By Gianna Macchia
Today we’re pleased to welcome Sara Alfageeh and Nadia Shammas to the WNDB blog to discuss their YA graphic novel Squire, out March 8, 2022!
Aiza has always dreamt of becoming a Knight. It’s the highest military honor in the once-great Bayt-Sajji Empire, and as a member of the subjugated Ornu people, Knighthood is her only path to full citizenship. Ravaged by famine and mounting tensions, Bayt-Sajji finds itself on the brink of war once again, so Aiza can finally enlist in the competitive Squire training program.
It’s not how she imagined it, though. Aiza must navigate new friendships, rivalries, and rigorous training under the unyielding General Hende, all while hiding her Ornu background. As the pressure mounts, Aiza realizes that the “greater good” that Bayt-Sajji’s military promises might not include her, and that the recruits might be in greater danger than she ever imagined.
In this breathtaking and timely story, Aiza will have to choose, once and for all: loyalty to her heart and heritage, or loyalty to the Empire.
For the publication of this interview, how would you both like to be identified? What are your preferred pronouns?
Sara: Sara Alfageeh, she/her
Nadia: Nadia Shammas, she/they
Squire is your debut graphic novel. Can you each tell me a little bit about yourselves and your inspiration for entering the YA world?
Sara: I’ve been an illustrator for my whole career, and a lover of fantasy, comics, and anime my whole life. When I was first conceiving the ideas that would become Squire I was at a crossroads where I finally felt like I had the skill set to create the stories I wanted to see, and ready to fill the gap I had noticed between myself and the kind of characters who were allowed to be the heroes of the stories I loved. I was also a middle and high school art teacher at the same time, and I could listen to all the nuanced and rich conversations my students were having about gun control, about climate change, about racial justice. They were optimistic and bold in their ideas, and I wanted to write a story filled with that sense of resilience.
Nadia: I’ve always wanted to be an author, ever since kindergarten, but there was definitely a point after college where I had given up on that. I was trying to find my place in publishing, I knew I wanted to stay in that world, so I put together this anthology called CORPUS, and I met Sara during that time. Ironically, putting together that anthology as an editor and curator sparked my interest in writing again, and so when Sara approached me to collaborate, it was like fate. It absolutely helped that Sara and I had similar touchstones as for stuff we loved as teens, we were both big Fullmetal Alchemist and Avatar: The Last Airbender fans.So when we were developing Squire, our influences and shared cultural background made it spring to life very quickly. Being Arab American collaborators, there was so much cultural and historical background we didn’t have to explain to each other, and that helped us get past the Diversity 101 stuff to the stuff we really wanted to write about. And when I thought about what I really wanted to do to write YA, I wanted to write something that was in the realm of the things that I loved back then. I loved fantasy stories with vivid worlds and complex questions about right and wrong, about the world the characters inhabit. We often say that we made the book we would have wanted to hand to ourselves.
I imagine crafting a graphic novel is quite the artistic process. How did you collaborate to make the story and visuals come together? In general, are you plotters or pantsers?
Sara: Oh, there is no way to be a pantser with a graphic novel. Graphic novels have quite a few steps to them, and are a team effort all the way between Nadia, my color assistants, our editor, and myself. There wasn’t a line of dialogue, a character design, a panel that didn’t pass through 4 or 5 different pairs of hands.
1) We start with the script by Nadia, who takes 5-hour-long phone calls between us and condenses it down to something actually readable.
2) I develop thumbnails, tiny scribble versions of the page to make sure everything fits.
3) I turn the scribbles into “pencils,” which is the comics term for a rough sketch of the page, and I add the dialogue. This is what my editor sees and comments on first, so I can make changes before getting too committed.
4) When comments are back, I turn the sketches to the final lines of the page, the “inks” stage.
5) My first color assistant has the job of “flatter,” filling in different colors to the page to make coloring this page easier to change and faster to paint.
6) My second color assistant works with my notes and direction to bring the page to a final color, and then I come in to do details and a final pass.
7) It goes back to the editors so it can reach bookshelves!
Nadia: I would say I’m usually a pantser when it comes to scripts, but Squire was a plotter’s game all the way. Sara and I spent hours on the phone getting characters and plot and worldbuilding done. We went to dinner once and Sara mapped out the ending of the book by drawing on the table, and we didn’t eat a bite of our food. I drew a crude map while considering the geography of Squire that Sara developed into a real one. We both did a ton of historical research as well. The process was extremely in-depth and collaborative all the way until it came time to write the script and draw the book, and by that point we had spent so much time in the world together it was easy to trust the other to know exactly what they had to do. And as Sara points out, it takes an entire team to bring a graphic novel together. Everyone is relying on everyone else to do their part to the best, and the art teams certainly take on the biggest share of labor.
How did you develop the setting for Squire and to what extent did it influence the story being told?
Sara: Squire was developed visuals first. We wanted to write a love letter to the places we grew up in, and to the genre that gave us the imagination and vocabulary to make this book happen. I had a very clear idea of what double page spreads would look like, and while I had this love of fantasy—I wanted it to be a world some people would actually recognize. I traveled to Turkey and Jordan the summer that I was developing the pitch and took all the reference photos I would need to make this setting feel lived in, and rich with history. Every type of reader can enjoy Squire, but I wanted certain details to be subtle and quietly recognized, like the tatreez style of embroidery at the chapter openers, or the Jannisery-esque uniforms of the army.
