How Embracing My Culture Inspired Me To Write My New Fantasy Book
The first story I ever wrote featured three girls who went to visit a witch on a mountain. I don’t know what happened to them—I was eight and never finished it. The story was my first step into a world of fantasy and magic, with pixies and witches, fairies and gnomes, werewolves and vampires, most tales set in North America or Europe. As an Indian child growing up in Saudi
Arabia, I also watched a lot of Hindi language TV shows, my favorites including a series about the Mughal emperor Akbar and his advisor Birbal, and Hindu mythology epics like the Ramayan and the Mahabharat.
When I turned sixteen, we moved to Canada. My imagination also took a backseat. I dabbled in fantasy now and then, but I always felt that my stories lacked something—a vital ingredient that
made me pick up books by other fantasy writers. So, instead, I began writing fiction inspired by the real world, eventually publishing my first novel, A Girl Like That.
But there was a part of me that still wondered: What if I wrote something other than contemporary?
Back then, I didn’t have the courage to veer too far from my comfort zone. After finishing A Girl Like That, I wrote a science fiction dystopian novel set in a futuristic world…and one draft in, I knew that, like a dissonant note in a song, something was off. As much as I loved the characters, my plot felt skeletal, my setting even more so. I shelved the manuscript and wrote another contemporary novel, turning it into my second published book, The Beauty of the Moment.
At around this time, something interesting happened. I received a note from a writer friend about my sci-fi novel: “Why don’t you use magic instead of new technology?”
The suggestion piqued my curiosity. At this point, I had nothing to lose by experimenting with magic. I considered the setting and, on a lark, decided to change the world I was playing with into one inspired by late-medieval India—a historical period I was obsessed with as a teenager.
Medieval India brought forth other images: a childhood of movies and stories where boys and men participated in epic battles, while girls and women always remained in the background.
History, however, refuted these narratives. Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi is an Indian icon, but she wasn’t the only female warrior India had. I discovered other Indian women who were warriors:
the Attingal Ranis of Kerala, who led troops into battle; Chand Bibi who battled Emperor Akbar’s forces at Ahmednagar in the 16th century; Nur Jehan, who hunted tigers, rescued her
husband Emperor Jehangir, and became an empress in her own right.
I found inspiration in all of these historical figures and also in modern day women such as the Gulabi Gang.
As I rewrote my first chapter and redrew my map, the floodgates opened. A new fictional landscape unfolded before me—already ten times more detailed than the one in which I’d set my dystopian novel. I’d finally found the right key to play that song in! Drawing on my research and knowledge of Indian history and mythology, I began creating my own myths. With a ferocious teenage girl as my guide, I fell into a world that was both brutal and beautiful—a world that explored women in all their complexities and also threw them into the heart of explosive action scenes.
Hunted by the Sky brought magic and fantasy back into my life. All I had to do was embrace the culture I was born into.
Tanaz Bhathena is a two-time nominee of the White Pine Award by the Ontario Library Association, most recently for her novel The Beauty of the Moment. She lives in Mississauga, Ontario, with her family. The views expressed are the author’s own.