Dear Christina “DZA” Marie,
First off all let me thank you on behalf of all the readers of The Levant newspaper in the Middle East and elsewhere. It’s not every day we get to talk to a distinguished author and, better yet, someone who teach authors how to write. Secondly, I’d like you to consider this an open-ended conversation with more interviews and comments in the future, if that’s alright with you.
Emad El-Din Aysha: Please introduce yourself. Your professional CV, your background, your personal interests? How did you get into writing, what attracted you to it, and what encouraged you to help others with their writing? It’s very noble and commendable of you.
I started the YouTube channel Dragons, Zombies & Aliens a few years ago as a way to do book reviews and talk about my passion: fantasy, horror, and science fiction. It’s where I get my pseudonym Christina “DZA” Marie, since there are a million “Christina Maries” out there, and my real last name (Alongi) is often too hard to spell, pronounce, and remember
I’ve always wanted to be a writer, since I was old enough to want anything. Maybe it’s because both of my parents are also published authors, but I’ve always loved the craft.
As I started publishing my own stories in various magazines and publishers in college (about five years ago now), I realized that there are a lot of authors out there like me: that is, people who are looking to improve their craft. I’ll never pretend to be an expert on it. Writing is an art that is never truly mastered. It grows and evolves as we do. I’m simply cataloguing my journey on the internet and inviting other writers to share theirs.
EEA: Are you especially attracted to genre literature – science fiction, fantasy, horror? And please tell us about your own genre writings, your favourite works and characters?
DZA: I’ve always adored genre literature as a place for the imagination to run free. It’s both escapism from reality and also a way to contextualize reality in a way that helps us trudge through it.
My father was in charge of bedtime stories growing up, so I blame him. He didn’t go with fairy tales. Oh, no. In our house, it was Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and, of course, Lord of the Rings. I grew up dressing up as Eowyn about to slay the Witch King and Hermione with her books, and it just took off from there.
In my own work, I try to inspire that same level of wonder and aspiration that turned me into an SFF addict. One project that I’m particularly proud of is the ongoing short story series Diary of the Green Snake, a historical fantasy. (Currently on hiatus because our editor is dealing with some health issues). It follows the story of Bi, an American girl with Chinese ancestry and strange magical powers in 1860. She tries to understand the origin of her powers and while traveling the dangerous Wild West to reach California.
I am shameless in my love of tropes, so there’s a lot of found family and badass women. (For those who don’t know, the “found family” trope is when a character—usually an orphan or someone who is unable to return to their biological family—finds a “new” family in the other characters they meet over the course of the story. Often this is an unofficial family, and the characters are just really close friends. But sometimes there’s an actual adoption or legal process that makes them officially family.)
I’m also a part of the science fiction series Earth’s Final Chapter, an illustrated novella series with authors and artists from all over the world. The series is a post-apocalyptic dystopia that takes place hundreds of years in the future, with characters and stories in all corners of the world. My contribution is the domed Mega-City of Homestead, where people live in a cannibal society and are on the eve of revolution.
EEA: Have you had any interactions with SF or genre literature coming out of the Arab world, by any chance? Have you heard of Ahmed Khalid Tawfik or Basma Abdel Aziz?
DZA: I am ashamed to say I have not.
The good news is I’m still young (I just turned 25 this summer), and I’m always challenging myself to read authors from different walks of life. After all, what’s the point of reading if not to walk in someone else’s shoes?
EEA: I’m going to have to admit that I’m terribly behind the times as far as the vocabulary of writing and storytelling is concerned. What is a ‘trope’ and how is it different than a motif?
DZA: A trope is a common pattern in storytelling, be it a specific character archetype, theme, or plot device. “Motif” would be more of a common theme, which often do end up as tropes, like “true love conquers all.”
The word “tropes” has a very negative connotation, and writers are taught to steer clear of them. The problem is, that’s impossible. Whatever you write, chances are someone else has already written it. And that’s okay! Tropes in and of themselves are not bad. A happy ending is a trope. A mentor character’s heroic/tragic death is a trope. A love interest or romantic subplot is a trope. It’s all about how you write it that matters.
A trope turns into a cliché when it’s overused or used in a harmful, stereotypical manner. The “sassy black sidekick” is a cliché because it reduces black people to that of a side character who only exists to prop up the white lead, and it’s been done to death.
Tropes can be used very effectively in attracting (or detracting) audiences. For example, if you tell me a certain fantasy story includes such tropes as found family, female bookworm, and a happy ending, you can bet I’m going to read that.
EEA: Watching your Youtube posts, especially “Worst Tropes: Female Mentors -- How Writers Get Them Wrong”, I got the distinct impression that manga and animie portray heroines and female characters significantly better than they do in the West, whether in comic books, action movies or cartoons. Is the European fairy tale tradition responsible for this or commercial calculations made by corporate execs who are most likely men themselves?
DZA: Well, hold on. The East and West are equally guilty of poorly portrayed heroines and female characters. I just try to highlight the ones that portray them better, like Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (an anime) and Avatar: the Last Airbender (which is a controversial grey area, but technically a Western show). That’s a miscommunication on my part. Sorry about that!
