G. Willow Wilson Interview conducted by Ian Burns Part One (of Three)

Posted by on June 23rd, 2010 at 1:50 PM

“I’m a comic-book writer who wears a headscarf,” says G. Willow Wilson.“That should be a contradiction.” Indeed, in a time when the news is riddled with stories about violence over cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, and the ties between the West and the Middle East are increasingly strained, those characteristics could easily be dismissed as conflicting. But Wilson chooses to write not only about how the West and the Middle East conflict, but how they complement each other.

Wilson made her debut in the comics medium with her book Cairo, which she collaborated on with artist M.K. Perker (and with whom she is currently collaborating on their ongoing Vertigo series, Air). Originally from Colorado, Wilson now splits her time between Seattle, Wash., and Cairo, Egypt. In her new memoir, The Butterfly Mosque, she shares her love of Islam; how she became immersed in Egyptian life; and the difficulties she had reconciling her love for both Western and Middle Eastern culture.

During their recent interview in Seattle, which took place on June 11, 2010, Wilson spoke to Ian Burns about her career thus far, her experiences in the comics industry and a concept she calls “hyperpraxis.”

IAN BURNS: I wanted to start out by talking about hyperpraxis a little bit. That’s a theme in most of your work that I’ve read in essays, comics and the memoir. So what is hyperpraxis, and why is it important to you?

G. WILLOW WILSON: It’s interesting that you should ask that. I mean it’s something that I only really name in Air. The term grew out of a conversation that’s been going on for a long time in the Muslim community with regard to religion. People are talking about…we’ve got all these symbols in common, but everybody interprets them a little bit differently. So you can have an entire community of people, whether it’s a religious community or a social community or an artistic community, who are using the same symbolism, but it means very, very different things to very, very different people.

BURNS: Not just between Sunni and Shi’a and Sufism?

WILSON: No, no, I mean generally. I can wear a headscarf and it can mean something completely different to me than it means to my neighbor who wears the exact same headscarf. I’m talking about very fundamental symbols that go even deeper than sectarian differences.

BURNS: Doesn’t have to be religious iconography or anything.

WILSON: Yeah, really, really individual interpretations of the same symbol. So I got to thinking, what is the word for that? When, instead of inventing new symbols to correspond with different meanings, you have different meanings ascribed to the same symbols, consciously. When you consciously take a symbol that used to mean something else and you imbibe it with new meaning, what is that?

And so I came up with this term hyperpraxis to describe that, you won’t find [it] anywhere: it’s just something I made up ’cause we needed a place-holder. Because there are a lot of different terms that get thrown around for different kinds of practice within religion. You can be orthoprax, which means you practice in a traditional way, but you don’t necessarily think in a traditional way; you can be orthodox, which means you think in a traditional way but you don’t necessarily practice in a traditional way. So what is this? When you’re practicing, you’re using the traditional symbols, you’re using the traditional methods of worship, but the inner meanings that you give to those are different from how they are usually interpreted. So I called that hyperpraxis.

BURNS: Now in your mind, if you start to associate different meanings with those symbols in public, do you see that as changing it in more of a…

WILSON: Cultural way.

BURNS: Cultural way, yeah.

WILSON: Yeah, I think that’s something that happens a lot. I think a really good example of this is the way that red and blue in American politics has changed.

BURNS: Right, your hyperpraxis essay.

WILSON: I thought that was a good one. And it was actually my father who brought this up. He was saying, “You know, when I was a kid, red was liberal because it was associated with communism,” and so anybody who had different ideas that were sort of leftist and non-capitalist and more egalitarian and stuff like that was “red.” But now, it’s completely changed. And you were a “blue-blooded” American—conservative was blue.

And now it’s completely flipped around. So the colors are the same; we’re not talking about orange and purple certainly all of a sudden. The symbols haven’t changed at all. We’ve just completely switched teams. And so that to me suggests that symbols have a life in and of themselves, that they have kind of an independent existence: that they’re not simply things that we make up and then attach meaning to as we see fit. That they have a reality that is independent of human intervention, in a sense.

