Through the bile and ignorance of the radical imans and self-righteous apostates, through the spin of the news networks and the pomposity of academics, I saw a straight, unwavering line. How could I be disappointed? I did not believe in Islam; I opened my eyes every morning and saw it.-G. Willow Wilson, The Butterfly Mosque
At the age of eighteen, an atypical reaction to a prescription drug left Air author G. Willow Wilson in an exhausted state of medical calamity. She couldn’t sleep, hair was falling out, and her heart felt like it was going to jump out and burst. Back and forth between medical examinations, lost in pain and confusion, Wilson made a promise to a God she’d never before acknowledged and promise to convert to Islam if the pain ended within three days. The adrenal distress lasted for over a year.
So begins Wilson’s new book, The Butterfly Mosque, the story of how an American girl from a secular east coast background converts to Islam, moves halfway around the world, and falls in love- with a culture, a city, a faith, and a man. It’s also the story of how she began to find her voice as a writer; a voice that would give back to works such as her graphic novel Cairo,and the monthly series Air, both published by DC/Vertigo.
It’s also a story she hadn’t expected to tell. “It grew out of the emails I wrote to friends and family back home, describing all the things I was up to in Egypt,” said Wilson, who initially had no interest in penning a memoir. “I thought of them as something you write when you’re old and venerable–but there seemed to be a real need for a narrative about the Middle East and Islam that was more personal and less polemical than what we get in the news.”
The book creates a vivid and rich portrait of life in Cairo, from the beautiful to the dirty and the moments where the two are one. The richness comes from Wilson’s own excited awareness of what became her new home. “I had to pay very, very close attention to what was going on around me in Egypt, because everything was so unfamiliar,” said Wilson, who kept a steady documentation of her experiences through letters and essays. “My memories of Egypt are more vivid than those of almost any other time in my life.”
The travel adventures of a post-9/11 westerner in the Islamic world would by itself be interesting enough, but Wilson’s narrative takes the reader one step further into the culture as she details her struggles and revelations as she converts to Islam.
Religion was taboo in my family, and Islam was taboo in my society. -The Butterfly Mosque
“Let’s face it,” she says, “when you hear ‘convert, you think ‘crazy’.People tend to stick with whatever tradition they were born into, not because they necessarily see it as the ultimate truth, but because it has personal, symbolic meaning for them- see, now we’re getting into AIR territory! To convert to a different religion is to say you believe there is more truth in it than in the one you left behind, which is neither postmodern nor terribly PC.” The process was neither easy nor simple, and Wilson found her struggles in both of her cultures. On the Egyptian side, she had to figure out the protocols and etiquettes of a complex culture often in stark contrast to her American upbringing. Meanwhile, she had to consider how the experiences of her life were affecting and be received by her friends and family back home. This is of course not to mention the greater American culture which more often than not portrays Muslim women as either victims of a misogynistic theocracy or jihadist conspirators.
Culture belongs to the imagination; to judge it rationally is to misunderstand it’s function- The Butterfly Mosque
Despite the many prejudices and misinformation about Islamic culture, Wilson has high expectations for how her book will be received by fans of her comic book work. “Comics readers are the most open-minded, try-anything-once, take-people-as-they-are readers I’ve come across. Period. I get ignorant flack from PhD-holding literary people that I have never gotten from comics fans, ever.” Before her comics career, Wilson had written on her experiences and observations for periodicals ranging from the Atlantic Monthly to Cairo Magazine and was the first westerner to interview Sheikh Ali Goma’a,the highest ranking official in Sunni Islam. “For awhile I was skeptical, and I thought, ‘Well, the only reason I’ve escaped the religion headache is because my religion isn’t in the forefront of my comics work’. So I went to Emerald City Comic Con last year wearing a traditional headscarf, just to see if there would be a difference. Nobody batted an eye. I was completely sold out of books before the end of the first day. There are times when I feel like I owe the fans of my comic books my sanity, because the rest of the world is not nearly so kind.”
As to why Wilson told this story in prose rather than comics? “It would have felt very strange to write a graphic novel script about myself in the third person! You know, ‘WILLOW walks over to the fruit vendor, searching for her wallet in her purse.’ To me, comics are where I get to take a break from my own life. I’m not sure how I would have felt about visually representing these things. There’s a nice layer of anonymity in prose that you don’t get in comics; but despite the shocking lack of pictures, I think it turned out okay.”
The Butterfly Mosque by G. Willow Wilson is published by Atlantic Monthly Press and is in stores now. Author photo by Amber French
Greg Baldino lives and writes in Chicago. His fiction and journalism has appeared in many publications internationally. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.