Neuroscience PhD student pens novel rooted in Middle Eastern mythology


George Mason University doctoral student Rania Hanna has been writing since she was a child. All those years of storytelling paid off this spring with the publication of her debut novel, The Jinn Daughter, published by Hoopoe Press in April.

Rania Hanna
Rania Hanna. Photo provided

Reviewers have called her book a “haunting homage to Middle Eastern folklore,” and Hanna, a Syrian American, said she draws from stories she heard as a child for inspiration.

Can you tell us a little about your author journey?

My writing journey started in childhood. I was a voracious reader, so it made sense I’d turn to writing.

In the third grade, I would write short essays on things I was interested in—like dinosaurs and Egyptian mummies, and then hand them to my teacher. At the end of the year, [my teacher] took all my essays and bound them into a book for me. It was such a beautiful and thoughtful gift, and I've never forgotten it.

I found my publisher, Hoopoe Books, an imprint of the American University in Cairo, working with my literary agent. Hoopoe centers Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) voices, so they were the perfect choice for The Jinn Daughter.

What inspired the book?

My heritage! I grew up being fed oral stories by my dad, and so a lot of the stories are a reflection of his stories and our culture. What prompted the specifics of The Jinn Daughter is that a few years ago, I finished reading Tahereh Mafi’s Whichwood, and I loved the idea of taking care of the dead. When I was a teenager, I read Garth Nix’s Sabriel and the Old Kingdom series, and I fell in love with the idea of taking care of the dead there, too, so it all culminated into The Jinn Daughter, with someone who cares for the dead as she does the living. I think it’s important to honor our ancestors, our dead, and not forget their stories. 

jinn daughter book
Hanna's debut novel, The Jinn Daughter, was published by Hoopoe Press in April. Photo provided

How did you come to attend George Mason?

I've been wanting to pursue a PhD in neuroscience for some time, and living in the area, I narrowed down choices to those local to me. George Mason was one of my top choices, and in fact, my top choice, after meeting with professors from the Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience and learning of the research being done. The program’s flexibility has allowed me to pursue my degree and study the areas I want. I'm studying the effects of taxanes [a type of drug that blocks cell growth] in relation to neuropathic pain in cancer models. 

How does the writing tie into your academic studies? Is there any overlap?

Academic studies and research are stressful, so my writing is cathartic. Having a creative outlet is necessary to my mental health, and without writing, I would walk dead through life. My research and writing do not overlap currently, but I hope to apply my skills in both and write a neuroscience or other scientifically bent book one day. 

Do you think you will write another?

Absolutely. Writing is woven into my soul, and Middle Eastern culture is known to have such a rich tradition of storytelling, so it is my culture lineage to write and to tell tales. I have another story in the works, this one focused again on Middle Eastern themes and draws from Arabian star folklore.