NEAL CONAN, host:
In Cairo, five strangers find themselves on a quest - a drug runner, a journalist, an American ex-pat, a troubled student, and an Israeli soldier - race to recover a stolen hookah that's home to a genie. And before it's over, they learn a great deal more - about magic, about the city of Cairo and about themselves.
"Cairo" is a new graphic novel drawn by M.K. Perker and written by G. Willow Wilson, who splits her time between Egypt and the U.S., and freelances for publication including the New York Times and the Atlantic Monthly. She joins us today from member station KXOT in Seattle, Washington.
Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.
Ms. G. WILLOW WILSON (Author, "Cairo"): Thank you for having me.
CONAN: And I want to ask you, of the two interests of yours that led to the creation of this book - that being comic books and the city of Cairo - I assume your interest in comic books came first?
Ms. WILSON: Actually, yes, it did. People usually assume that comics were kind of a derailing from journalism for me. But, actually, the reverse is true. I've been a fan of comics since I was old enough to read, and it's a medium that I've enjoyed and followed all my life. And being in Cairo and experiencing the nuances of life there - one of the first things I thought was someone should write a graphic novel about this city or set in the city. So, yes, it did come first.
CONAN: And, Cairo, you became interested in, when?
Ms. WILSON: You know, it's actually kind of a coincidence. I have studied Arabic and Middle Eastern history when I was in college. And I knew I wanted to live and work for a time in the Middle East to feel what it's like on the ground, to see if what I'd heard on the news and in the classroom kind of held up to reality. And it so happened that I was offered a job teaching in Cairo and that's the reason I moved. And so it was sort of a coincidence, but an inspired coincidence.
CONAN: How's your Arabic?
Ms. WILSON: Now, it's all right. My Egyptian colloquial is pretty good.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. WILSON: I can certainly get around.
CONAN: This is, obviously, not an autobiographical graphic novel, I guess.
Ms. WILSON: Mm-hmm.
CONAN: But in many ways, I guess, it is a product of your own history.
Ms. WILSON: In a sense, yes, it is. I mean, emotionally, certainly, a lot of the characteristics of the people who are in the book are drawn from experiences that either I have had or people close to me have had in the Middle East. And so, even though, obviously, it's a fantastic book, though it's certainly a comic book. You know, there are elements of surrealism and magic and all these different things.
Emotionally, and also in some sense of - politically, I am drawing on the lives and the positions and the feelings of people that I know, you know, who have lived in the Middle East or who have a background that kind of draws them to these places.
CONAN: One of the characters in the book in particular I wanted to ask you about, and that's the Egyptian journalist who - we meet him initially bewailing his faith and his inability to get anything published in the, well, rather, strictured and censored press in Egypt, but eventually reengages in the issues involved in the book.
Ms. WILSON: Mm-hmm.
CONAN: You wrote for an opposition magazine in Cairo. And I wonder - what's to have some insight into his plight.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. WILSON: Certainly, I think Western journalists have a much easier time of it in most places in the Middle East and certainly in Cairo because there's much less of a chance that something truly terrible could happen to you or your family. I think the worse thing that I've ever heard happening to a Western journalist with a passport from a Western country in Cairo is to be deported, which, you know, sort of on a scale of things is not as terrible, certainly, as things that have happened to Egyptian journalists, who have less protection, you know, from the regime.
But, certainly, colleagues of mine, you know, who were working on breaking stories, controversial stories, critical of the regime were under a kind of constant implied threat, you know, whether that threat was not - did not often become physical. And, you know, I don't know if anyone who was ever killed or disappeared for their actions. But there was, you know, the sort of jail time, the threat of political action being taken against you or your family or your colleagues at the paper where you worked was always there in the background and something that everyone needed to be conscious of.
And so it's - my own experience were certainly less dire than what Ali describes in the book. But I had Egyptian friends and colleagues who were definitely under that threat.
CONAN: He is among five characters in your book, strangers at the beginning, who end up uniting in pursuit of a single goal on this grand adventure. And it takes place not just in Cairo but beneath Cairo.
