”

Lois Lane: Fallout promises a more modern take on the classic teen girl-based mystery novels, like the Sweetbriar Twins and the Babysitter’s Club, with a less restrictively “feminine” plot. Lois is trying to find out about a high-tech, immersive videogame (perhaps made by a lil’ Lex Luthor) which seems to be able to mess with the minds of people who may not even be playing the game. Instead of having Lois try to solve relationship drama or save cute animals, the book is pushing her in the direction of a medium that has recently been under fire for its treatment of women.

Lois Lane has often been portrayed as a woman who denies conventions and pushes past the female stereotype, so setting up young Lois in a position where she can question both a medium, as well as, potentially, a genre, is brilliant. Early praise for the book has complimented Lois as a well-rounded, witty, and determined young woman, and Bond’s inherent connection with the character is promising in terms of how Lois is written.

But Lois Lane isn’t the only superheroine to be making her way to YA. Black Widow will also be the star of a Young Adult book to be released later in 2015, Black Widow: Forever Red. Taking the same high school-age slant as Fallout, Forever Red will feature a young Natasha and the Red Room of (possibly Soviet?) Russia. The details on the novel, which was first announced at NYCC 2014, have yet to be released, but it will be written by Margaret Stohl, who has co-written a number of Beautiful Creatures titles.

This trend of comic heroines making their way to the pages of books started back in 2013 with Marvel’s She-Hulk Diaries and Rogue Touch. Each book took an individualized slant on the characters:  the She-Hulk Diaries, by Marta Acosta, taking a modern chicklit twist on the character, in a similar vein to the Princess Diaries’ Meg Cabot’s adult novels. Rogue Touch, by Christine Woodward, came off as an edgier Young Adult novel, with heavy science fiction influences.

These novels from Marvel, as well as DC’s upcoming Lois Lane book 1, are an amazing acknowledgment of female fans from companies that have been traditionally seen as only catering towards male fans. While Marvel’s first two books received some praise, they didn’t receive much fanfare, and were regarded by many as pandering to women who didn’t read comics to begin with. The books, though they could be easily categorized as “chicklit,” were fun, unique takes on two of the most well-loved heroines in the Marvel Universe.  The diminution of these titles, just because they embrace the inherently female aspect of the characters, speaks to a great sense of misogyny in fans, internalized and not.

Much like Marvel Divas, an amazing miniseries that failed mainly because of the title and sales pitch (“Sex and the City with superheroes!”), these books come off like they’re being advertised as a “lowest common denominator” of female-directed content. But they are actually much more complex than that. Look at it this way, while Sex in the City is now much maligned for a handful of poorly written, clichéd movies, the first season of Sex in the City was actually a subversive, fourth wall-breaking comedy that touched on female topics that were never spoken about on television before: menstruation, female orgasms, multiple partners, vibrators. These titles, if they are like Sex in the City, are like the first season: unexpected, feminist, and exciting.

These upcoming books promise similar content, and with the current rise in the popularity of Young Adult fiction, if Lois Lane: Fallout becomes well received (and sells well), there’s a potential that the book could lead to a lot more for the character:

A solo comic.

Maybe a starring role on the CW’s upcoming Supergirl, or a television show of her own.

Perhaps it could even lead to Lois Lane movie?



Full solicitation for Lois Lane: Fallout by Gwenda Bond below:

Lois Lane is starting a new life in Metropolis. An Army brat, Lois has lived all over—and seen all kinds of things. (Some of them defy explanation, like the near-disaster she witnessed in Kansas in the middle of one night.) But now her family is putting down roots in the big city, and Lois is determined to fit in. Stay quiet. Fly straight.

As soon as she steps into her new high school, though, she can see it won’t be that easy. A group known as the Warheads is making life miserable for another girl at school. They’re messing with her mind, somehow, via the high-tech immersive videogame they all play. Not cool. Armed with her wit and her new snazzy job as a reporter, Lois has her sights set on solving this mystery. But sometimes it’s all a bit much. Thank goodness for her maybe-more-than-a friend, a guy she knows only by his screenname, SmallvilleGuy…

She Can Fly: ‘Yes Please’ Review

I dreamed of being famous. I dreamed of being famous for being funny. When I was 8, I would hide behind the couch in my living room late at night, hiding from my older brother and sister so I could stay up late and watch Mike Meyers’ movies and, ultimately, Saturday Night Live. SNL was my holy grail. On nights when I was being babysat by my siblings, I would fake slumber so I can sneak back downstairs and hide behind the couch, my head peaking out over the side of one arm just enough to catch Weekend Update (and a plethora of jokes I honestly didn’t get, but the delivery of which made me giggle). I can only imagine my brother and sister both knew I was there. I am not a subtle laugher.

