Today, we have a special post by our very own Catherine Faris King, whose story The Queen of Sheba appears in the upcoming anthology The Djinn Falls in Love, edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin and out on 9 March (UK) and 14 March (USA).
In The Queen of Sheba, a brave young woman encounters the supernatural, in the form of a djinn. But rather than a terrifying monster, the djinn is a friend. More, even – Opal is a part of our heroine’s family.
Why? To answer this, here’s a little background on the The Queen of Sheba…
In the character of Opal Abdullah, I combined two archetypes: the film noir detective and the djinn of the lamp. In my head, Opal slinks in the shadows, solving crimes on the edge of magic and the edge of the law, with a brimmed hat and a long coat, and when her back’s against the wall, she can use a bit of magic to salvage the day. But Opal is not a private eye: she’s a police detective.
But why? Why should a djinn care for human law and justice (other than an anthropocentric worldview on the part of the writer)?
First, when I was writing Queen of Sheba, it was a trending topic for people of color to share photographs of their ancestors – particularly women – in occupations of the military, police, or manufacturing. This inspired me to place Opal in a framework of law and justice.
Second, a wish could bind a djinn more closely than any ring or bottle. I decided that it would make sense if Opal is bound to an open-ended wish, “That she serve justice in Los Angeles.”
A good prompt. But now I had to decide where this wish originated.
Djinni are inherently creatures of the Old World, so, to me, it made sense that Opal came to America post-European contact. I concluded that, for an immortal djinn to journey from the ancient Arab world, to Caliphate Spain, to hang out there for a while, to voyage to the New World with the conquistadors – that’s not such an unbelievable trajectory. So that means Opal could have lived in L.A. for a long, long time.
Now we come to a stickier place. As a writer, I try to be inclusive. When I imagine history, I try to keep an eye towards long-term justice. So I diminished the Spanish colonizers who brought Opal to America, and gave the power of this great wish – the power to arbitrate justice – to an Indigenous woman.
This aspect dovetailed with another element of my story – from a much earlier draft. In this version, Opal investigated another djinn, and she had a partner, Juan Esparza, who was an ordinary human. In a snap, I made Juan a descendant of the wise woman who made the wish for justice in the first place.
Then I changed my draft entirely, and I put the focus on this family.
The Esparza family obviously has roots in Los Angeles that go way, way back. I fleshed out their connection with Opal, and made them her link to the human world, and to passing time. They have magic of their own, and they welcome Opal into their family. She becomes an “Auntie” for each generation – at least, for a while.
In the new draft of The Queen of Sheba, I focused on a moment of transition. I knew that Juan had a daughter, Juanita. I shifted the focus to her, at the juncture in her life when she is ready to learn that Auntie Opal is not everything that she appears to be. This story marks the end of Juanita’s childhood, but it’s also the beginning of a more fulfilling friendship with Opal.
Opal has it rough. She may live in Los Angeles, one of the greatest cities in the world (I’m biased), but she is trapped there, bound to a tough duty. I think her happiness is in her friends, and especially her affection for the Esparza family.
With that love as her backbone, it followed that she was a moral person, at her core – and I came full circle to my vision of Opal Abdullah as a tough but fair police detective, striving to be Lawful Good.
That’s my idea of Opal Abdullah – Auntie, detective, probation officer to an errant ifreet or vampire, and friend. She slinks in the shadows with a brimmed hat and a long coat, and she can always rely on her partner Juan to help her out. She might star in more stories yet, but in the meantime, look forward to meeting her in The Djinn Falls in Love¸ coming to you in March.
Catherine Faris King is a Lebanese-Irish-American writer. She has always known that Los Angeles, her hometown, has magic in it.
“The Queen of Sheba” appears in The Djinn Falls in Love (coming this March from Solaris – US / UK). Catherine’s short fiction can also be found right here, with “The Ninety-Ninth Bride“.