#1 Act of Story Statement
Aya’s mission is seemingly just to survive. But survival isn’t enough. She has to survive AND stay true to who she is, maintaining a core of faith – in her God, in herself. It means her true mission is not to just to survive but to “overcome and thrive against seemingly insurmountable, and constantly changing, odds”
There are many villains here – the Crusaders, the Marquess, Sir Roger. They are simply evil. But the most interesting antagonist, I believe, is the Colonel. He is paradox and enigma. He saves Aya but he is also her jailor. He is different from the men he commands, more cultured, more circumspect, but he still participates in the horrors. He notes much of what happens around him but turns a blind eye again and again. Powerful on the field of battle he is emasculated at home. Does he regret his actions? Perhaps. But he doesn’t change as a result of that knowledge. All he has is control over the girl he kidnapped and her fate is tied to his actions, for good or bad. You might see him as the most insidious darkness in this tale because he thinks of himself as a good man yet he is not. Yes, he is an allegory for our modern times. How many of us think ourselves good but stay silent, and therefore complicit, in our current racial reckoning?
To be honest, this the most challenging assignment. Early on, I picked “Aya, The Journey” as my title after trying out a couple of ideas. To be honest, I was influenced by Carolyn Meyer’s “Royal Diaries” book series when I began thinking about it. Though it is historical fiction and the locations play a role, I feel this is Aya’s story, first and foremost. I really wanted her name in the title not only because it is such a personal story but because the name, Aya, was chosen deliberately. Across cultures it means Goodness and Light. I began with “Aya, Daughter of the Desert” but changed to “Aya, The Journey” because the story isn’t about the desert she leaves behind but about the path she takes, willingly or not. The story is literally about her journey, internal and external. You see some of this symbolism in titles like “Cleopatra’s Moon” by Vicky Alvear Schecter and “Brown Girl Dreaming” by Jacqueline Woodson. For my faux cover I placed the title over a photo of shadowed and undulating sand, to show how life can shift beneath your feet (No, I don’t think “The Shifting Sands of Aya” is a good call because it’s too literal … I want to ~suggest~ a theme not hit people over the head with it). I could use a quote from the Koran if I knew it front to back (which I don’t) but this is not a story of Islam but of Aya. Aya is a child of faith. Any reader should feel comfortable picking it up, regardless of their belief set.
I call this “YA Historical Fiction” with Feminist and Religious themes. In looking for comparables there are frighteningly few YA books about Islamic youth, which is sad given the amount of persecution Muslims are facing in so many places in the world. It was reports on the Rohingya, the Uighurs, the attack against Muslims in Christchurch, and many more recent news stories which got me thinking about writing a tale of a Muslim girl. There are exceptions, of course. There are some very well-known stories by Muslims about Muslims, like Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” books and “19 Varieties of Gazelle” by Naomi Shihab Nye as well as less famous but very good books like Randa Abdel-Fattah’s “Where the Streets Had a Name” and “Does My Head Look Big in This?” as well as Hena Khan’s works, like “Amina’s Voice”. There are also a few picture books like “Sitti’s Secrets” and “Time to Pray” but the great majority of these stories are set in contemporary times with young people facing war in the Middle East or prejudice here in America. I found a few Sci-fi tales by Muslim writers, a good number of love stories, but nothing set in history – nothing showing the clash between the culture of the Middle East and the arrival of the white Crusaders – FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF THE MUSLIMS. The only thing which came close were some recent BBC incarnations of Robin Hood where people of Islam are seen sympathetically and the subjugation of them is admitted to by a regretful British lord. Which was the second impetus in the writing of this story.
#5 Core Wound and the Primary Conflict/Hook Line
“Aya, a daughter of Islam, is captured by Crusaders and taken to new worlds which are alien and dangerous for her. Can she find the strength and faith to survive the unthinkable?”
Core Wound: Aya is taken from her home and enslaved. She must adapt, over and over again, as losses continue through her long journey. She must find a way to be true to herself as her spirit is shaken and her captors reject her faith and culture.
Primary Conflict: She is a child and a female. She cannot fight back against her enemies directly. (I worked to keep this aspect more true to history. Girl Power aside, at this time and in this place any rebellion would have to be subtle and carefully executed.) She may appear submissive but she is not, rather she takes time to figure out her environment before acting. She is not guarded that carefully and yet she cannot escape. Her only choices are to find a way to gain what little power she can and adapt or to die.
#6 Other Matters of Conflict
First, she has her faith, which should sustain her. But time and time again, as things take a turn, she feels like her God has abandoned her. She struggles to truly understand her beliefs and how they might sustain her. If she is not a Muslim, who is she?
Hypothetical: Aya could turn her back on her faith. Many around her do. She is pressured to become a Christian. And yet the more pressure is brought to bear, the more she is insistent on remaining Muslim. In her grief she feels shaky in her faith but time and time again she hits bottom and clings to it as her lifeline.
Second, she is raped. Aside from “Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson there isn’t a lot of YA literature which addresses this issue. As an author, I don’t dwell on it but include it as a fact of war. As a former educator I met so many immigrant girls who faced this challenge. This topic needs to be covered in YA lit, needs to be brought into the light of day. Too many young people feel alone because something happened to them which is never talked about.
Hypothetical: Aya does not get pregnant while in the camp at Jaffa. Other women do. They have different reactions which Aya considers. She cannot understand the women who reject their children but later in the story she comes to understand their point of view even if she doesn’t necessarily agree with it.
The book is segmented. Each new setting represents a change in Aya’s life. Her world matches where she is on the journey, internally and externally. The tricky part (beyond researching what these places would have looked like in the late 12th Century) was to see them through Aya’s eyes – would she have known what a brick was, for instance? (Hint: no …)
The tale begins in the desert, Aya’s home. It is simple and warm and hers. But the sands shift and she is taken. Trying to find her initial balance the story remains in the desert for a bit and then the first section ends at Jaffa, the gleaming city on the hill. But things are not as she thinks. The city looks like a glorious place of promise from the outside but on the inside there are shadows and narrow alleys and a prison which looks like a home but is a prison nonetheless.
The prison in Jaffa affords a view of the Mediterranean, an ominous foreshadowing of Aya’s next unexpected step in her journey. The sea sparkles below them, boats bouncing on the water. Boats which will take Aya away from her second home. The ship itself is creaky and dark and overwhelming, much like the feelings Aya has as she is ripped away, once again. The terrifying trip turns Aya up and down both physically and emotionally.
The Iberian Peninsula and the southwest region of France present a new world, completely alien to Aya. It is not as scary as one might think, there are just so many things to take in. Aya learns to appreciate the green pastural world as her own life seems settled for the first time in a long time. Seasons pass and she grows along with them.
The setting of the next section is not discussed much. Aya is in a deep depression and everything around her seems flat and still. She goes through the motions but the setting is a blur. She is just trying to get through each day. She sees colors – mostly grey and red and tries to keep her head down. It is the only part of the story where she doesn’t observe her world in great detail. It is the opposite. She tries to shut out everything she can.
The final chapter represents closure. She finds peace. The green has returned, the hills are now low and rolling, not impossibly large mountains. The wind is soft, the sun is gentle. We return to how she felt in the opening sentences of the book.