Syria and Synesthesia: An Interview with Debut Author Zeyn Joukhadar

The Map of Salt and Stars, Zeyn Joukhadar’s first novel, follows the odyssey of a preteen named Nour. Caught in the crossfires of the Syrian Civil War, Nour’s family loses their home and flees across the Middle East and Northern Africa, searching for safety. To comfort herself, Nour tells her late father’s favorite story about a girl named Rawiya who disguises herself as a man to apprentice a medieval mapmaker, traversing the same route as Nour. By weaving these two stories together, Joukhadar has crafted a moving bildungsroman about hope, loss, and perseverance. Joukhadar graciously agreed to answer some of my questions about his stunning debut, which publishes May 1.

Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar

BIZ HYZY: The Map of Salt and Stars is pitched as, “[a] remarkable debut novel that promises to be to Syria what The Kite Runner was to Afghanistan.” How does it feel to get compared to such a widely regarded, influential novel?

ZEYN JOUKHADAR: I’m flattered and honored by the comparison, but I do think it’s important to clarify what about The Kite Runner is similar to The Map of Salt and Stars. Typically, people mention the fact that The Kite Runner exposed many American readers to a story about the people of Afghanistan for the first time, and that for a lot of American readers, The Map of Salt and Stars may be the first time they’ve read a story that features Syrian (or Syrian-American) characters. If my novel helps readers with no link to Syria come away with greater empathy for the Syrian people and for refugees, then I’m very glad. But I also want those readers to know that this book is a kind of doorway, hopefully the first of many works they’ll read to understand the situation in Syria and the Syrian people better. In other words, this book is only a starting point, and I hope it encourages readers to seek out the writing of people born and raised in Syria and of refugees in their own words.


The current Syrian refugee crisis carries such gravitas. How did you go about approaching a situation so harrowing and so real?

For me, whenever I write about things that are traumatic or very emotionally charged, I focus on the same things I focus on in every story: the individual characters, their motivations, their relationships, their emotional arcs. Every story is personal; a writer has to bring all subject matter, no matter how much gravitas it carries, into focus through the story of a unique human being and what is going on in their mind and heart. I also personally believe that no writer can write to an emotion they haven’t felt (or at least I can’t), so that is what I focus on. What kinds of trauma can I speak to? What kinds of loss have I also felt? Maybe I haven’t been in the same situation as a character has, but if I have felt a similar emotion, I can imagine how that character might feel in that moment. All writing is, at its core, about empathy. To write this book, I had to draw on my own emotional landscape to imagine, as vividly as possible, how I might feel if I were in the characters’ places, and then deepen and write to those joys and horrors without looking away from any of it.


The Map of Salt and Stars includes poetry, a contemporary plotline, and a historical-fantasy plotline. Did you enjoy writing one more than the others?

Hmm, I think that’s a bit like choosing a favorite child! In terms of which timeline was more fun to write, I guess I would have to say the historical-fantasy timeline was pretty fun. I really enjoyed the historical research for that timeline, and I was an avid fantasy reader as a kid, so having the chance to combine mythological elements with the history of the Middle East and North Africa was both enjoyable and meaningful.

Map of Salt and Stars

In that timeline, Rawiya disguises herself as a male and goes on magic-fueled adventures while apprenticing al-Idrisi, a real, twelfth-century mapmaker. Did you always know that you wanted to include Rawiya’s parallel journey? 

I knew pretty early on that I wanted to include the historical timeline and what its general plot was going to be, because I originally conceived of the book as a story about the power of stories. I knew I wanted to take a historical event and loosely base a story around it that draws on and mythologizes that history, making it something the protagonist can take with them and gain strength from in difficult times. Making Rawiya’s timeline more fantastical—I call it a “historical fable”—made it something that Nour could hold onto in the midst of the trauma of displacement.


Nour is the only member of her family that struggles to speak Arabic. Why was that an important characteristic for you to include?

Growing up, my father—an American citizen and also an immigrant—was determined to have his children speak English without accents, so he discouraged my sister and me from speaking Arabic when we were growing up. He had his reasons for this. He faced discrimination, racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia from the time he arrived in America to his death in the ‘90s. I picked up some Arabic from listening to my father speak it to other people, but he rarely spoke it to me directly, and so I had to (re)-learn it as an adult. A funny thing happens when you grow up around a language but rarely have the opportunity to speak it: when you finally do speak, you find that there is an ocean of unused words and sounds inside of you that wants to come pouring out. But for years I struggled with being unable to speak Arabic, and since this is an experience I’ve heard about from other Arab Americans, too, I wanted to explore the importance of language to heritage and identity in Nour’s character.


Nour is a synesthete. Does her synesthesia manifest itself the same way as yours?  

For the most part, I did give Nour the same types of synesthesia that I have, as well as the same colors (unless a particular color really didn’t fit the tone I was going for in that particular scene). Like Nour, I have several types of synesthesia—I experience colors in response to a number of different sensory stimuli, including letters and numbers, sounds, smells, etc. In particular, the color of Nour’s letters match the colors I see exactly—I experience those colors so vividly that I couldn’t imagine them being any different!

I noticed that your author photo color coordinates with your book cover. Did you plan that? It seems like the synesthetic thing to do.

That would have been super clever! No, I just really like the colors blue and green. Serendipitously, though, the deep blue-indigo color on the cover does happen to be my favorite color, so I’m pretty thrilled about that.

About the Author:

Biz Hyzy works as an editorial assistant for Booklist's Adult Books department, where she pilfers the most appealing ARCs before anyone else gets the chance. Besides reading, she enjoys swing dancing and ninja training (though, in her case, both include a lot of bumbling around).

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