Welcome to Fantasy Magazine! We’re so happy to bring your story “Baba Nowruz Gives His Wife a Flower Only Once a Year” to our readers. Can you tell us what inspired this story and how it came about?
Thank you! I’m so happy to be published in Fantasy Magazine!
Nowruz, the Persian New Year, is a natural harbinger of fresh starts. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t wistful for holidays that embodied that kind of connection to the earth and her rhythms, particularly around the 1st of January, which can be incredibly cold, dark and uninspiring to me (especially in the UK), while Nowruz, which I look forward to, takes place on the Spring Equinox with all the warmth and promise that should welcome a new beginning. It makes complete sense to me that the ancient Persian world would position itself around it, and also that the cultures historically influenced by Iran should even today have incredible stories and rituals marking the day. Growing up we commemorated Nowruz, as many Shia Muslims in Pakistan do. I think about Nowruz at the end of winter every year and I often marvel at how, even in countries closer to the culture celebrating it, it’s not always marked. Pakistan, where I’m from, is a neighbor of Iran, and historically Nowruz has been celebrated by Muslims in the Indian subcontinent harking back to Mughal times. But I feel like for various reasons even the people around me who marked it have to struggle to keep it alive now, as our lives contort to accommodate increasingly frenzied urban function. Happily, it is still alive and flourishing in Iran, Azerbaijan, and other Central Asian countries. I imagine festivals similar to Nowruz anywhere in the world contribute significantly to mental wellness. We could use a lot more community, wholesome ritual, and connection to intergenerational traditions that go back centuries. These are things I think about more and more.
As far as the story’s premise goes, I was inspired by my family. My child is three, and I found myself discussing a folktale with her. I had just finished reading it as it was in the book, and I asked her what she would have done had she been in the character’s shoes. And she gave a very different answer than both the one I was thinking of and the one in the book. I recall my own mother discussing fairy tales with me that were problematic. It is key to traditions of oral storytellers that the story responds to the audience, and each generation is a little different, leading to a different encounter between the storyteller and the audience.
I was warmed by what the protagonist’s mother said early on about the kinds of rules in stories, and the worlds they aspire to. So many stories exist to reinforce only one particular truth. What kind of stories do you think are especially necessary now to tell other truths and aspirations?
Thank you! I very much concur with the mother in that there are ideas built into the story that don’t necessarily do much to challenge a flawed narrative. You can have stories about how hatred and othering is bad, and have them demonstrate it in action to make a point, but it doesn’t necessarily shift things if the starting point is always hateful by default.
I feel stories with blueprints that don’t rely on the othering of anyone are sorely needed. I also personally feel I’d love to see more climate change stories. I would also say stories where there is less emphasis on a single Chosen One figure who changes things could open the way to stories exploring community in action and the ways real change can occur.
I don’t know what kind of stories, exactly, are especially necessary, but I would say all authors and storytellers are essential to this craft, and that we must work to remove obstacles that prevent us from hearing as many of them as possible. There are as many of these essential stories existing as there are people, so I wouldn’t be able to say which ones out of them are more necessary without marginalising someone.
Not long ago there was discourse about whether stories have to have conflict. Nane’s belief that they need “the betrayal, the enemy, the danger” strongly reminded me of that. Is that a theme you were aiming for in this story, or did you have other things in mind here?
Yes, that is what I was drawing on! I’ve never been to any big writerly workshop, and all my learning on these issues comes from reading opinions much more experienced and well-read writers hold forth on. I think a lot of us (myself included) do love a story with betrayal, enemy, danger, but it’s not the only way.
I’m also interested in how automated storytelling has revealed the dangers of an over-reliance on a single pattern. In automated learning, a large amount of data is used by AI to make content based on templates provided by humans. These templates to some extent govern the structure the AI will give to the story. The AI will not come up with much outside the limitations of the template.
If a template explores violence and hatred to grapple with these traumas, that can be empowering, cathartic, necessary. But when all available templates feed our human storytelling with some manifestation of trauma, will a hopeful futurism ever be generated?
I think about this, and how in my opinion early creations and interpretations of myths and religions were useful tools to make sense of the self and the world. But what happens when the traumas that metaphor and myth evolved to teach us to flee instead become permanent templates we never escape from? If the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood crosses over to become a default in-built element of reality? If a conquering hero of myth never escapes the template and manifests in us ourselves never being able to put down our weapons?
When the protagonist’s mother goes against the patterns of the stories commonly told around her, she does so to create templates of love and hope and connection for the next generation. As a mother myself, I can’t argue with that, and that’s what I had the characters draw out and talk about for me in the story.
Resistance is a timeless subject, and there’s a lot of resistance here—from the protagonist pushing back against the idea that there’s only one way for a story to go, to the notion that stories need pain and harshness to be “true.” But the world is made of stories. How have you used, or plan to use, stories to resist that idea of truth?
I don’t think I’ve really used stories to resist this idea yet. The first story I wrote that got published, called “Secrets of the Kath,” contains a lot of violence. I considered it important to not “invisibilise” the darkness of the issues I was writing about. I feel it was the right choice for that story.
When I use storytelling, I don’t want to shy away from the harshness. To some extent, it is an unfortunate inheritance I have to deal with. The person I am, I will have to bring to life stories containing pain. At the same time I also want to explore the logical end of a world that has grown tired of cruelty and builds itself anew in unexpected, interesting ways, with more imaginative and hopeful hearts. The best of stories for me is a person connecting with their whole self and knowing who they are. I feel like this is the most high of stakes. Currently I plan to use stories to depict the use of stories in this direction.
Is there anything you’re working on now that you’d like to talk about? What can our readers look forward to seeing from you in the future?
My Future Worlds Prize shortlisted novel is a work in progress right now. It has a lot in common with this short story in that it explores in many different ways what stories can give us. It follows a magic box that opens up to tell any story from the corpus of folktale and tradition that the audience needs to hear. I say “needs” because this is what I believe—there are stories we just need to hear that direct us to solutions, platitudes, thought patterns, that the oral storytellers of all our ancient cultures were so skilled at putting together and delivering. I have some other stuff on the way, and the best way to stay in the loop is through my Twitter @FatimaTaqvi.
I also host a podcast called “Saying the Unsayable” where I talk to authors and editors about the facets of reality they depict through the means of speculative fiction. It has a Twitter account @Say_the_Unsay.
Thank you so much for having me.
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