As a media litigator at Davis Wright Tremaine, Nimra Azmi knows the power of words. Nimra uses words to tell the stories of powerful Muslim women and to share the beauty and complexity of Islamic culture in her debut novel Every Rising Sun. Nimra spoke with us about her own story and how it led to an engrossing and impactful retelling of the story of Scheherazade.
Q: You've just published an historical novel about a legendary Muslim woman – Scheherazade. Tell us about your background and how that informed your choice of subject.
Nimra: My family is Pakistani, and they came to the United States in 1989. I was born after they settled here. We're also Muslim. So, I have a triumvirate of identities – American, Muslim, and Pakistani heritage. What drew me to the subject matter of the book was exploring my Islamic identity.
Q: What led to your decision to go to law school and how did your interest in law inform the themes of your novel?
Nimra: I always wanted to do two things: be a lawyer and be a writer. In law school, and now in my job as a litigator, there was always a very heavy emphasis on writing. I have always loved the idea of words having power and, as a lawyer, the words you use and how you use them have real-world outcomes.
The gist of the book is about the impact of words and the power of storytelling. Also, in the book there are some plot lines that include details of Islamic law. The law really does bleed into every aspect of our lives. Even in the dramatic medieval world of my book, there are still ways in which fine legal points end up having a compelling emotional impact. Without spoiling any surprise, there is a moment in the book that revolves around a very esoteric point of Islamic law.
Q: How did you find time to write the book in the midst of a busy law practice where you work long hours?
Nimra: As I mentioned, I've always loved writing. I started writing the book in high school and continued working on it through college and law school. I took three months off after graduating from law school so I could write full time. I workshopped the book in law school and again in New York during the first years of my legal career. The workshop process entails spending some intensive time with other writers who read your work and then discuss it in your presence. The nature of my law practice didn't permit me to set aside a few hours every day to work on the book. I worked on the book whenever I happened to have the time and the mental bandwidth. Looking back, I'm not quite sure how I managed to complete the book. But it was a labor of love, so I just inched along over years and years.
Q: Why did you write under a nom de plume and how did you choose the name you used?
Nimra: I wanted a bit of separation between my two identities: lawyer and writer. Everyone is so findable these days. It's one thing to have your name on a brief and another thing to have your name in bookstores everywhere. I'm obviously not hiding the fact that I wrote the book, but I wanted some degree of privacy and anonymity in the very public publishing world.
For the name, I chose Jamila, my paternal grandmother's name, who passed away when I was in law school, and Ahmed, my mother's last name. My nom de plume is a combination of both sides of my family.
Q: Your book is about powerful women – Scheherazade and the women in the stories she tells – and how they use their power. Why did you choose Scheherazade as your protagonist?
Nimra: Scheherazade has always been a really fascinating character for me. She's one of the few strong Muslim female characters to whom you're introduced as an American. However, when people think of the stories of the Arabian Nights, they think of Sinbad and Aladdin. Yet at the heart of the Arabian Nights are the stories that Scheherazade tells, even though her character rarely makes an appearance. Scheherazade appears at the beginning and at the end of the Arabian Nights, and I wanted to see more of her. I wanted a book that explored the psychology behind someone of great privilege, who throws herself into the mouth of the lion to save other people's lives.
I also wanted to highlight the universality of strong women, particularly from a Muslim perspective. There is a common perception that Muslim women are silenced and that they are oppressed. But there is a very deep tradition of really strong, dynamic Muslim women in all levels of society. I wanted to tell the stories of strong, dynamic female characters who are trying to exercise some modicum of control over their lives and to improve their circumstances and those of their families and their communities.
I wanted the book to be an intimate portrait of Scheherazade, so I chose to tell her story in the first person present, putting the reader in Scheherazade's shoes and in her world. I used that point of view to carry the narrative forward. That choice also helped to establish a divide between her story and the stories that she tells, which are told in the third person.
Q: For those who don't remember the story of Scheherazade, she volunteered to marry a king who married a new virgin every day and then beheaded her the next day. But Scheherazade, who told the king an unfinished story every night, kept alive because the king wanted to hear the end of each night's story. Are the stories Scheherazade tells in the book traditional fables or original stories that you invented?
Nimra: The stories Scheherazade tells are inspired by the Arabian Nights, but they are original. I made them up. Those stories stitch together the plot and are meant to convey Scheherazade's own thinking and her development from a young girl to a woman. I also used those stories to challenge some of the popular narratives around Muslims and the Islamic world. Many of the stories are meant to be object lessons for Scheherazade's husband to remind him that women are strong, caring, and dynamic, yet flawed – no different than men.
There are also stories of daughters and fathers throughout the book as Scheherazade is processing her own relationship with her father. I wanted to dispel the notion of the stern, patriarchal Muslim father who doesn't really care for his daughters and to convey the level of tenderness that Scheherazade's father has for his daughters. Her mother passes away before the book starts and her father stepped into both roles, with great love for both of his children.
Q: In addition to correcting misconceptions about the Islamic world, what do want the reader to take away from the book about Islamic history and culture?
Nimra: I want the reader to appreciate the richness of the culture, which is incredibly sophisticated and literate, and I really wanted to draw that out. I do that by emphasizing the sophistication – the richness of the fabric and the clothes people wore and the complexity of the food. It was so much fun to write about the food. I found an amazing medieval Islamic cookbook from the Caliph's kitchens. I refer to all kinds of herbs and spices and techniques of cooking to add texture and detail. Similarly, throughout the book, there are references to poetry, literature, and other topical texts, which are intended to emphasize the depth of Islamic culture, which is highly literate, highly complex, and highly sophisticated. Islamic culture led the way in the human tradition of intellectual development, from the Middle East to parts of Africa, China, Russia, and Europe. I hope that, through Scheherazade's own story and the stories she tells, readers will come away with a better understanding of the character and strength of Muslim women and an appreciation for the richness of Islamic culture – and, of course, take pleasure in a great read.