Spy Another Day with Shamim Sarif
Interview by Gillian St. Clair
Written by Juliet White
Growing up in the U.K., the festive season meant watching James Bond marathons with my dad. Explosions, slick cars, and gadgets galore, with a side of mince pies, formed the perfect, nontraditional take on the holidays. The only snag was the “traditional”—read so last century—portrayals of women, especially in the early Bonds. If you’ve struggled with the duality of identifying as both a feminist and a spy genre devotee, then The Athena Protocol will leave you as satisfied as Bond’s women acted. Author Shamim Sarif combines an all-female spy organization, a social justice mission, and a queer protagonist into a YA novel that’ll blow you away—no rocket launcher required.
“I got the idea for The Athena Protocol when I was going to TED conferences,” Sarif explained. “ I was sitting in the audience, looking at all these billionaires who are now trying to solve world hunger, and I wondered, ‘What if you have three very successful women who decide to run this rogue agency to deal with human trafficking, and issues governments never get around to addressing because there’s never the time, the long-term vision, or the budget. Then I thought, ‘We’re going into vigilante justice and where do you draw the lines?’”
In spy books and films, we can often identify the “good guys” precisely because they start out working for a specific government. While spies may demolish society’s laws—plus a slew of cars and buildings—they typically work for a recognized, if black ops, authority. Along the way they may be exiled or get burned, but that’s part of their journey. Sarif’s characters, on the other hand, are rebels from the get-go, which opens the door to moral ambiguity. Yet the author chose to keep her characters accountable.
“A lot of action fiction relies on people killing, and hitting, and fighting, and then going home and just tossing back a vodka,” she observed. “I wanted to show women who were able to do thrillingly brilliant things, but who also experienced the trauma that goes along with facing death every day and having to make split-second decisions. Maybe you choose to do the wrong thing or abuse your power.” When we first meet Sarif’s main character, Jessie Archer, she’s suffering the fallout from precisely that kind of error. She’s been booted from Athena, the organization she adores, by her own mother after an irreversible choice she made in the field.
“Jessie is the youngest of the three agents. She’s got [the] ability to hack computers, an engineering brain, and she’s great with weapons and bombs. She does all these fantastic things we imagine we’d be good at if we were secret agents.” Still, Jessie’s age (around eighteen or nineteen) informs her actions. “I’ve read YA books that have these amazingly poised characters,” Sarif said. “I’m the mother of two teenage boys—or nearly teenaged because one is 20 and one is 16—so I know firsthand that if they’re under pressure, they don’t behave the same way as when they’re relaxed. Can you imagine the kind of pressure where they have to break into a human trafficker’s house and then trade some information? I wanted to be authentic to that experience.”
“I know there’s a risk that people will find Jessie immature, but I hope she’s become a lot more mature by the end, and it makes her a real, three-dimensional character,” Sarif revealed. That goal separates Jessie from some portrayals of Bond, in which the agent offers all the depth of a London puddle. “It’s inconceivable for me to write a character where I didn’t care about what they were going through on the inside, because so many of Jessie’s decisions in the action world are driven by her own emotional issues. Even though she’s good at being able to figure out her way into a building, you might not trust her judgment when it comes to realizing who she can trust.”
“One of the founders of Athena is her mum and Jessie has a lot of unresolved issues with her,” Sarif added. “She prefers head-on confrontation to figuring things out in the calmer way. It’s not only walls that she literally has to scale, or bombs that she has to defuse, that are standing between her and success, but also how she’s going to be able to go forward with her mum, how she’s going to learn the difference between taking a life in anger and taking a life because it’s absolutely necessary. I wanted it to be a page turner, not just in terms of action, but in terms of the inner drama of the characters.”
This goal affected the entire novel, down to its very structure. “I tried to make sure each chapter and each section had a cliffhanger ending,” Sarif said, “but that didn’t always have to be, ‘Is Jessie going to make it out of there?’ Sometimes it was, ‘Is she going to cause a break with her mum that she can never repair?’ or ‘Is she going to find her way back to this friendship with her teammates?’ I hope the plot of The Athena Protocol is gripping, and there are reversals and twists, but it’s that emotional path that Jessie has to take that really pulls you through the novel.”
“Ultimately, stories are the way that we as humans digest what’s happening to us, and think about what it is to be human, and what we’re doing here,” Sarif continued. “That’s why stories last, in whatever form, whether it’s streaming on Amazon or around the campfire 2000 years ago. I don’t think you can overestimate the importance of art in our collective consciousness, our collective conscience, our collective politics, and our way of looking at the world.”
Sarif herself has a collection of identities that give her insight into diverse spheres, some of which are not known for openness. She is a Muslim-raised female working in film, with a Palestinian wife. Born in the U.K., Sarif has Indian and South African heritage. She sees storytelling as powerful on its own but, when paired with innovative mediums like streaming, different perspectives are able to reach previously insular audiences.
“It’s impossible for countries to shut streamers down because that would be too unpopular, but they don’t have the ability to censor the way they would on their state-broadcasted shows,” she said. “I think it’s important in opening conversations in India, and all over the world. The more issues are explored in a story-based context, the better it is, especially for the young people of that community. Even in the UK, growing up queer and feeling that there was almost no representation on TV or in movies [created] a feeling of tremendous isolation, like you can’t talk to people about this. It’s crucial for art to push boundaries and not to be censored.”
