JordanCon is just around the corner! The convention, dedicated to Robert Jordan and The Wheel of Time series, takes place April 20th through the 22nd in Atlanta, Georgia. This year, there are many authors that write across the large spectrum of speculative fiction. But Sargon Donabed started with academic non-fiction focusing on folklore before starting to write his fantasy novels. He also has a PhD in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations and is currently working on a MS in Anthrozoology/Animal Studies.
Q: Thank you for joining me, Sargon! Your rich background in ancient and modern societies is impressive. Does this knowledge give you a jumping off point for building your own fantasy worlds?
Thank you for the interview Mashiara. It’s very kind of you to offer me this opportunity for folks to get to know my work. To answer the question, yes. Only recently had I recognized that some of the (mostly minoritized and indigenous) communities I work with/on, are not only marginalized in their own regions, but also in fantasy literature. Noticing the palpable hunger for distinct perspectives on fantasy, especially through recent works in the field, has led me to rethink ways in which I could offer my reflections, through the imaginative process, on the struggles, triumphs, and simply the lives of those with less of a voice.
Q: What correlations do you see between fantasy tropes and mythology? Do you think there any new ideas or is everything rehashed from old beliefs?
That is an interesting question. I suppose I see little or no difference. In a course I recently taught, my students began reading Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces then moved to Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth. Campbell of course speaks of a holistic approach and refers to the heroic epic as the monomyth, reflective of human desires in all societies. Armstrong on the other hand shows the progression of the ways in which a changing human society described its place in the world, as it also explained the surrounding world. I think new ideas are always formed, but I do think they are necessarily directly created from old ideas. In other words, I do not believe things exist in a vacuum though I do see a holism to existence.
Q: You’re currently working on two fantasy series. One, a retelling of Gilgamesh, is intended for a YA audience. Can you tell us your plans for those stories?
I think I can. At least I hope so. So, the work is meant to be a traditional trilogy, though I am writing the second book first. Long story. In any case, book one Lineage of the Ancients is a fantasy steeped in Mesopotamian lore and set on a parallel world where the earth is an ecotopian paradise resplendent with ancient creatures and magical beings. It blends historical fantasy and alternate history where Gilgamesh, King of the ancient city of Uruk in Mesopotamia and designer of civilization, died confronting Humbaba, beast of the cedar forest, while Enkidu, his semi-feral companion, survived. Thanks to Enkidu’s ingestion of the elixir of life, which in our version Gilgamesh found and lost, Enkidu and his particularly undomesticated brand of Mesopotamian culture lived on as a prevailing ethos (rather than a cradle of human civilization), governing the Near East and surrounding regions. A place where reverence for the natural world and the ancient deity Shakkan/Sumuqan, lord of the wild and its denizens, stands as patron.
Since I started with book two, I suppose I should speak of that first. Scion of the Ancients, shadows a brother and sister, Nem and Sina growing up along the New England coastal forests with their stalwart and respective feline and canine companions, a Bengal cat and kugsha-tamaskan mix, meet a shaggy unkempt and largely feral recluse who claims the children are of an ancient lineage through which they have been gifted with the power to meld – to transform or merge into animal state, able to interact with them and their communities. At least a child of the untamed has such abilities. A child of the hand maintains an innate ability, driven by the creative spark, to fashion objects of power.
The children themselves have this primordial magic due to their relation to a prehistoric Mesopotamian lineage which includes an ability to meld, but only if they are able to procure a nasaru, a guardian/protector, who incidentally, have been hunted to extinction since the fall of ancient Assyria! This revelation coincides with the mysterious arrival of Taela, a peculiar young woman who speaks their native language (sort of) as well as seemingly communicate with their animal companions. But what is perhaps most mind boggling for the young siblings is why Taela insists on an audience with the famed King of Uruk, Gilgamesh, an ancient historical figure dead and buried over 4,000 years ago!
Q: Your other series is going to be high fantasy. Why types of magic systems will this series include?
Well, here is an older elevator pitch.
Explaining anything to 8-year olds is taxing – try explaining they might be gods. Ancient races and deities enter human reality in this epic fantasy entitled Of Beasts and Mischief: The Unremembered Book One, at 100,000 words. The novel follows the travails of a teenage girl with an ability to ride souls and a young man problematically preoccupied with a not-so-forgotten myth as they investigate the origins of two furtive children with mystical abilities.
