Sabaa Tahir spins a multifaceted tale

Tahir's 'An Ember in the Ashes' series weaves modern-day events with fantasy

On a bright day outside of the Starbucks at the Village at San Antonio Center in Mountain View, local New York Times bestselling author Sabaa Tahir nibbled on a croissant, incognito in her oversized sunglasses. She had just recently returned to her Midpeninsula home after a tour for the release of her second book, "A Torch Against the Night" -- the much-anticipated sequel to her 2015 young adult fantasy book "An Ember in the Ashes," which debuted at the end of August. Though it's only been a few weeks since her sequel's release, Tahir is already making plans to write two more books in the series, and Paramount Pictures is working on a movie based on her series.

The author gained national attention earlier this year when her first epic fantasy novel "Ember" -- the story of struggles in the Martial Empire, where defiance is met with death -- debuted in the No. 2 spot on the New York Times' Young Adult bestseller list, with critics saying that the work could launch Tahir into JK Rowling territory.

Tahir recently sat down with the Weekly to talk about her success, how she got her start and what's in the future.

Though she now has a large and growing fan base of die-hard "emberlings," she spoke of her humble beginnings, a time even before she was a reader, when she was just a girl who liked telling stories. Tahir, who is Pakistani, grew up in a small town "in the middle of nowhere" California -- the Mojave Desert -- a town she described as "pretty racist."

"I used to listen to people say these horrible things to my parents and brothers ... and people just, they really made us feel unwelcome at times," she said, adding that as a kid in that reality, it was easy to feel lonely and scared.

Instead of speaking out and being confrontational, in response to the hostile environment, Tahir immersed herself in stories. She found fantasy to be the safest place of all because it served as an escape.

"I didn't necessarily see a young, brown girl," she said, "but I did sort of impose myself into the landscape and pretend that I was travelling with Frodo to destroy the ring, or I was looking for the sword of Shannara or whatever the case may be."

Tahir loved to read and write in her spare time while growing up, but she never thought it could be a career. Instead, her parents encouraged her to consider going to medical school or to become an engineer.

"My parents are South Asian and ... this idea that I would go off and become a writer, they were just like 'Um, no.' I mean, they weren't mean about it, they were just like, 'No, that's not practical, hun,'" she said.

After volunteering in a hospital her senior year of high school, she realized medical school wasn't for her and opted to study communications and journalism in college. It was while working as a journalist for The Washington Post that she got the idea to start writing "An Ember in the Ashes."

One story, in particular, stayed with Tahir. It was about women in Kashmir whose fathers, sons and brothers were taken from them by local military forces and thrown into prisons, sometimes without charges. She was struck by the complete lack of recourse for these women who didn't know what was happening to their families, sometimes belatedly discovering that they'd been taken in the first place.

"(Writing "Ember") was me sort of saying 'Okay, I'm going to write a book in which this does happen, and the world is just as bad as ours, but my character can fight back, and she can get her family member back," she said.

Indeed, Tahir's writing is very much informed by what's happening in the world. She said that while writing "A Torch Against the Night," the Syrian Refugee Crisis was on her mind and had a large impact in the way that she portrayed the lack of dignity afforded to groups of people in the book.

Tahir likened the experience of writing the books to therapy -- a way to process the real and horrific narratives in the world and create an alternate, redemptive story in which a young woman of color seeks to save her family member, even in a very broken world. But Tahir didn't intentionally set out to create a part of the canon dedicated to women of color.

"It was actually more that I wanted to write an honest book, a book that reflected the world around me, and the world around me is filled with color and badass women," she said adding that women's strength is natural to them.

"This idea of 'strong female characters' has always bothered me because, well, if you're female, you're strong; it's a part of who you are," she said.

But Tahir takes care to imbue her characters with different kinds of strength. She expressed that it's not always knowing how to fight or shoot a bow. Sometimes strength is determination and loving your family.

Not only did Tahir draw inspiration from current events, she also interviewed "modern-day warriors" to understand the mind of main characters Elias and Helene -- characters who attend a brutal, militaristic academy and are forced to live by a ruthless moral code.