BURNS: So is hyperpraxis important to you because you feel it’s your job—or our job—to get to the root of what those independent meanings are, or do you feel that we have more agency than that?

WILSON: I don’t know…I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s important to me. It’s interesting to me. I think when I was writing Air, in which hyperpraxis figures in a big way, I was trying to find the connective tissue between postmodernism, which has been the big thing for the past 20 years [Burns laughs]—nothing is static, there is no objective reality, everything is in flux—and the way that I feel about the world and the way I think things are trending now toward a post-postmodernism in which people are interested in something that is an objective reality, in sincerity and in unity and community and all those things, that we disassembled in post-modernism. So, it’s not a clean fit…I think in Air, in a lot of places, I over-reached myself a little bit.

BURNS: Well you’re exploring it still: I mean it’s something that you could potentially look at for the rest of your career, not that you would have to, but something that you could continue to explore.

WILSON: Yeah, or I might abandon it and say, you know this was fun, this was a good idea but I’ve taken it as far as I’m going to go with it.

BURNS: Maybe it won’t let you…

WILSON: I don’t know, yeah.

BURNS: So in Cairo, when you were living there, that was when you first started to see the potential for this idea? Or was it earlier, when you were still in the U.S.?

WILSON: I don’t know, I was in Cairo when I started thinking in a serious way about how these ideas relate specifically to the Muslim community, because there were, and there are, a lot of very important conversations going on about how much of the tradition can be maintained in the modern world when so many things are different from the time period when these things were first conceived. And in order to keep as much of the tradition as possible people were really, really imbuing these old symbols with completely new and modern meanings, and so that’s what really inspired me to start thinking about the world of symbols as a whole, not just specifically within the Muslim community but everywhere, political symbols and artistic symbolism. But it was definitely being exposed to these specifically Muslim conversations that inspired me to think about those things.

BURNS: Going back a little bit, when did you decide you wanted to write?

WILSON: I don’t remember a time when I didn’t ever want to write. I went through periods as a teenager and in college when I thought,” Well, I’ll never be able to pull this off. “ You know I’ve been told since birth basically that, “Nobody makes a living off of writing! “ [Burns laughs.]”So you’ve gotta find something else to do! “ So, I remember a brief period of time when I was a kid when I thought about being a lawyer…I didn’t really know what a lawyer did. [Burns laughs.] Except argue, and I kind of liked arguing. But I’ve never really wanted to be anything else. And I think in college this…fear of the real world set in. And I thought if this is something I want to do professionally I should really get a jump on things.

BURNS: “I don’t want to be in an office the rest of my life.”

WILSON: I don’t want to be in an office for the rest of my life. So, ironically, I started really, really paying attention to the professional aspects of what it takes to write for a living and what kind of contacts you need and what kind of skills you need and how you can present yourself. It was something that I took very seriously on a professional level as soon as I was old enough to know that writing really is a profession and it isn’t just somebody sitting alone at their desk and thinking up brilliant things and then POOF! out of thin air somebody arrives to say, you know, “I’m the Novel Fairy and I’m going to publish this.” So it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. Aside from a six-month stint teaching in Cairo, it’s the only thing I’ve ever done, so I’m pretty lucky I think in that sense.

BURNS: Was it always comics, or did that come at a different point?

WILSON: Comics…I started wanting to write comics as a teenager when I got into Vertigo books, which were new back then.

BURNS: Neil Gaiman was putting out Sandman….

WILSON: Sandman was still coming out in single issues: Shade, the Changing Man, which is one of my favorite series of all time. When I was a kid I didn’t have awareness really that comics were things that people made, you know as far as I’m concerned they came into being miraculously on the bookshelves. But as a teenager I started following particular authors in comics, like Neil Gaiman and Peter Milligan and Grant Morrison. So it was through following individual authors that I thought,”Hey there are people who do this on purpose. There are people whose job it is solely to write comics and wouldn’t that be cool.”

