In July 2022, a debut novel set in rural Pakistan and centred around a young Muslim girl will whisk away readers into a magical palace in the jinn world. In this mysterious world, a rich heritage and the chilling reality of child labour will be shown. And Nura is a protagonist everyone would cheer for as she, despite her humble beginnings, takes it upon herself to fight the illusions of immortal beings who represent the destructive class injustice in our societies. At the heart of it, Nura and the Immortal Palace is an action-packed magical tale of friendship, heart, and hope. No wonder Karuna Riazi, author of The Gauntlet, praised M.T. Khan as a “wordsmith to watch”. Needless to say, it’s a pleasure to feature Maeeda Khan— the author of Nura and the Immortal Palace— on this blog today! To view more such posts by Muslim authors, make sure to check out this collaboration, Muslim Musings, spanning over Ramadan 2022. This blog post may contain affiliate links. To know more about them, please read my disclaimer.
Q/A with Maeeda Khan (M.T. Khan) on her upcoming debut novel, inspiration behind this magical adventure, and the need to see brown kids as protagonists.
Starting with the introductions, would you like to help our readers know more about your upcoming debut novel, Nura and the Immortal Palace, yourself, and the weather where you are?
Glad to be here! I’m Maeeda, also known by my pen name, M.T. Khan. I’m a mechanical engineering major that loves potatoes in all forms, travelling, pondering philosophical questions, and spending leisure time creating digital art of my favourite book characters (that you can find on my twitter!) The weather here in Toronto has finally cleared up, so I’ve been taking a lot more walks than usual.
My debut MG contemporary fantasy, Nura and the Immortal Palace, hits shelves this July 5th from Little, Brown! It follows Nura, a spunky 12-year-old mica miner who must work to help put food on her family’s dinner table. But when the mines collapse and her best friend is ruled dead, Nura digs deeper to find a portal realm of jinn—and that her friend isn’t dead, he’s been kidnapped. It’s perfect for fans of Ghibli’s Spirited Away and Aru Shah!
This middle-grade story of dark secrets, a trickster jinn, and a young spunky girl is sure to be full of humour, heart, and so much more. How was your experience writing this story, especially with a tough theme at the core of it: child labour?
Surprisingly, it came really easily! After learning about mica mining and the horrors of it, I knew I wanted to write from the perspective of one of the child miners, and how she might have a warped view of childhood and the future. These are heavy themes, but I balance it with the atmosphere of a Ghibli movie—wondrous, magical, heartwarming. Ghibli movies played a huge part in shaping my own childhood, and they wove in serious themes without ever feeling like I was being lectured. You’ll find that in NURA too—even though there’s a lot to unpack and child labour is a difficult conversation, I try to get that discussion going against the backdrop of a bewitching realm and puzzling magic.
Speaking of the young spunky girl, Nafiza Azad (The Candle and the Flame) has described her as “an intrepid protagonist who refuses to let anything defeat her”. How personal was it to create Nura?
A lot of who Nura is, was me as a kid! She’s stubborn, unwaveringly confident, and won’t hesitate to put up a fight for what she wants. I think her voice came so naturally to me because a lot of what I was thinking while writing her was: what would I do? She represents a lot of that childish naivete kids hold about the world, but also what we as adults admire about children: their fearlessness in the face of dangers that try to stop them.
Nura and the Immortal Palace by M.T. Khan
Aru Shah and the End of Time meets Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away in this mesmerizing portal fantasy that takes readers into the little-known world of Jinn.
Nura longs for the simple pleasure of many things—to wear a beautiful red dupatta or to bite into a sweet gulab. But with her mom hard at work in a run-down sweatshop and three younger siblings to feed, Nura must spend her days earning money by mica mining. But it’s not just the extra rupees in her pocket Nura is after. Local rumor says there’s buried treasure in the mine, and Nura knows that finding it could change the course of her family’s life forever.
Her plan backfires when the mines collapse and four kids, including her best friend, Faisal, are claimed dead. Nura refuses to believe it and shovels her way through the dirt hoping to find him. Instead, she finds herself at the entrance to a strange world of purple skies and pink seas—a portal to the opulent realm of jinn, inhabited by the trickster creatures from her mother’s cautionary tales. Yet they aren’t nearly as treacherous as her mother made them out to be, because Nura is invited to a luxury jinn hotel, where she’s given everything she could ever imagine and more.
