Abdullah’s One Thousand and One Nights–inspired debut, The Stardust Thief (Orbit, May), sends a merchant, a jinn, a thief, and a prince on a quest for a magical artifact.
Tell me about what inspired the novel.
I was inspired by the stories my dad used to tell me when I was growing up in Kuwait. Some were from The Thousand and One Nights, and some were tales from around the region. When I left Kuwait to go to university at CU Boulder, I was really homesick, and the first thing that came to mind were these stories that I’d grown up with. I was overcome with this yearning for home, and this yearning to write something that was like a love letter to those stories. I sat on the idea of writing an Arab-inspired fantasy for three or four years. Then at one point, I very clearly saw an image in my head of a merchant sitting on a ship with her mysterious bodyguard behind her. I didn’t know anything about these characters other than one seemed to be a merchant, and the other was a jinn. It felt like the opening to the Arab-inspired fantasy I’d always wanted to write, so I started weaving in the stories from my childhood.
Storytelling is important to the novel on both a narrative and a meta level. How did you approach that theme?
Thinking about folktales and fairy tales and how they’ve been adapted into so many different things, and retold by various people and cultures—that’s fascinating to me. In The Stardust Thief, because I was specifically writing a love letter to the stories I’d grown up with, I was thinking about oral storytelling and how impactful it is. People think about the power of the stories we read, but we’re also surrounded by stories in what we watch, the games we play, the memories we share. They’re everywhere. Growing up in Kuwait, some of the best stories I heard were the ones people shared. My family has roots in this island off the coast of Kuwait called Falaika, and even though I didn’t get to visit very often when I was a kid, my father used to keep that island life alive by telling me and my sister stories about his life there, and my grandfather’s life there. Those were all oral stories. We kind of take those stories for granted, so I wanted to emphasize how effective oral stories can be.
It sounds as though you’ve incorporated a lot of yourself into this.
This is one of the most personal projects for me, because so much of it is nostalgic. And so much is based on wanting to see more Arab-inspired stories in the marketplace. When I was growing up, I was always looking for them and I felt like there was a real lack. Recently we’ve started to see more variety in the fantasies on the shelf, which is really wonderful. I’m so glad I can contribute to that in some way, because the culture is so rich, and more than anything I would love for people to read my book, feel intrigued, and want to learn more about the cultures and traditions and stories.