March Book Club: The Map of Salt and Stars

TrudyTrudy Heaven Host
Hi all: the book for March is The Map of Salt and Stars by Zeyn Joukhadar*. It tells two parallel stories: that of 12-year-old Nour, whose family returns from the US to their Syrian home after her father's death just in time to be caught up in the Syrian civil war, and the story of the (fictional) teenager Raiwa who disguises herself as a boy to become apprentice to the (real) medieval map-maker al-Idrisi.

I hope everyone who wants to read the book is able to get hold of a copy and can jump in to participate! I'll post discussion questions around March 20.


(*Note: This book is published under the author name Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar. Since its publication, Joukhadar has come out as a trans man, uses the name Zeyn Joukhadar, and prefers male pronouns. None of this has anything to do with the book; I just mention it to explain why I'll be referring to the author as "Zeyn Joukhadar" and "he" in discussion, in case anyone's confused).

Comments

  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    I've just downloaded this so I'm in.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    I've also downloaded it, so count me in too.
  • ClimacusClimacus Shipmate
    I've asked the city branch of the library to get a copy transferred from another branch. Sounds like an intriguing book!

    Thanks for the plot and author background too, Trudy.
  • ClimacusClimacus Shipmate
    Well I've just started reading it. I am enjoying the structure of the prose and the imagery the words conjure in my mind. Looking forward to digging in deeper now the weekend is here...
  • TrudyTrudy Heaven Host
    Glad to hear it! Anyone else reading it? I will need to a do a bit of a review before starting discussion next week, since I read it last year.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    I’ve almost finished it; a very enjoyable read and I think a very good book - and that’s not always quite the same thing.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    I'm a about half way through so need to get a shift on.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    I finished it yesterday evening and enjoyed it very much - a good choice for a group read!
  • TrudyTrudy Heaven Host
    Realistically, it'll be Thursday, not tomorrow, when I post discussion questions.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    I've finished the book, and am looking forward to discussing it.
  • RublevRublev Shipmate
    My copy has just arrived in the post, so I'm just in time to join the discussion. It's had great reviews online.
  • MaramaMarama Shipmate
    I've managed to get hold of it and have just started. Look forward to the discussion.
  • TrudyTrudy Heaven Host
    OK, here are my questions. The discussion might get spoilery, so those who have just gotten the book can avoid looking at posts till you finish the book, then jump in!

    1. The novel has two central characters: Nour in the present-day story, and Rawiya in the historical story. Did you find both equally compelling/interesting, or were you drawn more to one than the other? Why?
    2. Jumping off from question 1 -- how did you find the Rawiya's story informed or added to Nour's? Did the two stories connect thematically for you, or was Rawiya's story a distraction from Nour's present-day reality?
    3. The author is a Syrian-American who did not have direct experience of the Syrian civil war, so Nour's story is based on research rather than personal experience. Did you think it was an authentic and believable depiction of the civil war and the refugee experience? Why or why not?
    4. Which parts of the story (either story) had the strongest emotional resonance for you? What will linger with you after reading this book?
    5. How do you feel about the endings of both Nour's and Rawiya's stories? Were they satisfying? Believable? (In the case of Rawiya's story, believable within the fantasy/magic realism framework that's been established for that story, of course).
    6. What other questions do you have that you might want to ask/discuss with other readers?

    I will come back and add my own answers a little later, but for now, those who have read the book can take these and add to them as you wish, and those who are still reading can join in as you finish.
  • RublevRublev Shipmate
    edited March 21
    I was more drawn to the character and story of Rawiya, the C 12th Arabic version of Mulan. But an online reviewer said that in her case it was just the opposite. I wondered if Rawiya had been based upon a real person but was disappointed to discover from the endnotes that she was purely the authors invention.

    I was intrigued by the comment that 'Everyone knows the story of Rawiya. They just don't know it' (p6). Is that because she is the brave and resourceful person that we all wish to be? And Nour needed Rawiya's story to enable her to survive. Nour's experience as a refugee reminded me of The Kite Runner and the book has been compared to that novel.

    I especially liked the beginning of Rawiya's adventure and the riddle game which turned out to be her interview as an apprentice to test her wisdom. I wondered if the connection between the parallel stories was the grandfathers comment that 'stories ease the pain of living' (p108).

    There was a great deal of violence and sudden death in both stories which I found a bit of a challenge. To end both the stories in the same city of Ceuta was a clever resolution.

    The Roc came from the Arabian Nights and I wondered what it was meant to symbolise? The challenges of life or the inner fears that we have to conquer?
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    1) - A tricky question to answer, as one is a third-person narrative and the other first-person, so they’re inevitably rather different. The first is a ‘story’ and the second an ‘account.’ But I found the first more entertaining and the second more interesting, if that makes sense.