Nadia: Squire is definitely an alt-world alt-history type story. We didn’t want to be mired down in on-to-one representation, but rather develop a world that reflected the rich history and complexity of the Middle East. We wanted to depict this world with the nuance that our cultures are almost never depicted with in the mainstream, with various ethnic and religious identities, with our food and clothing and symbolism. And of course, that trickles down to our characters, what their economic status is, their reasons for joining the military, their various levels of comfort or discomfort fitting into the kind of history the Empire is trying to sell. There’s a quote that says “geography is destiny,” and so the characters are very influenced by what they have (or don’t have) and their upbringings; it shapes the way they navigate the story and each other completely. There was so much worldbuilding that didn’t exactly make it into the book, but totally shaped the way the story unfolded!
Who or what was your inspiration for the character of Aiza? Why was it important to have a female protagonist?
Sara: My favorite trope is the you-weren’t-supposed-to-be-the-main-character types. She’s small, she’s scrappy, and she’s bad at this. But she tries again and again, and you want to root for her the whole time.
Nadia: Aiza is our favorite type of shonen protagonist: small, angry, mighty. She’s stubborn but big-hearted. But we wanted her to be real too. We wanted her to fail, frequently, because she’s a 14 year old girl and also not the best person to be taking on a militaristic empire. As for her being a female protagonist, I don’t think there was even a moment where we considered any other type of protagonist. We knew her from the start, and the rest came to be with her inside it.
Aiza is riddled with internal and external conflicts. What universal question does her struggle represent? What can we learn from her?
Nadia: We’ve always said Squire is the story of what happens when you realize the “common good” doesn’t include you, was never made for you in the first place. Aiza’s experience is universal in the sense that it can be understood by anyone who is part of a subjected class, the desire to fit in and buy in, to find your seat at the table of an empire only to realize that it doesn’t actually want you, doesn’t benefit you, and you’re playing at a losing game. The way your identity is formed in those conditions is specific to each person, but the difficulty could probably be understood by anyone from a marginalized identity.
We all need a Doruk! He has spiky teddy bear energy. Why is he an important character to have opposite Aiza?
Sara: Doruk was the first character I designed, and the one that changed the least since I first came up with Squire years ago. We all have a version of Doruk in our lives, an elder who is trusted, loved, experienced, but doesn’t have the means of bringing the change we need to see. This is ultimately the conflict that pushes Aiza to realize you can’t break a cycle from the inside.
Nadia: He’s the second half of our favorite tropes, the large grumpy mentor. I adore him. He also represents the old guard, literally. He’s seen much more than Aiza or any of the new recruits, and he’s jaded now, completely worn out and has lost faith in a better world. We needed a character to temper Aiza’s starry-eyed view of the military and the nationalism she’s been taught, but we also wanted her to give him belief in a better world. As you get older, it can seem like “this is just the way things are,” but that defeatism doesn’t get us anywhere. You’re seeing a lot of political activism from teens and young people that shows how important it is to not give up on that vision, because this is the world they’re inheriting. So Doruk and Aiza sit in that balance, they better each other.
If Squire were to be thematically paired with another graphic novel, which would it be and why?
Sara: Fullmetal Alchemist.
Nadia: FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST. (If you know, you know.)
Embracing your identity can be a journey. Aiza is proof of that. What is one thing you hope students discover about themselves, each other, and the world after reading this graphic novel?
Sara: It takes time. We go through many stages throughout our lives of deciding who and what defines us, and I hope readers can use Squire to reflect on who benefits when we make ourselves smaller.
Nadia: Well, there’s actually a whole essay in the back of the book that talks a bit about that, haha! So I don’t want to spoil that but I’ll say, for myself, that it’s a difficult process, to realize that the goals of the empire you live in don’t align with your betterment or happiness. It can be hard to feel like you matter, but you do. The other big thing is: history is a tool, and it can be used for good or bad. When you’re told a history, you’re being told a story, and every story has an angle. Don’t take anything at face value!
What is one question I did not ask, but you’d love to answer?
Sara: Nope! This was a great interview!
Nadia: This interview was very thorough, I can’t think of anything!
What’s next for the Alfageeh and Shammas team?
Sara: I’ve drawn for adults, for YA, for middle grade, and now I’m drawing for the wee ones. I’m working on my first picture book, and still drawing girls with swords. I also work in tabletop roleplaying games as creative director at One More Multiverse.
Nadia: I’ve been doing a few other graphic novels in the YA/MG space that are coming out over the next couple of years, and have been doing a lot more work for Marvel and DC Comics lately! This year I also have an adult cosmic horror graphic novel releasing in October called Where Black Stars Rise, co-created with Marie Enger. It’s being released by Tor Nightfire.
Nadia Shammas is a Palestinian American writer from Brooklyn, New York. She’s best known for creating CORPUS: A Comic Anthology of Bodily Ailments as well as being the writer of Ms. Marvel: Stretched Thin. Her work often focuses on identity, memory, and decolonizing genre tropes. When she’s not writing, she’s trying to perfect her cold brew recipe and win the love of her cats, Lilith and Dash. Visit her online at www.nadiashammas.com.
Sara Alfageeh is a Jordanian American illustrator and creative director from Boston. She’s passionate about history, nuances in visual storytelling, and the spaces where art and identity intersect. She’s known for her work for Marvel Comics, Star Wars, and children’s publishing. While that’s cool and all—she really just wants to draw girls with swords. Visit her online at www.sara-alfa.com.
Gianna Macchia is a Milwaukee-based educator and high school literacy coach. She believes reading cultivates empathy, and the more educators can encourage students to read, write, think, and discuss outside of their own perspective, the more they can contribute to building a more accepting, socially aware world. She thinks we should never doubt the power of representation and visibility, especially for adolescent youth. When Gianna isn’t engrossed in YA books, she and her wife enjoy traveling, live music, hiking, cooking, and snuggling their pets Gatsby, Atticus, and Huckleberry, the literary brothers from different mothers.