BURNS: And your first writing gig was in college when you were at Boston U.? The Weekly Dig.

WILSON: Yeah, I worked for The Weekly Dig reviewing music in—it was called the “electronica” section. [Burns laughs.] It was techno. I’m only sort of ashamed [laughs].

BURNS: What kind of music were you listening to when you were doing that gig?

WILSON: I wasn’t really into music as such at that time, you know, the thing back then was like house, and drum and bass and all of this stuff. And it was kind of sad, really. You know, I think back and I’m like, “Man…a lot of the stuff we listened to is total crap, and it isn’t really even music!” [Burns laughs.] Nobody is singing, nobody is playing an instrument: it’s all in computers. But that was the big thing back then, so that was what I did.

BURNS: Would that have been in ’99?

WILSON: Let’s see…this would have been…I started writing for The Dig in the summer of 2000.

BURNS: OK. So The Dig was kind of a means to the end: it wasn’t like “This is what I want to do.”

WILSON: Well, anything where I could write and it could make it to print was fine with me at that point. I was just happy to have a gig at all. I was 17 at that point so it was a really big deal for me to be able to write professionally in any capacity. So I wasn’t really thinking this is what I’m going to do forever, or not, I was just grateful to have the opportunity.

BURNS: Did you do any other sort of writing while you were at B.U.?

WILSON: I did. I think that thing that people say about having to write 500 pages of crap before you write anything good is definitely true. So I spent a lot of time in college getting that 500 pages of crap out of my system. So I wrote a lot of stuff that never got published. I would write short stories and essays. I’m also ashamed to say that I have a semi-completed novel of the Twilight variety from that time period.

BURNS: You won’t have to write comics anymore!

WILSON: There were vampires involved [Burns laughs]. I don’t know what to say about that.

BURNS: That’s OK [Laughs].

WILSON: It never saw the light of day, which is probably good.

BURNS: So you moved to Cairo in August 2003, is that correct?

WILSON: Yeah, that’s right. Two months after the first comic con that I ever went to. Actually less. A month after the first comic con I ever went to.

BURNS: And you said you worked in language school for six months?

WILSON: Yeah.

BURNS: What month would that have ended?

WILSON: That would have been September 2003 till like March 2004.

BURNS: OK. And you became a journalist for Cairo Magazine after you left language school.

WILSON: Yeah.

BURNS: What type of magazine was Cairo Magazine and how did you get involved?

WILSON: The magazine was an English-language weekly published by a really interesting and cool set of people, some of whom had previously worked for the Cairo Times, which was another English-language newspaper that had folded some time before. The function of the magazine was to provide independent, English reporting on things that were going on in Egypt so that people weren’t reliant on newswires and sort of processed, prepackaged information like…unfortunately a lot of what we read in the West is just the same newswire rehashed and repeated over and over, sometimes by people who haven’t even seen what’s being reported.

BURNS: Just rewriting the wire.

WILSON: Yeah. So I met the editors through a friend of a friend who was kind of plugged into the literature scene in Cairo, and that was really fun it was a really committed, eclectic, intelligent bunch of journalists who were really, really cool people.

BURNS: Did you have a specific department that you worked in or was it kind of…whatever came, you did?

WILSON: I mostly worked in the culture section, so I’d report on cultural events, and art and music and literature, people. Every once in a while I would do a more political piece, but I mostly stayed away from the really, really heavy-hitting stuff. I mean, I had colleagues who would wade into riots and talk to indicted opposition leaders and that kind of thing. But because I was married to an Egyptian and it wasn’t just my own safety that I would be risking I didn’t feel it was responsible to take on those jobs, because unfortunately the government in Egypt tends to punish not only people it doesn’t like but who have a relationship with people it doesn’t like, and I didn’t want to put any of my family members in potential jeopardy. Because as an American the worst that could happen to me is I would be deported, “whah whah,” but Egyptians could go to jail and that’s a lot [laughs].

