From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Author Spotlight: Tracy Canfield

What inspired “The Seal of Sulaymaan?”

I spent a week and a half traveling in Morocco with friends, and everywhere I looked, I saw the old and the new side by side—people in traditional clothing chatting on cell phones, satellite dishes on rural farmhouses. Which raises the question: what are the beings from the old stories doing in the era of the Internet? How have they dealt with the world changing around them?

The ifriit remarks twice “I can afford to be generous” and fulfills the boy’s wish for a soccer ball. Are the ifriit traditionally represented as generous or are they compelled to fulfill wishes?

I would say the ifriit are more arrogant and irritable than generous. In the old folktales, they’ve usually been enslaved and forced to work for a master.

The question raises an interesting point—many people today believe in the existence of the ifriit, so when I wrote “The Seal of Sulaymaan”, I tried to make the supernatural elements consistent with these beliefs—what djinn eat, where they live, what they can do.

To follow up on that question, if you could have a wish granted, what would it be?

I’d wish for perfect eyesight, so I wouldn’t have to fool with contact lenses any more.

I know, I know, that’s bland. But I’m writing this from Australia because a company flew me out to record an audio tour for the Jenolan Caves—in Klingon. I would get up at dawn and watch a wild platypus splash around the lake outside the hotel. The world sends us more amazing things than I could think to wish for—I just want to be able to take advantage of them without crawling around on the floor looking for a lost contact.

The asides made the ifriit very personable while the rich commentary on Morroco, especially comparisons between the ancient and the modern, reinforced the supernatural character. Do you find there’s a difference between writing human and non-human characters? How do your characters usually develop?

Non-human characters are very different. I recently had a story in Analog, “Heist”, about high-tech con games. I found that the human characters could be very lightly sketched, because readers have so much knowledge about humans that they can bring to the story. In contrast, the AI characters perceive the world very differently, because they don’t have human senses; and they want and value things that humans might not care about.

At the end of “The Seal of Sulaymaan” the ifriit is no longer alone. Do you have plans to write more about the two ifriit?

I don’t have any immediate plans, though I did think it would be interesting to see the contrast between one ifriit who’s adapted to the modern world, and one who’s encountering it for the first time.

What’s next for you?

I have an SF story coming out in Strange Horizons later this year. I’m also finishing up my studies for my PhD in computational linguistics.

Also, this wasn’t one of your questions, but I wanted to mention it. In “The Seal of Sulaymaan”, I wanted to make the Arabic words easily readable for English speakers—so, for example, I used a transliteration system that doesn’t include a lot of dots and diacritics.

In general, I thought readers could pick up the occasional Arabic word from its context. However, the Arabic plural for “ifriit” is roughly “afaariit”—and I didn’t want to use that in the first sentence where it would be meaningless for both readers. I decided to go with “ifriit” throughout the story.

After “Seal” I wrote “Heist”, which takes place in part in an online RPG. The game includes a djinn, Jim St. Jim, who’s completely based on the Western idea of what a djinn should be—and who lives in a city called Al-Afaariit.

Jennifer Konieczny hails from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An alumna of Villanova University, she now pursues her doctorate in medieval studies at the University of Toronto. She enjoys working with fourteenth-century latin legal texts, slushing for Fantasy Magazine, and scanning bookshelves for new authors to read.