Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Imagined Worlds

On a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, an enthusiastic crowd gathered at Christ Church Cathedral to enjoy the wit and wisdom of fantasy writers Kate Heartfield and S.A. Chakraborty. Both Heartfield and Chakraborty are well known amongst fantasy fans, as is local author Amal El-Mohtar, who hosted the event with ease and humour. El-Mohtar launched into the discussion by highlighting the value of fantasy fiction and how the creativity of it allows us to tackle big issues. “But all fiction is fantasy, and then you just have sub-genres. Like domestic realism,” she quipped.


Heartfield’s Alice Payne novellas feature a time-travelling thief turned reluctant hero, while Chakraborty’s City of Brass features a con woman in Cairo at the end of the 19th century who accidentally summons a mysterious djinn warrior. (Chakraborty’s sweeping adventure continues with Kingdom of Copper). These are very different stories—and yet, they both have their genesis in the world we know and see today.


In 2016, Heartfield explained, she started thinking about where the world was headed. She noted that there used to be an accepted sentiment that we, as humanity, were generally progressing toward something better—that we had a direction, even if there were bumps along the way—but that this sentiment has since disappeared. Heartfield couldn’t help but think of the role of small decisions in creating both history and the future—which is how time travel fit into the themes that she wanted to explore. With her degree in political science, Heartfield wanted to examine ideologies in a stripped-down, non-partisan sense, but she also began to consider the ways in which the past remains with us and continues to shape the future.


Chakraborty also made a deliberate choice to use her story to shine a light on issues facing us today. “I had a lot of feelings about my country, and I wanted to talk about tyranny,” she explained. Tyranny, Chakraborty continued “doesn’t happen because there is one bad guy. People in society do not want to examine their own role in it—and if you are part of the majority, you do have a role in it—and I wanted to deal with fixing the place you love without placing the burden of doing so on the people being hurt the most.”


The hour flew by for this event, and I very much appreciated the candid discussion. One of the things that I loved about it was how wholeheartedly everyone on stage recommended books by other authors. In particular, G. Willow Wilson was emphatically endorsed, as was Saladin Ahmed. For those hoping to read more about djinn, the anthology The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories (which includes stories by El-Mohtar and Neil Gaiman) should be at the top of the list.


Here’s hoping that both of these authors will return to the festival with their next exciting installments.

Plus, El-Mohtar has a book coming out this summer, so stay tuned for details about the launch!