The Big Idea: Naseem Jamnia
When the odds are stacked against you, life can feel pretty overwhelming. Author Naseem Jamnia gives us a look into a world with a protagonist who has more than their fair share of hardships. Follow along in their Big Idea for their newest novel, The Bruising of Qilwa.
I frequently rant about the need for New Adult as an age group in books. Not because I don’t think current millennial experiences are worth having in the adult section—I do—but because in the U.S. and certain other parts of the world, adolescents move into emerging adulthood after high school and into their 20s, trying to navigate the world as people who are technically adults but don’t necessarily always feel like one, what with the instability of the job market, the housing market, the economy as a whole, and figuring out whether marriage and family and all that works for them. Having a category of books that point to those ideas as a central concern is helpful.
But maybe this is less about New Adult and more about being a millennial.
The Bruising of Qilwa is a deeply millennial book. It’s set in a secondary world, but it’s about a 30-year-old refugee healer who is stretched thin working at a too-busy clinic for too-little pay, being a caregiver to their brother and the orphan they find on the streets (let alone their elderly mother, with whom they often clash), fighting the government’s medical racism against fellow refugees, solving the mysteries of a magical plague—and oh, by the way, the orphan they find needs to be magically trained lest she hurts those around her, and their brother is trying to medically transition but needs the main character to create the spell to do so.
So sure, The Bruising of Qilwa is a secondary world fantasy, but I wrote it from a place of millennial exhaustion, and it shows.
The main crux of the novella came from a question I’ve been asking myself as a child to Iranian immigrants: what does it mean to be oppressed when you were once an oppressor? The main character, Firuz, is a refugee to the city-state of Qilwa, but they’re a member of a Persian-inspired ethnic group that colonized Qilwa centuries ago, and I wanted to explore this dynamic. This is a complex question, and I spend my author’s afterword on it in the book. But I really didn’t give enough credit to how much my generation’s struggles informed the course The Bruising of Qilwa takes.
I was born in 1991; I turn 31 a week after Qilwa hits shelves. In my lifetime, I’ve seen the rise of home WiFi and the downfall of dial-up; I was on MySpace and knew Facebook when you had to be invited; I got my first smart phone in my third year of college. I remember the fears around Y2K and the joys of snap bracelets and how my hometown Chicago’s Bean looked before it was sanded smooth. But I also sat sobbing on a couch in November 2016 and made the decision to leave my neuroscience PhD program to write full-time, because even though any marginalized person can tell you the US has never been kind to us, I knew it was going to get much, much worse.
I hate that we’ve been proven right almost every day since then, culminating (thus far) in the June 24th Supreme Court decision.
I started writing The Bruising of Qilwa not in response to any of the crises we’ve faced in recent years—it wasn’t in response to anything at all. Or so I thought: in the interim time between originally drafting the book and it coming out, our society has gone through COVID (which disproportionately affects Black and brown people), locked Latine children in cages, granted white Ukrainian migrants asylum while brown and Black ones are not, claimed outrage at more incidents of police brutality against Black people without meaningful change, refused to prevent continued mass shootings, allowed increased murders of trans people (particularly Black trans women), pushed through anti-queer and anti-trans legislation especially targeting children, ignored worsening effects of the climate crisis—
How could that not have, on some level, impacted my writing?
I say The Bruising of Qilwa is a deeply millennial novella because I am constantly worrying about all of these problems and feel helpless to address them, and Firuz often feels the same way. When they finally manage to move their family out of the migrant slums after the first year they’re in Qilwa, Firuz feels nagging guilt at all the migrants they left behind. As Firuz works long hours and starves themself to make sure their family is fed, they feel crushing anxiety about the migrants who die in food riots, whose children don’t have access to education, whose only advocate is a single standing free clinic fighting a government trying to crack down on who has access to affordable healthcare. Firuz’s exhaustion is on every page of The Bruising of Qilwa; their desire to be a good caregiver to their brother, a good teacher to their ward, a good clinician to their patients, and a good assistant to their mentor at the clinic all battle for space.
I, too, am tired. I don’t have the good reasons Firuz does, but maybe I needed to give Firuz all of those reasons in order to justify my own constant anxiety. Maybe the only way I could explain why so many millennials are disillusioned and jaded and frustrated was by creating a protagonist who tries so hard but never feels enough because of the systems in place against them. Maybe the only way I could process the garbage dumpster fire our world continues to be was to create a magical one that has it bad in other (but related) ways.
But for all the tragedy and difficulty that unspools in its pages, The Bruising of Qilwa ends on a hopeful note. And maybe that’s something else I had to give myself and others, too: a chance that we can make things better, even if it’s slow. Even if it feels impossible. Even without magic, I have to hope that, like Firuz, we can all help make things better for the most marginalized of us.