I had the exciting opportunity today to meet both N. K. Jemisin as well as G. Willow Wilson at their author talk, held in the New York Public Library! Or rather, I had the opportunity to have Nora sign a copy of How Long ‘Til Black Future Month while I awkwardly stammered out a thank you and all but fled the scene, this being the first time I’ve ever had the opportunity to meet an author. It is… almost the same thing as a proper meeting? Close enough, if you are very, very generous in your interpretation. C’est le vie, all I can do is hope I came off as sincere but nervous!
G. Willow Wilson’s new book, The Bird King turned out to be much more up my alley than I had anticipated. I definitely intend to pick up a copy of this book and add it to my ever-growing TBR stack; unfortunately, they were sold out after the show so I didn’t have a chance to add it to my
hoard collection today.
As a general disclaimer, I have yet to read either of the two books featured at this talk, but I’d like to highlight some of the discussion surrounding The Bird King.
One of Nora’s questions for Willow regarded the opening paragraphs of The Bird King, which she interpreted as almost ominous to some degree. During the Reconquista, the period of Spanish history TBK is set in, most Spanish Muslims were forced to choose whether to convert (whether that be in lip service or in truth) to Christianity, specifically Catholicism, or to leave the country. The opening highlights this decision for one of our main characters, Hassan:
Hassan was deep in prayer.
He was not on his knees, however, nor bowing toward the gold-painted medallion in the southeast corner of his workroom that marked the direction of Mecca: instead, he sat on a cushion in the sun with his legs crossed and a string of wooden prayer beads slack in his hand, his eyes focused on something Fatima could not see. She had no way of knowing how long he had been in this attitude when she slipped into his room from the shaded path she had taken through the Court of Myrtles. Sweat glowed on Hassan’s brow where the sun struck it, and when she stepped on his shadow with her bare foot, the marble tiles beneath were cold. He might have been there for hours, so lost in God that had trouble finding his way out again. His lips were parted as if he had gone silent in midconversation. A holy name had been upon them, but which?
The Bird King, G. Willow Wilson
It’s unclear to whom Hassan’s religious allegiance lies. He’s been raised a Muslim, he’s being forced into Catholicism, and his magical practices (an ability to create new spaces through his map-making) are strongly associated with demonic creatures. Prayer beads are associated with both the Islamic and Catholic faiths; prior to today, I had been unaware of their associate with Islam and found that to be an interesting tidbit. That coupled with them being in his hand, yet slack, creates the initial impression of uncertainty about which God he follows. In the same paragraph, it’s made clear that Hassan’s faith is intensely private, something which has fallen a bit “out of vogue” in modern times. This first paragraph immediately has multiple layers that a reader can dig through to uncover more and more meaning – as Nora described it today, it’s very chewy in a good way.
This paved the way for a discussion on how religion is viewed in modern society. I wish they’d had a longer chance to talk about this, as it’s a topic I haven’t thought enough about specifically. Religion in modern society is often about belonging to a social group. It’s performative. It’s about doing these actions with these people because it’s often less a deeply held spiritual belief and more of an activity. While I think that religious social groups can often be a healthy social safety net, they do also cause a lot of unfortunate feedback loops amongst congregations that can be quite harmful overall. I love that Hassan illustrates something that is much rarer today: a quiet inner spirituality that is deeply personal. Hassan is not praying for anyone but himself. His religious observances are for him and for his God. They are not for any observers, they are not for any fellow church-goers, and they are not about society at all. Religion and religious activities today have become heavily politicized, to the the point that individual perspectives seem to have been erased in a way. Personal observances have become less relevant than public observances. Perhaps it is time to shift the focus from the political to the personal when it comes to religion? Once again… a very chewy question from Willow’s work.
During audience Q&A, I had the opportunity to ask something I’d been curious about for quite a while. Both Nora and Willow choose to go by first initials rather than their full names as authors, thus erasing their gender. This seemed very at odds to me given that both authors are huge proponents of representation. Full disclosure: whenever I saw TBK pop up on my Goodreads recommendations, I had been assuming the author was a man. I was wondering if this was pushed on them by publishing houses or if it was due to other factors. Alas, the answers were much more mundane than I might have hoped. In G. Willow Wilson’s case, it turns out that she simply prefers to go by her middle name rather than her first name, but that she didn’t want to erase it entirely from the book. Apparently the only time she was ever referred to as “Gwendolyn” was when she’d misbehaved as a child and her mother had to trot out the full name for emphasis. N. K. Jemisin’s story was similarly reasonable: it’s a holdover from her days as an academic when she primarily authored research studies.
I genuinely wish we’d had more than a mere hour to discuss The Bird King, and found myself energized and excited by both the discussion and getting to meeting one of my favorite authors. This was a fantastic experience about what promises to be a fantastic book. Based on the longer ten-minute reading Willow performed for us, the quality of the prose is consistent throughout the novel. I hate to judge a book by the cover, but I have to say that the utterly gorgeous cover art is a real plus too. If you’re as fond of poetic prose and imagery as I am and liked the quote above, I already feel confident recommending this book to you!