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'The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi' explores motherhood, faith through pirate heist on the high seas

"The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi" book cover. (Courtesy of Harper Voyager, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)
"The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi" book cover. (Courtesy of Harper Voyager, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)

Take a moment to close your eyes and picture a pirate.

Are you thinking of a young, brash man with a lot of swagger? Maybe a sexy eye patch? Well, in the new fantasy novel “The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi,” a middle-aged mother is steering the pirate ship — and the story.

The titular character once lived a life of murder and theft as one of the Indian Ocean’s most notorious pirates. Now, she’s doing her best to live a quiet life in retirement with her daughter.

But circumstances conspire to draw her back into piracy and against her better judgment, Amina signs up for one last heist on the high seas. Along the way, she reconsiders her ideas about faith and family.

For author Shannon Chakrabortybest known for the “Daevabad” trilogy— it was important to write an adventure tale that also offered joy.

Shannon Chakraborty is the author of “The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi.” (Melissa C. Beckman)

“I wanted it to touch upon serious topics, class, oppression, the idea of who tells their own story,” Chakraborty says. “But I also wanted at its heart to be about this woman who is coming back to essentially her passions and her career and her friends and fighting for her family and have it really have a lot of heart.”

Chakraborty believes fantasy books can dive into serious topics and offer the reader hope.

She wrote the book during the pandemic between the bleary-eyed hours of 4 and 6 a.m. before her daughter’s online school began.

“I spent a solid year writing it, just convinced it was never actually going to be written or published. And my career was dead before it had started,” Chakraborty says. “ I would get up and sit in my most uncomfortable chair so that I didn’t fall back asleep and just try to get some words in.”

But it was those early mornings that helped shape the central theme the novel explores: motherhood.

“I really wanted to have a kernel of the story that we see Amina really struggle to make peace with wanting to be a pirate and an adventurer and have legends told about her, but also wanting to do right by her family. And the different ways in which sometimes those two goals don’t work together,” the author says. ”So motherhood was important for me to explore. I think we owe it to ourselves to get just far more nuanced portraits of mothers in fiction.”

This compelling tale of motherhood is all set against the backdrop of the Indian Ocean during the 12th century. Chakraborty says the setting was critical to the human story she wanted to tell about the cosmopolitan world that existed long before globalization.

“I think the Indian Ocean is one of the most fascinating cultural spheres in our human story. We’re often very used to thinking about history and people in terms of land and empire and land borders. But along the sea, you have often times far easier movement,” she says. “We often think in our globalized world today that we’re connected and that’s new. It’s not new at all. Many of the diaspora groups today have their roots thousand years ago, earlier than that. There was regular trade between China and the Swahili coast.” 

Like Chakraborty’s previous work, this novel is deeply intertwined with Islamic culture and faith.

And while Amina is a pirate, she is also a devout Muslim trying to find her way back to the righteous path after the sins of her past.

“I also wanted to show somebody coming back to their faith that was very important to me,” Chakraborty says. “I don’t think we have a lot of stories, especially for Muslim stories, about people who fell and come back to their faith.”

“I think that’s an intrinsic part of religion. It’s an intrinsic part of my religion and my journey,” she says. “I wanted to show that you can fail and you can do terrible things and you can still even struggle … but that that’s okay. You can still come back to it.”

Book excerpt: ‘The Adventure of Amina Al-Sirafi’

By Shannon Chakraborty

Excerpted from “The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi” by Shannon Chakraborty. Copyright © 2023 by Shannon Chakraborty. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Voyager, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Kalyani Saxena produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Gabe Bullard. Saxena also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.