But there’s a dark truth lurking beneath all that glitter and gold, and when Nura crosses the owner’s son and is banished to the working quarters, she realizes she isn’t the only human who’s ended up in the hotel’s clutches. Faisal and the other missing children are there, too, and if Nura can’t find a way to help them all escape, they’ll be bound to work for the hotel forever.
For a magical adventure that seems to weave friendship, family, and hope too, the presence of a stunning cultural backdrop is surely important. What inspired you to craft something with these themes and culture?
I rarely read contemporary novels because my experiences are never represented. Family dynamics are different, traditions are buried, and the way characters can move freely from party to concert to party and not have their mom call them twenty times unfortunately didn’t feel relatable. I wanted to write a book that wove my own desi culture and Islamic traditions into it. The characters are preparing to celebrate Eid, their families look and behave like mine, and the community speaks to the one I’m used to: everyone knows each other’s business. I want other brown kids to pick up this book and finally see their own families and cultures represented within.
The morally grey jinn is an interesting character for a twisted portal realm and so is a twelve-year-old protagonist who is a mica miner. Why them, especially in a book highlighting the vicious cycle of poverty?
The jinn and their realm are used to mirror what’s happening in the real world for Nura. Much of her problems that she thinks she can escape from by hiding out in the jinn realm are actually lurking closer to her, and at an even more dangerous level. Tales of jinn have existed even before Islam, and I wanted to explore their childish ways and trickster qualities as they lend to the themes of this book.
It’s easy to understand why readers are excited for Nura and the Immortal Palace—set to be published on July 05, 2022! How excited are you? Any thoughts on what you expect readers to take away from it?
I wrote this book two years ago and when it was first announced to be released in 2022, I thought it would be a while before I could hold the book in my hands. But time has really flown by! I’m excited that the world will be able to read it soon and hopefully get to see how much people enjoy it. What I love about art is that everyone consumes it differently, and relates, connects, and takes away various things. I like to say NURA is timeless, ageless, and with a message anyone will appreciate.
You’ve said your debut is inspired by your “need to see brown kids as the protagonists of their own stories”. Would you like to elaborate on that, especially as a Pakistani-Canadian Muslim author?
In Nura and the Immortal Palace, I knew I wanted to critique the child labor crisis, and I certainly could’ve accomplished that from the perspective of an adult character. But I wanted to discuss the problem at the ground level, from the view of a child who is living through it, and how she deals with the daily hardships forced on her. Nura is a Pakistani Muslim girl, and we see so little of those identities in media; and often it’s in a harmful light. Different from the mica mining documentaries where foreigners try to wrestle these concerns, I wanted a brown kid at the center, the protagonist of her own life, abolishing the misconstructions society has of Desis and Muslims.
With your debut publishing soon, what have you learned ever since that first step you took towards writing stories or getting them on shelves?
Writing is a never-ending journey. Every day I’m surprised with what I learn and new techniques I see. I love analyzing craft and how intricately themes can be woven into plot and character. Now that I have a better grasp of the market and what books sell, I always tell myself not to fall for trends or a short grab for attention. I think I’m starting to understand myself as a writer and the stories I love to tell, and that’s really helped me find my identity and place in publishing. I hope readers will follow along for the ride.
This was a great chat! But before letting you go, would you like to share what you’ve been working on nowadays; any stories we should be excited for after Nura and the Immortal Palace will surely win our hearts? Or maybe something you enjoyed reading recently?
It was a pleasure getting to chat! I actually have three projects I’m currently working on. The deadline for NURA’s sequel is quickly approaching, but I can’t say much without spoiling it. I’ve also been bouncing around ideas for a new MG novel, all of which have pretty much stolen my heart. And then there’s a YA Fantasy that’s been the bane of my existence but that I’m so excited for people to read—it has all the elements I love: myth, science, and philosophy. I hope readers will stick around after NURA to dig into these as well!
She is a speculative fiction author with a penchant for all things myth, science, and philosophy. She focuses on stories that combine all three, dreaming of evocative worlds and dark possibilities. When she’s not writing, M.T. Khan has her nose deep in physics textbooks or glued to her CAD computer as she majors in Mechanical Engineering. Born in Lahore, Pakistan, she currently resides in Toronto, Canada, with a hyperactive cat and an ever-increasing selection of tea. You can find her at www.mtkhan.com or @maeedakhan on twitter or @maeedakhan on Instagram!
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Everything stated in this post is independent of any compensation, and the author’s answers and thoughts are solely their opinion; the formatting was done by the blogger but no changes were made in text.