Djinns, ISI and Osama's porn stack: Meet Sami Shah

Djinns, ISI and Osama's porn stack: Meet Sami Shah

What happens when a stand-up comedian writes a book about djinns? Nothing much except the fact that the book is really no joke and it gives you the chills. Who would have thunk!

 

Pakistani stand-up comedian Sami Shah's Boy of Fire and Earth is yet to hit the shelves, but rest assured, this is going to be a very interesting one.

 

The story of a boy called Wahid (the name means 'unique/new', because, if nothing else, the boy is definitely unique), nestled somewhere between snippet horror stories and a larger, scarier narrative, is a lot like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

 

But, instead of fighting his lady love's exes, Wahid battles djinns all across Karachi, and even Barzakh, to save her soul. There's also ISI involvement, a few ghosts, some other supernatural creatures, and a zombie.

 

There's also a lot of blood and gore in Boy of Fire & Earth, more than than you could may expect in a fantasy novel. But Shah has his reasons (more about this in the interview below).

 

Boy of Fire & Earth is a very interesting book because it is vastly different from the others in the genre it is supposed to fit into – the teen-boppy young adult-verse. There's something inherently dark about the book and that, with the blood, gore, guts and some really scary stories, works brilliantly.

 

Jhinuk Sen (JS): Why djinns? 

 

Sami Shah (SS): Everyone has a djinn story. Everyone I know has seen something strange or heard a noise at night that shouldn’t have been heard. But that’s not why.

 

I just got frustrated with the representation in djinns in fiction whenever western writers would do it, and they seemed like the only ones doing it. Their djinns were always taken from 1001 Arabian Nights. They granted wishes, generally lived in lamps, and were never scary at all.

 

Whereas the djinns we heard about growing up in South Asia were frightening, had no time for your wishes, and generally scared us witless as kids. So I wanted to write about those djinns, the ones that possess girls who walk under trees at sunset, and have fire in their eyes, and live next to us but are only seen when they want to be seen.

 

JS: There's an incredible amount of violence (and gore) in the story. Wahid and Maheen's relationship is very high school romance, and then it all falls in tandem with the scary stories of djinns and chudails, and completely spins out of the love letters and (imaginary) kisses mode. How do the twain meet?

 

SS: That’s the world I grew up in. One where sweet, meaningful life happens with all its cliches and innocence, right next to suicide bombings, target killings, riots, corruption, and all the rest of the brutal harsh realities of life in Pakistan.

 

For me, the goal was to show that one doesn’t prevent the other, and both co-exist. I trust in the readers to find their own understanding there, and so far I’ve been thrilled to find that to be true.

Boy of Fire & Earth book cover

Boy of Fire & Earth

JS: With all the guts and gore, parts of the story read like a kill-the-zombies video game. Is that a fair parallel?

 

SS: I love guts and gore. I read Stephen King when I was 12, I watch horror movies, and zombie stuff is my favourite thing ever. One of the characters does become a sort of zombie at one point, even. I’m totally cool with that comparison.

 

Fantasy fiction doesn’t have to be gentle and sanitised. In fact, I find it pulls me out of the reality of the book when people don’t encounter violence and brutality because that’s just a normal part of the human experience.

 

JS: No djinns have contacted you yet in Melbourne. Don't you think you should move back for things like these?

 

SS: A better reason is the food. I’m sure if I miss the djinns too much, they’ll come find me!

 

JS: What next for Sami Shah?

 

SS: I have a non-fiction book coming out in Australia in the next few months, so I need to work on selling that. And a bunch of other writing commitments for TV and radio projects that need to doing.

 

What I desperately want is to be left alone for a month to edit the crime noir novel about Bin Laden’s lost porn collection that I’ve written and is in second draft phase.

 

But the universe never gives you that much time off. I’ll get to it eventually this year though, I promise.

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