Alina Boyden’s gorgeous, transportive debut novel, Stealing Thunder, synthesizes Mughal Indian history and her own anthropological work with the transgender communities of South Asia to create a richly detailed fantasy world. Here, Boyden shares how she developed the fabulous clothing of Daryastani society, why she developed an “anti-dragon” and more.
This is your debut novel, and it’s haunting, gorgeous and amusing at all the right moments. What places and times would you like to travel to in your fiction going forward?
First of all, thank you so much for that lovely compliment. I am definitely continuing the story of Razia and Arjun with a sequel. I’ve written that one, and it broadens the horizons of the world of Stealing Thunder quite considerably. I’m also working on some non-Razia related projects. Currently that is taking me to the south of France and to Spain in the 13th century, though it won’t be a historical fiction piece, so that’s just the inspiration. It brings me back to my undergraduate years as a medieval studies major. But there are so many other places in the world and so many other cultures that I find deeply inspiring that I think if I’m lucky enough to have the sales figures to keep my career going, I will have no shortage of places and times to visit.
“. . . to see communities of (largely) transgender women, which have existed for thousands of years, was awe-inspiring to me.”
Readers may not know that the hijras in Stealing Thunder are inspired by the real-life communities of the same name in Pakistan, which you’ve studied during your work as a cultural anthropologist. When did you first learn about these communities, and why do they fascinate and inspire you?
Well, for starters, the communities in Pakistan are properly referred to as “khwaja sira” communities. In Pakistan, “hijra” is often considered to be a slur. In India, “hijra” has greater currency as an autonym and is not nearly so often considered to be negative in its connotation. I chose to use “hijra” as a term because it has so much wider currency in American discourse than “khwaja sira” does, and because the word “transgender” in English is such a recent innovation that I felt it might distract readers from the fantasy world I had created.
I first learned about hijras when I was 12 or 13; I suppose I was, like a lot of trans women, searching the world to see if there are others out there like her. You see, when I was growing up, I was taught that being transgender was a modern phenomenon, that trans people didn’t exist in other countries, that we were a particular pathology rooted in the modern West. So to see communities of (largely) transgender women that have existed for thousands of years was awe-inspiring to me. Most trans women I know in America grew up believing they were alone. Each of us had to learn for herself what being transgender even was, because there was so little cultural understanding of transness as a phenomenon.
So to see a culture where not only is transness broadly known and acknowledged, but these trans women live together in their own communities—that was really shocking to me the first time I came across it. It made me realize that things didn’t have to be the way that they were for me growing up in America. There are many other ways that transness can operate in the world, and one of them is this radically visible and community-oriented form that we see in the hijra and khwaja sira communities of South Asia.
Your description of Razia and her hijra sisters’ transitions is eloquent and beautiful, normalizing the process to readers even when the other members of Daryastani society may not feel the same way. As a trans rights activist, was this a stance that you knew you wanted in the book from the beginning, rather than the oft popularized stories of only hardship and pain?
Absolutely. If there is one pernicious myth that needs to be addressed in our own society, it is the idea that transition-related treatments are as painful or more painful than gender dysphoria, or that they are imperfect facsimiles of cis experiences. Those ideas permeated my own upbringing and my own early understanding of transition, and they are myths that I only banished within myself somewhat recently, because they are so virulent.
I’m not really sure why cis people are so taken with the idea that transition-related procedures are painful or damaging or imperfect. Maybe it’s because cis people don’t have gender dysphoria, by definition, and therefore they imagine what it would be like to undergo those procedures themselves and come away horrified. Maybe it’s something else. I don’t know what being cis is like. But for trans people, it’s actually the reverse. The procedures are not horrific, damaging things; they are profoundly mundane medical interventions which result in bodies that largely feel normal—often for the first time in our lives.
Now that’s not to say that every trans person needs or wants the same (or any) medical interventions in their lives. However, for those trans people who do medically transition as a result of the dysphoria they experience, the decision to begin transition or to have surgical intervention can be fraught with fear and doubt because of the salacious misinformation that they have been exposed to. The truth (as I have experienced it as one trans woman) is that the medical interventions in my life were not only greatly beneficial in terms of my mental well-being but also have given me a far greater sense of normalcy than I ever expected they would.
I wanted to include that sense of normalcy in Stealing Thunder. I wanted to normalize the physical experience of being transgender without centering the narrative around medical interventions or physical changes. I did this quite consciously, because cis people seem to focus far more on our hormones and our surgeries than we do in our daily lives. Yes, for many of us, those interventions are a part of our lived experiences. Yes, I do wake up every morning and take estrogen, and take it again before going to bed, and have since I was 18 years old. But I don’t really spend a lot of time dwelling on it. I don’t view it as particularly central to my daily lived experience, and it’s certainly not something that, if I were writing the novel of my life, I would spend a whole lot of time on. So, when writing the novel of Razia’s life, I didn’t spend a lot of time on it either.
When did you first become fascinated with the Mughal Empire, and why do you think that era of history is so resonant for you?