BURNS: You had a pretty big extended family as well.

WILSON: Yeah absolutely. My husband’s whole family lives in Cairo. There’s a lot of stuff that I would have liked to report on, but I didn’t because I felt I didn’t…I have the right to endanger myself, but not to endanger my family.

BURNS: So censorship was a big issue then.

WILSON: Oh a huge issue: a huge issue. The magazine would have covers vetoed every so often by the Ministry of Information. I’ve had several friends who were deported for reporting on stories that were not in line with the government[‘s]—how shall we say—official story on certain situations. So it was definitely a big deal: much more so for the Egyptian journalists than for any of us though, I have to say. I mean the threat that Western journalists work under in Egypt is miniascule compared to the threat that Egyptian journalists work under.

BURNS: I wanted to talk a little bit about your interview with Ali Gomaa. He was appointed Grand Mufti of Egypt in 2003, still holds the position today—

WILSON: I think it was early 2004.

BURNS: Early 2004?

WILSON: I think so.

BURNS: OK good. What would be the proper name to call him: would it be just his last name? Grand Mufti…?

WILSON: The official way to do it would be His Excellency or Mufti Ali Gomaa, or Mufti Gomaa, or Sheikh Ali Gomaa. It’s really—there are options.

BURNS: So how did that interview come about?

WILSON: Coincidence. It had nothing to do with my own particular skill or expertise or anything like that. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. And I didn’t really expect anything to come of it. I asked questions that I was interested in personally, but when I wrote up the article, and started shopping it around, I realized that there was some really good stuff in there and that this was a person who is extremely important to what is going on religiously in Egypt and the Middle East, but whose voice was not heard in the Western media. So I thought, this is a good opportunity to give a Western audience a better look at who the important figures are in modern Islam. Because usually we hear about terrorists and militia groups and that kind of thing, but we never really hear about the scholars and the thinkers, and the people who are really driving the narrative of what it means to be Muslim in the 21st century. I thought it had the potential to do some good.

BURNS: And what were some of the things that [Sheikh Ali Gomaa] did that were maybe influential or against the grain a little bit?

WILSON: I think he’s been a very staunch defender of traditional ways of living and interpreting Islam. By traditional I mean more thoughtful, more spiritually oriented: more practical. Ironically, I think when people hear the word “traditional Muslim” they think of crazy people. They think of terrorists and that kind of thing when in fact, the version of Islam that is followed by extremists most often is very, very modern. It didn’t exist before the 18th century. I mean, they [the extremists] say differently, but the method of interpretation that they use is very, very recent. What Sheikh Ali Gomaa does is bring more attention to, in a positive way, the older schools of Islam and sort of make them relevant and make them accessible to people living in the modern world. And I think that’s what he’s done very, very well is reframe the tradition in a way that’s accessible to people of the 21st century.

BURNS: You’re talking about the methods of interpretations that the fundamentalists use, and you talk about that a lot in your article”The Show Me Sheikh.” And you call the fundamentalists…the name for the fundamentalists is “wahhabi?” Is that…?

WILSON: Well it really depends: there is no one blanket term for all extremists within Islam, I mean they’re very different from country to country from region to region, even from class to class. So you can’t really lump them all into one term. Wahhabism is the state ideology of Saudi Arabia. And as such, it is the most commonly propagated form of ultra-conservative Islam in the Middle East. It is spreading to other places as well.

BURNS: And you ran into it in Cairo.

