Christian fiction author Tessa Afshar is an award-winning author of biblical and inspirational historical fiction. She holds a Master of Divinity from Yale University, where she served as cochair of the Evangelical Fellowship at the Divinity School. After working in women’s ministry for nearly twenty years, Tessa became a full-time writer and speaker. Tessa and her husband live in New England, where they proudly tend their mediocre garden.
In this interview, Tessa talks with us about her latest novel, Jewel of the Nile, a tale inspired by the Ethiopian eunuch, one of the first Gentiles to be baptized in the book of Acts. Jewel of the Nile presents Afshar’s first African protagonist, Chariline, a young woman wrestling with the scars of her childhood as she embarks on a journey to discover the identity of her father. In this transformative tale, Tessa Afshar brings to life the kingdom of Cush and the Roman Empire, introducing readers to a fascinating world filled with gripping adventure, touching romance, and a host of lovable characters—including some they may recognize from the biblical book of Acts.
FF: What inspired you to write Jewel of the Nile?
When I first began to outline this novel, I wanted to have one of the daughters of Philip the Evangelist as my main character. A short email from a fan upended my plans. A young lady, whose name I don’t remember, wrote to tell me that she loved my books. But, as an African American, she wondered if I ever planned to have a character who looked like her. Because, she explained, it was important for her to see heroines who reflected her.
I might have forgotten her name, but I could not forget her words. I realized that as a writer of biblical fiction I had a responsibility to this young woman and others like her. I ripped up my outline and never looked back. Chariline (pronounced Cara-leen-ee) dominated the page as soon as she showed up. I love this character.
I did keep two of Philip’s daughters for Chariline’s friends. Love at first sight! I hope to write a short story or two featuring at least one them in the near future.
FF: Can you tell us a little about the Kingdom of Cush and what it was like in biblical times?
Located along the banks of the River Nile in what is modern-day Sudan, Cush was an ancient kingdom, shrouded in secrets and legend. Initially, the land was referred to as Nubia, and for over a hundred years, starting in the eighth century BC, the kings of Nubia also ruled as the Pharaohs of Egypt. Afterward, the kings and queens of Cush established an independent and often influential kingdom with vast silver and gold mines, though much of their rich history has been lost to us. Modern archaeologists have discovered over 250 pyramids left behind by this mysterious people. Smaller and more slender than the Egyptian pyramids, they are elegant, colorful structures built to house the dead.
By the first century, when my story takes place, the Cushites possessed a smaller kingdom, barely holding on to independence, with the shadow of Rome hanging over them. Somehow, they managed to prevent the Roman Empire from swallowing them up completely, though they paid well for this privilege. By this time, they had moved their capital to Meroë on the east bank of the Nile, located between the fifth and sixth cataracts in the river. Meroë was a city of twenty thousand, boasting at least two palaces: one housing the king and the other for the queen.
The people of Cush spoke Meroitic, a language that has been preserved in various documents and yet never deciphered, tragically leaving us with a dearth of knowledge regarding this significant civilization. I can’t wait for some brilliant linguist to tackle this language!
The people of Cush flourished on the shores of the middle Nile for over a thousand years. In time, their queens rose to power alongside their kings. Since kings were considered sons of the gods, they were thought to be too important to dabble in the daily responsibilities of ruling a nation. Instead, they were given rule over the temples and religious life of the land, while the queens wielded power over the political and financial realms.
As you can imagine, this mysterious world creates the perfect backdrop for a story about secrets, self-discovery, and forgiveness.
FF: Chariline is half Roman and half Cushite—what was it like to be biracial in the Roman Empire at that time?
There does not seem to be any evidence of racism in ancient Rome in the sense that we experience that term in our world. Romans generally looked down upon anyone who was from a different ethnic background. Non-Romans were subject to stricter laws than Roman citizens and had fewer protections. On the other hand, if you had Roman citizenship, behaved Roman, wore Roman clothes, worshiped Roman gods, and accepted Roman ideologies, you were accepted into the fold.
FF: When we meet the novel’s protagonist, Chariline, what is she wrestling with in her spiritual life?
