interview series

The Heart of Storytelling

Sara Alfageeh

In this series of conversations, Peter Gould explores deep topics with creative leaders, designers and spiritual teachers from around the world. Here, he interviews illustrator, author, and startup founder, Sara Alfageeh.

Growing up as a self-confessed nerd, Sara Alfageeh’s path into illustration, graphic novels and online role-playing games comes as no surprise. But it’s not just her passion for pop culture that marks her out as a creative luminary. Her talent for crafting stories, opportunities and platforms for people under-represented in gaming and fiction is admirable, and I was excited to learn more about the inspiration and intention behind her own brand of storytelling.

Spotting one of my Ms Marvel comic books on the shelf behind me, Sara Alfageeh was transported back to a pivotal moment in her education journey.

The then freshman psychology student and pop-culture aficionado was so inspired by Volume One of the newly released comic series that she immediately decided to switch courses and become an illustration student instead.

“I was like, oh, this can be a career?” she said as we discussed the background to her current career as an illustrator, author, creative director and startup founder.

“That was a really big deal for me. It hadn’t hit me until then that it was possible, even though I came up very nerdy. I was playing video games, watching anime and going to conventions from a super young age, but it never clicked in my head that this was something people like me could do. I hadn’t seen a story before that featured someone who looked like me.”

In the years since, the Ms Marvel comics have grown in number and popularity, and earlier this year turned into a TV show has been celebrated for its positive and authentic Muslim representation, with Pakistani-American teen Kamala Khan (Ms Marvel herself) as the lead protagonist; the first time a Muslim character has headlined a Marvel, streaming to millions on Disney+.

Sara’s career has also hit stellar heights since first reading Ms Marvel; illustrating for Star Wars and Google among others, as well as co-founding gaming platform One More Multiverse, and publishing her brilliant debut graphic novel, Squire — released earlier in 2022.

Co-authored with Nadia Shammas, Squire has scored some impressive plaudits; not least from Ms Marvel writer G. Willow Wilson, who called it “a sweeping, gorgeous tale of tenacity and friendship,” adding that “Squire makes you want to fight for a better world”.

High praise indeed from someone Sara took so much creative inspiration from.

I was interested to find out how Sara managed to create such a compelling narrative that felt so authentic and heartfelt to its readers. She explained it came down to experience, identity, and indulgence.

“Squire was a story that Nadia and I really pulled out of each other,” she explained.

“We’re similar to each other in as much as we have a kind of hyphenated experience. We were both raised on the East Coast of the US, and have a strong connection to our Middle Eastern identities at the same time.

“We also had similar pop-culture touchstones that got us really excited to do art, and didn’t believe that there had to be this divide between Western comics and Eastern comics. We have in-between identities, we’re in-between two comics traditions, and we didn’t feel like we wanted to compromise on either of these things.

“We have in-between identities, we’re in-between two comics traditions, and we didn’t feel like we wanted to compromise on either of these things.”

“The process of creating the story itself was a very self-indulgent experience. As we talked, we realised that the tropes and themes we wanted to visit came from our own experiences. For me, that was being raised for the majority of the year in Boston, and then being taken to Jordan and being told to practise my Arabic and get to know my family and where I’m from. It wasn’t a vacation, it was a reconnection.

“Aiza, the protagonist in Squire, came from a similar space, with a foot either side of a border — not quite here, not quite there. And I think this is a universal experience for anybody who has had that hyphenated experience.”

Do it yourself

The importance of telling your own story is a running theme for Sara. It’s prevalent in her portfolio of work, including her online gaming platform, One More Multiverse, which aims to make “the next generation of table-top role-playing games”.

Working in gaming seemed a natural progression for Sara, who says she “came out of the womb with a controller in my hand”.

“Video games have always been part of my life,” she says. “And honestly, they’ve taught me so much about storytelling as well. Some of the best storytelling I’ve ever seen has come from video games.

“One More Multiverse has a similar origin story to Squire. I bullied some of my friends to start a book club, and we read a book called City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty. We were blown away by it – the political intrigue, the magic, and all of this stuff that we were really interested in, but hadn’t seen for ‘ourselves’ before.

