Renne Chon of Science Fiction World is working on the Chinese translation of "Grandmother-nai-Leylit's Cloth of Winds," and I got some questions from her about the worldbuilding in the story. I thought it would be fun to share some of the questions and my answers, so with Renne's permission, here they are.
RC: “…where to learn his Birdseed letters and the deeds of holy artifice.”
(What is a Birdseed letter?)
RL: Birdseed letters are very ancient; they are a special script that was used, a very long time ago, to write the holy writ (sometimes called the Birdseed writ, or Holy Books of Birdseed), which is a holy text. The writ is written in Old Khana, the language which the scholars/men learn in the men's quarter. The writ as a system of writing is still in use in the men's quarter - to study the writ, to read old books on artifice, and also to write modern and especially important books. The script itself is an abjad (consonants only) and the letters look like squiggles/seeds. (The Khana culture and Birdseed writ/letters also appear in my earlier Birdverse story, "Held Close in Syllables of Light", also in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.)
RC: “It was there that Zurya had sung her supplications to Bird, it was there that she had been rewarded with the gift of spinning from Bird’s own feathers.”
(It says before that Zurya’s ability is to spin from her voice, so why feathers here?)
RL: So this is a bit complicated, and it might be best explained as poetic license.
It's not exactly poetic license though; in Birdverse, there is a lot of magical lore and folklore connected to "Bird's feathers." "Bird's feathers" are mystical events connected to a vision in which Bird visits you to bestow a special gift or to teach a skill, often symbolized by a feather. For example, some people gain the title "Birdfeather" if they have a vision of plucking one of Bird's feathers while taking a deepname (so they believe that that specific deepname used to be one of Bird's feathers). In Zurya's case, Bird appears to her in response to an especially beautiful song, and teaches her how to weave by singing - in Zurya's vision, the song she sings literally pulls threads out of Bird's feathers. When Zurya weaves again by singing, she does not have another visit from Bird; it is simply enough to imagine Bird while she sings.
RC: "...a flying razu beast, a lizard longer than my arm and made of entirely of letters" (what is a lizard made of letters?)
Please tell me more about the world settings behind this lizard!
RL: The Great Burri Desert is a place of wonder, and travelers often see many visions of past events which may or may not have come to pass. These visions appear first as bones, and then as creatures that go with the bones. There are a few main themes in the visions, though they are kind of endless; one of the often-recurring themes is ancient civilizations and their languages. It is never clear which civilizations existed for real and which did not; in truth, Burri has a shifting past, and I may or may not write a story about it at some point (I did a bit in a recent poem, "Mirrored Mappings.") The languages come with scripts, and sometimes these scripts appear as animals - in this case, the lizard of Aviya's vision is not really a lizard, but a lizard-like shape made out of shining letters.
RC: So just to be clear, apart from the lizard-shaped letters, the other visions (the flying razu, the two-headed bird, the stag on crane’s feet, the dog with a ruby forehead) are real animals, are they?
RL: All of these visions can seem very real and interact with you for short periods of time, some even attack you, but they are magical in nature - they are like mirages that can be touched and experienced, but are better avoided. :)
The razu beast did, at one point, live in the desert, but has become extinct, unfortunately mostly because of the ivory trade. There is still a lot of razu ivory traded and incorporated into works of art.
Hope you enjoyed these questions and answers!