I submitted this interview to Broken Frontier in August only to learn today that it would not run because it would “require too much editing to make it conflict free.” That is unfortunate and now is a little dated. But I have posted it in its entirety below.
“JOURNEY TO ISLAM: A CONVERSATION WITH G. WILLOW WILSON”
With this Wednesday, August, 18 publication of AIR #24, Vertigo will officially cancel the series launched by G. Willow Wilson nearly two years ago. No stranger to the comic medium, Wilson is also the author of Vertigo’s Cairo graphic novel and DC’s Vixen mini-series. Yet, most casual readers or series newcomers may not know of Wilson’s acclaimed career outside of comics and her lengthy publication record as a national and international journalist. In June 2010, the twenty-eight year old Wilson released her autobiography/memoir entitled Butterfly Mosque through Atlantic Monthly Press. I spoke with Wilson via email several times over the past few months about her career and her new book.
NATHAN WILSON: In reading Cairo, I was struck by the detailed mythologies you interwove into the story. While I’ve heard your story about Keith Giffen’s assistance with the project, can you tell me how this story originated, how it was connected to the time you spent in Cairo which you discuss in the Butterfly Mosque, or how your experiences in Cairo shaped the book itself?
G. WILLOW WILSON: Well, the bare bones of the story came to me when I had been in Cairo for less than 24 hours. I really did meet a very shady fixer named Ashraf. After that everything kind of unfolded and unfolded in my mind until it was a great shambling mess that required a lot of trimming once it actually got to the editorial phase. The city itself was the direct inspiration–you can’t go two blocks without falling over some ancient monument or house of worship or little cafe of infinite secrets. So there was a lot of material to work with.
NW: Your work on Vixen was truly beautiful, particularly in the way the character comes to terms with her powers. As a result, it’s a very solid and intriguing superhero genre book. Obviously working within the boundaries of superhero continuity can be trying and difficult. How did you engage the character, what research did you have to employ to gain familiarity with her? Is this a genre you’d want to revisit and if so, what types of stories or characters are you attracted to or want to engage with?
GWW: Joan Hilty, the editor of that miniseries, was really helpful about sending me back issues and soforth so I could study up on Vixen’s history. It was a crash course. Working within the superhero genre can be frustrating in certain ways since you have to work within the parameters of various ongoing continuities, so the story is never going to be as elegant as you’d like it to be. Them’s just the facts. Once you get over that it’s a lot of fun–especially with a formerly D-list character like Vixen, who hasn’t been totally chewed over yet. There’s a lot more room for development in characters like that. I’d definitely do the whole superhero thing again.
NW: Any specific characters within the superhero genre you’d love to work on and why?
GWW: I’d love to do an Aquaman story–something a little bit funnier and more off-beat than his usual fare.
NW: How would you describe AIR for readers who may come to it in its collected trade format or who learn about it solely from Butterfly Mosque?
GWW: AIR is a fantasy thriller about a flight attendant who’s afraid of heights and falls in love with a guy who may or may not be a terrorist. It draws the LOST comparison a lot–tons of interlocking symbolism and a really twisty plot with an international cast of characters. So if you’re into that kind of thing, AIR is for you.
NW: How did you propose AIR and sell it to Vertigo?
GWW: After MK and I finished Cairo, Karen Berger and I started talking about the possibility of an ongoing series with a female lead. I’d begun writing AIR as a prose novel but stopped about two chapters in because I realized it could only work as a comic book. So, conveniently, I had a pitch pretty much on hand. It was one of those rare, rare situations in publishing where everything fits together from the get-go.
NW: You mention AIR started off as a prose novel. Was it difficult to transform this format of writing into comic script format? Did you have to abandon anything that didn’t transition between the two formats that you would have liked to maintain from the original? Have you explored writing novels before or since, and which type of writing appeals to you most and why?
GWW: The reason I stopped writing AIR as a prose novel was because I felt it had to be a comic; that the story lent itself better to sequential art than to prose. So the transition wasn’t difficult. I don’t prefer one medium over another–I feel like different stories require different media, so to me story comes first. I just pick the medium that will serve it best.
NW: What led you to create a narrative that is a combination of theoretical physics regarding hypertime, Aztec mythology, and aerospace? What is the inspiration behind AIR, the genesis of the idea?
