Happy debut day to The Bruising of Qilwa by Naseem Jamnia. This novella is among the tightest I have ever read. It has a bit of everything: medical fantasy, slice-of-life, a mystery, found family, given family, the difference between the best choice and the right choice, and a world that centers trans people and people of color. It’s so dense, and I’m so thrilled to have gotten to read this one early.
Today, Naseem Jamnia tells me all about how the layers of Qilwa came together, the research and craft journey of this novella, and what they’re reading and working on now.
What came first? The world, the characters, or something else entirely?
Firuz’s home country of Dilmun is somewhere I’ve been playing in for a while, so the world came first! The book that eventually became my MFA thesis novel, You Came Out of the Forest, is actually the first thing I wrote in this world—the book is set 40 years after the genocide back in Dilmun. For Qilwa specifically, since I already knew there was a genocide, I knew there would be refugees, so I wanted to explore a story about that. Plus, I was fresh off of playing Dragon Age 2 and needed a place to put my feelings!!
I’m still working on a name for the whole fictional universe—my agent and husband (my harshest critic and best creative partner) vetoed the mediocre name I came up with, haha. But I hope to be playing in this world for a while: there’s Forest and its prequel-sequel, You Fell from the Mountain, which explains what happened during the genocide; there’s a story about the Dilmuni Conquest of Old Sassanid; there’s a story about the foundations of the Sassanian Empire. Plus, I’m playing with a sequel idea to Qilwa—it was meant to be a standalone, but I do know what happens to Firuz and fam, and I can see a short (and not as complex!) novella set about ten years after the events of Qilwa.
What kind of research did you do? What are you most excited for readers to learn and experience?
OMG I did so much research on everything, from the history of centrifuges, to rereading my old physiology textbook to properly describe the blood bruising, to texts to my mom about traditional Iranian foods to boost someone’s energy. (Thanks, Mom, for answering all my random-ass questions.) Research is funny because you can never do too much, but so much of it doesn’t make it into the book. I did a lot of internet exploring, of course, but the internet is a nebulous and incomplete thing, so I also consulted articles and books and, as I mentioned, my mom. As a child of immigrants, so much of your own culture isn’t transmitted to you because there are such little things you wouldn’t learn outside of its context.
My favorite part of the world is, perhaps unsurprisingly, that it’s queernormative and brown. I didn’t write whiteness at all into this world—everyone is coded as a queer BIPOC. (Of course, keeping in mind that issues like race are contextual; in the book, no one is actually a BIPOC because there is no whiteness.) I’m really excited for the realization readers will have that wait, this world doesn’t have any homophobia or transphobia or white supremacy! (It is complicated because there is some ethnic-based bigotry, but I tried to stress within the text and outside it that this is due to fears of recolonization, not racially based supremacy.)
Mostly, I hope Qilwa gets people excited to see more of this world, especially for other things hinted at but not explained (since they were outside the scope of the book).
How did you go about crafting the rules around blood magic, especially combining it with the worldbuilding and transness as it’s understood in the world of Qilwa?
My undergraduate and first master’s degree are both in biology. My magic systems tend to be scientific, so for blood magic, I took it to a new level, digging deep into my bio background. You can use blood magic for more than just staying within bodies, since you’re tapping into the incredible amount of energy our bodies make and use, but bodies are where blood magic is most accessible. Firuz is a fairly average blood magic user, so there are a lot of elements in bodies they only vaguely understand—for example, oxygen exchange between blood and tissues. It was certainly challenging to balance real science with “but how would Firuz understand this?”
Blood magic is the source of a lot of medical advancements in the world of Qilwa, though, specifically because it can be used to manipulate bodies. Gabby Rivera, author of Juliet Takes a Breath, wrote a Latine superhero who was born magically to two moms (I think this was America Chavez, who does have two moms). Gabby said somewhere she decided to make the magical pregnancy happen because why not? There’s magic! And I thought, you know what, she’s absolutely right—in a world with magic, and with blood magic of all things, why can’t I mess with bodies? So that’s where my idea to break with “real-world biological rules” stemmed. I figured, if I could think of a biological mechanism for this to happen, then I can justify the rest because it’s magic. Regarding pregnancy, then, I figured since almost every cell in the human body has access to the entire genetic code, then I could justify two people with uteruses having a biological child (such as with Ahmed’s mothers in Qilwa). To be honest, though, I’m still working out the mental mechanisms in my head on that one, wondering how I can think about and possibly extend this to people without uteruses. (But, you know, I am still a biologist by training—I may never come up with a way to justify mpreg without a uterus.)
