Thursday, March 28, 2019

G. Willow Wilson: Deceptively Unassuming

For what she's accomplished, G. Willow Wilson ought to be the most cocky, arrogant person in the room, the archetypical superhero fond of snippy remarks. Instead, she's unassuming and kind, and you'd barely notice her if she didn't happen to wear a headscarf. Even her single-colored choice--unlike most Arab Muslims, who favor multi-colored, ornate patterns--is indicative of her desire to blend in. 
At East Bay Booksellers in Oakland, CA
And yet, despite her best efforts, Wilson simply cannot blend in. Following the same path as C.S. Lewis from atheist ("I was desperate for the secular truth that seemed so self-evident to other people.") to religion, she finally found a home in Sunni Islam after a journey taking her from Colorado's Rocky Mountains to Egypt, then Iran, leading to several profound epiphanies, including this one: 

"[W]hen a dictatorship claims absolute authority over an idea--in the case of Iran, Islam, in the case of Egypt, a ham-fisted brand of socialism--frustrated citizens will run to the opposite ideological extreme. [Consequently,] The Islamic Republic was secularizing Iran; in Egypt the short-robed fundamentalists multiplied and multiplied." (The Butterfly Mosque

I recently started one of her books, and I'm eager to see what's in store the rest of the way, especially after a passage as perfect as the following: "But I didn't yet have faith in faith--I didn't trust the connections I felt between mountains or memories, and if I had been a little more ambivalent, I could have allowed the Zagros [mountains] to be foreign, and the memory to be coincidence. Fortunately, I didn't." 
Rumble, young woman, rumble
Wilson was in Oakland, California to promote her latest book, The Bird King (2019), about a royal Spanish concubine and a mapmaker able to create maps from imagination, and in doing so, conjure the actual place. Despite her nonfiction and fiction oeuvre, Wilson is more famous for her rendition of Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel in the comic book universe. Contrasting her books with her comics, Wilson said comics are challenging because the writing must be more structured and planned so the plot-lines don't conflict with anything or anyone in the shared universe. Surprisingly, despite the level of historical detail required for a novel like The Bird King, she doesn't outline: she writes, and in the process of writing, makes numerous notes to herself in the margins, reminding her to return to a certain passage to complete an idea or not to overlook a character's unique traits. 

Writing about ordinary people in a historical context was difficult--what shoes did Spain's Muslims wear, did they have chimneys?--but Wilson enjoyed the research, inspired by a DNA analysis revealing a tiny bit of Iberian and North African blood in her mostly Italian ancestry. For insights into costumes during the relevant time period, Wilson used Libro de los Juegos (Book of Games) by Alfonso X of Castile, published around 1283. 

She enjoys going on book tours because readers see things authors themselves haven't seen or patterns that can be invisible to the author. Her agent wishes she'd write a multi-volume series like Harry Potter, but she just writes in ways that make sense to her rather than setting out to create a particular comic book universe or "world building." Wilson finished her presentation by reading aloud from the first chapter of The Bird King, which she called "one of the most personal things I've ever written," about "finding love and lost knowledge." 

If you're a fan of unplanned journeys and finding love and knowledge in peaks and valleys, try to see G. Willow Wilson on her current book tour. Look for the woman trying her hardest to blend into the crowd, as if she were hiding a secret--perhaps even a superhero costume underneath her clothes. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2019)

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