Monday Original Content: An Interview with Vandana Singh
Interview by Charles Tan.
Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, what’s the appeal of speculative fiction for you? Do you think it’s an appropriate term for your writing, or is there another descriptor you deem more appropriate?
Thanks for interviewing me! Speculative fiction is indeed an appropriate term for my writing. I view it as an umbrella term covering everything from magic realism to hard SF. The best speculative fiction demands a boldness of imagination and a vastness of scope that no other literature can offer. It also has a potential for transgression, for being disrespectful of boundaries and labels, for throwing us out of our comfort zones. Add to that the sense of wonder that it evokes, the engagement with ideas, and the fact that it provides a two-way mirror for looking at the world — a literal and a metaphorical one — one wonders why everyone doesn’t read the stuff. Plus, for me, what it evokes is a sense of the magic of the real world in all its ordinariness. For these and more reasons than I can come up with at one time, speculative fiction is my natural habitat.
When writing for adults vs. for children, is there a dramatic mental shift for you or do you consider it one kind of writing? How about when writing short stories vs. longer forms? Or writing in English vs. writing in Hindi?
Well, I think my concerns, the things that engage me, remain the same. There are some things I wouldn’t write about in my children’s fiction, or would write about differently — so no explicit sex or certain kinds of violence — but in general, humans interacting with the physical universe, with other life-forms, with each other in ways that reveal social/environmental issues — these sort of things remain the same. In my Younguncle books there is humour and various comic situations and my style is therefore obviously different, but the underlying themes are similar to my adult fiction.
As far as short versus long forms, the longest thing I’ve written is a novella of nearly 40,000 words. I do find a shift here, in pace and emphasis, but I haven’t really practiced enough to explore it.
Writing in Hindi versus English is another matter. I only write poetry in Hindi but because Hindi is my mother-tongue, and despite the fact that I write mostly in English, there is something fundamental about writing in Hindi. I don’t quite know how to put it — it is more than the fact that some things in Hindi are not translatable into English. The feel, the ethos of the language is different. One day maybe I’ll write longer pieces in Hindi instead of just poetry for myself.
Considering that you’ve been exposed to both Indian and American culture, do you see yourself more as an Indian writer, or an amalgamation of both India and America (or any other nation for that matter)?
I don’t much like to label myself as a writer but having said that, I think the label I am most comfortable with is: I am an Indian writer living in the U.S., writing for the world. Inevitably my experience of living in the U.S. influences my writing, but a lot of what I write about is India-centric. There are reasons for this, among which is the fact that I am very interested in the experiment that is India, and how interestingly it blows expectations and stereotypes, and how in its history it has presented some rather unique ways of viewing the world. Living far away has some major disadvantages but it does allow me to see some things about India much more clearly, including the fact that the place I grew up in right through early adulthood, the place I took so much for granted, is actually one of the most interesting places in the world.
For the most part, when it comes to Indian speculative fiction, your name is the first one that comes to mind. What made you embrace promoting Indian speculative fiction?
Well, that is very flattering but it would be dishonest of me to pretend that I’m any kind of pioneer. Speculative fiction has been written in India for a very long time. In fact it is so imbued in the literature that it isn’t even classified (until very recently) as a separate genre. If you include the great epics then this tradition is thousands of years old.
Fast-forwarding to modern times, we think the first Indian SF story was one written in the late 1800’s by the brilliant scientist and experimenter Jagdish Chandra Bose in Bengali. Of India’s 18 or so languages, Bengali probably has the richest and oldest SF tradition. I wasn’t aware of this until people started translating, and then I discovered Premendra Mitra (again in Bengali) and others, and I know there are even more awaiting discovery by a wider audience. This made me very curious and very much aware how much English, being the language of the colonizers, still held a privileged place in the subcontinent. So I talked to my friend, the writer Anil Menon, and we have this long-term project in mind of exploring Indian spec fic in various languages, and finding authors and translators and some day doing an anthology. The fact that there were people in my own country writing spec fic for people like me had an enormous emotional impact on me, because until I discovered writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, I’d always felt excluded by the worlds of classic SF writers like Asimov, whom I’d read as a child.
Here in the Philippines, the local literature scene has a divide between the writers who write in Filipino and the ones who write in English. Is there such a divide in India? What made you decide to write predominantly in English?
I think this is also true in India and reflects a kind of power differential, which I imagine is part of the legacy of colonization. I think it is very unfortunate because there is so much that the literature of these languages have to say to each other that is best said on an equal footing.
