The Writers’ Block, Chapter 1: Scientist and rising Edmonton author Premee Mohamed explores dichotomies

In Premee Mohamed’s latest novella, The Annual Migration of Clouds, a young girl and her mom struggle to stay alive in a world ravaged by climate change. 

Both suffer from a sinister new disease, a fungal parasite which seems to control their thoughts and movements. The two live and work in what used to be the University of Alberta’s Biological Sciences Building, one of the few “sturdy” structures that can sustain life. Wild boars roam the river valley, largely devoid of trees due to a series of storms, landslides, wildfires and melting glaciers. Children play amongst the “crumbling ruins” of the Legislature.  

Edmonton is a frequent backdrop in Mohamed’s science fiction, which often deals with calamities—whether caused by ancient monsters or climate disasters. 

 “I don’t think it’s realistic to write anything set in the future on Earth and NOT mention climate change,” says the Clareview resident.

BioSci on the University of Alberta campus, Oct. 26, 2021.

Science non-fiction

Mohamed used to take classes in “BioSci”—she’s a scientist with degrees in molecular genetics and environmental science. She currently works for the Alberta government, devising guidelines for the clean-up of industrial activities such as factories, oil and gas wells, gravel pits and fertilizer plants. 

Science was an early passion for Mohamed. While many four-year-olds are obsessed with cars or dolls, she was fascinated with microbes—tiny organisms that you can’t see without a microscope, let alone dress up or play with in a sandbox. 

“I was one of those wee, tiny nerds,” she says.

Premee Mohamed and her brother near the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada Observatory at what is now known as TELUS World of Science. Supplied.

“My parents got me a big stack of those Reader’s Digest condensed books—the ones that came with the dark brown pleather cover and had that Reader’s Digest-y smell. One was a condensed copy of Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif, and I swear to God, I was six or seven years old and I thought it was the most exciting thing I’d ever read. It’s about epidemiology but it’s also about the natural history of microbes. I was just obsessed. I was like: ‘I want to be a scientist!’ My parents humoured me—they got me kits, they got me books, they got me one of those kid-sized microscopes with a bunch of pre-made slides. I spent years looking through it and making drawings.” 

Watch and listen to Premee Mohamed—on the 11th floor of BioSci—read from The Annual Migration of Clouds:

Rising author

In her teens, Mohamed branched out and started writing short stories. She finished her first book, Beneath The Rising, when she was 20, yet she didn’t start toying with the idea of trying to publish her writing until her mid-30s. In 2018, she sold Beneath The Rising to Solaris Books, a publishing company based in Oxford, England, as part of a two-book deal. Since then, it’s been nominated for several sci-fi and fantasy prizes around the world—including Canada’s Aurora Awards and the British Fantasy Awards—and led to two sequels, A Broken Darkness, which was published in 2021, and The Void Ascendant, due in March 2022. 

“It’s a debut novel, I’m shocked that it’s being nominated for anything,” says Mohammed. “At most of these awards, it’s usually up against books by writers who have been in the game for a very long time, so it’s very gratifying. I’m delighted at the recognition but also horrified. What’s wrong with you people?”

Beneath The Rising tells the tale of two teens—Nick and science prodigy Johnny—who try to stop a pack of ancient monsters from destroying the Earth. The novel is part sci-fi, part fantasy, part reflection on racism—with a mix of magic, religion, pop culture and references to the Edmonton area, including Elk Island National Park, Metro Cinema and the airport. Their end-of-the-world adventures take them to Morocco and Iraq, but the novel starts and ends in St. Albert, where the two friends live with their families.

Premee Mohamed presenting an award from her Clareview home during the Aurora Awards’ virtual ceremony on Oct.16, 2021. Supplied.

Delving into dichotomies 

For Mohamed, her sci-fi debut allowed her to write about the reality of living in the 780. Born in Edmonton, she grew up in St. Albert, the daughter of Indo-Caribbean parents from Guyana. (Her dad worked as an urban planner for the City of Edmonton.) “To have the two main characters live in St. Albert seemed intuitive to me,” she says. “It also seemed like a useful way to denote what I had noticed in school—that some people in St. Albert have a lot of money and they live in fancy neighbourhoods. That’s the popular view of St. Albert. But there are some areas that are not like that whatsoever, so it made sense that one of the characters lived in one of those neighbourhoods and the other lived in a fancier one.”  

This contrast is one of many that inspires Mohamed’s writing. 
“I love Edmonton,” she says. “It’s home to me. It’s a place of dichotomies. It’s getting more unsafe for women of colour and that sits side-by-side with all the things that I love: my friends live here;  the City is really trying to do its best by its citizens; the interesting museums and art galleries; the neighbourhoods with the big old trees. All these things sit side-by-side so that you can see the contrast.”

Premee Mohamed likes Edmonton’s neighbourhoods with “the big old trees,” such as Westmount.

Mohamed also enjoys the dichotomy of her two careers. 

Despite her success as a writer, she has no plans to leave her gig with the government of Alberta. “I love my job,” she says. “I hope that my work will result in a better landscape and a more usable province in the future, one where there is room for people who want to hunt, people who want to hike, and people who just want to go out and look at wildlife.” 

Editor’s notes: the pic at the top of the post is author and scientist Premee Mohamed in the Zoology Museum at the U of A’s BioSci Building on October 26, 2021. We’ll have more Writers’ Block installments in the weeks and months ahead!