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The South Asian diaspora and speculative fiction

The Great Indian Diaspora has always been a key topic of discussion whenever the theme of Indian writing in English has come up. Many of the world’s most successful writers of Indian origin live outside the subcontinent yet set their books there, and many critics feel this harms the authenticity of their work. A lot of the criticism stems from the fact that a number of serious literary writers from India are also the most commercially successful writers from India, and the uncomfortable relationship between the creation of literature and the sale of literary products to well-defined markets is not something most critics or writers seem to want to talk about – and hence every aspect of the plot, the settings and language used by Indian writers at home or abroad who work in and sell their works to Western markets has been ruthlessly analyzed and criticized, often unfairly, for being strung together to dupe susceptible readers . Diaspora writers who write about India or Indians have also regularly been accused of selling out, of peddling India to the West with over-exotic, elephant/arranged-marriage/spices/maharaja-laden versions of India that have nothing to do with reality, but bring them large advances, of sitting in comfortable ignorance in the West and not truly understanding the nation they are seen to be ‘explaining’ to the rest of the world.

Fortunately for genre writers of Indian origin living outside India, they are less likely to be accused of distorting reality, since that is what they set out to do in the first place in order to understand the real world better. Or of being overly exotic – how exotic is an elephant when placed next to a demon or a spaceship? Unfortunately for them, they are unlikely to pick up huge advances from the literary publishing world at this point, because the publishing market for speculative fiction is a very different one from mainstream lit, and while the mainstream fiction market is still eager for Indian fiction, the speculative fiction world, which already has a fair number of colourful, mysterious, fragrant otherworlds.

British diaspora writer William Dalrymple stirred up a good amount of controversy recently with an Observer article where he claimed, among other things, that the diaspora was the last brown hope as far as Indian writing was concerned. While his views came in for some stringent criticism and ridicule, even prompting writer Amit Chaudhuri, that most literary of Indian litterateurs, to write speculative fiction (in an article where he compared the planets Dalrymple and he lived on), one observation he used while making his claims was that most of India’s most commercially successful and most widely published authors spend a large chunk of their time outside India – not noting, however, that this might have something to do with the fact that in writing, as in all other jobs, access is important, and resources flow to the places where they are optimally utilized.

In fact, what really most significantly differentiates the SFF writer in the Indian diaspora and the Indian writer in India is access. SFF is a very close-knit, community-driven market, possible even more so than mainstream lit, and a lot of sales of manuscripts are made at giant SFF conventions, where fans, editors, agents and writers gather to celebrate all things speculative. While obviously the quality of a work of fiction would determine its eventual future, the practicalities are important too – it’s impossible for even great books to reach bookshelves unless they reach the right editor or agent at the right time, and simply because there isn’t a tradition of Indian spec-fic publishing, it’s difficult to establish one. While opinions are widely divided on how relevant these conventions are for writers to sell manuscripts to editors and thus get their work published (completely essential, say some, no longer relevant, say others, in the interviews that follow these essays), the fact remains that Indian/South Asians in the diaspora are simply in a better place as far as getting their work out is considered. Also very relevant is the fact that apart from the leading names in children’s fantasy literature, contemporary, cutting-edge spec-fic is not widely available in India at all. But these problems, while very real now, will hopefully disappear, thanks largely to the Internet, over the next few years. As conditions stand now, though, it is very likely that if there is a genuine wave of Indian/South Asian speculative writing over the next few years, it will be led by the diaspora. Of course, the question that comes before this is whether writers in the Indian diaspora are writing speculative fiction in large numbers in the first place.

Mary Anne Mohanraj, US-based writer and founder of the Speculative Literature Foundation:
“Most South Asian/diaspora authors I encounter seem more concerned with writing mainstream ‘literary’ fiction. In part this is simply where their interests lie — in part, I wonder whether some of the leanings in that directions come out of a desire for respectability. Making your living as a writer is generally not one of the acceptable career tracks for an ambitious South Asian, and it may be that many authors are
afraid to venture into sf/f for fear of even more mockery from the relatives. But that’s pure speculation on my part — it may be just that most South Asian/diaspora authors didn’t grow up reading and loving spec fic, and so it doesn’t occur to them to try writing it.”

”Cecilia Tan and I tried to pitch an Asian companion volume to _Dark Matter_ (an anthology of speculative fiction from the African diaspora) some years ago, and were told that the publisher didn’t think there was a sufficient market for it. Maybe in a few years…”

But hopes of a wave of SFF writing from the diaspora aren’t entirely speculation even at this point. Already, a few writers living in the US like Vandana Singh and Anil Menon have established their presence in the SF community, getting short stories published in leading genre magazines, and in the process of finishing their first speculative fiction novels.