However, thanks to a long history of colonialism and imperialism, Western culture, stories, and gender norms have become a lot more common around the world in the last several generations. I wouldn’t say that European fairy tales are solely responsible. Stories can and do change minds, but they’re usually a symptom of a larger issue, not the cause of it. We have grown up in a world where men are in charge, so we write stories where men are in charge, which reinforces the belief that, you guessed it, men should be in charge, and so on, and so on.
The good news is we’ve been pushing back in recent decades, and one of the ways we’re doing that is through stories. It’s why I push so hard for well-written, powerful women in stories. It’s so real women and girls are inspired to be the heroes of their own story in real life.
EEA: In a previous interview with author Asmaa Kadry we were quite surprised to learn that women generally don’t face any gender problems in the publishing industry in Egypt and other Arabic countries. They face ‘problems’, economic and bureaucratic, but the same problems that any struggling Arab author does. Are things different in America and Europe, from your experience? Is there proper discrimination against women? And is self-publishing a safe and viable way of getting your voice across and changing the way writing is done as far as stereotypes are concerned?
I ask because authors over here have to resort to online publishing at times and self-finance with proper publishers even more so, and that’s authors who are men!
DZA: A lot of it depends on the genre.
Women authors dominate the young adult and romance genres in the United States. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a male romance author in the West, although I encourage you to prove me wrong.
In other genres, not so much. Grimdark, “hard” science fiction, and military genres are very male-dominated. Many women will take unisex pseudonyms because so many readers have the mistaken belief that people of certain genders should only write in certain genres. (Think J. K. Rowling, before she re-defined the young adult genre). I myself fiddled with the idea, until I decided that showing my face on YouTube defeated the purpose.
And that’s just white authors. Authors of colour also face discrimination, especially if their names reflect their ethnic origins. The publishing industry is very, very white. Not just authors, but also agents and editors.
Self-publishing is a great alternative to wading through that mess, but it requires more legwork. My own mother, who is now a New York Times Bestselling author in paranormal romance, got her start in self-publishing back when it was considered a lot more shameful. (“Oh, you’re self-published? I guess that means you couldn’t get a real publisher for you work.”)
I’ve self-published a couple of books myself: my novella The Minnesotan Witch and Gary the Gecko’s Guide to Getting Your Humans to Get Together (and Other Short Stories) are both self-published on Amazon, and I’m very proud of them.
The only advice I would give to anyone considering this route is this: do your research. There are a ton of online resources available from people much smarter and more experienced than me who talk about book marketing plans, how to format the book, how to ensure that it sells, and everything that I wish I had known back then. Self-publishing is not for everyone, but it’s still a great option.
EEA: Concerning female characterisation in genre works, would you advise using tropes to help model a character and her story arch, or do you believe in letting a character grow and develop by themselves, organically? Is it different when it comes to a short story, novels or series of stories?
Can you cite some successful examples of those grown naturally?
DZA: When it comes to characters, my advice for male and female characters are the same: pull from real life whenever possible. Tropes and fictional examples are a great place to start and get inspired, but almost all the best writing isn’t pulled from tropes. It’s pulled from real life. Don’t use the “mom archetype” for your motherly character. Use your mother, or grandmother, or your best friend’s mom as inspiration, and then let the character go from there.
One of my all-time favorite authors, Rick Riordan, does this very well. He uses several minority characters in his work. Not just girls, but also characters of colour, disabilities, religion, different sexualities and gender identification, all of it. While the “minority” part is important to their identity, it's not their whole identity.
For example, in the Magnus Chase Trilogy (a young adult urban fantasy with the premise “the Norse gods are a real and parenting children”), one of the major characters is Samirah al-Abbas, nicknamed Sam, an Arabic Muslim American girl who’s also a Valkyrie and the daughter of the Norse god Loki. She’s got a lot going on! Other authors would reduce her to “strong female character” archetype, because she has an axe and magic powers and a tough attitude. But while she’s definitely “strong” in many senses of the word and a girl, that’s not all she is. And the best thing Riordan did for her character was to give her her own narrative arc, despite the fact that she’s not the main character. She is the daughter of the villain, the man who’s trying to destroy the world, and has inherited some of his powers that she’s so far rejected. She has to come to terms with these powers and figure out how to use them against Loki.
EEA: How comfortable are you with ‘love triangles’ in SF? Any pitfalls to watch out for? They’re virtually unknown in Arab SF, only really showing up in mainstream literature.
DZA: I envy you, then. I hate love triangles.
For those who don’t know, a love triangle is when two or more people fall in love with the same person at the same time, and that person may or may not reciprocate both of their feelings. Usually, in Western media, this means that the person in the crux of the triangle jerks the other two around, dithering about “which person shall I choose” for at least one novel before either making the decision or one or more of them dies.
