Both of us have been raving about Tasha Suri’s debut Empire of Sand since it came out in November (you can read Farah’s review here!) so we were delighted we could snag Tasha for a quick Q&A about her writing process, Bollywood inspirations, and narrative choices.
1) EMPIRE OF SAND is inspired by the gamut of Mughal culture and history, down to the food your characters eat, the significance of dance, the subtle political influence wielded by harems. But perhaps more than anything, the story focuses on the consequences of an empire which has built itself on colonial rule. Why? And what are the parallels from actual history you hope your readers will draw from?
It’s hard to avoid thinking about the significance of colonialism when thinking about empire. To make a broad, sweeping statement: many powerful nations, empires and states of the past and the present have built their prosperity on the exploitation of the resources and labour of people who are considered to be not true people of that nation, for whatever reason. That’s a reality I think about a lot, as a descendant of people who lived under colonial rule, and I wanted to explore it in my own small way. I’m not sure if I hope readers will draw parallels from real history, but as EMPIRE OF SAND is inspired by India, if they do think of the British Raj, I honestly won’t be surprised or displeased.
2) I could talk about Mehr and your ability to create a very real, compelling, tough-as-nails protagonist. But I’m interested in hearing you talk about your villain, the Maha. What is the secret to making a character so utterly despicable (besides him being the reason for tearing Mehr and Amun apart)? Does it have something to do with his “gentle malevolence”?
I intended the Maha’s brand of evil – for all that he’s an immortal and intensely, unnaturally creepy guy – to be very human and familiar. He tangles together love with worship and with fear; he gaslights and he manipulates. At his heart he’s a man who weaponizes the kind of abusive behavior that we all experience in large or small ways at some point in our lives. That’s what lies at the core of his ‘gentle malevolence’, and what makes him so thoroughly unpleasant.
3) And yet, the ones who seem to hold the most power, who are best able to defy the Maha, are women. Besides Amun, the relationships Mehr has with other women propel her. What drew you to portraying female friendships in a romance story?
I’m a big reader of romance, and the best ones I’ve read are the ones that contain lots of strong and interesting women, be they enemies or friends or family (or the heroine’s love interest, of course). But I also just generally don’t think I could write a story without women’s relationships at its heart. All women in the real world have female friends, have mother figures and mentors and rivals. It feels real. Although romance is important, other kinds of love are really essential too.
4) If someone has never watched Bollywood films, what would you recommend? Have Bollywood films influenced the way you write or think about scenes?
Oh, if only I could make my scenes half as beautiful as a Bhansali film! If anyone wants an introduction to Bollywood, I’d be tempted to start by recommending some of my favourites from the 90s and early 00s: Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge… but honestly, if someone is looking for beautiful, historical films, then I’d recommend starting with Jodhaa Akbar, which still takes me breath away. Bajirao Mastani is a Bhansali film I love, as well. Oh, and if we’re talking real classics: Mughal-e-Azam and Pakeezah. Gorgeous, elegant, ambitious. I love them.
I’d tell anyone who hasn’t watched Bollywood films before that they’re like any other genre: they have their own rules and tropes, their own internal logic, they draw on their own narrative history and cultural references. Approach them with an inquisitive mind and you’ll get a lot of joy out of them.
5) How does one find the strength to write a love story built on hope when everything feels so…dire?
Love is the only thing that makes dire circumstances bearable. It gives us hope. I’ve joked before that the real moral of EMPIRE OF SAND is that ‘the power of love will save us’ but it’s also not really a joke, because it’s totally the moral of the book.
6) And lastly: how could you hurt sweet boy Amun like this? What do you have to say for yourself?
Hahaha, I’m sorry!
Okay, I’m not really sorry. I just love causing my characters pain. All writers do. We’re monsters, really.