"I don’t think you can overestimate the importance of art in our collective consciousness." - @shamimsarif #yaauthor #theathenaprotocol
Fictional portrayals of real-life scenarios often resonate with us in a way that news articles fail to do. “If you tell somebody that millions of women are being trafficked in Eastern Europe, we all know it’s horrible, but then we move on with our day,” commented Sarif. “It’s too much to think about. But, if you can open the pages and follow the story of women we care about, who are trying to bring down this monstrous human trafficker, suddenly we’re caught up in the whole thing and we learn more about it. Emotional engagement makes a huge difference. It’s part of that magical element of storytelling.”
Getting stories featuring diverse characters into the public realm can feel like mission impossible, and it’s a fight scene that Sarif has experienced personally. “In film, some of my worst times have been sitting with Hollywood executives who say, ‘Could it be a man?’ or ‘Can you de-gay that character? Could you make one of them white?’ That’s tough because you want to keep your integrity but it means you don’t get the money, you don’t get the thing made.”
Sarif encountered this attitude frequently in movies and TV; in publishing, it’s subtler. “My first novel, The World Unseen, was literary fiction. It ended up winning a couple of major prizes but, even so, sometimes in bookshops you only see it in the LGBT section. Why is that niching happening? It’s relevant there, but it doesn’t have to be just that.”
“With The Athena Protocol, I’ve found it really refreshing working with HarperCollins. My editor said to me, ‘It’s clear that Jessie is gay or at least not heterosexual; could you lean into that more and develop that relationship?’ I almost had tears in my eyes because it was lovely to have that kind of feedback after so many years of, ‘Tone it down.’ I’ve had film companies saying, ‘We already have our female action film.’ There isn’t only one female action film! It would be great to see more characters like Jessie, in the world of action adventure YA, who are LGBT leads but that’s not the main thing about them.”
Despite the gatekeepers, Sarif stays true to herself. “I knew very early on what I was writing and what I wanted to say. It wasn’t difficult for me to stick to my guns. The other thing was I had tremendous support from my wife, Hanan, who switched gears to become a film producer. Without her by my side, I wouldn’t have been able to build that career, because she was tenacious in finding ways to get those movies made.”
“Even as an author, there was no doubt I would only tell the stories that I want to tell because too much of yourself goes into this to have been happy doing what someone else said. Find stories that are important to you because the journey is the process; it’s not the end result. That moment walking down the road and seeing your novel in the bookstore window is wonderful, but it’s a fraction of the hours you’ll spend in your life. If you don’t feel that you’re doing something meaningful, it will not be fulfilling.
“Never be afraid to keep learning because the bar is really high for storytelling now, in all forms. You’ll know which notes feel good to you and which notes are making you compromise, and my advice is to just go for it. If I can do it, being female, of color, and LGBTQ, in a world where that didn’t exist in the storytelling realm when I started out, then anybody can.”
Sarif has immersed herself in stories since childhood. “Reading was always my escape route growing up. I ran through all the books that were in the school library by the time I was about six, and then I had to graduate to the town library. I always wanted to be able to express myself in words.”
Her writing breakthrough came when she got several short stories published in the magazine for American Airlines. After that, she branched out and wrote a movie script and a book. “The screenplay got optioned and the novel got published,” Sarif related. “From there, I said, ‘I’m going to quit work,’ and didn’t look back—through all the highs and lows.”
“If you have a certain amount of talent, the difference between success and failure is often just persisting. It is sending it out until you find the agent who falls in love with it, and that agent finds the publisher who falls in love with it. In this business, the thing you hear 99% of the time is ‘no,’ so the question is, are you going to hang in there long enough to get that one yes?”
Sarif’s previous novels have been adapted into movies and she’s eager to bring The Athena Protocol to the screen. Since she and her wife operate an indie film company, they usually handle the films themselves, but spy movies tend to be ambitious in terms of effects and budget. “I don’t want to option this to a studio and have it sit there for ten years,” Sarif said. “I’d like to partner with a bigger company that can really help us bring it to life for film or TV in a way that’s true to the essence of the book and I think we are getting close to finding that real partnership.”
Screen adaptations require different tools from a writer’s arsenal. “There are two big differences [between the formats],” Sarif said. “One is to understand that a screenplay is a blueprint; it’s not the final piece of art, whereas a novel is. And the second big thing I’ve learned is that screenplays need to be really underwritten compared to novels. If you can sparingly describe a look between two characters in a screenplay, you can cut out ten pages of your book. My learning curve in the last ten years has been how to write less and to make the story leap off the page in a more visual and moving way.”
City of Saints and Thieves author, Natalie C. Anderson called Jessie, “The female version of James Bond we’ve been waiting for! Only better.” Sarif sees the comparison as quick way to give potential readers a sense of her novel. But she never set out to create a female 007. “For James Bond, it’s such a well-known, iconic character, that I can see why people would say, ‘It would be great to have a female version of that,’ but the question to ask is, ‘Why?’ Why not come up with something new that can be genuinely about women?”
That’s precisely what Sarif has done with her spy thriller that delivers intrigue and girl power in lethal doses. Want to get in on the badassery and baddies? The Athena Protocol, the first novel in what is currently a duology, is already out. Jessie’s next mission will be revealed in October of 2020.
The Athena Protocol was released on 10/8/19.
You can visit Shamim Sarif's site here.
What's your favorite LGBT YA novel?
Let us know in the comments!
"Why not come up with something new that can be genuinely about women?" - @shamimsarif #yaauthor #theathenaprotocol
This article was originally printed in the Winter 2019 issue of Curiositales. If you would like to receive a free digital copy of the magazine, sign up for our newsletter at the top of this page! Then, confirm your email address (be sure to check your spam folder). Once you click the link in your welcome email, you'll get regular news from Curiositales, including notifications when the latest magazine is published. You can unsubscribe whenever you like. Or, you can read it for free here.
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