As for what made me decide, it wasn’t really a conscious decision. I went to an English medium school in New Delhi and even though I was a pretty good essay writer in Hindi, most of my fiction reading was in English, so it was a natural and unconscious thing to write fiction in English too. In my family we spoke both languages at home (and in fact my mother is an absolutely first rate writer in Hindi, although she hasn’t ever tried to publish anything) but it is now (and has been for a while) an urban middle class thing in India that you write in English. It has to do with our history, and with social class and privilege and power, but I was in no way capable of analyzing it then. I simply wrote in it because it was what you did if you were an English-educated, middle class urbanite.
When I came to the U.S. and began to feel the angst of separation I started writing bits and pieces in Hindi (mostly poetry) because despite my greater practice and facility with writing in English I couldn’t express deep, personal, visceral matters of the soul in English. Or rather, it didn’t feel right. So now I tell people that I write for myself in Hindi and for the world in English.
Do you think there’s a significant difference between a story written in Hindi vs. a story written in English? Or rather is there anything unique that one language accomplishes that the other cannot, at least in the context of stories written in the genre?
I haven’t read any SF stories in Hindi yet, sadly enough (although that will be corrected this winter as I have Arvind Mishra’s book to read) and I am not any kind of expert in comparative literature — but I do think languages have a different feel to them. One of my favorite classic Hindi writers is Premchand, and I once came across an English translation of his short stories. The translation was competent but something was missing. I think it was Premchand himself, in a way — he seemed to have vanished from his own stories.
The way I think about it is: a particular language/culture is a window looking out at the world. Change the language/culture and the view is going to look different, even if it is a view of the same landscape.
Issues of translation aside, I really think this is one reason why it is vital to have access to stories in different languages. To get a sort of multiple vision, you know, of reality.
How about Indian culture: what makes it unique and different from the rest of the world?
Goodness, I really don’t know how to answer that! There is no one thing that is “Indian culture” and it is always in a state of flux, and it seems to defy any kind of consistent description. This might sound unbelievable to those used to viewing India through the exotifying lenses of stereotype but it is true. One reason I’m continually fascinated by India is how it subverts, diverts, embraces and transmogrifies everything. To give you an example, a travel writer I know, who lives in and goes all over India for her stories, once told me that she came across a market in a town where the traditional lassi makers had gone 21st century. If you’ve had Indian food you know what lassi is — the frothy yogurt drink, traditionally churned by hand. Well, you know what these guys used to make lassi? Washing machines.
This may sound silly but it is kind of emblematic. People don’t think in neat, Western categories. Thank goodness! Otherwise we wouldn’t have apparently foolish but successful ideas coming out of the subcontinent, from Gandhi’s Satyagraha to Yunus’ micro-lending.
What’s your stand on cultural appropriation? Is it okay, for example, for foreign writers to write or subvert elements of Indian myth?
Well, there’s cultural appropriation, which is a form of colonialist pillaging, and there’s the other way to do it. Unfortunately many Western writers aren’t even aware that they may harbor the sort of prejudices and preconceived notions that colonizers do, so even if they don’t intend to, they can end up producing uninformed, jarring and even offensive garbage. Of course that is changing as writers become more aware of these issues and smarter about research, but there are still challenges. For instance if you are writing a story based on a Hindu myth, you are writing about a living religion, not a dead one. Granted Hindus have a thousand different stories about any one thing, but when is it right for a Westerner and a non-Hindu to pick up a thread or two and use it for a story? And where do you draw the line between imaginative borrowing and appropriation? These are difficult but important questions.
Frankly I am all for Western writers making an honest attempt to understand and write about another culture — even at the risk of making a mistake — because part of what SFF writers should do is to stand in the shoes of the aliens from our own planet. But I also want to point out that Western writers writing about India, say, cannot substitute for Indian writers writing about India.
How has your physics background influenced your writing?
Intimately. Physics is a way of viewing the world, and it is one of my most important lenses. One of the most exciting things about science is that it reveals the sub-text of the physical world. In other words surface reality isn’t all there is, the world is full of hidden stories, connections, patterns, and the scientific as well as the literary and psychological aspects of this multi-textured reality are, to me, fascinating. So even though science may not be an overt factor in some of my stories, it is an influence, an approach. And there are also stories in which it does play a more overt role, where I can have fun playing — science is full of the most gorgeous literary metaphors!
In your opinion, what role does science fiction play in affecting science?
This sounds like a question that one would have to answer by writing a Ph.D thesis, but I can think of three ways in which science fiction could affect science.