And so, when I saw Rachel Dratch, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, and so many other women with amazing comedic timing and strong voices, on screen, I knew what I wanted to be.

Of course, actually getting in to comedy is a lot harder than these ladies made it seem. So I settled with utter fan devotion.

In middle school, I stayed up later every Saturday to watch SNL. In high school, Thursdays were devoted to academic team and NBC comedies (30 Rock, and later Parks and Rec). I cursed that Tina Fey won the Mark Twain award for comedy only a week after I had visited Washington, DC (I was so close to seeing her live and in person). In my junior year, I wrote an essay about how the women of comedy ran throughout my life, and in senior year, I begged and pleaded that Tina Fey or Amy Poehler be our Commencement speaker. I was told that they were not “academic enough” by the president of the college. Jane Lynch was our Commencement speaker that year.

So whenever one of these women I idolize puts out a book, I am first in line to pick it up. I’ve devoured (and loved) Girl Walks Into a Bar… (Dratch), Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (Kaling), Bossypants (Fey), The Bedwetter (Silverman)…each one is as fascinating and unique as the women who write them, but none of them had tickled my desire to live the life of a comedian vicariously through them. Some books leaned towards the more personal (Kaling), or more about their post-comedy life (Dratch), or were more a series of funny vignettes (Silverman), or just vague, tantalizing peeks into what it’s like to be them (Fey). None fully satisfied my lust for both knowledge of their life, and experiencing things through their eyes.

But now, Amy Poehler’s Yes Please satisfies that itch pretty well.

Yesplease01Yes Please is a “missive from the middle” (a line which is repeated on multiple occasions), and is broken down into three parts; “Say Whatever You Want”, “Do Whatever You Want”, and “Be Whoever You Are”. The titles are honest, and Poehler is very upfront about who she is and how she’s always know that. Her voice is exuberant and open, without actually revealing too much (she touches on her divorce with Will Arnett, but the chapter focuses on what the people around you say after a divorce, instead of about her personal battle). The gossip she reveals about SNL hosts, former cast members, and coworkers is tantalizing, but inane. She acknowledges her privilege, but also allows herself to be vulnerable. A standout chapter is “Sorry, Sorry, Sorry” in which Poehler talks about apologizing, and the one time she feels she waited far too long to do it. She isn’t always the hero in her own story, but Poehler always ends up being an extremely relate-able everywoman.

The most amazing thing about Yes Please is how Poehler talks about other women. Rarely is she disparaging, and when she is, it’s because she’s making a point–acknowledging that women are forced to compete with one another, that “woman-on-woman drive-bys” are the most common form of social violence–and that’s amazing. To have a female figure emphasize the inherent issue of women seeing only women as their competition is amazing, and to have Amy Poehler do it in such a funny way is amazing.

Poehler doesn’t just talk about supporting women, she actually does it. She produced the under appreciated Comedy Central show Broad City, a female-positive slacker comedy starring two up-and-coming comediennes. She is one of the leading voices for the website Smart Girls at the Party, which celebrates women and how they can “change the world by being [themselves].” And she’s doing it again in her book by being upfront and frank, but also sharing stories about how all the woman nominated for the Best Leading Actress in a Comedy Emmy decided they wanted to do a bit where they all got up on stage and acted like they were contestants in a beauty pageant, complete with tiara and flowers.

Because as much as woman vs. woman is a problem, women supporting women is worth celebrating.

The book is a beautiful one, with thick, glossy pages, bright, full-color photos speckled throughout, pages from notebooks, old report cards, and full page spreads of Amy “a face for wigs” Poehler in many wigs, playing many characters. There are other full page spreads of pithy, supportive words to live by, quotes presumably from Poehler herself (my favorite of which would probably be “like who likes you.” Simple, elegant, precise, and unbelievably true). The whole book feels like a scrapbook meets a memoir, and the writing reads appealingly like you’re talking to a best friend. That’s really the vibe that the book is clearly going for, the inside flap even stating “in a perfect world, we’d all be best friends with Amy.”

So, while I may not be famous, or all that funny, I feel like I’ve gotten to live vicariously through a wonderful friend who is always there to remind me that “everybody is scare most of the time.” And that’s totally all right.

Yes Please is everything a smart girl (or guy, or however you choose to identify) who loves comedy would like. It succeeds where other books about being a smart, dorky woman have failed, and it takes the comedic autobiography genre further than many comedians are willing to go. I say “yes, please, more Yes Please!”

Yes Please by Amy Poehler is published by HarperCollins