GWW: A few years ago while waiting for a connecting flight in Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, I was interrogated at the gate by this little blonde flight attendant. She was suspicious because I had a couple of Middle Eastern visas in my passport. She asked me, with an air of triumph, why I kept my maiden name if I was married. Like this was how she was going to unmask me as a terrorist. I told her it’s customary for women in the Arab world to keep their maiden names, and plus, it’s the twenty first fucking century, so married women can call themselves whatever they want. (Okay, I didn’t say the second part.) The hilarious thing was that I was working as a journalist at the time, so I met and interviewed all kinds of controversial people. If she had asked me “Do you know anyone who supports the Muslim Brotherhood?” I would have been forced to say yes. But she didn’t. Just this ridiculous question about my maiden name. That was the genesis of that first scene between Blythe and Zayn in the airport in AIR. The rest came from the recesses of my brain.
NW: I realize it varies from author to author, but how far ahead of the current released comic are you in terms of writing issues?
GWW: I’m finished with the whole thing. The series will end with Issue 24 this month.
NW: I think my question may not have been clear enough. I meant to ask that when AIR was still in regular monthly circulation, i.e. issue #15 is on the stands, how far ahead were you in terms of writing issues or submitting scripts for future issues?
GWW: We were typically 3-4 issues ahead of publication, but that lead shrank as we went along.
NW: You mentioned you were given a lot of notice regarding AIR‘s unfortunate cancellation. Can you tell us about where you were in terms of the story you were still writing versus what was already on the stands when you received this news? How did this affect the work you were currently producing and what strategies did you employ to work towards a new conclusion? At what point issue wise did you have to implement these changes?
GWW: AIR has the ending it was always meant to have; there are just fewer issues in between than we would have liked. So I didn’t really have to rework anything–just foreshorten the story.
NW: Although the ending remains the same, I would think that there were story arcs and character developments that you wished to pursue that ultimately may have affected the conclusion. Can you tell us more about the writing process here, i.e. what you had to jettison and rework to reach the same ending while working within the confines of a cancellation time frame? Also, at what point in AIR did you have to begin reworking or implementing the changes to reach your conclusion much sooner than you had originally expected? Did this produce any “plot holes” or jarring moments in story or character progression that would have required more issues to cover and develop?
GWW: I would have liked to send the crew back to Narimar to see how the place had changed since it started appearing on maps in the rest of the world. It would also have been nice to expand the St. Exupery arc. But you take these things as they come.
NW: What can readers expect from the last two issues of the series?
GWW: The usual mayhem, plus extra mayhem. I like endings that read like endings–we tie up just about every loose end. There will be a death, I’m afraid.
NW: In regards to Butterfly Mosque, when did you begin documenting these experiences and begin writing the book? Would you say the observations and experiences you described in the book are written as they were experienced at the time or has your perception shifted as time has allowed you to potentially correct previous misinterpretations?
GWW: Butterfly Mosque started as a series of emails home to family and friends, many of whom suggested I compile them into a book. After I started that compilation process the project kind of grew, and I began to think of the book in a much broader way, as something to address misperceptions about Islam and the Middle East and make the conflict more personal to people whose only exposure to it is through the news cycle.
NW: In going back over those emails then for the development and publication of the book, did you rework the experiences from your current point of view on them or did you try to remain true to the feelings, emotions, and encounters as they were first experienced at that specific time? To put it another way, is what readers see in Butterfly Mosque Willow Wilson as she was at the time in terms of her beliefs and attitudes towards Islam and life in general or Willow Wilson in how you currently feel about those experiences from the benefits of hindsight?
GWW: I wrote most of the book pretty close to the events that unfold within it. There wasn’t much time in between things-happening and things-being-written-down. So looking back there are a few things that I think differently about now. But I also think the immediacy of the book gives it an emotional punch it might not have had otherwise.
NW: You speak with a great authority or at least great familiarity with the tenets of Islam early on in the book as you’re first arriving in Egypt. Does your experience, however, with the Quran depend largely upon the translation as it would say for Christians who utilize different versions, translations, or books of the Bible to define their own religious identity? To put it another way, is your faith tied to a specific sect of Islam and thus affect your outlook upon the other sects and your early experiences in Egypt?
