“There is so a real poem,” said Fatima, annoyed. “The real Conference of the Birds was written by someone, by a real person. He had certain intentions. I want to know what they are. He wrote the poem for a reason, and the reason matters.”
“Does it?” Vikram stretched his toes, revealing a row of claws as black as obsidian. “Once a story leaves the hand of its author, it belongs to the reader. And the reader may see any number of things, conflicting things, contradictory things. The author goes silent. If what he intended matter so very much, there would be no need for inquisitions, schisms and wars. But he is silent, silent. The author of the poem is silent, the author of the world is silent. We are left with no intentions but our own.”
I read The Bird King in a world recently wounded by the Christchurch mosque shooting that killed fifty and injured fifty more, with the shadow of the Bruneian Sultan’s promise to stone gay people to death looming in my metaphorical backyard. The line between the oppressor and the oppressed are not drawn neatly between faiths, but it crisscrosses through all of us, no matter which God we fear (and do not). G. Willow Wilson’s latest work, speaks of this truth, as timely now as it was five hundred years ago, as the last Sultanate in the Iberian peninsula faded into history’s sunset. Fantasy is a genre that is often puffed up to the scale of nations and worlds, and there is some of it in The Bird King, but for the most part, the book hovers intimately on the shoulder of Fatima, a Circassian slave born into bondage in the court of Alhambra, and was later relegated to warming the bed of Sultan Abu Abdullah. Her stake in the story is simple: she wanted to save the life of her childhood friend, Hassan, a royal cartographer who can perform miracles, from the racks of Ferdinand’s and Isabella’s pet Inquisition, which hunts him because they think him a sorcerer (and not for his lesser sins of being both gay and redheaded).
What ensued is a road story in which Fa and Hassan learned the broken shape of the world they live in, and found the courage to find a world that is less so. There is an obvious parallel between The Bird King and Wilson’s previous work Alif the Unseen in that a real Islamic literary work is incorporated into the spine of the story: The Thousand and One Nights for the latter, and The Conference of the Birds for the former—and both indulges in Wilson’s tendency to give voice to those rarely heard in the Ummah. I think it is great that she does, because in our real world, the loudest ones are those who wield power over those who do not, be it the Spanish Inquisition’s deeds written in blood, or the Christchurch shooter speaking his manifesto of hate punctuated by the reports of his guns, or the Sultan of Brunei’s proclaimed death sentence that percussed with the cracks of stone on bones.
There is a lot of discussion on the nature of faith in The Bird King. I myself profess none, but I appreciate that Wilson showed no inclination in defending or forwarding her own adopted religion as superior to any other. Instead, she is more interested in its universality, in the many forms it takes, and how it can be used to build or break. She describes deeds both selfless and brave that come from either Islam or Christianity, and does not shy away from describing the sins of both as well. I think it is a deeply feminist and intersectional work, with a lot of amusing observations by Fatima on the unfairness put upon her gender and station. As with Alif the Unseen, I love the simple lyricism of Wilson’s writing that manages to be both direct and poetic.
The first half of the book can be a bit slow, but I didn’t mind. There is a lot to savour on the way. Like why the person who taught the world to cure olives and the person who first made cheese are probably women. Or how Death of the Author relates to the practice of religion. These little insights really made the novel for me.
I am inclined to congratulate The Bird King on its timely arrival into the world (given the world’s state), but the truth is, I think that would be a mistake. It only appears timely because it is timeless.