One, by turning people on to science so that they grow up to be scientists (I am one of them).
Two, by coming up with scientific ideas and technologies that scientists and engineers later bring into being. For instance Arthur C. Clarke is famous for the ideas of the geostationary satellite and the space elevator.
Three — and I don’t know if this is actually true or ever will be — by challenging the culture and nature of how science is practiced, in service of war and industry rather than that old, now unfashionable thing, truth — and perhaps eventually changing it. That is my hope anyway.
You mention that you’re more interested in the ideas of science as opposed to technology. Could you expound on the difference between the two, and why the former appeals to you?
Well, the ideas of science are like, say, Newton’s law of gravitation, or Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Or that most powerful and beautiful fact of Nature, the law of conservation of energy. I love these great, sweeping ideas that are so deep and fraught with meaning! However the pursuit of science has also produced technology, which is fine. I’ve nothing against it in principle, for the most part. But it doesn’t excite me the way these great abstractions do. Maybe I’m a sort of luddite, because new gizmos and gadgets don’t really do much for me, unless they help reveal some wonderful, underlying scientific truth. I don’t have the slightest desire to own an iphone… but a neutron spectrometer, that is another matter. My training is in theoretical physics, but even theoreticians can sometimes desire a piece of technology!
In any case this bias shows up in my fiction. A lot of science fiction is technological fiction because it is less concerned with the ideas of science. Not my stuff. I’ve got this fat novella in first draft stage sitting on the shelf for five years, waiting to be revised. It is about the search for scientific truth in a rather strange, far future setting. It has to do with science ideas, not gizmos, although I do have a few gizmos around. One of these days I’ll finish working on it. In the meantime there is my latest novella from Aqueduct Press, Distances, which also brings out this bias very clearly, I think.
How did your involvement in the 2009 Indian SF Workshop At IIT-K come about?
The workshop was an idea that had been tossed around in email conversations with fellow writer Anil Menon and our Delhi-based friend in publishing, Jaya Bhattacharji. It began to crystallize thanks to Anil and a fourth person joining us, Suchitra Mathur, who is an English professor at IIT-K. Anil and Suchitra did most of the organizing, with Suchitra doing all the ground work at the IIT end. It was a three-week session that was mindblowingly good for all concerned.
What is the Indian speculative fiction field like?
Very exciting at the moment. To begin with, spec fic is a part of our literary heritage, so much so that it doesn’t even really exist as a separate literary category (I’m exaggerating and oversimplifying just a bit). Its more recent offspring, science fiction, had its beginnings in India in the late 1800’s in Bengali, and indeed today there are lively science fictional traditions in several Indian languages like Bengali and Tamil and Marathi. Among Indians writing in English there are Manjula Padmanabhan, Samit Basu, Priya Sarukkai Chhabria, Payal Dhar, Anshumani Ruddra, Anil Menon, to name just a few. And, as my IIT-K experience proved, there is plenty of amazing new talent as well.
In your opinion, how does the rest of the world perceive Indian speculative fiction? What needs to change and what’s positive right now?
I really can’t say for sure. My impression based on my limited experience is that the original notion: that there is no such thing as Indian spec fic — held by some people here in America, is changing. I think people know there are folks with funny names from remote parts of the world having their way with speculative fiction. Lack of exposure to the work and the existence of stereotypes are, I think, major barriers to a clearer and more widespread understanding of Indian speculative fiction. However I think that is bound to change.
How is the Internet and other emerging technologies affecting the industry?
This is outside my realm of knowledge. If you mean the Indian spec fic industry, well, I don’t really know either. I know there are online venues to get published and for people to get in touch with each other, and some wonderful critical blogs, but that’s about it. Oh, and the fact that you can order my book The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories from my New Delhi publisher, Zubaan, via the internet! This means Indian spec fic in English and English translation is more easily available.
For unfamiliar readers, who are the Indian authors that we should be looking out for?
Of the classic ones, Premendra Mitra’s Ghanada stories, translated from the Bengali (dating from the 1940’s). There’s a great translation from Penguin India called Mosquito and Other Stories. Of the current ones in English, check out Manjula Padmanabhan’s new novel, Escape, and her now-famous play, Harvest. Or Priya Sarukkai Chhabria’s novel Generation 14. Samit Basu’s fantastical trilogy The Simoqin Prophecies, Anil Menon’s new YA novel, The Beast With Nine Billion Feet.
How about your own work, where can readers find more information about you and your stories?