It is often said that history is written by the victors, and while that may be classically true, that doesn’t mean we as individuals can’t challenge that notion. Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know, releasing on April 7, by Samira Ahmed follows art history-loving teen Khayyam Maquet who is determined to do just that.
Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know is a wonderful dual POV novel which focuses on the contemporary-set treasure hunt led by Khayyam and a history-embracing tale of Leila. This standalone is filled with history, romance, French pastries, and more, while being both thought provoking and moving. It was exciting to talk with Ahmed about art history movements, writing “herstory,” and more.
TYF: In your own words, can you please explain what Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know is about?
Samira Ahmed: Mad Bad & Dangerous to Know is a smash-the-patriarchy, eat-all-the-pastries art history mystery where two young women, whose stories intertwine across centuries, fight to define their own worlds and write their own stories.
TYF: Where did the idea for this story come from? What was it influenced by?
Ahmed: The novel was actually inspired by my Bachelor’s thesis on Romantic Orientalism that examined how Lord Byron’s poetry was influenced by Napoleon’s attempted conquest of Egypt. When I read Byron’s epic poem, the Giaour, I was especially drawn to the character of Leila—the woman who was really the focal point, the catalyst of this 1300 line poem, and yet had no voice in it. There are multiple POVs in the Giaour and none of them were hers.
TYF: Why did you decide to write a mystery/art history-focused treasure hunt story?
Ahmed: Years after reading the Giaour, I remember looking at Eugène Delacroix’s paintings that were inspired by the poem. Delacroix painted vibrant, visceral scenes depicting the heart of Byron’s story, two men battling over Leila. Yet, again, Leila was totally absent. Since Byron and Delacroix had silenced her, I wanted to give her a voice. And I imagined a young woman, close to my age when I was in college studying Byron, stumbling across a puzzle about the ownership of the Delacroix painting and then tumbling down a rabbit hole of famous men and wild tales and realizing that the real heart of the story belonged to a woman who had been shoved into the background while the men around her got the spotlight. Having worked in my university’s archives, I knew how pieces of history could be lost and I knew the detective work needed to find hidden stories. So I wrote Khayyam, a young woman with modern sensibilities and an insatiable curiosity to go on that literary and historical scavenger hunt. Also, I’m a nerd and the idea of writing a story that would dig up buried stories in old letters and documents and dusty old buildings absolutely appealed to me!
TYF: You do a really great job talking about how women – especially women of color – are forgotten about/ignored/buried over the course of history, and why it’s so important for them to be talked about and acknowledged in today’s world over the course of the book. Why is this such a focus for Khayyam?
Ahmed: Khayyam is a young woman with ambitions. But she finds herself dejected when she hits an institutional brick wall—a world of people with power telling her she’s a dilettante, a failure. She discovers that sometimes in this world, being a young woman with ambitions can have a cost. But when she finds some interesting threads to a possibly forgotten woman, to a buried story, she dusts herself off and realizes that she has power and one thing she can do is use it to help give utterance to a voice that has been suppressed. Khayyam is inspired by her mother and the stories of her grandmothers and so many women who had stories to tell and couldn’t. She realizes that there are no human beings who are voiceless, only those whose voices have been forcibly oppressed. And in this day and age, she knows she can and must do something about that. So she does.
TYF: The book also does a really great job acknowledging the Orientalism art movement was a part of Colonialism. Why was this such an important aspect for the book and for its characters?
Ahmed: You cannot speak about Western colonialism of the East without acknowledging Orientalism. It is at its core—the racist, xenophobic lens through which Europeans viewed the region from the Nile to the Oxus rivers. And when you dig deeper, you can see that Orientalism—the belief that the East was savage, barbaric, uneducated and so needed the West to “save” it—is also one of the deeply toxic roots of Islamophobia, which is all too prevalent in America today. History doesn’t exist in a vacuum and I wanted to acknowledge that in the novel. The past is always present.
TYF: I love that readers get to read Leila’s POV from the beginning and how that reflects the idea of having her own voice heard. Was that a decision you always knew you wanted to include or was that added later?
Ahmed: Yes! In fact, I wrote a draft of Leila’s entire POV before I wrote the rest of the novel. When I get an idea for a book, I always write a short story first, based on the main character(s). In the case of MAD BAD & DANGEROUS TO KNOW, I actually wrote 2 different, separate stories and then as I was writing them, I realized they might actually be one single book with 2 POVs. Leila’s story was originally called, “Cloudless Climes.” But the story that eventually became Khayyam’s was originally a bit different–about a recent college grad moving to Paris–and was called, “Steps.” Blending these two stories together, POVs separated by centuries, was an idea inspired by two other works I love, A.S. Byatt’s novel POSSESSION and Tom Stoppard’s play ARCADIA.
TYF: Lastly, why do you believe readers should dive deeper beyond the often white and male-centric history they are taught in class? Do you have any suggestions on where they can start searching?
Ahmed: There are so many incredible histories out there! Inspiring stories of women, of people of color, who faced incredible odds, who persevered. And there are also histories from colonized nations (including our own!) of individuals who fought for their people but lost and I when we tell their stories, we honor them and their sacrifice. I get a lump in my throat when I think of all the stories that we’ll never know, all the genius we lost to racism, misogyny, homophobia, colonialism, Orientalism, conquest. I think starting with your own family is a great jumping off point to learn about our own stories and the people who paved the way for us to be here–especially if you come from a marginalized group. History lives in us as long as we remember. As long as we are curious enough to scratch the surface and ask sometimes tough questions that push back against the idea that only the “victor” gets to write history. History belongs to all of us.
About the Author:
Samira Ahmed is the New York Times bestselling author of Love, Hate, & Other Filters, Internment, and Mad, Bad, & Dangerous to Know. These days, Samira lives in Chicago, Illinois. When she’s not writing or reading, she can be found on her lifelong quest for the perfect pastry.