MT Khan's debut novel, Nura and the Immortal Palace, is an exciting, magical adventure. MT Khan is a SFF writer from Pakistan, now living in Canada. She focuses on stories close to her heart, evoking cultural and societal conversations through her works.
When she's not writing, M.T. Khan has her nose deep in physics textbooks or glued to her CAD computer as she majors in Mechanical Engineering. She currently resides in Toronto, Canada, with a hyperactive cat and an increasing selection of fantasy video games.
Nura and the Immortal Palace (Walker Books)
Nura and the Immortal Palace is a magical adventure with trickster jinn, an enchanted hotel that meets every guests's whim, and a group of children who are desperate to return home.... We ask debut author MT Khan about what inspired the story and its magical setting, as well as the very real themes she tackles through the story, including child slavery and discovering what really matters to you in life.
Q&A with MT Khan
1. Can you tell us a little about yourself and your writing to date?
I'm Maeeda, also known by my pen name, M.T. Khan. I just graduated with a bachelor's in mechanical engineering. I love potatoes in all forms, travelling, pondering philosophical questions, and spending leisure time creating digital art of my favourite book characters (that you can find on my twitter account!). Nura and the Immortal Palace is my debut novel.
2. What happens in Nura and the Immortal Palace?
Nura and the Immortal Palace follows Nura, a 12-year-old mica miner who must work to help put food on her family's dinner table. But when the mines collapse and her best friend is ruled dead, Nura digs deeper to find a portal realm of jinn - and that her friend isn't dead, he's been kidnapped. It's perfect for fans of Ghibli's Spirited Away and Aru Shah!
3. Do you have a sentence or two in the novel that stand out for you?
This passage is one of my favourites, and I think it mirrors the theme in the book pretty nicely.
"Have you ever seen an old man fight for the last biscuit on a plate? Or the smartest scholar in town get into a petty argument over the best book in the last century?
"That's something a child would do."
"I'll let you in on a secret," the Craftsman whispers, squatting down so his goggles are at my eye level. "Everyone still is one."
4. How did your main characters, Nura and Faisal, develop?
A lot of who Nura is, was me as a kid! She's stubborn, unwaveringly confident, and won't hesitate to put up a fight for what she wants. I think her voice came so naturally to me because a lot of what I was thinking while writing her was: what would I do? She represents a lot of that childish naivete kids hold about the world, but also what we as adults admire about children: their fearlessness in the face of dangers that try to stop them. Faisal is my embodiment of a soft boy, especially since I wanted to break the stereotype that brown boys are tough or violent. It's perfectly fine to like poetry and be wistful!
5. Can you tell us about the novel's setting in Meerabagh, and if this is based on a place you know?
Meerabagh is a fictional mining town that would most likely be situated in the province of Baluchistan, where many other industrial projects also occur. I think a lot of readers who've visited rural or industrial towns in Pakistan will find Meerabagh familiar.
6. One of the main themes in the novel is the exploitation of children and abuse of power; why did you want to explore this in your novel and why did you choose the mining of mica to focus on this?
I stumbled upon a mica mining documentary and was shocked to learn about the deadly labor behind products like car paint and shimmery makeup. I knew immediately I wanted to critique the global child labor crisis, and I easily could've done so from the viewpoint of an adult. But I wanted to write a novel from the perspective of a child who is living through it, and how she copes and overcomes the increasingly narrow options laid out for her.
Nura is a Pakistani Muslim girl, and we see so little of those identities shown in media; and more often than not it's in a negative light. Unlike the mica mining documentaries where foreigners try to tackle these issues, I wanted a brown kid at the center; the protagonist of her own life.
I think the largest reason I find child labor such a disheartening problem is because it's preventable. There are ways in which we can change the lives of the victims suffering from it, but most of the times the situation requires the cooperation of many different people and organizations. I hope that shedding even a little light on this problem can start a conversation.
7. The children in the story find themselves in a magical hotel which provides a wonderful backdrop to the story. Do you enjoy bringing magic into the everyday world in your stories?
I knew I wanted to write from the perspective of one of the child miners, and how she might have a warped view of childhood and the future. But these are heavy themes, so I tried to balance to balance them with the atmosphere of a Ghibli movie - wondrous, magical, heartwarming. Ghibli movies played a huge part in shaping my own childhood, and they wove in serious themes without ever feeling like I was being lectured.
You'll find that in Nura, too - even though there's a lot to unpack and child labour is a difficult conversation, I try to get that discussion going against the backdrop of a bewitching realm and puzzling magic. No matter child or adult, who doesn't love a good magical spin?
8. How did the hotel setting - the Sijj Palace - develop, and its jinn inhabitants?
I think my love of travelling really inspired the hotel in the book! I've been to many, but I've always wondered how magical and crazy I could make one of my own. The Sijj Palace is reminiscent of a lot of South Asian architecture with its mosaic floors, tiled walls, and vivid colours. They also have some really stunning luxury hotels in the region.
Since Nura is stuck in one place for most of the book, I knew I needed to make the Sijj Palace immersive, and that's how its many rooms and powers and hijinks came to be. The realm's inhabitants, jinn, are beings I grew up learning about through my mother's creepy tales. They are quite an ancient belief, and predate even Islam, but the fact that jinn are still around attests to the power and grasp they still have over many people.
9. We hear a lot about the sweets Nura enjoys, do you have a sweet tooth and are these some of your favourites?
Surprisingly, I have the opposite of a sweet tooth! Overly sugary things tend to make my stomach upset. I always like to say that instead of dessert I'd rather have a second savoury meal. But Nura's favourite sweet, gulab jamun, came from me - it's also my favourite mithai! Seriously, everyone needs to try it.
10. What are you writing currently? If you could create a magical writing shed to write your stories in, what would it be like?
I'm currently writing my second book on contract - a book that is set in the same universe as Nura and the Immortal Palace but with a different cast of characters. Look forward to more tricks, magic, and mouth-watering food descriptions.
A magical writing shed? Now that's a brilliant idea. I would love to have a bunch of plants that function not only as oxygen-givers but furniture. And if there's a spell where I can use telekinesis to move things, that would make things infinitely easier - I wouldn't have to leave my desk!
11. What are your favourite things to do when you are away from your desk?
I have a few hobbies that provide a nice breather from writing. I do a lot of digital art or paintings of my own characters or of other media, I also like to hike and do outdoor activities, and recently I've been trying to get better at pool! Calculating the angles in my head can get tricky.