“We said to each other that we couldn’t wait around for the movie or show or game like this to come out, so let’s do it ourselves. Let’s play Dungeons & Dragons and make our own homebrew kind of world.

“We said to each other that we couldn’t wait around for the movie or show or game like this to come out, so let’s do it ourselves.”

“It was difficult to get started – there’s a very high bar of entry for table-top role-playing games, and we didn’t have somebody who could walk us through the process all the way. But a friend of mine who is this MIT engineer, who wants to hack his way through every problem, said ‘I have an idea’.

“We show up at his house the following week and he sends us a link over text. We open it, and it’s all of our characters – it’s us – and we’re saying things out loud, and doing things in real time in the game.

“We suddenly had a level of immersion and agency over the story that we’d never had before, and we were so excited. That day we played for something like seven hours, and realised we were onto something.

“So again it’s that origin story of wanting to see ourselves in the stories that were out there, and knowing what we wanted to see in the stories, and not wanting to wait for anyone else to do it.”

Now it was my turn to be transported to the past. Sara’s experiences as a young gamer took me back to my own childhood and my fascination with the emerging computers, video games and geek-culture of the time.

As well as spending hours making small books and comics, I vividly remember as an eight or nine year old launching a fictional computer games console company – devising fantastical, super-powerful computers, along with posters and advertisements for them. I had a full series of different models, with details about the type of chip they would use, the graphics they would have, and the games that would be played on them – also invented by me.

Reflecting on these early memories, it’s perhaps no surprise that I became a designer – especially as that fascination continued through school and university, where my involvement and capability with computers and creativity grew.

And as I learned, played, and became more deeply immersed in the world of gaming, I – like Sara – came to love the storytelling that was involved. One of my team’s most recent projects, Tales of Khayaal, is perhaps representative of that; blending design, technology, and storytelling – as well as my interest in Islam and its profound spiritual concepts.

This final point is why it resonates so strongly when I hear Sara talk about representation and creative self-indulgence. As my personal and professional paths integrated more and more, I saw less and less authentic and quality Muslim representation in the games I was playing, shows I was watching and books I was reading. Khayaal and other projects are a direct result of that desire to create something and tell stories that I (and others) wanted to see. It’s a powerful motivator, and one that Sara articulates beautifully.

Providing a platform

The next stage for Sara and her co-founders was to open up One More Multiverse and give other people the opportunity to build their own stories and characters; especially important, she says, for people who haven’t had strong representation in such games before.

“We want to crack it open and allow way more people to be into this – particularly folks who don’t get to see themselves in fiction so much, or don’t understand that they have this creative capacity about them.

“We want way more people to be into this – particularly folks who don’t get to see themselves in fiction so much, or don’t understand that they have this creative capacity about them.”

“You don’t need to be a world-renowned writer, you don’t need to be an incredible illustrator – you already have what it takes to make a story that’s going to keep you playing for 10 years or more.

“We’re trying to make that bar for getting into role-playing much, much lower by automating it with some video game elements. Rich visuals, character sheets that are incredibly quick to make, and so on – basically sharing the creative labour that comes with putting together a campaign.

“Everything we’re building is done in such a way that people are able to build on top of it. There’s no coding, all the tools are your tools, and we’re already seeing people in our community design their own work, their own systems.

“We want to give people a platform to share their work because we need these stories, and they’re not going to come from a giant corporation. You can’t wait for Marvel to give you your perfect story. You can’t wait for Disney to make that fantasy you’ve always wanted. They’re going to come from individual experiences, from people having a specific audience in mind, and – again – being self-indulgent.”

“We need these stories, and they’re not going to come from a giant corporation.”
Support, social media and ceilings

With such a clear intention for her own work, I wondered what advice Sara would give to young artists looking to make their way as a creative professional?

“One of the challenges is the craft of it – the actual labour,” she says.

“Art making is a laborious process. Squire is 325 pages long, for example, and what a lot of people don’t realise is that you’re redrawing your book over and over – first as thumbnails, then as pencils, then as inks, then as colours. So that’s definitely something you have to be ready for.

