World SF Round Table 1: On Environment and Background
Launching the World SF News Blog reboot, the first in our series of original posts. This week, the first of a two-part round table where writers answer a single question (yes, we did borrow the idea from SF Signal!)
Our guests this week are Kaaron Warren, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Vandana Singh and Aliette de Bodard.
Q: How, and to what extent, does your environment and background inform your writing?
Kaaron Warren’s first novel, “Slights” was published this year by Angry Robot Books. “Walking the Tree” and “Mistification” will be published in 2010. She has three more months living in Fiji then it’s back to arid Australia.
Environment and background inform my writing greatly. Living in Fiji hasn’t changed the way I write, but has changed my settings, my characters and some of the central ideas in what I’m doing. Physically, it’s a very different place to the part of Australia I live in, which is pure Aussie bush. Here in Viti Levu, the main island of Fiji, it’s lush, green, damp and overgrown in many places. The buildings are often run down, which means you see grand old colonial buildings with the cornices dropping and the skeletons showing.
I’m always absorbing the sights and sounds. The smell of an elderly Indian woman’s coconut hair oil. The shine of a man’s bald head. All of that adds substance to a story.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a writer of speculative fiction and the publisher of the horror zine Innsmouth Free Press.
It’s crucial to my writing. I grew up in Mexico and that has had a huge impact on the stories I want to tell. When I first started writing, I tried not to incorporate my background into my stories. I thought it was naughty. Most of the stuff I read when I was a teenager were the classics of speculative fiction. Lovecraft doesn’t have too many stories set outside New England and I thought it was anathema to try and do something like Cthulhu in Mexico. So, for a long time, I tried to suppress my own background and write stuff that was more generic; fantasy settings molded after pseudo-medieval European castles and the sort. But it didn’t feel real to me.
Now, I do a lot more stuff set in Mexico or inspired by Latin American culture. I feel confident enough to write it.
At the same time, I have lived in British Columbia for six years and I think this has obviously had an impact on me from the most basic stuff (such as speaking English) to the bigger things, such as themes and inspiration for my stories.
Vandana Singh was born and raised in New Delhi and currently lives near Boston. Her fiction has been published in numerous venues, including Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as So Long Been Dreaming and Clockwork Phoenix, and various Year’s Best volumes. Her latest offerings include a short story collection, The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories, published in India by Zubaan/Penguin, and a novella, Distances, from Aqueduct Press.
My environment and background deeply influence what I write and how I write it. What I choose to write and what I leave out are shaped by my experiences and memories growing up in India, and also by my current surroundings in an American town. Many of my stories have at their core some personal experience or even the memory of a place that made an impression on me. The rest is imagination, but it is shaped by that key ingredient. For instance in my story “Delhi” there is a scene involving a student in an ancient part of Delhi in Nai Sarak, which means New Street. I’ve been there as a student myself so the place is very vivid to me. Although it is not the most important part of the story, it is the part I wrote first, without which the story would not have happened.
But in a more general way, the fact of my being raised in India, of having deep ties to the places of my childhood and young adulthood, and my desire to return some day to live there at least part of each year instead of just visiting — all these influence the fact that I write so much about India. Also I grew up in a middle class family where independence of mind and learning were very important, and so was music and literature. So it is quite natural for me to love both science and the humanities and to have ended up writing science fiction, which is the perfect amalgam of the two.
One of the things I am concerned with, which is probably apparent in my writing, is my recognition of other species that coexist with us. In most of my stories animals and trees figure in some form or other, and even when they are backdrop they are key in some way. This is a direct result of my being the sort of kid who used to day dream and was half wild, in a city like Delhi which is a major metropolis and yet still full of animals. I recognized early on that here were other nations intersecting with our human society and we weren’t even aware of them half the time. And they had things to say and interesting ways of looking at the world.
Politically too my writing is shaped by the kind of family I grew up in, and the movements that deeply affected me as a teenager — environment and women’s rights. The Hindi writer Premchand was and is an influence in what I choose to write, particularly in the way he chose to write about people who were “little people,” you know, not important in the scheme of things.
Life in India is a sort of palimpsest and it is hard to distill or oversimplify it. I think that is what makes me aim for layered fiction, for stories that don’t necessarily have lessons or clear cut points to them, but have concerns and impressions that hopefully convey a lot non-verbally. Living in the US is a lot simpler, and I’m still trying to understand the whys and hows of the difference. But I think it is still possible to live here in a sort of magical way, by which I mean a heightened receptiveness to the strangeness of the world. I don’t mean strange in the sense of “remote” but in the sense of “wonder” or musicality, except that I don’t mean a literal musicality. For me that receptiveness is what grows my imagination. But to explain that I’d have to explain how my being a student of Indian classical music affects my world view, too, and that would take too long!
Aliette de Bodard:
Aliette de Bodard lives in Paris, where she works as a Computer Engineer. In her spare time, she writes speculative fiction: her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Fantasy Magazine, Realms of Fantasy and Asimov’s. Her first novel, the Aztec fantasy Servant of the Underworld, is due out from Angry Robot in January 2010. Visit http://www.aliettedebodard.com for more information.
My immediate environment doesn’t influence my writing so much, or at least I try to take it out: most of my stories don’t take place in France, and having French attitudes or mindsets would be a little bit of a drawback.
I do set a few stories in France, though, and those always feel much easier to deal with: the characters are people I’m more immediately familiar with, with attitudes and habits that I’ve seen in real life. And the myths and legends I draw from are my childhood memories, which gives me the impression of meeting old friends (though this isn’t limited to French myths, since my childhood was also made of Vietnamese, Chinese and Greek tales).
About the background… I don’t set out to consciously use it (since my experience as a half-French, half-Vietnamese writing in English as a second language is probably not shared by many people on Earth), but for me, the background is still an integral part of my writing. It’s shaped the values I hold, the type of characters I’m drawn to, and the type of stories that appeal to me. Some of it comes from the background, some of it from my own experience, but all of that is stuff that ends up unconsciously going into the stories.
I can see a number of themes that are prominent in my own writing; and one of them is cultures: where they meet, where they clash, where they merge; what it’s like to live in a completely different place, whether it’s that of your birth or one you immigrated to; and what it’s like to stand on a boundary between two different worlds. And I can see where that originated in my own background, since I grew up at the intersection of two cultures and lived in a third for a while (my father is French, my mother is Vietnamese, and I stayed a stint in London at the end of my adolescence).
Another strong one is faith and belief: not necessarily religious belief, but the values that characters hold to be true (be it politics, religion, family values…). I’m not the best person to analyse my own writing, but I think a lot of that comes, again, from my background: I was raised Catholic (and still am), and the questions of what to believe, how far you’re willing to go for those beliefs and what you do when you start doubting or losing them are very important to me–that’s why they end woven into the fabric of a lot of my stories.
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