"Laia was not a difficult character to write because 17-year-old me was very similar, but Elias was a difficult character to write because he's a 20-year-old warrior, and he's unafraid of anything, and I didn't have experience with that," she said.

Her research included talking to local figures in law enforcement and the military. She said that she talked to a police sergeant about what it means to have a "Plan B and a Plan C and a Plan D"; a local FBI agent who told her about the difficult balance between the personal and the professional; a police officer who fought in the Battle of Fallujah and talked to her about what it feels like to leave the military, miss your comrades and lose people; and a West Point cadet who told her why he wanted to go to West Point.

Tahir said that these interviews helped her to understand what it meant to have the "soul of a warrior," but that they also helped her to see the person -- the one with "feelings and loves and hurts -- behind the uniform and the demanding job.

Tahir's decision to write from different characters' perspectives -- Elias, Laia and later Helene -- comes from her background in journalism. Namely, the idea that every story has more than one perspective and more than one way of being told.

In order to tap into these different perspectives, Tahir did not stop at interviewing people. While writing in different characters' voices, she turned to music and media. She would ask herself 'What does the person sound like?' 'What's the cadence with which he or she speaks?' 'What kind of music reminds me of them?' 'What kind of environment reminds me of them?'

"When I was writing Elias, I was listening to a lot of rock music, and I watched "Apocalypse Now ... And, when I was writing Laia, I was listening to music that was more angsty and sort of reflected her pain more, and I read a lot of poetry because the way she speaks is a little bit different," she said.

Tahir pulls on different threads from journalism to music to movies to the fantasy books she read as a child, so it's no surprise that the fantasy-scape and mythology that she has constructed in the series is an amalgamation of her own interests, background and culture. Her world is inspired by Ancient Rome with hints of the Mediterranean, the Middle East and North African.

She also drew upon jinn mythology, which is prevalent throughout South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. But the fantasy genre also gave her the freedom to pick and choose elements from different places, mythologies and even times.

"I kind of chose things I thought worked best in this world I was creating, and I also married modern-day stuff -- this idea of dictatorships and people who are persecuted and all that -- that's not just history, sadly," she said.

Tahir tackles profound, weighty topics and yet her books are Young Adult fiction, a genre that some take more seriously than others. But Tahir gravitated toward writing Young Adult fantasy fiction because she sees it as a genre where "story is king."

"It's not about fancy literary devices or trying to reach for something that's not there. It's just about story. Good, solid story. You get lost in it. And that, to me, is the best type of storytelling. The old 'let me tell you a yarn' type of story," she said.

Tahir, who has called the Bay Area her home since 2012, said that she loves it and never wants to move.

"I just feel like the creative spirit in the Bay is unmatched. You have all types of creators. You have artists. You have visual artists. You have entrepreneurs. You have designers. There are just so many types of creation happening, and I think it's so inspiring and wonderful," she said.

And so, looking back, what would Tahir tell the girl who lived in the Mojave Desert and found respite in the pages of fantasy books?

"I wouldn't say anything. I would just let her go, and in my head I would say 'you're going to be just fine,' but I'd walk right past her because she needed the lessons that she learned," she said.

"A Torch Against the Night" (Razorbill-Penguin Books) is available at amazon.com.

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1 person likes this
Posted by Sumaiya Malik
a resident of another community
on Oct 1, 2016 at 10:38 am

Came across Sabaa Tahir at the Teen Texas Book Festival in Austin TX today during the Mindy Kaling talk. Did not know about her book, but was impressed by how grounded she is. Hats off to her for making a spot for herself.

Like this comment
Posted by Nina Chung
a resident of another community
on Oct 13, 2016 at 3:13 pm

As the years pass and I discuss life with more and more women at various stages of life, I also see an incredible strength in them--this strength to sustain families, communities and society in a way that so surpasses small, individualized ambitions. I also realize now that this intrinsically female strength is not something I could learn through the standard canon of education. I appreciate Tahir's analysis of that "strong female character" trope, and how it almost overcompensates for the obvious. I find that very insightful.

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