From The Writers' Room Featuring Bookburners

Amal El-Mohtar on writing Bookburners S02 E07: “Fire and Ice”

Home is a moving goalpost

Hello, fine Serialists! I’m so delighted to be addressing you, and many thanks for reading “Fire and Ice” – it’s been a fantastic treat to get to play in this world, with these characters, and bring them into my own backyard.

Something Max said in his episode notes last week really resonated with me:

It’s hard, coming home.
Hard for different reasons, mind, depending on who’s homecoming and why.  Coming home means asking yourself why you left.  Coming home means accepting that the place you left doesn’t exist any more—or, at least, it doesn’t exist anywhere but inside your head, which leaves it a lot more durable than might be ideal.  Sometimes, coming home means fighting monsters.

It me, basically.

BB_SII_Ep_07_ebook_600x960I’ve been thinking a lot recently about home and what it means. I was born in and raised around Ottawa, but I’ve spent the last ten years or so living abroad – in the United Arab Emirates, in England, in Scotland, coming back to Canada for visits every six months, then moving back in January of last year because of visa restrictions while leaving my partner in Glasgow, entering into the death-by-a-thousand-papercuts nightmare of immigration bureaucracy as we await the decision that will allow him to join me here. My parents, their parents, and all their siblings were immigrants, fleeing a civil war in waves and forming a human chain reaching across the Atlantic to help more family members arrive. Home, for my family, is a moving goalpost.

During my time abroad I’ve watched with mounting shame and horror as the country I called home turned ugly. I’ve watched the millions of Syrians struggling to survive invasion by escaping into other countries get called “cockroaches” and “floods,” things to be either exterminated or defended against. Borders are much on my mind – as well as the question of who’s allowed through them, when, how, and what they get called once they’re on the other side.

I was raised by Trudeau(-senior)-loving parents who spoke glowingly of a Canada that welcomed them in. I was told in no uncertain terms that I was Canadian and no one could question that or take it from me – but have lived to see legislation tabled to do exactly that. I have lived to see my country agitated into a frenzy against Islam, immigrants, refugees. I’ve lived to see cousins of mine – whose parents were immigrants – sucked into the disgusting, ignorant rhetoric around “good” immigrants and “bad”: one cousin posting a photo of a Canadian flag with the words “Fuck off, we’re full” on it, another expressing admiration for Trump’s desire to build a wall. This, while my brother gets death threats at work for being brown and having an Arabic name, while my husband hopes to immigrate.

This thing, this toxic mold infecting my family, my country, this constant fetid shimmer of hate in the air – these are the monsters I’ve come home to fight. I find them more terrifying than Ifrits, far more difficult and necessary to confront and defeat. Writing is my way of doing that.

I was nervous about bringing all of this into my episode, especially as nakedly as I did. I’m terribly grateful for the team’s support in so doing. Writing fantasy specifically – where I can decant my anger into beings of living flame – is what allows me to approach topics I find otherwise paralysing. I find it enormously difficult to talk about Syria, but lately I can’t seem to stop writing about djinn, and birds, and fire.

Speaking of fire: all the history, speculation and theories about the mysterious fire of 1916 are legit, and the centennial saw a lot of commemoration during this year’s Winterlude. Also The Haunted Walk is a real thing, and I worked for them for several years! Most of my (exhaustive, and possibly exhausting) knowledge of Ottawa’s history comes from them, and I’m forever grateful for the experience of getting to spook locals and tourists with research. If you’re ever in Ottawa, Kingston, or – heavens help you – Toronto, I highly recommend checking them out.

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