Chariline is so focused on what she wants that she runs ahead of God, and his plans. She still wants his blessing, but she is not very good at waiting for his direction. Prayer and stillness are hard for Chariline, because she is entirely focused on the impulses that are born from her longings. She doesn’t yet know how to fully give the control of her life to Jesus, although she is his disciple.
FF: Aside from passages in Acts, what other Scriptures inspired you as you wrote Jewel of the Nile?
I have included verses at the beginning of each chapter, which help us gain insight into the heart of that chapter and sometimes to gain a deeper understanding of the larger themes in the overall story. Having done this with some of my other books, I am always surprised by how much my readers respond to these verses and how personally they connect to them.
FF: What can Chariline’s story teach us about faith?
Sometimes, we are living a life that is ruled by our own desires or common sense or impulses, and we are not even aware. Sometimes, our plans are driven by the lies our old scars whisper into our ears. A life of faith brings our soul into right order. God in Christ frees us from the power of old wounds. Like Chariline, we can learn to find our worth in God and to trust him with our future, instead of striving to control every outcome.
FF: Are there any characters from your other novels in Jewel of the Nile?
Actually, the male protagonist in this novel, Theo, was an important supporting character in Thief of Corinth. And he showed up for a small but important role in Daughter of Rome as well. Speaking of Daughter of Rome, Priscilla and Aquila, who were the central characters in that book, show up to pour some love and wisdom on Chariline in Jewel of the Nile.
FF: What are some of your writing habits? Has your process changed at all as you have written more novels?
I always start with research. Although the process of research never really ends even as you begin a novel, I find it important to have a real sense of the world I am delving into before I begin writing the story. I prefer to write in small chunks and edit a little as I go. It’s a habit that probably slows down my writing too much. But it helps me keep track of the story better. I reserve the bigger edits for when I have finished the story. But the minor revisions I make on a daily basis help me stay in touch with the developing threads of the storyline.
FF: What did you learn while writing this novel?
I fell in love with the world of Cush. The separation between the king and queen and the mysteries that remain after so many centuries intrigue me. I can’t wait for someone to break the code of Meroitic and tell us more about this brilliant people. I also learned about navigating the Nile, the challenge of the six cataracts, and the fascinating world of antiquities that populated its shores, even as late as the first century.
Another wonderful new insight I gained was about the complex world of Roman architecture. My husband found me The Ten Books of Architecture by Vitruvius, the most famous architect at the time in the Roman world. We were amazed by his grasp of engineering and genius for design. Those ancient architects had to know everything from mathematics to soil quality to load bearing to the nature of different woods, concrete, and construction-site management. Truly impressive!
FF: What is your hope for readers of Jewel of the Nile?
I hope they learn not to allow their scars to tell their stories. That they see themselves through the prism of faith and inhabit their true worth in Christ. This is ultimately a story about restoration and healing in the deepest soul.
Jewel of the Nile
Genres: Historical, Biblical, Romance
Release Date: June 1, 2021
ISBN-10 : 1496428757
ISBN-13 : 978-1496428752
Whispered secrets about her parents’ past take on new urgency for Chariline as she pays one last visit to the land of her forefathers, the ancient kingdom of Cush.
Raised as an orphan by her aunt, Chariline has only been told a few pieces of her parents’ tragic love story. Her beautiful dark skin is proof that her father was Cushite, but she knows nothing else. While visiting her grandfather before his retirement as the Roman official in the queen’s court, Chariline overhears that her father is still alive, and discovering his identity becomes her obsession. Both her grandfather and the queen have reasons for keeping this secret, however, and forbid her quest. So when her only clues lead to Rome, Chariline sneaks on the ship of a merchant trusted by friends.
Theo is shocked to discover a stowaway on board his vessel and determines to be rid of her as soon as possible. But drawn in by Chariline’s story, he feels honor- bound to see her safely to shore, especially when it appears someone may be willing to kill for the truth she seeks.
Buy Jewel of the Nile from the FF Store HERE!
Buy Jewel of the Nile from Amazon HERE!