To erase prejudices: A Q&A with Erica Cameron on ISLAND OF EXILES

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Looking for your next fantasy read? With amazing world building, diversity and inclusivity, Erica Cameron’s Island of Exiles is a must-read for any YA fantasy fan.

In Island of Exiles, Khya lives on the harsh island of Shiara. The order of her clan is what keeps everything stable and everyone alive and Khya has worked her entire life to earn respect from those around her. But when her brother’s life is endangered, Khya realizes her society isn’t what it seems. With the help of her rival, Tessen, Khya must sacrifice everything she believes in to save her brother.

Island of Exiles is available now.


What inspired you when the idea for Island of Exiles popped into your head? What were you doing/eating/thinking/etc.?
I wish I could remember the exact moment the seed was planted for this story, but alas. What lingered from that moment was a question: what would a society look like if aggression were the norm and mercy the oddity? That question isn’t more than a background theme of Island of Exiles now, but it heavily informed ALL of my early worldbuilding. It shaped the landscape of Shiara, the militaristic culture of Sagen sy Itagami, and the intense training the citizens of the clan undergo. Even though my story didn’t end up revolving around that initial question, it did grow from it, and that’s what matters.

What cultures influenced and inspired the world built in The Ryogan Chronicles?
Although I did borrow the concept of a caste system, the idea of a city carved out of the rock, and the basic sound pool of the Japanese language, nothing in the book is truly based on anything in our world. Not consciously, at least. I was creating a society that was somehow simultaneously dangerous, open, rigid, and aspirational. The flaws in Sagen sy Itagami are deep, but their strengths are nearly unbeatable. To get all of the aspects the way I wanted, I had to build the world and the culture to act on, react to, and influence the characters in a certain way. The island of Shiara and the social structure of Itagami are as important as the characters themselves. In a way, they are characters, and I did what I could to separate them from what we’re familiar with here.

Did you have to do any research for any aspect of the novel? If so, where did you begin?
Definitely. Most of the research was concentrated on desert survival, plant life, animals, and death. Shiara is an island where fertile earth is rare, domesticized animals are nonexistent, and burials aren’t a possibility for a host of reasons. I needed a solution to the burial problem, and then I remembered Street Magic by Tamora Pierce. Briar, who can communicate with plants, learns that a particular person’s garden is growing better than expected because of the “red food.” Eventually, he discovers this red food is human remains. This began a research spiral into the feasibility of human composting. Because why not, I guess. My research turned up a Kickstarter campaign for something called the Urban Death Project. This group is conducting research into a system they call Recomposition, and they describe it as “an innovative new model of death care that honors both our loved ones and the planet earth. [It] transforms bodies into soil so that we can grow new life after we die.” Through information on their site and a wonderful phone call with Katrina Spade, the project’s director, I was able to learn enough to pull from their research and create Itagami’s saishigi core—their method of recomposition—and the saishigi rites—the city’s death ritual. It’s only in a couple scenes, but those scenes are really important, so my research ended up playing a really big part in the story.

There’s ranking, magic, abilities and more in Island of Exiles. And all of it is brand new to the reader. (Thank goodness for the glossary of terms!) Can you explain the process you went through building everything for this world? And how did the naming process go for the different terms?
There’s a reason I insisted on the glossary! I freely admit that reading this series will be like learning a new language… or three. My worldbuilding definitely started with the landscape, and with that came the animals, all of them deadly and dangerous. The city carved out of the massive mesa was next, a necessity if a large group of people was going to survive living on a place like Shiara. I loved the idea of an entire city that was part of the landscape instead of plopped onto it, something you wouldn’t necessarily know was there if you weren’t looking closely. I built the society of Sagen sy Itagami after that, molding it into something that would believably produce (and then praise) a character like Khya. The social structure changed a few times from concept to final version, but it was worth the work because I am thrilled with the final version.

One of the last things I layered into the worldbuilding was the language. Every single character’s name changed. Tessen was the one exception, and he then became the anchor for Itagami’s naming conventions. A tessen, in case you didn’t know, is a traditional Japanese weapon, a beautifully deadly iron bladed fan. Because the name fit him so well, I argued to keep it, but that choice demanded the rest of the language shape itself around the source of Tessen’s name. Which is how the sound pool of the Japanese language became the base of Itagamin.