GWW: I don’t speak with any kind of authority! I’m a practitioner, not a scholar. But to answer your question, Islam is different from Christianity in that the Quran is only considered the Quran in Arabic. You can’t say the obligatory prayers in any other language. Any interpretation of the Quran in another language is for reference only–non-native speakers of Arabic are encouraged to begin learning the original text in its original language as soon as they are able. So there’s a lot less variance in interpretation of the Quran–which is the same, dot for dot, all across the world–than there is in interpretation of the Bible. However, there are a lot of arguments about how to interpret the lives of the Prophet and his followers, of which there are many different readings and schools of thought. That’s where you see a lot of sectarianism come into play. I’m a Sunni so my thoughts on the subject are shaped by exposure to Sunni methodology.
NW: Again, to clarify my question, by authority I also mentioned familiarity because I think it can come across early on in the book that you have a considerable knowledge about Islam even as you step off the plane into Egypt. I was unaware that non-Arabic translations of the Quran are not considered the authentic Quran. So, how familiar with the Arabic language were you at the point you began reading the Quran while a student at Boston University because you mention investigating Islam on your own? Did this process entail solely reading the Quran in Arabic and other texts (both religious and secular) about Islam? Would you say then that your outlook and understanding of Islam upon your arrival in Egypt was shaped primarily by the Quran, conversations with Muslim students (Sunni or non-Sunni), and these texts?
GWW: My Arabic when I got to Egypt was awful–I could read fairly well, ie I had a good grasp of the alphabet and phonetics, but most of the time I had no idea what I was reading. As for speaking, I could talk about grammar book stuff like Maryam the new secretary from Lebanon and Adil who works at the bank, but that was about it. This was after 2 years of Arabic classes…I started taking Arabic just before 9/11, and at that point English Arabic curricula hadn’t been revised in decades because it wasn’t a language many people were interested in. So my Arabic education was pretty poor, even coming from an expensive private school. But it was enough to show me that there were nuances in the original Arabic of the Quran that you just couldn’t capture in English. My first exposure to Islam was almost entirely textual–I hadn’t met more than 3 or 4 Muslims in my life before I went to Cairo.
NW: I have a long-winded question about your relationship to and adoption of Islam as outlined in Butterfly Mosque. When you’re talking with Jo about Islam, you mention that your problem with authority prohibited you from a religion with a priesthood as did religions that outlawed premarital sex or contraception on page 58. Yet, you also admit that the treatment of women is both “disgusting and hypocritical and wrong. And I don’t think there’s a single Muslim cleric out there who’d disagree with you. This is not Islam.”
Do you think that readers might find the statement regarding Muslim clerics sweeping or selective in terms of what constitutes Islam and what does not, and who precisely is defining Islam? Most religions, after all, have a very selective nature to them. First, is this selectively then, in your experience, indicative of the different sects of Islam or wholly dependent on which sect one would belong to? Second, wouldn’t a Muslim cleric’s views of sex and sexuality, religious authority, and the roles and rights of women be solely defined by the sect itself? Is this perhaps then one of the barriers to the bridge you mention with Omar on page 69, the monolithic outlook most non-Muslims have of Islam as one religion, not recognizing or understanding the differences between sects combined with the incapability of Islamic sects to comprehend “personal rights, not social responsibilities” of non-Muslims (70)?
GWW: I honestly believe that there is not a single Muslim scholar–as in, someone who has memorized the Quran and has a traditionally trained, working knowledge of Islamic law–of any sect who would dare say that it’s laudable to harass women in the streets. The kind of social breakdown you see in so many places in the Middle East is seen as a catastrophe by the people who have to live with it. This was never meant to be the norm, and most people are shocked that it’s gotten so bad. So no, I don’t see these problems as some kind of academic or sectarian issue, and in fact, no offense, I tend to think academics make a huge mess of such social conflicts more often than they contribute anything of value. These are real problems, not thought experiments; and they arise from poverty and oppression, not theological schisms.
NW: In Islam, does Muslim scholar equate with Muslim cleric because while the word cleric can convey a position of someone who is obviously a religious scholar (vast knowledge and training in religious traditions) and religious leader (priest or official), does the word scholar hold the same reciprocal value? Are there Muslim scholars who are not clerics? You also mention poverty and oppression as the source for such social breakdowns as opposed to theological schisms, but does that neglect then how religion or theology is interwoven into these social relationships? Does the oppression and poverty merely stem from political or economic sources or is there perhaps a religious component (and perhaps wrongly so)? If sectarian differences do not account for these social issues, then what, your experience and opinion, explains the differences on how different clerics approach situations labeled as “progressive” or “conservative?”
