At Breaking the Glass Slipper, we want to promote diverse voices in fiction. Thankfully, the SFF community seems to be opening up and we are seeing more and more texts written by and about more than the traditional white, male medieval European narratives.
Ownvoices authors often touch explore inequality and injustice their people have historically – and continue to – suffered. Often, these stories are not comfortable reads, but they are necessary.
Ana Lal Din’s debut novel explores the position of women in a fantasy alternative to pre-Islamic Arabian society. Here we ask her about her inspiration, the fantasy genre, and female protagonists.
Your fantasy world explores a society with a caste system. Why did you want to explore a formalised system of inequality?
I come from a culture with a caste system. Growing up, I was asked about my caste by other Indian-Pakistanis, and I didn’t understand what they meant until my parents explained that people inquire about your caste when they want to know whether they should associate with you based on where you are in the hierarchy. This was shocking news to me. Where did this mentality come from? And how could I possibly not be worthy of someone’s friendship simply because I didn’t share the same caste as them? I realised that something other than the colour of my skin could separate me from a people. In this case, my own people.
Whenever I visited family in Pakistan, I saw the caste system up close. The way that the lower caste people are treated is appalling. There are absurd rules. You can’t drink from a glass that a lower caste person has touched, you can’t eat the food a lower caste person has made, and the only professions they’re hired for are those that involve cleaning gutters and sewers and restrooms. The caste system completely dehumanises humans, classifying some people as less than others, robbing them of equal opportunities and better lives. I wanted to talk about this issue. I wanted to spread awareness about it.
It is great to see a wave of YA novels exploring fantasy settings outside the traditional medieval European setting. What did you find particularly fascinating about using a pre-Islamic Arabian mythology as inspiration?
To be honest, it wasn’t as much about the mythology as it was about the culture wherein it existed. My actual fascination was with the pre-Islamic Arabian society and its oppressive customs, because I wanted to explore women’s position in this society and the many ways in which it hasn’t changed in places like South Asia. Issues, such as women being inherited by their sons when their husbands die, female infanticide, and sexual slavery were a reality in the ancient world and continues to be a reality today. The mythological aspect was interesting because the gods were used to control people and cultivate temple prostitution. They were connected to the socio-economic and political agendas of those in power, particularly agendas related to women.
Do you feel that speculative fiction provides more avenues for own voices writers to be heard? How does fantasy provide space where realist fiction might feel more limited?
I think that we’re seeing more ownvoices authors in speculative fiction now because readers actively search for diverse content. They’re interested in stories set outside Western societies. It allows authors such as myself to be seen and heard at least to a larger extent than, say, ten years ago. Fantasy is a broad realm where the only limitation is your own imagination. With more and more ownvoices entering the field, the genre is growing with marginalised voices and experiences for those willing to suspend what they’re familiar with and step into other types of imagined story worlds. It may be a challenge because these story worlds are foreign and take some time to get to know, but personally, I believe they’re worth the effort.
Did you find your story needed a female protagonist in order to explore the themes you wanted? Why/why not? Did having a female protagonist shape the novel in other ways?
Yes, absolutely. To explore the perception and oppression of women in this particular story world, I needed a female protagonist whose personal experiences would illustrate women’s position in society from an intimate perspective. The dēvadasi system in India is female-centric slavery, and so it made perfect sense for Roma (the female protagonist) to be a sacred prostitute in order to portray sexual slavery up close, but she is also the one through whom we witness the other women’s abysmal circumstances in the village and even outside it. Through her perspective, I was able to explore the traumatic repercussions of rape and abuse. It was important for me to show the different forms of oppression that women endure. Women from my culture must often face the judgement of family and friends to defend their own worth and rights, and they’re typically alone in this battle, which makes it even harder for them to break free of their sociocultural heritage.
Why should we be reading The Descent of the Drowned? Pitch the book to our readers!
If you’re someone who appreciates character-driven stories with psychologically and emotionally complex protagonists, themes such as redemption, identity, and humanity, and representation of social justice issues and marginalised voices, then this story will resonate with you. I think that the past year has made us all realise that we’re not as educated about critical issues as we thought. We need to educate ourselves. We need to spread awareness, especially in a market as popular as YA Fantasy, because it comprises of the next generations who will be responsible for continuing to build a better world than we have. Failing them or each other shouldn’t be an option.
Ana Lal Din was born in a Danish southwestern city and raised in a small town outside Copenhagen. Passionate about culture, language, religion and social justice issues, Ana’s story worlds are usually full of all four. What drives her as a writer is developing characters that are psychologically and emotionally complex, reflecting human nature at its darkest and brightest — and everything in between. Since Ana is a Danish-Pakistani Muslim with Indian heritage, she often explores the intricacies of a multicultural identity through her characters. The Descent of the Drowned is her debut novel. For more info, visit laldinana.net.