If I gave a bit more detail - The story centers on 4 major characters from distinct communities who have each received a summons from a winged messenger working for the confederation of Nirad with the great honor to participate in the Drasha, a contest/reenactment of the ancient rite of passage for initiates of a long dead mythical race. What the participants do not realize is the contest is real and the stakes are not only life and death, but also the very existence of all they hold dear. Their only clue to completing the Drasha unscathed is a book of fables for children entitled, The Unremembered.
Q: How do you balance your academic studies, your academic teaching, and your writing?
I don’t. Hell, half the time I fall into a new world, half asleep. It’s tough to be honest. I am still learning. But the academic job pays the bills for now. More important is a good balance for family life and play. Tough in the never-ending New England winters, but important none the less. I must say I would love a few years just swimming and enjoying the sun on a beach, surrounded by pristine nature. So, imagining that as a possibility always helps! Yoga, martial arts, soccer, hiking, time with friends and family, enjoying the good of the earth with a sense of reverence; those things are important.
Q: You’ve published many academic papers and articles. When did your desire for writing fiction come about?
Money. I wanted to make lots of money. Like, sick money. You know the kind that Bieber has…? Legit joke. Beyond that… I suppose I recognized that fantasy literature had more of a profound effect on my writing, even as an academic, than any academic work I had ever written. From the academic side, I recall the impression left on me by Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien: Myth and Modernity by Patrick Curry. If you have not read it, I suggest you do so. I was enamored by his sense of re-enchanting reality and the natural world against the machine of modernity. I love that. I think the wonder and hope that children inherently have can make us better creatures. Kinder, have more empathy. I think fantasy can teach this in a way other avenues can’t, or don't.
Q: Which fantasy authors have had an influence on your writing?
Certainly, Robert Jordan. You’d had to have read my first monograph but, I top quoted one of my favorite lines about forging metal. I also thanked him in my intro. Plus, I entitled my first monograph Reforging a Forgotten History: Iraq and the Assyrians in the 20th century. So much Perrin in there. And Rand. And Sanderson I suppose.
Shout out to Tolkien of course. Tad Williams world of Osten Ard. Ray Feist’s Magician – Midkemia is a wonderfully rich and, I believe grounding (in an ongoing active sense) is the right term, world with Pug and Tomas. Robin Hobb’s Assassin work, Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance and Deathgate Cycle work is just splendid and were my entrance into fantasy literature. More recently I fell in love with Erickson and Esselmont’s Malazan works – dear God are they intricate and dense. Grittier than what I hope to offer but their depth is unparalleled in my opinion. For kids works, I adore the Fablehaven series of Brandon Mull, read and reread numerous times, and can’t wait to read it to my daughter. Of course, Riordan’s Percy et al have reinvigorated a classical mythological world for a modern audience and made me think it just might be possible to chat about Mesopotamia and Assyria in a way that would attract an audience. Time shall tell.
Q: Why did you decide to pick JordanCon to visit this year?
The intimacy of a small venue. By small I speak in comparison to DragonCon or something of the like. Last year I found staff and attendees to be affable in their general attitude and kind as well as generous in their opinions of their passions. Plus, I think it’s vital to honor master storytellers. If nothing else we are a race of beings in need of myths to inspire and comfort us, I think high fantasy at its best leaves room for goodness, and fills us with hope.
Q: Can you give us a sneak peek of which panels you’ll be on?
Sure. I shall be on the following: Writing in a Sub-Culture, Great Fight Scenes, What should we be reading? Additionally, when I spoke with Thom a while back, I thought it may be fun to talk about how to integrate RJ/WOT into an academic course/setting. From that, there was crafted a Teaching Robert Jordan panel – “Discussing the importance of narrative storytelling, myth, & fantasy to the greater world, and as a gateway to student learning.” I’m stoked about that one. Ordinarily I only get to talk to academics about the course, so I’m thrilled to be inspired by ideas from people immersed in RJ/WOT and fantasy in general.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about you or your works?
Hmmm. I suppose I am most proud of myself (you know the me who loves fantasy and JordanCon etc.) for sneaking in some concepts/quotes into my academic works from some of my favorite fantasy series. I would love more feedback to see if there are others out there interested in my work. I hope that one of the things I can ignite in the hearts (besides acid indigestion) of others is a deeper connection to our non-human animal companions, and the natural world in general. It is necessary that we change our way of interacting with the world around us. Begin to look at others as siblings, companions, fellow subjects in this magical world, this life.
Q: Thank you so much for talking with me. I’m looking forward to hearing your expertise on folklore and mythology!
Thank you for the interview Mashiara.
To find out more about Sargon Donabed you can visit his website.
Edited by Mashiara Sedai