GWW: I think it is a mistake that outsiders constantly try to look for this abstract theological reason for the mess in the Middle East when the vast majority of Middle Eastern countries live under secular dictators (with Saudi Arabia and Iran being just about the only exceptions). Gaddafi, Mubarak, al Assad, Ben Ali–all those guys are socialists or post-socialists. Not one of them belongs to an Islamist party and most are constantly in the process of jailing and torturing Islamists, which probably accounts in large part for the popularity of Islamism in the general populace. I think it’s also quite telling that in Central Africa, where fundamentalist brands of Christianity are on the rise in a big way, nobody looks for these connections. They just accept that decades of bad governance, corruption, the spread of illegal weapons and the postcolonial hangover have bred extremism. Nobody in their right mind would do a close reading of the Old Testament to figure out why the Congo is the way it is. Yet you’ve got the Lord’s Resistance Army out there recruiting child soldiers and performing mass child marriages in the name of Jesus Christ. I find that interesting. Look, at the end of the day, if you haven’t lived in a place, no book on earth–including mine, by the way–can tell you how it really is. You have to go and see. That is the only real education there is.
NW: One passage that stands out for me is your statement on page 250: “a tantalizing contradiction, being a woman in the Middle East—far less free than a woman in the West, but far more appreciated.” You then compare the punishment to the reward, and offer submitting an essay and cooking a meal as examples. I’d like you to expand on this further. If the examples were reversed and you were submitting an essay or article to a Muslim publication and cooking a meal for your family in the United States, would the same outcome be true in terms of reception? Do the potential rewards within Islamic culture outweigh the severe punishments in regards to womanhood in your opinion? Is appreciation, therefore, the right word or does appreciation within Muslim society denote different circumstances that in some ways, intentionally or unintentionally, reinforce the absence of such freedoms?
GWW: What severe punishments? Enlighten me. Are you under the impression we have stonings in the town square at five o’clock sharp every Saturday? I think you’re creating an intentionally false dichotomy. Women in the Middle East work just like women in the US work, and like women in the US, the rewards society gives a woman for working are fantastically low–she’s got to compete like mad for a good position and then pray it doesn’t disappear if she decides to have a family. The difference is that the rewards society gives a woman for having a family in the US are also fantastically low–she’s expected to do it all on her own and be a kind of superwoman, without so much as a thank-you. This is where the Middle East is different–a woman who heads a household is socially elevated, respected, cherished, and has a distinct position in society. People in the west seem to be under the impression that women only buy into the system in the Arab world because there is some bearded dude standing over them with a shotgun. They don’t realize that the rewards that system can provide are very, very high, which is probably why so many Arab women defend their life choices when asked.
NW: Your answer seems to imply that incidents such as stoning do not occur. By severe punishments I am not only including incidents of stoning or honor killings, but also punishments and restrictions stemming from economic , political, legal, and social sources such as voting rights, divorce and marriage laws, domestic practices, civil rights, access to education, dress code, etc. Obviously, this varies from country to country, is hotly disputed and contested, and is not solely indicative of the Middle East. What then do you believe explains this varied and often situational evidence? Is it simply the interweaving of Islamic law into political and judicial systems of government and jurisprudence? Does this not relate to the episode you discuss between “personal rights” and “social responsibilities” in the team building exercise section of the book? You mention women as heads of households, but what about women who are not in this position? Or, as heads of households, do these women’s “socially elevated, respected, cherished, and has a distinct position in society” extend beyond the house, beyond the domestic sphere or is it primarily a power and position prescribed, observed, and maintained within the home itself?
GWW: Where? In Yemen? In Egypt? In Tunisia, where the headscarf was illegal until quite recently? In Libya, where the reigning dictator is preparing to pass his authority to his daughter? You can’t make general statements about all these places as if they all work the same way. In Egypt women have had a no-fault divorce option called khula for decades. Women in New York state don’t have that option as we speak. You really can’t generalize. In places like Yemen and Saudi Arabia women might lead extremely restricted lives, but their experience really has no bearing on a woman in Morocco. You can’t just impose this one label “The Middle East” on a region that differs vastly both in religious norms and in social norms from country to country. If you want an opinion about how religion affects law in Saudi Arabia, ask a Saudi. I’ve never been there. You’ll probably get five different opinions from that one person.
NW: What has been the response from your family and friends who lived and shared the experiences you discuss in Butterfly Mosque? Was it a revelation for some? Did it provide a greater insight into your own transformation and adoption of Islam? What about for you? What did you learn about yourself that you perhaps were aware of but not fully clear about upon reading the finished product?