SFF author Vandana Singh, author of the Younguncle series of children’s books:
“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. 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. “
“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. “

Indian-origin US-based SFF writer Anil Menon, is optimistic about the future of South Asian SFF:

“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.”

On breaking into the SF community and getting his stories into print:
“ 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 cliche that the key to good writing is rewriting. But equally important, a successful submission is usually a resubmission.”
“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.”
Thomas Abraham, president, Penguin Books India:

On the probability of the diaspora leading an Indian SFF wave:

“I don’t see why not. And not just the diaspora but from here. Leaving aside conferences, access is pretty much available to everything else. And even going with the notion that flights of imagination are still inevitably rooted someway to cultural influences; we’re now (at least in urban India) definitely tech advanced for SF and have a mythology that’s definitely richer than Celtic folklore to be able to produce world class fantasy. The problem is we need a basic readership here, which I think will be available over the next 10 years. All those Potter and Alfred Kropp readers will hopefully graduate into reading SFF.”
On Indian SFF writers needing to piggyback on Indian themes:
“Not as a generalization, but if they don’t, they have to labour against the prejudice that “there’s nothing new here; this is essentially a western universe”. It’s a bit of a catch-22 situation. It would be far easier to position their work as rooted in their own cultural contexts and try to break through on the exotica platform. But conversely they would probably come up with the objection from agents that this is too culturally alien to succeed in the west. But that’s now. Increasingly these barriers are being wiped out and hopefully in ten years it won’t matter.”

Critic, writer and prolific blogger (The Mumpsimus) Matthew Cheney:

“I think we’re already seeing some exhaustion in the SF field with the typical props and models of writing, and so U.S. and British writers are looking elsewhere for ideas. Also, we live in a world where it’s much easier to encounter people from outside our own countries, and to gain information about places other than our own, and many readers hunger for it. Some of it may just be the attraction of exoticism, but I think the success of
books like Tobias Buckell’s “Crystal Rain”, which mixes a variety of influences in a traditional SF adventure story, or Ian MacDonald’s “River of Gods”, which is more specifically Indian, bodes well for the future, because such books show writers trying to bring an honest sensibility about non-Western or post-colonial cultures into their work,
and to do so in as honest a way as possible

Ashok Banker, the best-known name in Indian SFF worldwide:

“We should be writing about our culture, our mythology, our people, right? But then you look around at the US genre scene today: There are fantasy novels with characters named after Indian characters, set in places like Hastinapura and Ayodhya! There are references to Indian myth, legend, history everywhere! You can hardly read a genre novel today without encountering multi-cultural references…and I’m talking about genre fiction written by white, European or American writers.”

”By the same yardstick, why shouldn’t it be acceptable for an Indian or Asian writer to write a book using American characters or European-Celtic elements? For that matter, why should subject matter be restricted to a writer’s own culture or nationality? A good writer writes about anything he or she pleases, and should be free to do so.”

”But try stepping across the same line that western writers step across routinely and see the result. I don’t think you’ll find the acceptance you accept, and it might often have nothing to do with the quality of your writing or intrinsic strength of your book.”

Jeff VanderMeer, award-winning SFF author (Shriek, City of Saints and Madmen):

“There’s a difference between an artistic scene or movement and getting attention and publicity for that scene or movement. No one needs to rely on a diaspora to create original, innovative, and moving work. The important thing is to focus on the work and to create something powerful and important. Then, in the fullness of time, you make people come to you. This is increasingly true considering we live in an Internet age where everyone is just a click away.”

”That said, I think it is imperative that non-English speaking countries leverage the internet by creating website for the fiction of their country, with translations into English. There’s no avoiding the fact that English is the language that dominates the marketplace outside of Asia. But I do not believe you have to physically be in the US or UK to be successful. It may be harder, but it is possible. You just have to have people who are PR and market savvy in addition to people producing amazing work.”

Cheryl Morgan, writer, critic and blogger who runs online SFF magazine Emerald City:

”Editors are always looking for something new, so if you can blend South Asian culture and traditions into your writing it will help get it noticed. Ashok Banker has had some success with that. I’m afraid I don’t know enough about South Asian writing to answer the last question, but I do think that we will see more and more SF books set in “Third World” countries from now on. There’s a general view that the American Economic Empire is on the wane, and that “the future” will happen in India, China, South America and Africa. Ian McDonald’s _River of Gods_ has been a huge success – you guys should build on that.”

“Remember that Zoran Zivkovic has been very successful despite writing in Serbian and never leaving Belgrade. He just got a good translator and submitted stories to places like Interzone, and Jeff VanderMeer’s _Leviathan_ anthologies. Now he’s won a World Fantasy Award and the small presses all love him. There’s nothing particularly Serbian
about Zoran’s writing, he is just talented and has worked hard.”

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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