Specifically on transness, I wasn’t going to write a queernorm world that wasn’t inclusive, and that meant trans people who sought gender-affirming medical care. Since there was blood magic, I knew I could easily figure out a mechanism by which people could get that kind of care. From a mechanistic standpoint, sexual dymorphism between “male” and “female” humans is driven by the presence and abundance of sex hormones, which is why we see people who take hormones start to develop secondary sex characteristcs (and plenty of other bodily changes as well!) they may not have developed during puberty (hormone levels also explain intersex characteristics). So it was pretty easy to explore that with blood magic. But because sex hormones are so ubiquitious in the human body, there’s also the concern of messing that up—which is exactly the dilemma Firuz has.
But this aside, trans people exist regardless of medical care, so I wanted to also explore what would happen when blood magic went away or became taboo, as it was for about two hundred and fifty years before the genocide and is at least forty or fifty years after. That’s why there’s mention of a medical professional who does gender-affirming surgery in Qilwa, although as we see in real life, its cost is prohibitive to the Sassanian migrants. A lot of the policy decisions Qilwa makes during this time aren’t permanent, so I imagine in about five or ten years, those costs would go down and become accessible for more people, especially because trans people are extremely common in this world (because why not!).
What was your favorite scene or moment to write?
Anytime I could do an eggplant joke was a good time, haha. (I actually wrote about this for My Favorite Bit, which will go live on August 11!) But I actually want to talk about one of the earliest scenes in the book: when Firuz finds Afsoneh, an orphaned refugee and untrained blood magic user, and brings her home.
One reason the book is structured the way it is—broken into three years, often with long time-skips between each scene—is because we needed a foundation in year one to understand all the things that happen in year two (which is the majority of the book; year three is only the epilogue). Political changes happen rapidly when you look back, but in the day-to-day, it’s little things you don’t realize compound to something larger. Same with personal relationships. Firuz’s relationships with both Afsoneh and Parviz get complicated, so I wanted to show where the three of them began so we understand where they end up.
This is honestly one of my favorite scenes in the book because of the banter between Parviz and Firuz, the instant connection between Parviz and Afsoneh, and the tender exasperation between Afsoneh and Firuz. We get really small cultural details I couldn’t include elsewhere too—Afsoneh’s concern of showing up empty-handed and Firuz’s disavowal of taarof (which is a Persian, and therefore Sassanian, tradition of modest formalities, where you go back-and-forth of offering something and the other person continually rejecting it, and it’s Not Fun but extremely Iranian; not sure if other Persianate cultures also do this). I got to briefly write in some food details too, including my favorite snack, lavaashak (fruit leather), and tea!
There are some extremely subtle hints as to things to come, too; Firuz mentions scar-tissue on their belly-button, which came from their blood magic training; Parviz’s interest in tailoring and embroidery is shown; Afsoneh clutching her hand to her chest, which is triggering to Firuz but they’re good at pretending they don’t have trauma. Also, I got to reuse the word “golaabi” to describe Parviz’s “school,” which is a descriptor I recently learned from my parents: golaab is rosewater, but to call something golaabi means it’s a fake or illegitimate thing. This word is my new favorite way to bash something.
The Path to Publishing
Is The Bruising of Qilwa your first novella?
It is! I’m a novelist, so writing anything short (even though Qilwa is at absolute limit for a novella) was a challenge. Qilwa originally grew out of a short story that most definitely was not a short story; the resulting novella included everything I wanted to originally put in that story. Because it’s not a novel, there are so many details I didn’t include in it, but that was on purpose! I wanted to tell a story limited in scope that had much broader implications.
I really enjoyed writing in the novella form, though, so I’d like to do less complicated novellas in the future! It’s nice to be able to have a completed story with a shorter word count, haha. I have learned my lesson in writing a novella that only I have the larger context to, though, so that’s been an interesting lesson.
How did this story evolve between the first draft and the final version?