GWW: I think it’s a little weirder for everybody now that the book is actually out–for several years it was just a manuscript on a laptop. But since the response has been overwhelmingly positive I think we’ve all breathed a sigh of relief.
NW: Did publishing Butterfly Mosque provide a greater insight into your own transformation and adoption of Islam for you? What did you learn about yourself that you perhaps were aware of but not fully clear about upon reading the finished product?
GWW: I’m not sure I learned anything new about myself, but I certainly learned a lot about my writing process, and about the ins and outs of book publishing. It’s been an education all around.
NW: Since Vertigo books tend to have a specialized audience and are usually considered a “higher” form of literature as opposed to comics (they get taught in universities, while comics usually don’t), do you find a lot of crossover in your readership between your non-fiction journalism, to your fiction work within the comics medium, to your now published memoir? Or, do you find yourself having to wear different masks not only in your approach as a writer with these different venues but also in terms your relationship with your audience or audiences?
GWW: Comic book readers are the most loyal people on earth. I have had fans of my comics at every single Butterfly Mosque reading I’ve done so far. I’m really humbled and amazed that they’ve made the jump, since this so different from what I usually produce. So more and more I get to wear one hat, which is far less exhausting than code-switching all the time. It would be great if the crossover went both ways and mainstream readers started picking up more comics, but I’m not holding my breath. The comics industry has been waiting for that phenomenon to occur for like twenty years now.
NW: For someone who may not know of your work, what do you believe is best representative of your abilities as a writer? If you had to recommend only one, either a graphic novel, your new book, or a single issue of your series, to a new reader, which would it be and why? Which of your works are you the most proud of and why?
GWW: Probably Cairo. I was so young when I wrote it, and now it reads like innocent idealism, but in a way that’s what makes it good. It’s probably the book with the most real syncretism between western fantasy lit and Islam, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.
NW: When you do have the opportunity to read, particularly comics or graphic novels, do you find it difficult to separate the writer from the reader, i.e. divorcing yourself from the experience of writing and thus enjoying them solely as a participant?
GWW: Not really. I do have that problem with films and television, though, oddly. I find myself doing a lot of guessing about the arguments that went into editing and revising and shooting.
NW: What writers inspire you to be better and why? What do you look for in a good comic or good novel and what entertains you? Do you attempt to bring any of this into your own work?
GWW: Whenever I read William Makepeace Thackery I always feel very small because I will never write anything even half as brilliant as Vanity Fair. But I read it over and over again anyway, because I think really good writing gets into your pours and makes you a better person if not a better writer.
NW: What considerations regarding story organization do you have to toy around with when writing? Does the structure of your scripts depend on the character and the assigned artist, or do you have a set approach that you tweak between writing say AIR, Cairo, and Vixen?
GWW: Well the first consideration is length, of course. The arc of a single issue is different from a miniseries, which is different from an ongoing, which is different from an OGN. So that is what I tackle first, organizationally speaking. If an artist is stronger at a fine art style than at a more action-y, comic book-y style, I try to play to his or her strengths and go easy on the fist fights.
NW: I know a lot of writers produce when its inspiration, when it’s an impending deadline, or when they’ve scheduled themselves to write. First, can you tell us a little about your writing process and how does it vary depending on what type of story you are writing, both fiction and non-fiction included? Second, do you find yourself being more or less disciplined now in regards to your writing and your output at this stage in your career as opposed to say when you first began?
GWW: I’ve always been pretty Type A and routine-driven, so my working days have looked almost the same since I was 21: wake up around 7:30, eat breakfast, work out, shower, start writing. Break for lunch, stop working around 4pm. For me this is the only thing that works–I can’t write at night or in short bursts like some other writers can.
NW: What, in your opinion, is the most important thing you would like readers to take away from your work, both comics and the Butterfly Mosque?
GWW: An understanding of the world that hinges on individual lives, not collective politics.
NW: In reflecting on your career thus far, where do you feel you still need to go as a writer? How do you challenge yourself to be better, to improve?
GWW: At this point in history, there isn’t much choice involved for working writers–unless you write bestsellers, you’ve got to produce more or less constantly in order to survive. The challenge is to keep your work fresh and dynamic even when you’re exhausted. But writing is what I love, and I have no desire to do anything else, ever–that in itself is motivation enough to keep going.