Narjas Zatat was born in Hungary to an Algerian dad and a Greek mum. When she moved to London at the age of eight, the question ‘Where are you from?’ became a bit of an existential crisis. As a child, she tried to understand her identity by writing stories. As an adult and journalist, she continues to write with a passion for diverse stories. Narjas is our FAB 2021 Text Prize Winner. Her epic YA fantasy submission, Djinn-touched, was described by the judges as ‘engaging, sumptuous and magical. Narjas is an incredibly talented storyteller with the potential to be a true writing star. The decision was unanimous.’ We spoke to her about her journey as a writer and some of her inspiration.
When did you first realise that you were a writer? What has your journey to this point been like?
I always wanted to be a writer in the way that a child reads Stardust and wants to be a pirate. It’s this distant dream that I never really took seriously until a few years ago, partly because I was scared that if I took it seriously and I failed, it’d hurt more than if I didn’t try at all. So, I plodded along after university, became a journalist and continued to write in my spare time with my friend Sylvia. We both love the same stories – dark, fantastical, luscious. Eventually, I got restless and decided to really go for it. I’ve had lots of people who helped me along the way. I’m grateful to them, for letting me take this delicate dream out of my mind and into reality.
Where did the inspiration for Djinn-touched come from?
I’ve always wanted to write a book featuring djinn. I worked on an earlier manuscript about djinn in London, but I parked that story a few years ago. About two years ago, perhaps just before coronavirus swept across the world, I was doing lots of research about ancient myths and legends in North Africa. One evening, I had a vivid image of a girl in a city made of bridges. All I knew was that she was Djinn-touched – whatever that meant at the time! – and that she wasn’t free. It was so clear I sat down and started writing. I wrote the first chapter in one go. After that, the poem followed.
Are there any writers that inspire you?
Holly Black is one of my favourite authors. The unconventional way she weaves the fantastical, and the mundane together is something that really inspired my writing growing up. I have so much respect for Neil Gaiman’s talent and the way he creates, whether it’s a children’s book or an adult fantasy or The Sandman comics. He has so much scope. I can list many more! I love Leigh Bardugo’s intricate plotting and Tomi Adeyemi for the exquisite way she weaves her culture into her writing. Seriously, stop me or I’ll go on!
What was the first book that made you feel seen?
The first book that made me believe a story like Djinn-touched was possible is a recent one called Trail of Lightning, a debut novel by Rebecca Roanhorse. It’s a post-apocalyptic fantasy steeped in Navajo mythology, monsters and gods. It was the first time I had seen a book in which the writer had unapologetically, and without pulling any punches, created an undiluted story with their culture weaved through. Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone came out around that time too. The year 2018 was a good one for diverse stories!
Are you reading anything at the moment?
I’m reading two books now: Alexandra Bracken’s Lore, which is a fantasy book steeped in Greek mythology that I am loving. The second is Blood and Honey, a sequel to Shelby Mahurin’s Serpent & Dove, a young adult fantasy inspired by the Spanish Inquisition. They are beautiful stories and I would absolutely recommend them.
Is there any advice you would give to your younger self?
I’m going to quote the glorious Michaela Coel because she says this best: ‘Write the tale that scares you, that makes you feel uncertain, that isn’t comfortable. I dare you.’ I spent a long time contorting my characters and my writing into what I thought people wanted to read. That’s what I would tell young Narjas – stop doing that! I promise you, people will love your writing if it’s authentic.
What’s next for you?
I’d like for Djinn-touched to find a home and get published. I’d like to revisit the world with a sequel and hopefully a trilogy. A TV show spin-off would be nice, maybe a movie, a theme park perhaps . . . but mostly I just want to write novels for the rest of my life. You know, the dream!