The very first drafts of Qilwa, as I mentioned above, were short stories—technically novelettes, between 10k-12k. When I finally fleshed it out into a novella, I got to include the parts I didn’t in the short story—mainly, the thread with Parviz and Firuz’s relationship, as interpersonal relationships aren’t put on hold when you’re in the midst of a refugee crisis. My agent suggested I include an early training scene with Afsoneh and Firuz, and with that addition, the original novella that went out to editors at about 31k. When we sold it to Tachyon, my editor wanted more about environmental magic (to hint at the end) and a scene with Kofi and Parviz that closed out Parviz’s request from the beginning of Year Two, but I went sort of wild and added a lot of other small worldbuilding elements, because I realized there were worldbuilding details I’d sort of waved away in my head but needed to put on the page. Because I’m writing more in this world, I felt like I needed to hint or tease at things that would come later. (I sort of think this backfired in retrospect, but you live and learn!) I also wanted to make the book a lot more firmly Persian, so I did that in edits, too. So while the core of the story has remained the same, the dressing has become a drapery! (Okay, that metaphor got away from me.)
What are you working on now?
Gosh, I feel like I’m juggling a bunch of projects right now, haha, but the main thing I’m working on is You Came Out of the Forest. It’s the longest book I’ve ever written, and probably the most ambitious, and just when I keep thinking it’s ready to go on submission, I find something else to work on. I fully blame this on my husband, aforementioned harshest critic and creative partner, who just read the book twice and did an EXTENSIVE edit of it. So I’m currently working on fixing this up to send to my agent, with the hopes that we’ll go on submission in the early fall. The basic premise: two friends help a third cope with the violent death of their brother, only for politics to complicate their relationships. It’s set 40 years after the genocide, in a magical monastery off the coast of Dilmun. One narrator is a Sassanian who grew up in a migrant settlement; one narrator comes from the family who was blamed for the genocide; and one narrator is an anxious orphan who doesn’t know his history. It’s a quiet story with big feels, and I’m extremely proud of it.
I’m also working on a short story for an anthology that hasn’t been announced yet, which is super cool, and a work-for-hire MG fantasy-horror project that is a ton of fun. When Forest goes on submission, I’ll be switching gears to work on my YA Islamophobia ghost story, about a queer Iranian-American teen whose brother was killed in an explosion and then blamed for that explosion as a terrorist attack because he was very visibly Muslim, and then comes back as a ghost a year later. I really thought I was writing personal stories before, but this story—my first primary world novel—is particularly personal, because the main character’s relationship to his culture and family is directly transplanted from my own experiences. The story needs a lot of work but it’s one I believe very strongly in.
Which books are you looking forward to reading, be it new releases or otherwise?
I had to limit myself to upcoming speculative fiction or I would talk about things forever, haha.
I am so excited for my friend Terry J. Benton-Walker’s debut YA Blood Debts (Tor Teen) and MG Alex Wise vs. The End of the World (Labyrinth Road), both of which come out next year!! I’ve been lucky enough to read early drafts, and both books are so good. I can’t wait to read the finished products. These books are going to make so many queer Black kids feel so seen.
I’m also psyched to read Neon Yang’s debut novel, The Genesis of Misery, and my fellow Tachyon author Mia Tsai’s debut novel Bitter Medicine. R.B. Lemberg has some more stuff out in their Birdverse soon—their debut novel The Unbalancing, also out from Tachyon this fall, and a short story collection! I’m hoping to dive into Sam J. Miller’s Boys, Beasts, and Men soon, and Zabé Ellor’s Silk Fire as well, and Ren Hutchinson’s Under Fortunate Stars. (I’m actually not a big sci-fi reader, but I’ve been trying to push my reading comfort areas!) There are the usual suspects, too, which a lot of people are psyched for: Hell Bent, Leigh Bardugo’s sequel to Ninth House (which I absolutely adored); R.F. Kuang’s Babel; Sunyi Dean’s The Book Eaters. I’ve been wanting to pick up Charlie Jane Anders’s Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak, the sequel to Victories Greater Than Death (which was such a fun romp and full of queer feels), and will be first in line for Shannon Chakraborty’s The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi. Recent speculative fiction releases are absolutely KILLING IT, and I can’t wait to catch ‘em all!!!
Naseem Jamnia (they/them) is a Persian-Chicagoan, former scientist, and author of The Bruising of Qilwa (August 2022, Tachyon Publications). They’ve received fellowships from Bitch Media, Lambda Literary, Otherwise, and CatStone Books, and are the managing editor at Sword & Kettle Press. Find out at more at www.naseemwrites.com or on Twitter/Instagram @jamsternazzy.