Everyone acts like children, it takes too much time away from the plot, and the author apparently never heard of the term “polyamorous relationship,” that is, a non-monogamous relationship. I would appreciate the love triangle more if the characters acted like adults about it (the Throne of Glass series did this quite well), and/or the author subverted the trope in a fun way: they all end up in a polyamorous relationship, or the person the two other characters are chasing rejects them both, or the two other characters reject the one they were pursuing and instead go out with each other, or anything else.
EEA: I suspected as much! I’ve built up the impression over the years, even from modern Arab literature, that love triangles are self-serving to the male ego, having the ‘dithering’ female trying to decide between two men, with one stereotypically being the dependable but completely unexciting, uncharismatic one and the other being the handsome charismatic philanderer or rebel who usually gets the girl in the end. Hardly convenient if you’re a geek like me. (Watch everything from My Two Dads to Cameron caught between Joe and Tom in Halt and Catch Fire and you’ll find the self-same pattern). When it’s a man and two women, one is the homely but very repressed housewife type and the other is the ‘worldly’ but stand-up working girl type, if you get what I mean. (Watch Tombstone or Naguib Mahfouz movies).
But would you say that SF can buck this trend, at least in principle since it imagines future relationships and alternative family settings – polyamorous, for example, like you said? There’s also the love triangle of sorts in The Hunger Games movie with the heroine not going with her original friend, the muscular Gale (Liam Hemsworth), instead falling in love with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Critics have wondered why there is that love triangle, with Gale accepting Katniss’s (Jennifer Lawrence) decision in the end.
DZA: The impression I’m getting from my fellow American readers is that we’re getting really sick of the love triangle. As time goes on, I’ve noticed it getting more and more confined to the romance genre, gradually leaving the romantic subplot of fantasy and science fiction.
Or maybe I’m just optimistically seeing what I want to see.
Truthfully, I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to completely buck this trope. It’s good to feel desired. And being actively pursued by not one, but two guys? I can see why some people would want that type of fantasy. I just want it out of my fantasy.
EEA: Finally, any advice for us here in the Arab world as far as writing instruction is concerned? Are Podcasts and Youtube videos and online manuals the way to go?
I ask because Arab SF authors tend to start from scratch, not reading the classics even written in their own language, SF or otherwise. Come to think of it, looking online you only ever find author instruction in the US. Europeans and even the English don’t seem to be keen to dish out advice. Any idea why?
DZA: Really? Weird.
The best advice I can give is to read the genre if at all possible, and then write what you want to read.
Reading the sci-fi and fantasy genres is not only fun, but it’s also a form of study. You get to dissect the story and see what works and what doesn’t, how the author foreshadowed the plot twist, how these characters work with that setting, etc. It’s like any other craft: study and learn from those most experienced than you.
And then, write what you want to read, even if it’s never been done before. Not only will other people want to read it, but it’ll be a lot more fun.
EEA: Thanks again and if you’d like to add anything of your own please feel free to and if there’s anything you’d like to ask me, please feel more than welcome.
EEA: You’ve put your hand on the wound, to use an Egyptian saying. There’s lots of stuff out there but hardly any of it has been translated. What’s been translated and got critical acclaim are the names mentioned above – Ahmed Khalid Tawfik and Basma Abdel Aziz. They definitely deserve attention but only a tiny portion of their work has been translated, the dystopian stuff, and it’s not that representative either of their own writing or what’s going on out there; what about steampunk and alien invasion and first contact and time-travel? Horror and fantasy are also more popular among Arab authors and readers than SF, even authors who write SF. There’s lots of other extremely depressing stuff out there in English too, without naming names, that I’m not too happy with. Even if you’re going to read Arab dystopia you can still read the more positive variety, like Ahmed Al-Mahdi’s Malaaz: The City of Resurrection (here’s a translated excerpt) or 2063 by Moataz Hassanien, to cite two Egyptian friends. So I’d defiantly advise them.
A safer bet is to focus on short fiction and anthologies. I don’t think any have been translated in SFF but getting select authors and stories translated is feasible and anthologies give you a big cross-section of SFF stories and authors. (Marcia Lynx Qualey of ArabLit in English and Blaze Ward have been doing heroic efforts in that vein but it’s an uphill battle). Faycel Lahmeur from Algeria, a very heavy duty SF author, is trying to get some of his short stories into English. Same with Libyan author Abdulhakeem Amer Tweel and Syrian author Mohammed Alyasin. Dr. Hosam Elzembely, director and founder of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction (ESSF), has several unpublished SF novels translated and ready. If you want children’s SF there’s Noura Al-Noman in the UAE, an award winning author for her Ajwan series and owner of a translation company. There’s also a speculative fiction author from Sudan who’s got several works translated into English, Dr. Amir Tag Elsir, although most of his writing isn’t SFF.
I’d like to add myself to the list, as a member of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction, but I’m the atypical Arab author since I write straight into English and am too damn esoteric to get published in English or Arabic! Well, here are some ‘safe’ stories: “The Revolving Door”, “Ramadan Tidings” and “Code of Conduct”.
DZA: Thank you!