By Michele Kirichanskaya
Today we’re thrilled to welcome London Shah to the WNDB blog to discuss Journey to the Heart of the Abyss, the conclusion to the Light of the Abyss series, out November 16, 2021!
Leyla McQueen has finally reunited with her father after breaking him out of Broadmoor, the illegal government prison—but his freedom comes at a terrible cost. As Leyla celebrates his return, she must grapple with the pain of losing Ari. Now separated from the boy who has her heart and labeled the nation’s number one enemy, Leyla must risk illegal travel through unchartered waters in her quest for the truth behind her father’s arrest.
Across Britain, the fallout from Leyla’s actions has escalated tensions between Anthropoid and non-Anthropoid communities, bringing them to an all-time high. And, as Leyla and her friends fight to uncover the startling truths about their world, she discovers her own shocking past—and the horrifying secrets behind her father’s abduction and arrest. But as these long-buried truths finally begin to surface, so, too, do the authorities’ terrible future plans. And if the ever-pervasive fear prevents the people from taking a stand now, the abyss could stay in the dark forever.
First of all, welcome to We Need Diverse Books! Could you tell us a little about yourself?
Hello, and thank you very much for having me! As a long-time admirer of everything you guys do and have achieved, I’m especially honoured to be here.
Well, I’m a British Muslim of Pashtun ethnicity and Afghan heritage. I live in London, and I’m a typical Virgo. I love so many things, including: this planet, autumn, rainy days, mountains, the deep sea, surrealism, punk-rock, sweets, sincerity, food, films, night-time strolls through the city, solitude, evenings and nights, and… [sigh] I’m afraid of cats and dogs! (Even the cutest puppies ☹) Moving swiftly on…I’m a published writer and my debut novel, The Light at the Bottom of the World, released in Fall ’19, and is part 1 of the Light the Abyss duology. The stunning paperback edition releases on the 28th of September and features the first ever British Muslim teen, and first ever Pashtun teen, on the cover of a science-fiction/fantasy novel! The story concludes with Journey to the Heart of the Abyss.
How did you find yourself becoming a writer? What drew you to speculative fiction specifically?
I never planned to write novels, or ever thought this profession was even an option for me. In fact, as a life-long film enthusiast, I was initially planning on bringing my underwater dream to life as a screenplay. I ruled that out as soon as I began. I wanted to get as close inside my protagonist’s head as possible, to experience the entire journey through her. It was suddenly very obvious that I’d have to tell this story in book form instead.
As for speculative fiction, it spoke to the way I’ve always seen the world. As far back as I can remember I wanted something different, I wanted more. I wanted people in photographs and portraits to wink at me, I wanted to see someone I knew was dead, I wanted to see signs that one of my sisters was an alien, I wanted to find myself in a different time, and so on. Contemporary just doesn’t do it for me. I’ll always want something more, always searching for something different. Pairing the fantastical with this mesmerizing world of ours is, for me, always a deeply thrilling and satisfying outlook. It’s also always been my norm.
Growing up, were there are any books that sparked your love of storytelling or that you felt you saw yourself in?
Unfortunately, I never saw myself—or anyone remotely like myself—in any story I read as a child or teen. And so instead, what I found myself connecting with back then was worlds. I fell in love with books in which the world was one I myself would love to discover, and the kinds of worlds that were closest to how I’d already started imagining this world secretly was. To that end, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere was one of the first books that really spoke to my soul. I only discovered it in my thirties. It’s everything I love: London, urban fantasy, hidden in plain sight, play on words, juxtaposing the very familiar with the fantastical to achieve the surreal, and so on. It was the first time I’d experienced so much of what I love in a single book, and it will always hold a special place in my heart.
Where did the inspiration for The Light at the Bottom of the World come from? Was it always going to be part of the Light the Abyss series or was it originally supposed to be a one-shot story?
The setting inspired the story. From as far back as my early teens I fantasized about us existing deep underwater. And in all the years since, the vision of us living in a submerged world just wouldn’t go away. If I were on a train I’d look up and instead of sky I’d see waves upon waves of deepest blue ocean, the shadows of submarines and submersibles passing by overhead. So many, many times at home I’d suddenly glance at the window and imagine a whale drifting by. And the thing is, it always felt wonderfully real and possible to me. I wanted to create an underwater world as aesthetically close to our current one as possible, and to try and avoid anything too hard sci-fi. I was also disinterested in some fantasy world with mermaids. I wanted a submerged world we could imagine ourselves in. Britain as we currently know it, but completely underwater.
The Light at the Bottom of the World was always going to be part of a series simply because I couldn’t fit the whole story into a single volume. At one point I thought it might have to stretch to a trilogy, but I managed to tell the rest of the story in Journey to the Heart of the Abyss.
With your writing, setting is a large element of the world, in which London is transformed into a post-apocalyptic watery world. What did it feel like exploring your home through that lens in fiction?
Infinitely thrilling. This part of the planning and writing process was basically me finally indulging in that long-held fantasy of a submerged existence, and merging it with this city I love so much. Finally, through my protagonist, Leyla McQueen, I got to discover this city anew. It was utterly exhilarating exploring London via a submersible! Seeing all the very familiar landmarks in this eerie manner, with water having filled every pocket of air and fish swimming out of the windows and down the streets, was at once exciting beyond words, surreal, and sometimes even a little bitter sweet. So much of the city I love was no longer functioning…I could see the decay clearly. But then I’m not a nostalgic person by nature, and I saw all the extra beauty and life we’d gained in this seascape. The city still existed. Londoners were surviving even deep down on the seabed. Humanity had survived a monumental change. More than anything else as I explored this submerged Britain, I felt hopeful, about all of us, no matter where we live. I saw our ingenuity, our resolve, our bonds, and the ways we come together to overcome adversity. The many ways in which we show that we have not yet given up hope.
