Zeyn Joukhadar's, The Map of Salt and Stars, is shortlisted for 2019's Best Published Novel. The novel follows a young girl, who after losing her home in Syria to violence, flees across the Levant and North Africa while telling herself the story of mythical mapmakers who took the same route 800 years before to map the world.

About the author:

Zeyn Joukhadar is originally from New York City. He earned a PhD in the Pathobiology Graduate Program at Brown University and worked as a biomedical research scientist before he pursued writing full time. Joukhadar has been an artist in residence at the Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, California; the Fes Medina Project in Fes, Morocco; Beit al-Atlas in Beirut, Lebanon; and the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. In 2020, he will be an artist in residence at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France and the Albers Foundation in Bethany, Connecticut.


WNSF: What does adventure writing mean to you? Would you have considered yourself an adventure writer before being shortlisted for the Prize?

In writing The Map of Salt and Stars,I explored how the protagonist, Nour, tries to rationalize the difficulties and violences she and her family undergo on their journey to safety as a kind of adventure, because while displacement is often the result of an act of violence over which we have no control, in reframing her journey as an “adventure,” Nour can have a bit of agency over what is happening to her.

I suppose, then, that I am an adventure writer inasmuch as my goal was to return agency and the power of self-determination to a character for whom, according to most of the world, taking back her own power might be seen as an impossibility. Perhaps this is one way to define adventure: claiming one’s personal power in the face of forces that seek to deny us the ability to tell our own stories.

WNSF: Are there any particular books or authors which have made a lasting impact on you? 

I have been influenced by the work of many other authors, including the works of James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Randa Jarrar, Rabih Alameddine, Gabriel García Márquez, and others.

WNSF: Can you tell us about any adventurous experiences in your life? Have they influenced you as a writer or your writing?

Over the past two years, I have lived a nomadic life in which I have lived all over the world, including both coasts of the United States, Morocco, Lebanon, and the Italian island of Sardinia. Throughout my life, I’ve had the opportunity to make friends all over the world and to learn half a dozen languages. Though these experiences might be more obviously “adventurous” to some, the greatest adventure in my life has always been coming to know myself more deeply and growing in my relationships to my communities, and this continues to enrich and deepen my creative work.

WNSF: The Map of Salt and Stars has two narratives, one modern and one historical. Why did you choose to write about these times? 

In The Map of Salt and Stars, history and current events intertwine as a modern-day refugee tells herself the story of a fictional twelfth-century mapmaker’s apprentice following the same route in a quest to map the world. I chose to weave together these two time periods to deepen the reader’s understanding of the history of the Levant and of North Africa, as well as to give the reader a window into an extraordinary historical undertaking—the creation of the world map of al-Idrisi, which was considered at that time to be the most accurate world map ever made.

It was important to me that the reader come away with a greater understanding of the rich cultural and scientific heritage of the Arab world, as well as an understanding of how historical events continue to play a role in what is currently happening in these countries, particularly in Syria.

WNSF: How did you make the relationships between your characters feel so genuine in The Map of Salt and Stars?

The family relationships between the three sisters and their mother in The Map of Salt and Stars are crucial, and it was important to me to get those relationships right. The three sisters are incredibly different from one another, which is often a source of conflict between them. But it was important that the journey they undertook together brought them closer together instead of farther apart.

In writing the novel, I was adamant about my desire not to center pain in the book, but instead to center hope and resilience. The family finds their resilience through relying on each other and finding moments of joy no matter how difficult the circumstances, and I went back again and again to those moments of laughter and joy as the family’s flight to safety became more challenging. This, I felt, was the only true and honest way to write about a journey that, though the book is fictional, many, many families undertake every day, helping each other survive extraordinary circumstances.

The winner of this year's Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize will be revealed at a special ceremony in London on 12th September 2019.