By Cariad Wooster.
We are thrilled to welcome Hadeer Elsbai to The Reading Corner to discuss her upcoming release The Daughters of Izdihar, out January 10th!
Trapped in an arranged marriage to a man she does not love, Nehal dreams of attending the Weaving Academy. There, she can take control of her powers, bending any water to her will, and pursue a glorious future on the battlefield with the first all-female military regiment. Her husband, indifferent and secretive, is in love with another woman, a poor bookseller named Giorgina.
Giorgina has her own secret. She is an earthweaver with dangerously uncontrollable powers. Her only solace comes from meetings with the Daughters of Izdihar, a women’s rights group fighting for freedom. They come from very different means, yet Nehal and Giorgina have more in common than they think.
Enticed by the group’s enigmatic leader Malak Mamdouh, the two women are drawn into a web of politics, violence and threats of war as they find themselves fighting to earn – and keep – a lasting freedom.
Hello Hadeer, and thank you for agreeing to talk to me. I found The Daughters of Izdihar incredibly interesting and loved the magic realism style that supplemented the stories of both girls incredibly well.
Thank you so much!
What inspired you to start writing Daughters of Izdihar?
A big part of the plot is based a lot around the Egyptian women’s suffrage movement in the 1950s. The leader of that movement, Doria Shafik, heavily inspired Malak Mamdouh, one my main characters (I read an entire dissertation on Doria Shafik to get some very specific details about her life!). The book’s vibes, however, are inspired by two very disparate things: Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s fantasy of manners novel, The Beautiful Ones (which I highly recommend), and a War and Peace inspired musical called Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. This will probably mean absolutely nothing to you if you’re not familiar with either work, but if you know you know.
Oddly, though the comparison to Avatar the Last Airbender is very obvious considering the magic system, I didn’t consciously realize it had inspired me until I started writing the second book, where all the plot beats I kept considering kept going back to Avatar!
The novel is described online as “wholly in a new world, but inspired by modern Egyptian history.” Whilst many writers turn to Ancient Egyptian history for inspiration, the modern take gives the novel an approach that I found very refreshing. Why did you select modern history, instead of taking a more historical or fantastic route?
Precisely because you never see the modern as inspiration in genre fiction! This is especially true when it comes to Egypt: lots of genre writers pull inspiration from Ancient Egypt, but rarely past that, almost as though Egyptian history ends with the ancient period. But I think Egypt in the 19th-century is incredibly fascinating. There’s so much change going on: Egypt is morphing into a modern nation-state, it’s being invaded by the British, tons of Europeans are traveling through the country, and, with women like Malak Hifni Nasef, you begin to see the beginnings of the feminist movement that would coalesce later with Huda Shaarawi in the 1920s and Doria Shafik in the 1950s.
How did you come up with the two mirroring characters of Nehal and Giorgina, as well as their weaving abilities?
So, usually, characters come to me before plot or world or…pretty much anything else, and they almost always come nearly fully formed. I try not to break apart the characters too much – that is, I don’t do character profiles or try to come up with deep questions for my characters to answer, because if I think about it too much and too deliberately, I flounder. So I just let the characters evolve very naturally.
However, I did think a lot about how their weaving mirrored their personalities, and how I could subvert the traditional interpretations of how elemental magic maps onto personalities. Nehal could easily be called a fiery character, but I made her a waterweaver, not a fireweaver, because to me the ocean is powerful, terrifying, and awe-inspiring. With Giorgina, while the earth element is usually associated with stolidity and stubbornness, I think it can also be fragile but resilient, malleable, or even exploited, which I think fits Giorgina’s personality and narrative well.
The first time we see Nehal and Giorgina, they are both in environments reminiscent of their weaving abilities- Nehal is looking out over the ocean just outside of her home, and Giorgina is fighting her way through a sandstorm. Was there any symbolic reason behind this?
This is… a very lame answer, but I didn’t even realize I’d done that until you mentioned it. I guess it just happened subconsciously! It’s certainly very fitting, so I’m grateful to my brain for doing that without my knowledge.
The nation of Ramsawa is an incredibly in-depth one, and I loved learning about everything from the places Giorgina and Nehal visited to the nation itself and its geography. How did you come up with such a detailed, entirely new world?
To be honest, I lifted a lot from 19th-century Egyptian history! In particular I read through accounts of European visitors to Egypt during that time, particularly Edward Lane, who wrote a hyperdetailed account of his experiences in An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. It’s very rare to see genre fiction inspired by modern Egypt rather than Ancient Egypt, so I wanted to be sure to include loads of details about that particular time period. I also used a lot of details from my own visits to Egypt, particularly when it came to the food!
I also wanted to incorporate a religion that was a mix of many of the religions that have passed through Egypt; that is, all the Abrahamic faiths as well as Ancient Egyptian faith, which is where the Church of the Tetrad — with its sheikh and temple and pharaonic, polytheistic figureheads — comes from.
We know that this novel is only the first half of a duology- are there any hints as to what’s waiting in store in the next book?
I’m not totally sure how much I can say here, but essentially, the narrative becomes less…intimate, perhaps? The problems in book 2 are geopolitical rather than just national, so you do get a little more of that classic fantasy vibe with warring nations and battles. Nehal and Giorgina both find themselves in very new and difficult situations that will (hopefully) lead to some intense character growth. You’ll see more weaving and you’ll learn more about weaving and the gods, and about Edua Badawi!
What books would you recommend to fans of this one? Are there any authors you took inspiration from?
Yes! So, it was after I read The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia that I wrote 10,000 words of The Daughters of Izdihar in almost one sitting because I was so inspired. It’s odd, because the books are not even a little similar, but I guess it was just something to do with the vibes. The Beautiful Ones remains one of my favorite books of all time.
I also really enjoy the Truthwitch series by Susan Dennard, which inspired the magic system in The Daughters of Izdihar. And, I haven’t managed to read these books yet because they’re not out, but they’re Arab-inspired books on my radar: Spice Road by Maiya Ibrahim and The Jasad Heir by Sara Hashem (this one’s Egyptian-inspired!), both forthcoming later this year!
Finally, where can readers get their hands on The Daughters of Izdihar on January 10th?
You can pre-order from wherever you buy books, but if you’d like to support the HarperCollins Union strike, you can pre-order from their bookshop page or from Astoria Bookshop, which will be donating 10% of the book’s proceeds to the strike fund.
Hadeer Elsbai is an Egyptian-American writer and librarian. Born in New York City, she grew up being shuffled between Queens and Cairo. Hadeer studied history at Hunter College and later earned her Master’s degree in library science from Queens College, making her a CUNY alum twice over. Aside from writing, Hadeer enjoys cats, iced drinks, live theater, and studying the 19th century. Her first novel, THE DAUGHTERS OF IZDIHAR, is forthcoming from Harper Voyager in 2023.
Hadeer’s Instagram: @hadeerofthesea
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