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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is Saara El-Arifi! The Final Strife, her epic fantasy debut novel and the first book in The Ending Fire trilogy, is scheduled to release in the US and Canada on June 21 and the UK on June 23. It’s described as a novel with “roots in the mythology of Africa and Arabia that ‘sings of rebellion, love, and the courage it takes to stand up to tyranny’ (Samantha Shannon, author of The Priory of the Orange Tree)”—and one in which “three women band together against a cruel empire that divides people by blood.”

Cover of The Final Strife by Saara El-Arifi

Routes to my roots
By Saara El-Arifi

Image of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate

Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:

What pangs excruciating must molest,

What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley, 1793.

Though this article is entitled Routes to my Roots, it isn’t really about me. Instead, this is dedicated to the Black women who came before. Six months ago, I had never heard of Phillis Wheatley. Now, it’s rare a day passes where her name doesn’t cross my mind. Her story is a tragic one, though not uncommon; enslaved in West Africa and brought to America to serve the Wheatley family. It was when Wheatley put pen to paper for the first time that her destiny diverged from the norm, and she became the first Black person in the western world to publish any form of literature. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in London in 1793 to the bemusement of the world’s scholars. Here was an educated African writing poetry! How quaint! And a woman! How delightful!

Wheatley was the subject of harsh scholarly criticism stemming from racism. Though this criticism has evolved, it hasn’t gone away. Many Black critics of the twentieth century condoned her writings as mere reflections of her indoctrination into white life. And it cannot be denied that the poem ‘On coming to America’ heralds her capture from Africa as ‘mercy’. But as I read through the damning accounts of her work, claiming she sounded too whitewashed in her writings, I began to see the shards of a mirror looking back at me. I cannot and will not claim to have lived through the trauma of enslavement, but the echoes of the criticism still struck me between the eyes. As Wheatley wasn’t just the first Black person to publish literature, she was the first writer of the Black diaspora.

Her conflicting double identities of African and American placed her in a unique space that paved the way for writers like me. We straddle multiple worlds but belong in neither. Is my identity fully African and fully European, or am I half of each? I don’t speak of genetics here, my heritage is predominantly North and West African, but what of the part of me that isn’t blood and bone and flesh?

Race in itself is a concept imagined, it is a fallacy that it is based in the biological as genetic disparity is as vast for those within one category as those without it. But what Phillis Wheatley calls on, is not a reckoning of race, but an acknowledgment of her existence. Assimilation is a dangerous tool of empire, it erases one’s past identity while adapting to a new cultural standard. But once that has happened, who are you? A Black body with white words?

These are the challenges Phillis Wheatley faced, the ripples of which still permeate through writers of the diaspora today. My battle with my conflicting identities led me to creating a world that is wholly me. The Final Strife is set in a land that is both beautiful and broken. Plagued by issues of empire, while also celebrating arab and afro culture, queerness and gender non-conformity, it is the product of my lived experience. To truly know me is to walk a day in the Wardens’ Empire—the ruling country in The Final Strife.

In order to publish her poetry Wheatley was forced to include endorsements of those who had tested her intellect, to prove she, a Black woman, had indeed written the poems. As I scanned the list of men who had provided signatories in order to allow this Black woman to publish, these white gatekeepers, I am reminded of how, in many different ways, these barriers often still exist. This should have been a disheartening feeling, but it wasn’t, because it made me realise how far we have to go. I cannot wait to read more fantasy worlds borne of cultures outside of Europe, to discover new writers finding new identities, new stories and characters.

Now I said Wheatley’s story was a tragic one. And though she found fame and success, she died at thirty-one, penniless. Many consider her unsuccessful in her endeavours since she had no money to her name, but her achievements spread out across time, through generations. We are the ones made richer for knowing her.

Photo of Saara El-Arifi
Photo Credit: Mustafa Raee
With a DNA profile that lights up like a satellite photograph of earth, Saara El-Arifi’s heritage is intrinsically linked to the themes she explores in her writing.

She was raised in the Middle East until her formative years, when her family swapped the Abu Dhabi desert for the English Peak District hills. This change of climate had a significant impact on her growth—not physically, she’s nearly 6ft—and she learned what it was to be Black in a white world.

Saara knew she was a storyteller from the moment she told her first lie. Though her stories have developed beyond the ramblings of a child, she still appreciates the thrill of a well-told tale.

THE FINAL STRIFE is Saara El-Arifi’s debut novel, the first part of a trilogy inspired by Ghanaian folklore and Arabian myths.