Each Itagamin word was built by pulling sounds from words with a meaning I wanted to convey. Shiara, for example, is built from the Japanese words shima, meaning island, and arashi, meaning storm. Gensu is another good example. It’s the Itagamin word for menstruation, and I created it from the words gekkei, meaning menstruation, and maitsuki meaning monthly. Although I borrowed sounds and sound patterns from Japanese, I tried to check each word I created against existing words in Japanese, and if anything I created matched an existing word, I changed it. I also checked in with people who knew Japanese (both native speakers and those who’d learned) to see if they caught anything I missed. Just like with the inspiration for Shiara and Itagami, I wanted the language to be as much its own as it could be.

Unlike other fantasy worlds I’ve read, Khya’s clan respects many things, including gender identities, sexual preferences and unwanted touching. (Which I LOVED about this novel.)
Thank you! With sci-fi and fantasy set on a world other than Earth, authors have the chance to erase a lot of the lingering prejudices we currently live with. Bias and prejudice have a place in spec fic, of course, but only if it’s called out for what it is somewhere within the story. Without that, it’s simply perpetuating the cycle. I didn’t want Island of Exiles to be one of those books, so I created the social equality I want to see us achieve one day. Minus the really difficult rite of passage at 16 and the rigid caste system. Those I could do without.

How did you choose the pronouns for the third sex? Had you thought about using other words? And can you explain why it was important for there to be more than “he” and “she” in Island of Exiles?
I knew a third pronoun was necessary as soon as I decided the third sex would exist, mostly because there’s no real acknowledgement of their existence if there aren’t known, established words for them to call themselves. I also knew the third pronoun would be a stumbling block for readers who haven’t encountered anything like it before, so I wanted to use one that I hadn’t made up. While I did invent the word ebet — as in, man, woman, and ebet — I chose ey/em/eir from a list of established pronouns. Sound-wise, it fits within the he/she family well enough, and it wouldn’t be a challenge for readers to pronounce (which, admittedly, a lot of the invented words in my book probably will be). I had considered several other non-binary pronouns, but ey felt right for my characters, so that was the one that stuck.

Unwanted touching usually refers to unwanted sexual contact. But Island of Exiles also stresses unwanted contact in all cases, such as a hug or touching someone’s shoulder. Can you explain more about the theme of consent in your novel?
A while back, I was involved in a conversation with someone about parenting. Specifically, it was about how parents accidentally teach their children — especially girls — that they don’t have the right to say no when someone wants to hug them. This lack of bodily autonomy clearly leads to larger issues later in life, but most people never even make this connection. I certainly hadn’t until it was pointed out to me. I’m more careful now to respect children’s choices, even those I already know, but I wanted to find a way to spread awareness of this concept if I could. I found that in Island of Exiles. Itagami is a society where each citizen is automatically assumed to have full bodily autonomy. From infancy, if the child makes their distaste for being held known somehow. This has social roots in the backstory of certain characters, but that isn’t something I get a chance to go into much in Island. And I probably won’t get a chance to go into it at all in the series. Maybe once the last of the trilogy has been released, I’ll get to write up the whole story for readers and help explain how this system developed inside Itagami instead of just the reasons I had for putting it there.

Is there anything that you hope readers take away from your books?
I think one of the beautiful things about reading is that every reader will take something different away from a book. I’ve been lucky enough to have friends give me updates while they’re reading. Some of the details they notice, the themes and symbols they pick up on, and the lines they connect to aren’t ones I ever would have expected. Or, in some cases, they notice things I hadn’t even known were there. All I hope is that readers enjoy the story.

What can readers expect in the next part of the The Ryogan Chronicles?
Drama and complications! We’ll get to follow Khya on her continued search for answers, to meet some really interesting new people, and to watch our favorite Itagamins make some very tough choices. There will also be some new places to explore that have a very deep connection to Varan and Itagami’s history.

Author Erica Cameron

Author Erica Cameron. Photo credit Lani Woodland.

Anything else you’d like to add about ISLAND OF EXILES?
My first attempt at writing a fantasy novel was my sophomore year of high school. The genre has always been a love of mine, but creating one of my own was a challenge I couldn’t quite figure out how to beat. Island of Exiles is me meeting a goal I set for myself when I was fifteen. To see my story out in the world after more than a decade has passed is an incredibly gratifying experience. To not only see it out there but also being well-received, even loved by readers and reviewers is beyond anything I dared to hope for. Thank you to everyone who has already picked up a copy of Island of Exiles, and thank you to everyone who gives it a chance after this. Just…thank you.

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About Author

Alison Ng

Alison Ng is your average 21-year-old in love with trying new things (especially if that new thing happens to be food). She attends college in NYC and works in the book publishing industry.

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