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Vandana Singh interview

Vandana Singh teaches Physics and writes speculative fiction and children’s books.

Q: Are you working on a novel now? Is there anything you can reveal
about it, if so?

A: I have been intermittently working on a novel or three in the last few months. I say intermittently because my day job keeps me insanely busy, but I actually have words down for two of the novels, so it is not all in my head!

One is a fantasy about magic in the real world, but magic treated as a discipline rather than something merely supernatural in which practically anything can happen — in other words, magic as a science. It is about a group of characters, from an eleven year old girl to a 21-year-old guy, who are practicing and re-discovering ancient magic in one of many secret communities around the world. The other novel is good, old-fashioned science fiction about an Indian girl who goes to Mars to join a human colony there. The third one — the one I am so excited about, it almost makes me sick — is set in my hometown of Delhi. All three of these books might be considered Young Adult Fiction but since I read happily and indiscriminately across boundaries, I’ll leave categorization to others.

Q: The SF publishing market is hugely different from the mainstream
literary one, with a wholly separate set of publishers and agents -
which means that if there’s any glamour left to the whole ‘Indian
writing’ phenomenon, it doesn’t apply in these markets. Besides, most
SFF writers currently breaking through abroad go through the short
stories in magazines/meeting people at conferences routine before they
managed to get signed up. You’ve had spec-fic stories published in
leading magazines and anthologies, and attended conferences, which is
the best route towards getting SFF novels published in the West
(Congratulations!). Given that Indians living in India don’t have
access to conferences abroad, do you think that these inequalities are
just things that Indian SFF writers
looking to get published internationally will just have to take in
their stride, or is there anything that they can do to help their work
get seen? How important is location as a factor in the future of
Indian SFF?

A: Indian writers have to write what is in our heart and soul and gut — not what we think might sell abroad. That means being true to ourselves, irrespective of the subject matter. And because the best SFF is ultimately revolutionary, in that it forces us to see ourselves as we are and as we can be, it also means that we must examine everything, including our dearest assumptions. Indian SFF cannot help but be influenced by the great Anglo-American SFF tradition, but if we want to influence it in turn, rather than be second-rate imitators, we must forge our own views, our own imperatives, our own universes. Part of that involves reading and thinking about what the world has to offer — read Asimov, Le Guin, Calvino, Borges, Li Po, the Epic of Gilagamesh — and part of it involves what and who we are — read Premchand, the Ramayana, Ghalib, the Bhakti poets. In other words we must always be aware of and in dialogue with the great works of the non-English Indian traditions (some of which, by the way, have vibrant SF literatures) from Madhavan Kutty to Premendra Mitra and beyond.

It is true that in the West the SFF culture has developed an enormous fan base and also great support for new, emerging and established writers, through conventions and writers’ workshops. There is no reason why these things cannot be organized in India, where we already have traditions like the literary mehfil. Even in the US conventions and workshops arose as ideas dreamed up by penniless writers (probably over coffee at 3 am), evolving from a very small scale to epic proportions (the last Worldcon I attended in Boston had at least 5000 participants). I think we have to start small, with writers getting together in neighborhoods and localities and giving honest critiques of each others’ works. The next steps may include launching small-press magazines or ezines for publishing outstanding works, holding conventions, doing readings at bookstores to popularize SF and generating fan newsletters.

We can consider Japanese SF as an example. Now Americans generally think the world revolves around them, and unfortunately this is mostly true of American SFF writers and editors as well. But lately I’ve been hearing more and more about Japanese SF in US publications, and of American SF writers going to Japanese SF conventions. (The next Worldcon is in Japan, by the way.) I am no expert on the history of Japanese SF but I really think that creating their own subculture of SF helped put the Japanese on the world SF map. There is no reason why Indians can’t do this as well. Now, with the publication of the international SF magazine Internova (from Germany) there is a real interest among SF writers around the world (particularly Europe) to find SF from all over the globe and publish it. I have heard of SF from Croatia and Argentina, from China and Sri Lanka. Each SF community enriches the whole.

Q: Indians living abroad are beginning to make their mark felt in other
kinds of fiction than mainstream literary fiction today – chick-lit
being a prime example. Is there a significantly large number of
spec-fic writers among the diaspora?

A: I think we are few and far between. For the longest time I thought I was the only Indian SF writer around (apart from luminaries like Amitav Ghosh, who may not even identify himself as an SF writer). A few years ago a couple of American editors I met seemed puzzled by my existence. I was Indian — I should write about saris, incense and arranged marriages, right? What was I doing, dabbling in science fiction? Most interestingly, an Indian author I talked to seemed surprised by my description of my writing “SF from a third-world perspective.” “Do you mean you write about reincarnation?”

Anyway, from those sorry times just a few years ago to now, we have more and more Indian names popping up. For instance there is Anil Menon — remember his name, you will see it again! And emerging others who are going to Clarion workshops, working away at their stories, getting ready to see their names in print.

Q: How have publishers and agents responded to the concept of an Indian
writing SFF? Is there an increased interest in non-Western SFF in a
saturated Western market, and is it beginning to show? Are anthologies
like So Long Been Dreaming the first of many?