The Light at the Bottom of the World feels like an intimidating and personal project in terms of personal representation. As a British Muslim writer of Pashtun ethnicity, could you speak about what representation in literature means to you?
Representation means everything to me, as I’m sure it does every marginalized person. I would like to ask anyone reading this to please pause for just a moment and answer this question truthfully:
What’s the first thing that pops into your head when I say Afghanistan, Afghan, or Pashtun?
Chances are it’s one of the following (especially for Afghanistan/Afghan): Taliban; warlords; child-bride; opium; war; poverty; invasion; strife; drones; refugees; Bin Laden; poppies; extremists, and so on. Can you imagine? The sum of an entire people—a deeply rich and varied history—reduced to a country’s problems…Problems that are overwhelmingly rooted in outside influence. Except Afghans are more than that––so much more. There’s irrepressible joy, too. There’s love and laughter and tenderness. There is hope and dreaming, wisdom and will. There’s national pride and self-love, and hospitality and love for others like you couldn’t imagine. And there’s a humility and grace and graciousness that will move you to tears.
My dearest wish is for Pashtuns and those of Afghan heritage to see themselves in literature outside of the usual pain narratives. It’s vital that others see them more fully too, and that the beautiful, priceless facets of our long and rich heritage aren’t erased simply because our struggles and pain sell. I want the Afghan and Pashtun Diaspora around the world to see themselves enjoying full agency. I want them to experience total escape in the pages of books and have all the adventures, lead all the quests. Every young adult deserves this much. To see themselves as heroes and heroines. To see themselves dreaming and daring and doing.
Fictional narratives that explore and examine Afghan and/or Pashtun identity absolutely have a place, of course. They are very much needed and highly important. But equally—though I’d personally argue more so—we need tales that offer our youth a safe space in today’s world, that block out any harsh realities and provide pure escapism. Narratives where they just get to be. Representation means everything to me. The right representation can be a trusty companion, an embrace, a refuge, a period of joy. It can be life affirming.
What can readers expect in the upcoming sequel, Journey to the Heart of the Abyss?
Everything. Leyla has had to grow up very fast. When we revisit her in book 2 a month has passed since book 1 and we see how standing up to the government, breaking her father out of prison, and Ari’s fate, have all affected her. There’s also the relationship with her father as they reconnect and try to make sense of their new reality as fugitives. And Leyla leaves the U.K. to venture farther! We also get very up close and personal with everything in the abyss—good and bad…There’s just more of everything: Characters, adventure, thrills, joy, submerged sights, wonder, love, laughter, friendships, romance, secrets, intrigue, terror, unexpected twists, shocking reveals, betrayal, attacks, battles, horrific creatures… And Oscar Wilde, of course—my splendid AI navigator who aids Leyla in the running of her submarine. I had even more fun with him this time! I think there is a lot of heart in this book, really, and I love it so deeply.
Aside from being a writer, what are some things you would want others to know about you?
I was the prank queen in my teens! And being a typical Virgo meant I always put proper thought and great effort into each one. Thinking back on some of my antics, I had some serious issues haha. But you must understand, I was bored out of my brains. Pranks—and mischief of any kind—gave me life. It still does.
What advice would you have to give to aspiring writers?
To any aspiring writers I would say one of the best things you could do is to thoroughly check your own unconscious biases when it comes to marginalized identities, and to educate yourselves. This is vital for everyone, of course, but especially for those who tell stories of any kind, no matter the medium. Everything you’ve consciously and unconsciously absorbed—incorrect beliefs, biased assumptions, outdated language etc—everything you’ve internalized will, to some degree, be reflected in your work. There are already far too many books out there that perpetuate dangerous stereotypes about minority communities, and this harmful practice is going to continue unless we all make the effort to recognize our own biases. If we want to write, and most especially if we want to write for children and teens, we must hold ourselves accountable. Because the potential for damage is unacceptable. Impressionable minds are reading and absorbing our every word. We must ensure we aren’t perpetuating harmful myths and stereotypes, and aren’t othering anyone. Of course we’re fallible and mistakes happen, things slip through despite our best efforts and intentions. When they do, we simply learn, apologize, and move on. It’s a process, and we are all of us learning all the time. But we must continue trying to do better. So examine your own understanding of your fellow humans, of why you believe what you do about them. None of us know everything, but surely all of us can make an effort to recognize the harmful stereotypes that lead to the vilification and alienation of entire communities. When we seek to understand one another better, then as creatives we’re also ensuring we aren’t a part of this painful and dangerous cycle. So focus on your craft but also examine yourselves, because as storytellers we put a lot of ourselves into our work.
Finally, what diverse books would you recommend to the readers of WNDB?
There have been so many fantastic, diverse books released this year! I’m going to share some recent British and Irish releases here. Among others, I’ve had the pleasure of reading the following beauties and highly recommend them all:
Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar
Witches Steeped in Gold by Ciannon Smart
The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri
Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé
Brown Baby: A Memoir of Race, Family, and Home by Nikesh Shukla
City of the Plague God by Sarwat Chadda