WILSON: Well yeah, you run into it all over. Wahhabism is named for a guy named Muhammad Abdul Wahab, who was a scholar who I’m not qualified to talk about really in detail. There are a lot of people who know much more about his life than I do. But his idea was that people didn’t have to choose one of the four traditional schools of Islam in order to be good Muslims, that they could kind of interpret the Hadith, which are authenticated stories about the Prophet Muhammed and the Quran and all this stuff on there own if they were educated enough, which sounds very democratic, but ironically led to a much more hard-lined, literalist reading of the religion than any of the four traditional schools. Which is why people in the Muslim world are so skeptical of…when we talk about freedom, when we talk about individual liberty, it means something very different to us here than it does necessarily in the Middle East, because in the Middle East, that religiously led to a kind of anarchy, and it led to ultra-conservatism. When you say freedom you don’t guarantee people are going to interpret things in a nice way [laughs]. They have the freedom to be super-super-super conservative. So that’s sort of the short amateur version, and by amateur I mean like, to get the really nitty-gritty you need to go to a real scholar. I’m kind of a hack at the end of the day.

BURNS: [Laughs]. So what was your first experience with fundamentalism when you got to Cairo?

WILSON: I don’t know if I could pick out one particular experience or other.

BURNS: I don’t want to take away too much from the memoir, because it goes into a lot of great…

WILSON: Yeah, I think the way it plays out most is in the way that people were being encouraged to abandon a lot of their very wonderful, traditional, spiritual practices because they were considered un-Islamic. It was un-Islamic to pray in a mosque that had a grave in it, a grave of a learned person or someone who’s considered close to God in some way. Traditionally people would go and pray in mosques that have these shrines or graves in them because they felt that there was a special blessing that comes from praying in proximity to this learned person. But in Wahhabi Islam this is considered un-Islamic and so there’s a lot of traditional music, traditional chanting, traditional ways of worship that are very beautiful and artistic in a lot of ways—all of those things are starting to die out because of the influence of Wahhabism, which is very, very puritanical and very suspicious of any expression of joy in religion, really.

That tension is obvious very much in Cairo because Cairo has so many wonderful old mosques that have graves in them that people go to to worship, and it has some wonderful Sufi traditions that are now dying out. And it’s also led to a lot of hostility I think. It’s led to a lot of tension between men and women. Some people now believe that you shouldn’t even greet a member of the opposite sex, even with the traditional Islamic greeting when you’re in the street. So it’s really the atmosphere of tension. It’s hard to connect to one particular thing, but it’s evident in many different parts of life.

BURNS: It sounded like, on the other side of that, you had a really positive spiritual environment with your husband’s extended family in Cairo, right?

WILSON: Absolutely. I was very, very lucky to be surrounded with people who were very loving, very spiritual, very knowledgeable about the religion, and so I was lucky to be able to avoid a lot of the hang-ups and misconceptions and stumbling blocks that a lot of converts run into I think. Because they just don’t have access to a good community of people that can teach them and nurture them. So I was very lucky to have that.

BURNS: So you cite Sheikh Ali Gomaa as saying, in reference to spiritual equality between genders,”There are those who deny women have equal spiritual rights in Islam. This is a disgrace. “ As a woman, what’s your take on spiritual equality in both America and Egypt?

WILSON: Huh. That’s interesting. Well I think on a functional level, it means that a woman’s prayers are equal in value to the prayers of men. A woman’s good works are equal in value to the good works of a man. Guys don’t get extra credit simply for being guys. In Islam this is a big debate, because the fact that a woman’s good deeds are equal to a man’s has never been in dispute, but at the same time women are now asking,”Well, if what I do and what I think and what I say are worth the same, how come I don’t have the same rights of public space?” So that’s the big debate.

Here, I don’t know, here it’s very different. Here I think we’re trying to forget about gender in a lot of ways. That our attitude toward equality has been in order for men and women to be equal, we should sort of try to ignore or undermine or pave over the differences between men and women and have people be exactly the same. I think there’s some pitfalls in that. I think if, to be equal, everybody has to be exactly alike…I mean, when you think about that, that could end up some bad ways [laughs]. It’s interesting. It’s clearly something that people all over the world are struggling with now, but people have come up with very, very different ways to deal with it. And I think in the Middle East and many parts of the Muslim world, this conflict has served to heighten differences between men and women, whereas here people are, as I said, trying to consciously erase differences between men and women.

