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Today’s guest is fantasy writer Tasha Suri—whose amazing debut novel, Empire of Sand, went straight to my favorites shelf on Goodreads after I finished it. Set in a world inspired by Mughal India, Empire of Sand is an elegantly written, character driven, deeply affecting book that excellently weaves in themes like resistance, choice, and the strength of bonds between people. Most of all, I loved the character at the heart of the novel, Mehr, and the way she paves her path with hope, courage, and determination. I’m excited to read her sister Arwa’s story in Realm of Ash (coming in November), and I am thrilled that Tasha Suri is here today!

Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

Fairy tales are obsessed with feet. Pretty, gravity-defying feet. Flippers turned into feet. Feet mutilated, chopped or burned, preferably sourced from a woman’s legs.

In Perrault’s Cinderella, the heroine wears slippers made of fragile glass. Her feet are uniquely small and perfect; so small and perfect, in fact, that her bullying stepsisters can only replicate her perfection by cutting off their own heels and toes. In The Red Shoes, a ‘vain’ girl literally has her feet hacked off. The Little Mermaid’s heroine has newly minted mortal feet that cause her excruciating pain with every step, and the evil queen of Snow White fame meets her end in red-hot iron shoes. Wayward women pay the price for their wickedness with their bodies, and often only ankle-down.

It isn’t this focus that most fascinates me about fairy tales (although it does fascinate me; why feet?). Instead, it’s the way fairy tales make their mutilated women perform their suffering through dance. After all, Snow White’s stepmother doesn’t simply die in her red-hot iron shoes. She’s forced to dance in them at her stepdaughter’s wedding. In The Little Mermaid, the mermaid dances for the prince’s pleasure on her new human feet, even though it causes her excruciating pain. The girl in The Red Shoes cannot stop dancing no matter how desperately she wants to. Even when they’re removed, those cursed feet continue to dance before her, mocking her.

Dancing on feet that won’t obey you, that feel like they’re full of knives, or literally burn to pulp beneath you—dancing to your death, in short—is a gendered, sinister magic, a punishment for transgressive women. The female body is sinful. Best get out the knives and pare it down.

Like many young bloodthirsty readers, I grew up with those fairy tales, and all the messages folded up small inside them, about bodies and pain and what it means to be monstrous. But I also grew up hanging out at my grandmother’s house, on her plastic-covered sofa, watching the Hindu religious TV shows she loved, where a child dressed as a blue god danced on the head of the giant venomous king of snakes, quelling him with each furious, joyous stamp of those feet.

Like many children of the South Asian diaspora, I also danced Garba and Bhangra, and stumbled through awkward Kathak and Bharatanatyam classes. Regional dances, in my childhood, became symbols of what it meant to be Indian in Britain, miles and generations from the land my parents and grandparents came from. I was a really astonishingly terrible dancer, but every time I stamped my feet to the beat of the tabla, I thought of crushing monsters under my feet—of poison and snakes and soles dyed blue by venom.

It was only later, as an adult, that I learned about the history of Indian classical dance. Dances have old roots. Bharatanatyam and Odissi, for example, can be traced back to the 2nd century CE. Many dance forms were religious acts of worship, used to transmit epic narratives and venerate the Gods. And many were danced by women whose status remains murky, charged with controversy by a tangled mix of casteism and colonialism and nationalism: temple dancers, devadasis, prostitutes, nautch girls. Women denigrated or venerated, according to the political mood of the century, for their involvement in dance and sex work and faith.

When I began working on Empire of Sand, I knew I wanted to create a magic system based on dance: on the hand sigils or mudras of Bharatanatyam, the symbolism and power of sacred rites rooted in tradition and history. But as I began to write, other things began to claw their way out of my subconscious. I started to think about the price of dance: the way the world can refashion a woman’s body, monstering it or punishing it. The way you can be forced to dance, compelled to, no matter your own will.

People often ask authors where they get their ideas. The truth is, most of us draw inspiration from the mountain of detritus that we pick up over a lifetime, the big sea of trash that lives in the backs of our skulls, waiting to be plucked up and refashioned into something of use: folklore and fairy tales, films and books, family history and lived memory. Fairy tales and Indian classical dance—all part of the muddy waters of diaspora—shaped the dance-based magic of Empire of Sand into what it eventually became.

In Empire of Sand, the heroine Mehr dances on a knife edge, between victimisation and power, worship and exploitation. Sometimes I place my own feet in front of me, one after the other, and think of footsteps that hurt like a knife through the heel, and footsteps that crush monsters, and marvel at how many tales there are just about our bodies from the ankle-down—how much power there is in the tales that write us, and that we write in turn.

Tasha Suri Author Photo - cr Shekhar Bhatia
Photo Credit: Shekhar Bhatia
Tasha Suri was born in London to Punjabi parents. She studied English and Creative Writing at Warwick University, and is now a cat-owning librarian in London. A love of period Bollywood films, history, and mythology led her to write South Asian-influenced fantasy. Find her on Twitter @tashadrinkstea.