Nafiza Azad has always been annoyed by Shakespeare’s “What’s in a name?” question.
“It centers the Western perspective as the only one that matters,” the YA author explained. “[But] a name has all sorts of meanings and functions in different cultures around the world.”
This fact is reflected in the city of Noor, the setting of Azad’s diverse debut novel The Candle and the Flame. Names play a prominent role in the novel, as the main character Fatima, one of the few people left in Noor after a tribe of djinns slaughters the human residents, acquires the power to divine the true names of djinn. “Names for the djinn are very important,” Azad said.
Though there are quite a few names and djinn, NPR books reviewer Caitlyn Paxson found them ultimately rewarding. “Naming and language mean everything in Noor, a city of many cultures and identities, so it seems fitting that names are a fluid and essential aspect of the story,” wrote Paxson in a recent review.
Names are also an essential aspect of identity. If that sounds political, it isn’t a coincidence.
In spite of living in Canada, Azad says her novel was inspired by the U.S.’s 2016 presidential election results. “Like the rest of the world,” she was “horrified” when she heard the results, especially when it came to “the barrage of toxic rhetoric or social and traditional media regarding Muslims and other minorities.”
“I wanted to write a place where everyone is accepted and welcomed,” she said.
Though it is her debut, it is not the first novel Azad has written.
Born and raised in Fiji, Azad immigrated to Canada with her family in 2001. There, she pursued three-quarters of a biology degree (because her immigrant parents “stressed the importance of stability”) before switching her major “one afternoon without any thought” and ultimately graduating with a B.A. in English literature.
She then pursued a master's in children’s literature.
“For my thesis, I wrote a YA novel under the supervision of Maggie de Vries,” Azad explained. De Vries has written eight children's books and a memoir, and teaches creative writing at the University of British Columbia. “She taught me the mechanics of storytelling and guided me through my first novel.”
Though it ultimately did not sell, that first novel got Azad her agent.
The Candle and the Flame, a “sweeping, sprawling tale,” is her second work, and as such, it came to her in bits and pieces.
In addition to the aforementioned Shakespeare quote and election results, Azad credits an image from her past for the novel.
“When I was in my early twenties, I was haunted by this image of a girl running desperately down the street of a city,” Azad said. “The girl became Fatima and the city became Noor.”
Azad said she wrote the first draft by hand and in five months.
“I simply couldn’t write it on my laptop, so I persevered,” she said. Along with the draft, she worked on a second “book.”
“When I write a novel, I keep a notebook that serves as a world-building workbook,” she said. “I ask myself questions, work through the snarls in the plot, write up character bios, and make aesthetics. This process works best for me and makes me feel very productive when I end up with two books at the end.”
Azad said that the novel went through “one deep revision” where she “essentially rewrote the entire story using the first draft as a foundation.”
“Then, it went through a couple of minor rounds of edits [and] revisions before it was sent on [submission to editors]. After it was sold, I did a light revision, some copyedits, proofreads, and viola: completed novel. The novel took two years to fully complete.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Azad’s favorite parts of the process are the world building, plotting, and researching.
“There is no rhyme or reason for my story ideas,” she said. “To be super pretentious, I will say I am inspired by life and this is not entirely untrue.”
Her least favorite? The writing itself.
“It often feels like I’m digging out bits of my soul and smearing it on the paper for people to read,” she said. “Yes, it’s a charming image, and yes, I am sorry.”
Contributing to this difficulty may be the often-difficult topics her work grapples with.
The Candle and the Flame engages with intersectional feminism both explicitly and implicitly.
“It was important for me to be explicit about the fact that my book is loudly feminist,” Azad said. “Perhaps white feminism will not recognize it as being such but women who live in the cultures present in the novel do not require white feminism.”
She also engages with toxic masculinity “by offering male characters who are very much unlike the stereotypes brown, especially Muslim, men suffer from.”
“Someone accused me of having only flawed men in Candle but I would like to say that all characters in Candle are flawed,” she said. “Some are redeemed while others aren’t.”
Azad’s novel features a diverse cast of characters, an aspect that is important to her and that has become slightly more prevalent in YA in recent years.
“I think we are certainly changing the landscape of what publishing looks like, especially in the YA genre,” she said. “However, I feel like we as POC creators must always be alert, aware, and cautious of any improvement. Because publishing marries art and business, important issues can get exploited and we have to be careful diversity becomes less a trend and more of a natural result of the fiercely global times we live in.”
Moreover, “one has to understand that not all stories can be told by just anyone,” Azad said. “For example, some of the stories treasured by First Nations are theirs and theirs alone. No one has the right to tell them except them, should they do so.”
“I feel that if you are attempting to tell a story while not necessarily from the community or culture you wish to talk about, you need a lot of research and self-awareness of the boundaries and limits you can and cannot cross,” she said. “[And yet] limiting POC creatives into boxes labeled #ownvoices only is suspect. When white writers have been writing outside their box for centuries, it feels very restrictive as a POC writer to be told that you can only write what you know. Some might say that white writers are being told the same thing and to that I will argue that it is because some tales need to be told by the people from the culture [or] community [that is featured].”
Now that The Candle and the Flame is out in the world, Azad is currently trying her luck selling a “fiercely feminist novel inspired by Peter Pan.”
Additionally, she is working on “a middle grade novel set in Fiji that needs revision,” and is “world building a high-fantasy novel that involves high stakes, music, and magic.”
She said it doesn’t get easier with every new book she writes.
“Every book is a different beast and needs to be tamed differently,” she explained. “It never gets easier and you should be suspicious of anyone who tells you it does.”
She laughed. “What writing one book does is make you more aware of all the ways you can fail with the next one.”
Find Nafiza Azad on Twitter @Nafizaa.
Hiba Tahir is a YA author, a freelance journalist, and an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Arkansas.