I’ve been fascinated by the so-called “Gunpowder Empires” of the 16th and 17th centuries for as long as I can remember. This was a period when the military dominance of European powers was something still on the horizon. It was a time when Ottoman armies besieged Vienna, and when India was the wealthiest country in the world. These empires represented a substantial fraction of the world’s population, a substantial fraction of the world’s GDP and produced some of the finest art and architecture ever to be found anywhere on the planet. If I had not experienced the incredibly Eurocentric public history education that we have in the United States firsthand, I would be genuinely baffled as to why anyone looking at the 16th and 17th centuries would be so focused on the activities of a tiny, dreary island in the North Atlantic when they could focus on the Red Fort of Agra instead.
Were there any real-life muses who inspired the individual characters of Razia Khan and Prince Arjun?
Razia’s namesake is obviously Razia Sultana, the only female ruler of the Delhi Sultanate. I visited her tomb in Delhi, which was an amazing experience, as it’s quite hard to find and very poorly marked, having no major structures associated with it. However, aside from the name, which I really liked, there isn’t a great deal of similarity between Razia the sultana and Razia the character.
Arjun is kind of a sly reference to the character of Arjun(a) the Archer, from the Mahabharata. In the story, Arjuna spends a year cursed to live as a hijra, so I threw in a slight reference to that in Stealing Thunder as well, though I don’t know if anybody noticed. I thought it was kind of fun to have the male lead be named for a well-known character who spent a year living as a trans woman himself. I don’t know if that necessarily explains why Arjun is such an empathetic character when it comes to Razia, but maybe that informed my thinking a little bit.
Your characters are resplendently dressed and described, to the point where the reader can truly visualize Razia, her comrades and her foes. What was your favorite part of crafting the garb for this book?
The garb was so hard! Fashion changes so much over time, and to make a decision about what people are wearing when you have to consider changes over time and region, and then also practicality, took a ton of work. But I think my favorite part was just looking at all the gorgeous examples that exist both from South Asia in the past and South Asia today. It was an awesome excuse to watch some really fun Bollywood movies, to delve into 16th and 17th century miniature paintings and to go sari shopping with friends. Honestly, research is probably my favorite part about writing, and I love historical costume research, so as tough as it was to feel like I’d done it justice, the whole thing was just a joy.
“I actually have to confess that I’ve always hated dragons in fantasy . . .”
Every time one of the zahhaks stole a scene, I became more curious about your inspiration for these glorious creatures. What’s their backstory? And is their name an intentional homage to the villainous Zahhak of Persian mythology?
Yes, zahhaks, what’s going on with that? Well, honestly it comes down to the fact that there really is no one good translation of the concept of dragon into South Asian culture—or at least, I couldn’t find one that satisfied me. Obviously, dragon could be translated into Urdu as “azhdaha” (which is a Persian loanword). And Zahhak is a villainous character of Persian mythology whose name is sometimes translated as “dragon.” So when I was trying to find a good word to get across the concept of dragon, I really was torn between those two words, and I settled on zahhak as being easier for non-Persian and non-Urdu speakers to read without being distracted by questions of pronunciation.
But their backstory is entirely my own invention. I actually have to confess that I’ve always hated dragons in fantasy, because they’re not aerodynamic, and they don’t behave in ways that make sense in terms of how they’re used militarily in fantasy books. I’ve studied military aviation my whole life, and I love birds—I used to train birds of prey for a living, and I’m familiar with ancient treatises on falconry, including ones from South Asia. So I have long had this knowledge about falconry and this obsession with flight, and I fly airplanes too, so I brought those things together to create a kind of dragon-like creature, but one governed by the actual laws of aerodynamics as much as possible. I researched extinct giant birds and pterosaurs, and I mixed them together with living birds of prey and with my way-too-vast knowledge of military aviation, and I essentially created these biological fighter planes which look like resplendent peacocks. I was so sure that nobody else would like them, but people have really responded positively to them, even though they’re my anti-dragon in a way.
What do you hope readers will discover about the world or themselves after reading your book?
Well, I don’t know that I have enough faith in my own writing to believe that people will discover something life-altering about themselves from reading one of my books. My hope is a bit simpler than that. I just want trans women, especially young trans girls, to read this book and feel seen and represented. I want them to realize that they can be anybody they want to, that they can dream as big as anyone else, that the world is as much their oyster as anyone else’s.
And I realize my readership is largely not going to be trans women, young or old. That’s just a demographic reality. So for the bulk of my readers, especially for my cis readers, I just hope that they come away from this book having our existences demystified a little bit. I think the truth of being a trans girl is profoundly boring and normal. I think if I’ve properly explained what it’s like to be trans to a cis reader, their response is probably going to be something along the lines of, “Oh, is that all there is to it?” And that’s fine with me. Because I think that sense of normalcy, that sense of “Oh you’re just like me,” that’s where acceptance begins.
What’s next for you and your writing? I’m sure readers would love to know what’s in the pipeline for you, Razia and her chosen family and friends (and zahhaks!).
Well, the sequel draft is done and sitting with my editor right now, who is working on it through this pandemic we’re currently dealing with. I think it’s a really exciting book. It’s got tons more action, tons more drama, and you get to learn about a totally new species of zahhak, as well as to see the ice zahhaks from Stealing Thunder “on camera” for the first time. So that’s going to be super cool, I hope. And, of course, I’m plugging away on another project I can’t really talk about yet, but I can’t wait to share that one with the world too. Other than that, I’m surviving this social isolation as best I can, and I hope everyone reading this are healthy and as happy as can be expected given the circumstances.
Author photo by Spencer Micka.