Ms. WILSON: Yes. The Under Nile, which is what you're referring to, is a myth -not real as far as I know. But it was something that I kind of picked up on as a footnote to some other ancient Egyptian mythology, about the area where Cairo is now. It was not called Cairo during the time of the ancient Egyptians. But I remember hearing from an Egyptologist friend that there was a myth that began very early in ancient Egyptian history that told of a passage to the underworld that you could get to through a river that ran beneath the Nile backwards.
The Nile, as you know, is one of the only rivers or the only river that runs south to north in the world, and so the Under Nile, would be something that ran north to south through which you could enter the underworld. And I thought it was a really interesting idea, and again, something that kind of begged to be represented in comics, which lends itself so well to these kinds of myths.
CONAN: Another character, of course, is the jinn, the genie - the more familiar name here in the West - and obviously, another fantastical character.
Ms. WILSON: Yeah, certainly. You know, what I tried to do in the book was kind of draw together these layers of mythology that kind of inhabit and are a part of Cairo and the Middle East. And the jinn or genies are something drawn from Islamic mythology. They're mentioned in the Koran. And if you talk to people in Cairo and in most of the Middle East, they're accepted as being as real as your eye but simply something that you can't see. And so I definitely wanted to draw on that and kind of weave the various mythologies together and kind of see what happened.
CONAN: Modern politics obviously plays an important part, too. Two of your other characters, one of them a woman Israeli soldier who finds herself caught up in this. It's a little too complicated to explain in the time we've got. And the other, a very troubled student who is flying to the Middle East for very different purposes, not anticipating, just being a tourist.
Ms. WILSON: Yeah. It's - something I also wanted to do when I was writing the book is present a more personal look. The politics of the Middle East than the one that we typically get in the news media, something that was less abbreviated and more human. And I think fiction and especially magical realism and fantasy are a great way to kind of unpack some of these agendas, and show not what people believe but why they believe them. Because in a place where you can't expect the outcome of your actions, in a world that you don't recognize, the status quo disappears and what you're left with is the human element of these political conflicts.
And so that was something that was important to me, to have people and characters in the book with conflicting ideologies but to see how he would interact as people not simply as kind of puppets who are representative of some ideal, but of complex human beings, who believes things for a reason and from their own experience.
CONAN: And obviously, giving your interest in comic books from when you were a child, the graphic novel forums seem to be just about right. Nevertheless, this is your first one. They're not so easy to write, are they?
Ms. WILSON: No, they're not. It's a really interesting medium to work in and, you know, if - to tell the truth, probably my favorite medium to work in of all of the mediums that I do use, you have to be - when you're writing a comic book or a graphic novel - very, very structure conscious because usually, you have a very strict page limit, you have to envision not only how the story is told but how it's going to appear visually on the page, and how one image will connect to the next. And it's really a very different skill to learn than any other kind of writing. But once you get the hang of it, it really - it opens a lot of doors and to ways of storytelling that we don't typically get in other, you know, in prose fiction or in movies…
CONAN: We're also…
Ms. WILSON: …so it's a great medium.
CONAN: As a journalist, you're accustomed to deadlines. I don't think people quite understand, maybe not quite so much for graphic novels, but regular comic book's very difficult deadlines, too.
Ms. WILSON: Oh, yeah, certainly, certainly. And it's something that, you know, colleagues of mine in the comics industry talk about a lot as sting on that monthly deadline where you have to keep a story going from months to months and maintain that momentum, but also taking to consideration the amount of time between when each issue comes out, so what the reader is going to feel between the issues that he picks up for month to month. So it is a great medium for a type A personality, if you can handle that kind of schedule.
CONAN: And finally, when you called the Atlantic Monthly to propose a piece, has anybody said that, say, are you the Willa Wilson who writes comic books?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. WILSON: No, no. I haven't written for the Atlantic, actually, in over a year but no one has yet called me, you know, based on the graphic novel. But we'll see.
CONAN: Good luck with it.
Ms. WILSON: Thank you very much.
CONAN: G. Willow Wilson is the author of the new graphic novel "Cairo." M.K. Perker does the artwork. Willow also guest blogged for us today. You can read more about people's reaction to her story about genies and hookas at npr.org/blogofthenation.
And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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