In November 2018, Imperial’s Senior Library Assistant, Tasha Suri, published her Indian-inspired fantasy novel titled 'Empire of Sand.'
Tasha works in the Library Services team supporting Natural Sciences and Computing. She joined Imperial six years ago as a Library Assistant (Medicine) at Imperial’s Charing Cross Campus, and has been pursuing her love for writing fantasy fiction alongside her role at the College.
Empire of Sand, Tasha’s first novel, focuses on protagonist Mehr, the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman whose mother has been exiled. Mehr finds herself at the centre of a deadly struggle for power after an evil Emperor discovers that Mehr has inherited her mother’s magical abilities. The book follows Mehr’s attempts to overcome their tyranny and save her people from extinction.
Tasha spoke to Martha Nahar about her role at Imperial and Empire of Sand, which was listed as one of the best recent science fiction, fantasy and horror novels in The Guardian, as well as one of the top 10 fantasy books of 2018 in TIME Magazine.
Who or what inspired you to write a fantasy novel?
“There wasn’t a particular moment of inspiration. I know JK Rowling talks about having a vision on the train when she began writing the Harry Potter series, but it wasn’t like that for me at all.
“Growing up, I never saw any fantasy novels that included Asians in their stories, so I wanted to create a book that I would want to read." Tasha Suri Senior Library Assistant
“My dad worked in Bollywood before he moved to the UK from India. He loved Bollywood movies and had a huge collection of music from the golden age which really influenced me. As a young girl, I also spent a lot of time watching TV programmes about Hindu mythology with my grandma. They became the early ‘fantasy’ inspirations for me because they were so colourful and extravagant.
“I think anyone of my generation will relate to this, but I also really loved The Lord of the Rings books by J. R. R Tolkien, and am inspired by authors like Helen Dunmore. I remember reading her novels and thinking: ‘I want to write like you!’”
What do you enjoy about your role as Imperial’s Senior Library Assistant?
“I like working in libraries because you help all levels of the College community to do their work, and it’s all about access to information - we’re making life easier for students and staff. Academics, researchers and students need to access journal papers, books and databases for their research, so we make that possible by purchasing resources and making them discoverable online.
“We also help students and staff learn how to access research – obviously everyone knows how to use the internet, but so much of the material used in academia isn’t free or visible via Google, or is only accessible in specific ways. So we get to support different members of the college by training them to search for specialised information, and supporting their teaching and learning as well.
“I’ve really enjoyed working with students from so many different disciplines. They have interesting queries about topics such as sustainable luxury - as you can imagine, this is a difficult subject to find lots of research material on! I find it rewarding to help them comb through the databases and search for useful papers.”
Did being a librarian help when writing your book?
“They are quite separate things, but I do feel that my good research skills helped when I was writing Empire of Sand. For instance, I based the novel on Mughal India, which is the medieval and early modern period.
“It’s hard to find research on this period of history when like me, you don’t know how to read Hindi, Persian or any of the other languages associated with that historical timeframe. Simple things I gained from librarianship like knowing the correct search terms and where to dig deeper for factual information really helped.”
Does your novel reflect you at all?
“Growing up, I never saw any fantasy novels that included Asians in their stories, so I wanted to create a book that I would want to read. I combined all of these influences together and wrote Empire of Sand.
“Mehr wears a lot of different faces to survive. Her father, step-mother and society in general expect a lot from her. She has to protect her honour and her family’s reputation, but also has to find a way to be true to herself and keep her own autonomy.
“In a small way, I think a lot of Asian woman experience this, but the true person you are underneath those expectations is different. That’s something that Mehr faces on a much bigger scale – because it’s a fantasy novel! I think I have experienced that at different points in my life, and I have brought that to her character.”
What challenges did you face while writing?
“Self-doubt! I worried I wasn’t good enough to get published. My concern was that there were not many people that looked like me in the industry, so I didn’t feel like I had an automatic place at the table, and whether there would be one for me. I didn’t know whether there would be an audience for my book, so I was pleasantly surprised when I got a publishing contract!”
What advice do you have for other budding authors?
“Don’t be too hard on yourself. Finding the time to write alongside your other responsibilities can be difficult, and writing a book takes a long time. Give yourself the space to enjoy writing and take your time. You’ll get there in the end.”
What is next after Empire of Sand?
“The next book in the series, Realm of Ash, comes out this year, November 2019. After that, I hope I’ll have the chance to write and publish more fantasy books. Keep your fingers crossed!”
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