A: I think there is definitely an interest in seeing something new. Unfortunately Americans in general are sadly uninformed about India and what little they know is often caricatured and stereotyped beyond recognition. In addition there are a lot of Western SF writers who have used Indian characters or settings in their stories, sometimes honestly and sometimes with a hostility that harks back to the old colonial British hack writers of penny-dreadfuls. An Indian SFF writer thus has to overcome all these stereotypes. One of the things that helps is that writers of colour in North America are getting together across ethnicities — African-Americans, South Asians — forming groups like the Carl Brandon Society that gives out its own rewards to people or writings that focus on issues of race — or publishing anthologies like So Long Been Dreaming that are being treated seriously by SFF critics and academics alike.

So I think there is a lot of hope and new interest, now, in expanding the boundaries of SFF.

Q: Do you feel SF/fantasy (speculative fiction) has a future in India?
Why, either way?

A: It had better — we practically invented it — at least science fiction’s older cousin, fantasy, has a long history in India. But really I think that there is no other literature in the world, apart from speculative fiction, that deals with the way the world is changing, and with all kinds of possible futures. There is no other fiction that has the potential of telling the truth about the human condition now, even if it is against the backdrop of an invented universe. Considering how fast things are changing in the so-called third-world, what other literature can we turn to, in order to truly examine ourselves and where we are going? What other literature has the revolutionary potential of revisioning entire worlds, entire societies?

As an Indian growing up in New Delhi, I was addicted to science fiction. I grew out of it in early adulthood when I realized it was not written for me, it did not speak to me (I had not discovered Le Guin yet). I returned to it as a PhD student in the US because I literally felt alienated and wanted to read something that spoke to my condition. When I discovered writers like Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler and others, I knew there was a place in SF for me.

So imagine SF books written by Indians for the world at large, but also for Indians. Indian teenagers and young adults reading these may never grow out of reading SF, as I once did!

Q: In fiction aimed at adults, SF/fantasy tend to be seen as low-caste,
but in the world of children’s/YA publishing, the most popular books
in recent times always seem to contain speculative elements. Do you
think this is because younger people are seen to be more accepting of
non-identifiably-real-world situations, or because the children’s/YA
book market is now large enough for it to have its own rules – or is
it something different entirely?

A: The world of the imagination has recently (only in modern times, I think) been infantilized. The Real World is seen to be for grown-ups, and all that fairy-tale stuff for kids. This is truly sad and remarkably stupid as well, because you can see in every culture that the oldest tales have elements of magic or other-worldliness to them. Their value lies not in literal interpretations (in which case myths become nothing but unsuccessful attempts at explaining natural phenomena) but because they speak the language of the unconscious mind — the language of symbol and metaphor. They tell us about ourselves — our fears and dreams. After all, reality is such a complicated beast. If you are to hold it, understand it, you need something larger than reality to do so. Enter Imaginative Literature.

Speculative elements in children’s fiction has a long history even in our times — the world, however, needed the Harry Potter phenomenon to wake up to the fact. We insiders were reading Diana Wynne Jones, Ursula K. Le Guin, Lloyd Alexander and others long before Rowling set pen to paper. For whatever reason Harry and his friends came at the right time to spark a massive public interest in children’s imaginative literature, and this led to a discovery on the part of the public to a literature that they had, for a very long time, ignored. Now everyone is jumping on the bandwagon of children’s spec fic, and that is all to the good.

So I guess what I am saying is (in my non-expert view) that there are many reasons, and I think I’ve outlined the two main ones.

Q: What sort of children’s fantasy/SF would you like to see coming out of
Indian writers in India and abroad? And what do you think writers in
the sub-genre would do best to avoid?

A: Personally I’d like to see anything that is truly imaginative, that comes from deep places inside the author’s soul. The subject and setting need not even be Indian, although it would be great if we had more books with Indian kids having adventures. (When I was a kid I used to think, for the longest time that cool things only happened to kids named Jack or Susan with blue eyes). As for what to avoid: avoid imitations, avoid pandering to stereotypes. Avoid — like the plague — writing to get published. Write what is in you, write what you cannot help writing if they chained you up and stuck you on a desert island.

Q: What particular period of Indian history do you think would make for
really engaging SFF?

A: Gosh, practically any period would be fascinating. I never realized when I was living in India that my own backyard was the most exciting place (or at least, one of the most exciting places) in the world. When I went to the US as a graduate student I realized how richly experiential life in India can be. Even a visit to the sabzi market is full of interest (going to an air-conditioned grocery store cannot compare). There is something about our part of the world — if you open your eyes and ears and heart, there are stories waiting to be plucked from the air. I grew up in Delhi. Along the lanes of my childhood, or hidden in surrounding forests, there lie the ruins of ancient and medieval kingdoms. Sher Shah Suri walked here, the Pandavas rested there. Myth and history, folklore and legend in one seamless whole, waiting for the listening ear, the seeing eye of the writer who will let these ancient tales brew in the mind, along with the modern icons and imperatives of our frenetic age — to come up with something uniquely his or hers. What are we waiting for?

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About Samit Basu

Writes books, comics, films, other stuff.

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