C.L. Clark: Five Things I Learned Writing The Unbroken

In an epic fantasy unlike any other, two women clash in a world full of rebellion, espionage, and military might on the far outreaches of a crumbling desert empire.

Touraine is a soldier. Stolen as a child and raised to kill and die for the empire, her only loyalty is to her fellow conscripts. But now, her company has been sent back to her homeland to stop a rebellion, and the ties of blood may be stronger than she thought.

Luca needs a turncoat. Someone desperate enough to tiptoe the bayonet’s edge between treason and orders. Someone who can sway the rebels toward peace, while Luca focuses on what really matters: getting her uncle off her throne.

Through assassinations and massacres, in bedrooms and war rooms, Touraine and Luca will haggle over the price of a nation. But some things aren’t for sale.

***

I learned a language.

The idea for The Unbroken came when I was studying French in university, specifically when I was studying Francophone African literature. The authors wrote about their experience with colonialism, including the experiences of writing in French instead of Arabic. At the time, I wanted to learn Arabic for academic/career reasons, like getting a degree in Franco-colonial studies, but Arabic is hard to pick up on your own with nothing but a few Google guides for drawing letters. A few years after my failed attempt at learning on my own, and abandoning the idea of a PhD, I found myself in my last year of an MFA in fiction with a few extra course credits to spend and a novel I wanted to research properly. I tried again.

Arabic is a beautiful language, a language of poets and artists and some of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. It’s both intuitive and simple and as complex as mathematics. There are multiple dialects and my rotating cast of teachers made sure that I had exposure to all of them–resulting in an odd accent that earns me a lot of teasing anytime I’m not speaking formal Arabic.

I learned that a language is so much more than a language.

The better I got at Arabic, the more people I could speak to. The more people I spoke to, the more stories they told me. More than a combination of syllables and rhythms, language is stories, and stories are histories. A language is food and customs and traditions and religions. The right language, even the right accent, is power and privilege. It unlocked moments of parallel understanding and sparked lifelong friendships. And just like learning more and more French exposed me to the underbelly of a chic European nation’s glittering reputation, learning more Arabic gave nuance to a stereotypical at worst, and homogeneous and incomplete at best, picture of the Arabophone world I was exposed to by American and European media.

I learned that learning a language is not enough.

I got to speak with Moroccans and Algerians (at least partially; there was a lot of fumbling on my part) on their own terms, in their preferred languages, about what it’s like living in a post-colonial country. Despite having pretty decent schooling, though, I was at a steep disadvantage in my understanding of the history of the Arabophone world. That meant doing more research. It meant interrogating my own assumptions–what’s the difference between Israel and Palestine? an ignorant American kid might ask–well, here’s a Palestinian journalist. What about the French? Well here’s The Wretched of the Earth. The more research you’ve done, the better you understand complex situations, and the better you understand complex situations, the better you can support the people working to better those situations.

If you do it right, learning a language is empathy. It’s a radical act in learning to listen and understand someone else, which is difficult at the best of times, and it’s an act that native English speakers are so rarely called upon to do.

If you do it right, writing is empathy.

It’s a radical act in learning to listen and understand someone else, which is difficult at the best of times, and it’s an act that those with more privilege are so rarely called upon to do.

I learned that the Sahara really is cold at night.

Really cold.

***

Cherae graduated from Indiana University’s creative writing MFA. She’s been a personal trainer, an English teacher, and an editor, and is some combination thereof as she travels the world. When she’s not writing or working, she’s learning languages, doing P90something, or reading about war and [post-]colonial history. Her short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, FIYAH, PodCastle and Uncanny.

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