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Anil Menon interview

Anil Menon worked for about nine years in the software industry worrying about things like secure distributed databases. Then he shifted to a different kind of fiction. His short stories have been accepted for publication in magazines such as Albedo One, Chiaroscuro, Fusing Horizons, InterNova, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, New Genre, and Strange Horizons as well as anthologies such as TEL: Stories, Time For Bedlam and From The Trenches. His story Standard Deviation was awarded an Honorable Mention in the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror (2005). He was nominated for the Carl Brandon Society’s 2005 Parallax Prize for his story Archipelago. He is a 2004 Clarion West graduate. His edited volume, Frontiers of Evolutionary Computation (Kluwer Academic Publishers) was released in February, 2004.

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’re on this track; how has the experience been?

A: It’s been a lot easier than I had expected. In my case, Clarion West turned out to be the big break. I met a lot of writers and editors in the six week program, got a lot of tips, and my writing improved. But there was/is no secret handshake. I remember that Charles de Lint, who was one of our instructors in 2004, was so impressed with a student’s story, he sent along a recommendation when she submitted it to Fantasy & Science Fiction. It still got rejected. It’s almost a cliché that the key to good writing is rewriting. But equally important, a successful submission is usually a resubmission.

The SFF community is also very nurturing; remember, these people love the Other. Many of the writers were themselves fans once. They remember what’s it like to stand on the other side of the glass. SFF has the same relationship to mainstream lit as rock b’ roll has to the rest of music (but alas, minus the groupies). It’s been a blast so far.
Q: Given that Indians 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: Thanks for asking this question!

If it wanted to, Indian SFF could kick some major ass. Indians (South-Asians) are born storytellers. The earliest speculative fiction — Jataka tales — was home grown. We have the talent, we have the untold stories and we have an audience — mostly young and mostly female — sick of reading about cowboys in outer space. But we’re like the elephant who doesn’t realize its an elephant. So we politely wait for American or British editors to develop a taste for SFF with an Indian flavor. That’s not going to happen any time soon.

But it doesn’t matter. The way I see it, the future used to happen exclusively in the US. It doesn’t any more. The focus has shifted. The future has been democratized. Look at what the Japanese did with Manga. Suddenly, Superman is a 60 year old dude with a weird penchant for wearing his underwear on the outside. We’ve as much a shot at manufacturing the future as do the Americans. And we can probably do it cheaper too.

What’s to prevent us from building websites like Strange Horizons, which are entirely volunteer and donation driven? Why can’t we start small print-on-demand publishing houses? In the US, there’s a lot of resistance to publishing innovations, and for good reason: they could lose their shirts. But heck, we are already broke; what do *we* have to lose? Why can’t we have our own Clarion India, conferences and awards?

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t address western audiences. Of course we must. But sometimes it seems to me that we’re like the dude who went sailing around the world when the pot of gold lay right in his backyard.

Um, sorry about the spittle.

Q: What themes/characters would you like to see explored in speculative
fiction from India? What do you think Indian SFF writers should avoid?

A: I can speak to the first question. I’d like to see a lot more stories set in south-east Asia. I believe places make a huge difference to the stories we tell. Vandana Singh’s Delhi is a beautiful example. So is the late A. K. Ramanujan’s retelling “A Story And A Song”; arguably, it’s the best piece of flash fiction ever written. We’re redolent in people and places, so why not make use of it?

South-Asians tend to see the world in context-sensitive terms. Take the ancients love of taxonomies. They thought of even love making as a kind of grammatical exercise. A. K. Ramanjuan has written some great essays on “the” south-Asian worldview. We don’t quite know what the result will be if we really, really work Benares and Bangalore into modern spec fiction. I’d like to read and find out.

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: In numbers, no. At least, judging from the conferences I’ve attended. But there’s certainly a presence. My feeling is people are beginning to wake up.

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?

A: There’s definitely a lot of interest. I’ve found my “Indian stories” move a lot faster than the “ethnically neutral” ones. What I find in most contemporary stories though is that the Indian-ness, if present, tends to be an exotic touch; a character may have an Indian name, but she/he could just as well be Irish-Eskimo.

Q: In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk about the New Weird, about
speculative fiction writers blurring genre borders. Given that India
doesn’t have a history of SFF publishing, or a growth curve through
magazines and anthologies as seen in more developed spec-fic markets,
do you think that the way ahead for South Asian SFF lies in blending
speculative fiction with literary traditions that are more associated
with South Asian writing? Is there any particular tradition of South
Asian writing that you’d like to see married to speculative fiction?

A: I think the literary tradition would kill South-Asian SFF. Mainstream lit in the English speaking world is dying. It’s dying because it’s stylized, experientially impoverished, full of self-conscious irony, and written for other writers, not readers. It’s old-people lit. It’s fiction with an intravenous drip. The kids are smart to stay away from it; they’re all playing video games and reading manga.

I love the droll humor we find in our folktales. The Jataka tales are still funny (esp. the ACK comic versions drawn by Jeff Fowler). I’d like to see us work humor into spec fic, not just whimsy.

Q: Do you feel that practically speaking, writers from countries not
normally associated with spec-fic markets need to emphasize on their
own countries’ myths/folklore in order to provide some kind of
diversity and succeed in the international marketplace?

A: No. It makes sense to use what one knows, but sometimes you gotta be stupid. Take Karl May, the German writer. He wrote stories, in German, about American cowboys. The cowboy movies of Sergio Leone were much influenced by May. Consequently, the baby-boomer’s imago of the American cowboy comes from a German who’d only visited the US once, a few years before his death. There’s a moral there somewhere.

About Samit Basu

Writes books, comics, films, other stuff.


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Copyright (c) Samit Basu. Images copyright respective holders.
July 2006


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