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Hafsah Faizal on Colonization and A Tempest of Tea

Posted on 12th February 2024 by Mark Skinner

A dazzling mix of dark fantasy and crime thriller, Hafsah Faizal's compelling YA novel A Tempest of Tea features bloodthirsty vampires, a tea room that hides nefarious purposes and an audacious heist perpetrated by a winning collection of misfits - all in the smoky atmosphere of Victorian England. In this exclusive piece, Hafsah reveals how the injustices of the era the book is set in informed the tone and subject matter of the narrative.

It says a lot about a time period when we keep returning to it through art, also known as our version of a time machine. Before I wrote We Hunt the Flame and its sequel, before I wrote several of my unpublished, eternally trunked manuscripts (phew), I knew I wanted to write something dapper and cutthroat. Delicious, romantic, exciting. I pictured polished shoes dashing across worn cobblestones, smokestacks exhaling like grand, industrial dragons, gaslights warm and lush as plump fairy lights illuminating the way. 

With We Hunt the Flame, I chose ancient Arabia as my sandbox. With A Tempest of Tea, I moved to Victorian England. I embellished it fairly quickly, as authors tend to do, layering in vampires and a government structure where the leaders were mysterious and obscured by animalistic masks. Planting a tearoom that served tea to the rich during the day and blood to local vampire-folk every night.

And then came Arthie Casimir with her shock of mauve hair, tailored suit, and a bucket of anger larger than her. I knew from the very beginning that she wouldn’t be white, that she would be an immigrant from another country. And because we’re talking about tea, what better place to hail from than Ceylon, or modern-day Sri Lanka—like me, only I’m a child of diaspora born and raised in the west. Arthie, living in this Victorian England, is a refugee who quickly made me realize I couldn’t write something dapper without also addressing the elephant in the room: colonization. 

It was a hard realization, in some ways. I couldn’t dive headfirst into a guilty pleasure. I couldn’t explore a criminal underworld rooted in fantasy with vampires and a hint of magic while ignoring the real world. I almost felt robbed, and that made me as angry as Arthie.

For she was robbed of far more. She’s make believe, of course, but my stories are set in secondary fantasy worlds. It feels wrong to say she sort of embodies the blood and bones upon which the British Empire was built. Almost blasé. But it felt that way at times, when I was channeling the anger that I was slowly accumulating as I learned more and more. I read up on the horrors of the East India Company. I read up on how callously the British tore down scores of trees in order to lay down coffee and then soon tea plantations, resulting in deforestation that causes the landslides continuously plaguing regions of the island even today. That was mind-boggling to me. An eye-opening discovery, to learn that even something as prevalent and rooted in nature as a landslide could be tied back to colonization. Sri Lanka is a tiny island, roughly the size of West Virginia for us American folks, though I suppose size doesn’t really matter here when we’re talking about the United Kingdom in the same breath. 

Kids like me grew up hearing stories of British occupation. What our grandparents had seen and heard from their grandparents. What our parents had heard from the generation before them, for in many places, British rule ended fairly recently—in Sri Lanka, independence was gained in the year 1948. How they established schools that were deemed prestigious and introduced cultural practices from fashion to food that only the elite adapted because they were, well, elite. It was spoken about with a sense of pride, almost, because all it takes is the right verbiage spoken by the right circles and the pain is numbed with ease and the truth is erased with care.

It wasn’t until I began researching that I learned just how horrible the great expansion of Great Britain truly was—and not because of what I read, but what I couldn’t. The destruction of a place is one thing, but the erasure of what transpired felt crueler to me in a way I still don’t fully understand. It’s the deftness with which it was done, certainly, and that it was possible to do at all, but it’s more than that. Is it the fact that we were denied the chance to properly mourn the losses we still suffer today? Or is it because history was rewritten and altered and contorted in favor of the victors who still remain victorious? 

Unfortunately, colonization isn’t something of the past. Millions of people have lost and continue to lose homes and lifestyles and literal lives to the act. So if you ever decide to ask me why Arthie is the way that she is, that’s why.

Colonization bared its fangs, and Arthie wasn’t afraid to bite back.

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