“And you really have to swallow your ego. There’s no solitary genius. You don’t get extra points for doing it all by yourself and suffering through it. You need a support system to pull these things off, so never be afraid to ask for help.”

“There’s no solitary genius. You don’t get extra points for doing it all by yourself and suffering through it. You need a support system to pull these things off.”

Another piece of advice stems from the portfolio reviews Sara often does for senior illustration students, but can easily be translated into advice for anybody pursuing a creative path.

“I tell emerging artists ‘do the work you want to be hired for’,” she says.

“If that’s your goal, be self-motivated and self-directed, and have a portfolio that shows work that you want people to pay you for.

“I’ll ask them very frankly, what do you want to do? What’s your goal here? They might say ‘concept art for video games’, or ‘editorial illustrations for the New York Times’ – really great, big ambitions. But I’ll look at their work and say, ‘OK, where is it? Where are the editorial illustrations? Where is the concept art that you so desperately want to do?’

“There’s sometimes a disconnect between what people want to do, and what they are doing. That disconnect has to go. You have to be able to present what you want to do to the world.

“This is one of the best times to be an artist because of social media. You can just skip straight to showing your work to your audience – you can say ‘hey, look, I’m doing all this stuff’. Take advantage of that.”

In saying that, Sara adds that artists shouldn’t narrow the scope of their inspiration, nor limit themselves to what others have done before them.

“Sometimes you look at an illustrator’s portfolio and you can tell they haven’t looked at a wide enough variety of things. I can tell exactly which three illustrators they’ve been looking at because it’s all over their work.

“This isn’t how we go beyond what’s already there. If you hold the Marvel Cinematic Universe as your standard, for example, and think that nothing can be better than this, then you’ve let somebody else decide what your ceiling is. And we’re never going to get anything more interesting than that. In fact, things will only get worse from there.

“Look at your history, look at your culture, look at your experiences. Look at other people’s experiences too. What new thing are you bringing to the table? In publishing they ask ‘why you? Why do we need you to tell us this story? And that confidence isn’t going to come if you’ve got a company telling you what’s worthwhile.”

“Look at your history, look at your culture, look at your experiences. Look at other people’s experiences too. What new thing are you bringing to the table?”
Refilling the well

Listening to Sara’s clarity of purpose is refreshing, and reminds me of the long hours I’ve invested over the years in exploring new creative ideas, while striving to ensure my intentions are sound – especially from a spiritual angle.

I was interested to learn how spiritual inspiration figures in Sara’s own processes, and probably shouldn’t have been surprised that her answer is rooted in a book club. This time a Sufi book club that, she explains, has given her numerous openings.

“It’s led by my very good friend who is a professor at Harvard Divinity School, and a long term student herself. And everybody who joins is really interesting in their own way. One is my co-founder, another is a law student, someone else is an enthusiast who’s not a Muslim, just a guy with a physics PhD who said ‘this adds up to me’, another is a friend who ends every session with a rap lyric.

“So every week I’m surrounded by fascinating people with different points of view, and every week I’m prompted to challenge my own perception. The books we read open up so many themes and ideas and topics, and it’s just a really wonderful place to be.

“Sufism has cracked open my excitement to create in a way that I’ve struggled with in the past couple of years. I’ve had major projects; finishing Squire, doing illustrations, doing a startup, and so on. So that well that I pulled from to figure out what I want to do next has been empty. And I needed something to refill it.

“Sufism has cracked open my excitement to create in a way that I’ve struggled with in the past couple of years.”

“Engaging with new ideas and engaging with other artists has helped me find reasons to be excited again. One recent illustration that I’m really pleased with was inspired by this book club. It’s helped me tap into something I don’t normally tap into.

“You don’t know who or what is going to bring you closer to divinity, so when you have that curiosity for other people, other perspectives, other materials, you allow yourself to engage with things you never thought you’d enjoy before – things you never thought you could learn from before.

“And to me, that’s what art is about as well. Art and faith are about deep curiosity; curiosity for everything that has been created and is living and breathing, whether they are in our periphery or not. And that keeps me really excited.”

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