    2) - I liked the way the stories fitted together and informed each other. I suppose closer parallels would have been possible - the roc as a mediaeval equivalent of the helicopters, for example - but given the constraints of the two narratives I thought they were handled very successfully.

    3) - Believable? Yes, largely, though if anything I suspect that our modern-day family suffered less than many have done, with their money and passports rescued from the ruins of their house. How many refugees have neither!

    4) - In both stories it was the deaths along the way that made the most impact on me. And the homecomings, of course.

    5) - Both believable endings, I think, within the narrative frameworks that the author has established.

    Nour’s synaesthesia struck a cord with me, as I’m strongly synaesthetic myself and until a few years ago just assumed that everybody else could see the lovely colours in music, and know that the Number 7 is rather nasty. But apparently not so!
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    edited March 23
    1. The novel has two central characters: Nour in the present-day story, and Rawiya in the historical story. Did you find both equally compelling/interesting, or were you drawn more to one than the other? Why?
    I found Nour's story more compelling than Rawiya's, the tone of which seemed slightly misjudged to me. It didn't quite seem the language of a mythical fairy tale was consistent. Leading on from that to question 2 I did find Rawiya's story a bit of a distraction but I sometimes felt I needed it as I wasn't sure how awful Nour's story was going to get, and I was quite pleased to delay having to find out.


    3. The author is a Syrian-American who did not have direct experience of the Syrian civil war, so Nour's story is based on research rather than personal experience. Did you think it was an authentic and believable depiction of the civil war and the refugee experience? Why or why not?
    I'm sure that a lot of people's experiences would have been similar, but many would have been a lot worse. They managed to get across the borders that they needed to, and most of them made it out alive. It was a good idea to have the first person narrative from the point of view of a twelve year old, who is obviously being shielded from the worst of what is going on.

    4. Which parts of the story (either story) had the strongest emotional resonance for you? What will linger with you after reading this book?
    The image of Abu Sayeed drowning with the stones he loved weighing him down is an image that will remain with me. The old man denied access across the border and the way that most people behaved well even in awful situations.

    I enjoyed Nour's synaesthesia too and her descriptions of people in terms of colour. I'm only slightly synaesthetic but the days of the week are obviously different colours.

  • TrudyTrudy Heaven Host
    I've never been able to figure out what colour Tuesday is, though all the others are perfectly obvious to me. This is a problem when I hand-colour my personal planner. I don't actually have synaesthesia, I don't think -- but days of the week (and, to a lesser degree, numbers) do sort of map to colours in my mind. Interestingly, because I read the book last year, I had forgotten all about Nour's synaesthesia.

    I was surprised, in reading the novel, how much more I was engaged in Nour's story and found Rawiya's, while I did still enjoy it, a bit of a distraction -- that is, I was always anxious to get through Rawiya's story to get back to Nour's. Generally, I'm a bigger fan of both historical fiction, and anything with fantasy/magic realism elements, than of contemporary realistic fiction, so I would have expected Rawiya's story to be more engaging -- but I think Nour was so engaging as a character she just took centre stage for me.

    Abu Sayeed's death was definitely the most emotionally wrenching part of the story for me. His character had been so well developed and he had become such an important part of the family unit, it was devastating.

    The thing I loved most about this book was how normal, how everyday, the family's life was in Homs -- the relationship between the sisters, the little family rituals and resentments, the fact that they're just sitting down to a normal Friday evening supper -- and then how quickly it's all ripped away. How they go instantly from being ordinary people living a relatively ordinary life, to being refugees who have (next to) nothing. I think this is what's so hard for some people in the West who are anti-immigrant or hostile to refugees to grasp -- that these are people just like us, living their ordinary lives, who've had the unthinkable happen to them.
  • ClimacusClimacus Shipmate
    edited March 27
    Trudy wrote: »
    1. The novel has two central characters: Nour in the present-day story, and Rawiya in the historical story. Did you find both equally compelling/interesting, or were you drawn more to one than the other? Why?
    I was more invested in Nour's story emotionally, and as Sarasa wrote the breaks from the sometimes-awfulness of it were gratefully received. I was absolutely drawn in to the story. I think this is as it quickly became apparent Rawiya's tale was exceptionally fantastical...rather than a possible story or mythic one.

