In March 2022, a young adult fantasy seamlessly wove social commentary and a brown girl’s determination to seek her own destiny against the backdrop of a world inspired by South Asian culture and filled with magic. Despite being fantastical, the story was built on real, relevant themes of racism, extremism, prejudice, and misogyny in a world that is rich yet divided. An adventure at its heart, this debut cherishes friendship and freedom while wicked spirits and forbidden magic drive the world towards chaos. Needless to say, it’s a pleasure to have Aneesa Marufu, author of The Balloon Thief, elaborate on how feelings of prejudice and unbelonging drove this escapist fantasy. 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.
Aneesa Marufu, the author of The Balloon Thief, on how feelings of prejudice and unbelonging drove this debut fantasy.
When I first sat down to write The Balloon Thief back in 2018, my intention was simply to quell my obsession for things that fly, but as I delved into the fantasy of flight, the weightlessness of being airborne and the sense of disconnection with the world below, I wondered if discarding one’s problems could be as simple as leaving them on the ground and jumping in a hot air balloon. As a teenager, my own escapist desires would have me craving the opportunity to drop everything and quite literally float away in the same way that my characters Khadija and Jacob flee the problems in their own lives – be it Jacob’s battle with racism or Khadija’s struggle with misogyny and gender inequality. However, both characters soon come to realise that, like everything that ascends, they must come down eventually where their problems still remain.
The Balloon Thief started out like any other fantasy novel, at a time where I craved escapism from the pressures of everyday life by delving into a world of magic, jinn and hot air balloons. It was only as the story unfolded and my characters began to develop minds of their own, I knew then that there was a more important story that I wished to tell.
The Balloon Thief by Aneesa Marufu
Burn the flame. Seek the night.
For Khadija, the only escape from her father’s arranged betrothal is the sky.
When she spots a rogue hot air balloon fighting against its ropes, she leaps at the chance for adventure. Khadija soon finds an unlikely ally in a poor glassmaker’s apprentice, Jacob.
But Jacob is a hāri, and Khadija a Ghadaean. The hāri are oppressed and restless – their infamous terrorist group, the Hāreef, have a new fearsome leader. And the ruling Ghadaeans are brutal in their repression.
Soon, a deadly revolution threatens their friendship and their world. The Hāreef use forbidden magic, summoning jinn – wicked spirits made of fire – to enact their revenge, forcing Jacob and Khadija to choose what kind of a world they want to save.
This is a book that may make a lot of people feel uncomfortable with its discussion of terrorism, extremism and racism, drawn mainly from my own experiences with Islamophobia. Growing up as a British Pakistani and a Muslim, I was constantly questioning my own identity of being British and yet never feeling quite British enough. I wanted to depict racism from both angles in The Balloon Thief, and show how much of a person’s prejudice is influenced by external factors such as society, media and a person’s upbringing, and how it can be possible to change these preconceptions through integration and education. In the book, main characters Khadija and Jacob are forced to put their differences aside to tackle a greater threat, and in doing so learn the importance of friendship and forgiveness, with the key message of the book being that differences should be celebrated instead of feared, and that fear tends to stem from a lack of understanding.
What I wanted to show with The Balloon Thief was the impact of racism and racial segregation on the two main characters, who are from two opposing races, and how they manage to still preserve their friendship even when society is forcing them apart. As the two characters learn about one another and grow to trust each other, they discover that they are not as different as they originally thought and that is when their prejudice and preconceptions about the other start to melt away.
Writing a fantasy world based on South Asian culture was incredibly exciting, and it had me thinking about the types of books I used to read as a teenager when diversity and representation was not as apparent in fiction as it is now. I remember only a handful of books that included diverse main characters or embraced different cultures, and those are the books I remember standing out to me. Seeing now a surge in diverse fiction, especially across children’s and YA, makes me so happy knowing there is a new generation of readers growing up seeing themselves represented within books. It is one of the reasons why featuring a girl wearing a hijab on the cover of The Balloon Thief was so important to me.
Readers tend to connect and resonate with books they feel represent them, perhaps because the story feels more personal. Even if readers cannot relate to a story about two friends saving the world in a hot air balloon, they can relate to the feelings of prejudice and unbelonging that the two characters are facing. I’ve always found that the books that tend to stay with us long after we’ve read them are the ones we feel represent us, and fantasy is no exception.
Aneesa Marufu lives in Manchester and was the winner of the Kimberley Chambers Kickstart Prize for underrepresented writers in 2019. Her debut novel, The Balloon Thief, is inspired by her South Asian heritage and her obsession with hot air balloons, though she is yet to fly in one! When she isn’t dreaming up stories set in the clouds, she has both feet on the ground, running after her two children or hunting for her next fantasy book to escape into. You can find her at aneesamarufu.com or @aneesamarufu on Twitter or @aneesa.marufu on Instagram!
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Everything stated in this post is independent of any compensation, and the guest writer’s comments and thoughts are solely their opinion; the formatting was done by the blogger but no changes were made in text.