BURNS: You think there’s still—not necessarily on the level of equality—but there’s some value in recognizing,”Hey, there are some differences. “

WILSON: There are some differences. I think there is absolutely value in recognizing that there are differences between men and women. Which doesn’t mean those differences are the same from person to person, or that all men are one way and all women are one way. But I think it’s valuable to recognize that men and women are not exactly the same and if we can’t be equal, and be who are, then what is the value of the kind of equality that we are preaching. If in order to be equal, we have to be exactly the same, where’s our identity? We’ve gotten equality but we’ve sacrificed identity. So I think any kind of real equality whether it’s here or in the Middle East, whether it’s in Christianity or Islam, will have to be cognizant of the fact that men and women should be allowed to be different, you know? We shouldn’t be trying to enforce one way of being. So I think that’s the challenge: to recognize differences but not attach a value to them such that one is more valuable than the other.

BURNS: You had two interviews with Sheikh Ali Gomaa, right?

WILSON: Yeah.

BURNS: And the first one was pretty short: it was just like three questions, get in, get out.

WILSON: Yeah the first one was just sort of a personal interview that was not for publication, and didn’t end up being.

BURNS: OK.

WILSON: Yeah, nothing we talked about in that first interview ended up in The Atlantic article. That was just questions that I had personally as a convert, as a newcomer in the society, and I ended up writing up some of those to go into the book [The Butterfly Mosque], a version of which existed way back in 2004, and I sent it to the Mufti’s office for him to approve: “Yes I said this, and I’m comfortable with this being released. “ And apparently he enjoyed it and invited me back for a second interview, and that second interview turned into The Atlantic article.

BURNS: OK. Now how did that second interview go? What kind of insights did you get away from the experience then, rather than rewriting it for The Butterfly Mosque?

WILSON: In the second interview I focused much more on technical issues of interpretation in Islam. We talked about what a fatwa is, what it means, because there’s a lot of misconceptions in the West about what a fatwa is. We think of it as a death threat, basically. When really it’s a very mundane tool of jurisprudence. People get fatwas about disputes over money, you know like”I’ve got this much money and we inherited this much from my dad, what should I get, what should my brother get? “ People go to Sheikhs to get a fatwa like”Well according to Islamic law this is how you should split up the money. “ So mostly it’s a very domestic, day-to-day tool of interpreting Islamic law for people’s daily lives.

BURNS: And that was a theme through that interview.

WILSON: That was a theme through that interview. I asked him about the environment: I said,”What is the stance of shari’a law on pollution, polluting the environment? “ He said,”This is something very bad, and that the Quran says that we are the stewards of the earth. It’s a gift to us and a responsibility, and that polluting it is something very terrible.” So, it was stuff like that: more technical more political.

BURNS: Now the actual essay,”Eco Next: The Mechanics of Hyperpraxis,” did you write that in Egypt?

WILSON: I did, I did write it in Egypt. And it was originally published…Identity Theory, it was published on identitytheory[.com] online. Yeah it was fun. I think I’ve grown a lot since then, and my storytelling methods and the way I think now are a lot more streamlined I think than they were back then. I like that essay; I like it a lot. But I’m thinking now about what the next step is.

BURNS: Well it seems like you’re exploring it very intricately in that essay, you’re using a lot of good examples, you use skinheads, you use red and blue like we already talked about, there was a couple other ones. Was that an attempt to sort of still figure it out in your own mind? ‘Cause that’s the first time it [hyperpraxis] came out.

WILSON: Yeah, it was something that I was thinking about as I wrote. I mean, to me writing things down is the best way for me to think through them. So that’s a lot of what the essay was, for sure.

Tomorrow: In Part Two of a three-part interview, Wilson talks about how it’s harder to break into comics than The New York Times, writing superhero books in continuity, and how she writes a script.

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2 Responses to “G. Willow Wilson Interview conducted by Ian Burns Part One (of Three)”

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