    But I loved Rawiya's tale... It was an amazing adventure. Although I wasn't overly enamoured with the roc -- not sure why, I usually like mythical beasts. Just not this one. But good to learn about Middle Eastern mythology.
    2. Jumping off from question 1 -- how did you find the Rawiya's story informed or added to Nour's? Did the two stories connect thematically for you, or was Rawiya's story a distraction from Nour's present-day reality?
    I am thick at the best of times, but I did feel they connected at times. For example, Khaldun's comment on not knowing the tale of where you come from meaning the words of others can drown out yours -- I applied this to Nour.
    3. The author is a Syrian-American who did not have direct experience of the Syrian civil war, so Nour's story is based on research rather than personal experience. Did you think it was an authentic and believable depiction of the civil war and the refugee experience? Why or why not?
    Having read and heard accounts, from those I know (generally Vietnamese refugees to Australia, or those who left Lebanon due to the war) and those I don't, it rang true to me -- it could happen. It does not bother me that every detail may not be true...the heartache and the struggles portrayed had me engaging emotionally, perhaps too emotionally (I had to stop reading when the bomb hit the house).
    4. Which parts of the story (either story) had the strongest emotional resonance for you? What will linger with you after reading this book?
    The bombing of their home. Yes, the latter sadnesses had impact, but nothing like the bomb impact had on me. And the girl with the earmuffs they met on the way to Jordan...dear God. I am very lucky to live where I do and not see, let alone experience, such horrific circumstances.

    Thank you for the suggestion of this book. Nour's story was not an easy read at times, but it was a worthwhile one. And Rawiya swept me away on a journey of wonderful fantasy.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Like most Quest narratives, Salt and Stars is ultimately about the journey on which the protagonist will find him- or herself; twice over, in the case, and I think rather nicely done. And - given that Rawiya disguises herself as a boy and Nour becomes aware of her womanhood as the story progresses - the author's own history becomes rather relevant.

    Historical fantasy, which I suppose is what the Rawiya sections are, isn't the easiest thing to carry off - do we really feel convinced by the roc and the giant snakes? - but I felt it had been done very well.

    I've enjoyed this book more than most I've read recently, so an excellent choice for the group. Thank you!
  • MaramaMarama Shipmate
    I'd agree it was a good choice, and an excellent read. I'm having a go at some of the questions - I'll leave some and come back later, perhaps

    1. The novel has two central characters: Nour in the present-day story, and Rawiya in the historical story. Did you find both equally compelling/interesting, or were you drawn more to one than the other?

    Nour is such a compelling girl, bright, observant, brave - but at 12 not always quite understanding everything she sees. I found her very well portrayed (and I agree this sort of character is easy to get wrong) – but Joukhadar manages to pull it off. Yet I also found the story of Rawiya grew on me, as the two tales became a closer parallel of each other, as their routes became closer, ending up I think at the same house site. So no, I did not find Rawiya’s story a distraction.

    5. How do you feel about the endings of both Nour's and Rawiya's stories? Were they satisfying? Believable? (In the case of Rawiya's story, believable within the fantasy/magic realism framework that's been established for that story, of course).

    I guess I was mostly relieved that nothing further awful happened to Nour! Yes, it’s believable – after all some refugees have managed to build lives after their trauma (though of course others haven’t).

    6. What other questions do you have that you might want to ask/discuss with other readers?

    I assume this book is basically aimed at a mainstream American (and other Western) audience. The fantastic, mythical and lyrical elements of the novel, as well as the portrayal of the 12th century Middle East as sophisticated and wealthy (well, some parts of it, anyway) are surely a deliberate challenge to the usual representation of Middle Eastern/Muslim/Arab societies today – and one we need to heed. Any comments?

  • TrudyTrudy Heaven Host
    Andras wrote: »
    Like most Quest narratives, Salt and Stars is ultimately about the journey on which the protagonist will find him- or herself; twice over, in the case, and I think rather nicely done. And - given that Rawiya disguises herself as a boy and Nour becomes aware of her womanhood as the story progresses - the author's own history becomes rather relevant.

    That's an interesting point -- Joukhadar wasn't yet out as a trans man when I first read the book so I hadn't thought about it from that perspective. The "girl who disguises herself as a boy for adventure or survival" is such a well-known trope, but I am sure it has different resonance for a trans author or reader. I'd love to read something by the author reflecting on that.
  • TrudyTrudy Heaven Host
    Marama wrote: »
    I assume this book is basically aimed at a mainstream American (and other Western) audience. The fantastic, mythical and lyrical elements of the novel, as well as the portrayal of the 12th century Middle East as sophisticated and wealthy (well, some parts of it, anyway) are surely a deliberate challenge to the usual representation of Middle Eastern/Muslim/Arab societies today – and one we need to heed. Any comments?

    For just that reason, I have been seeking out a lot more fiction by Middle Eastern/Arab writers, trying to deepen my perspective on that part of the world. The book I'm reading right now is a much harder turn into historical fantasy than the Rawiya parts of this novel, but for those who don't mind fantasy I would highly recommend that Daevabad trilogy by S.A. Chakraborty. (The first book is City of Brass, I'm currently reading Kingdom of Copper. The third book isn't out yet). Very much fantasy -- all the main characters are djinn, not human -- and yet also clearly rooted in Middle Eastern and even specifically in Muslim culture. It's such a rich well of both history and mythology and worth learning more about.
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