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?
The Apex Book of World SF is now available in a Kindle edition!
Stanislaw Lem‘s classic essay, translated from the Polish by Robert Abernathy, is online at the Science Fiction Studies archives.
If anyone is dissatisfied with SF in its role as an examiner of the future and of civilization, there is no way to make an analogous move from literary oversimplifications to full-fledged art, because there is no court of appeal from this genre. There would be no harm in this, save that American SF, exploiting its exceptional status, lays claim to occupy the pinnacles of art and thought. One is annoyed by the pretentiousness of a genre which fends off accusations of primitivism by pleading its entertainment character and then, once such accusations have been silenced, renews its overweening claims. By being one thing and purporting to be another, SF promotes a mystification which, moreover, goes on with the tacit consent of readers and public. – read the rest of the essay.
Henry Jenkins discusses genre, globalization and interstitial art:
We are seeing greater cultural churn as more and more works move across national borders, get picked up by new artists and audiences, get combined in new ways, paving the way for nouvelle culture in the same way that the global availability of spices and ingredients has led many of our best chiefs to experiment with radical departures from and reinventions of traditional cuisines. The anthropologist Renato Rosaldo has contrasted a classic understanding of cultures as so many exhibits in an ethnographic museum with a more contemporary notion of cultures as garage sales, where people push, pull, and paw over other people’s used stuff before taking it home, trying it on for size, and altering it to suit their needs.
Many young American consumers are using the web in search of Korean dramas, Japanese anime, Latin American telenovelas, or Bollywood films, anything that takes them outside the parochialism of their own culture. The result really does defy any classification – read the rest of the article.
Hugh Cook – The Wordsmith and the Warrior
by Dan Rabarts
Hugh Cook might not be a name instantly recognised by readers of the fantasy genre, but to his legion of dedicated fans across the world, mention of the man and his work inspires a sense of reverence.
Cook remains one of New Zealand’s unsung heroes of fantasy literature, despite his achievements outshining those of many of our more well-known authors. Between 1986 and 1992 Cook released his Chronicles of an Age of Darkness series, a ten-book cycle of stand-alone fantasy novels. Set on a world ruled by bloodthirsty emperors, threatened by swarms of monsters, and blessedly devoid of goblins and elves, the Chronicles capture a history of Cook’s lands and their people in a multitude of voices, spanning continents, and all occurring roughly within the same timeframe of a decade or two. Characters recur across the books, making cameo appearances from one story to the next, weaving a complex web of events that draws the reader through the series, however unrelated each volume may seem to be at a glance.
Cook was among a group of authors who eschewed the traditions of Tolkienesque high fantasy, choosing instead to write about the dark, unsavoury aspects of human nature in the grim harshness of a world bent on crushing the meek. In Cook’s world, orcs are hunted for their blubber and sea dragons are vain creatures who pretend to recite poetry in their sleep before sinking into snoring heaps. Empires are driven to war by syphilitic emperors, who are in turn murdered by warring sons. Heroism is a constant theme, usually as a partner to vanity, folly and ultimately death, and can be summed up in the immortal line, “vaunting their boasts with the blood of their lungs on their lips.”
Suffice to say that Cook rebelled, writing unorthodox fantasy in an unorthodox world. He dismantled old tropes and bent the genre like light through a smoked lens. He replaced the tired theme of good versus evil with one which instead pitted brutality against barbarism, and rarely delivered a clear victor. Cook not only rejected the clichés of the fantasy genre; he subverted them with an almost malicious glee.
To judge Cook’s success by book sales alone would be misleading, but the numbers are certainly impressive at first glance. Altogether, the Chronicles sold around 450,000 copies, and that in itself is reason for celebration for any New Zealand author. The Wizards and the Warriors, together with its US incarnation, Wizard War, sold over 160,000 copies, a phenomenal sales record for any fantasy author. Unfortunately, as the Chronicles became less conventional and more obtuse, sales began to decline. This was compounded by the decision made by bookselling chain W.H. Smith to drop Cook’s books from their shelves when sales slowed, which inevitably led to an even steeper fall. Despite a rebounding of style and content in the last three books of the series towards more action-based storytelling, Cook had largely lost the means to supply to his mainstream audience, with sales for these three books falling to between 7,000 and 10,000 copies each. I bought all my copies of Hugh’s books in my local Whitcoulls here in New Zealand, where his books enjoyed pride of place on their shelves with every release. But if the books were not on the shelves overseas, then Cook’s fans had little chance of finding them.
Cook’s prose drew heavily on the landscape, places and mythology of New Zealand, from the legendary Taniwha of Quilth, to the Ngati Moana, to a prison called Maremoremo (after Paremoremo in Auckland). Our native flora and fauna often made cameo appearances in wild locales, including weka, kauri and rimu, to name but a few – all of this well over a decade before Peter Jackson delivered our country up to the world as Middle Earth. Cook refused to suffer from cultural cringe; he embraced our country’s uniqueness and used it to flavour his own inimitable world and style.
China Mieville, author of Perdido Street Station, sums Cook up nicely; “Hugh Cook was one of the most inventive, witty, unflinching, serious, humane and criminally underrated writers in imaginative fiction. Or anywhere.” It remains a shame that so few New Zealanders know that Cook was a Kiwi writer, but there is a good reason for this: Hugh Cook may have lived in New Zealand and written in New Zealand, but I suspect he saw the same tired faults with our nationalistic model of publishing and author recognition as he saw in the failure of the fantasy genre to redefine itself. Accordingly, after publishing Plague Summer here in 1980, he bypassed the New Zealand publishing model and went instead to the London market, where he secured publishing deals almost simultaneously for both his science fiction novel The Shift (Jonathan Cape, 1986) and the first volume in the Chronicles series, The Wizards and the Warriors (Corgi,1986).
What separated Cook from so many of his contemporaries was his ability to alter his prose style from book to book, while he never lost his unique authorial voice. Two of the Chronicles, The Wishstone and the Wonderworkers and The Wazir and the Witch, take the form of actual recorded histories, thick with the idiosyncrasies of both the imaginary scribe and subsequent editors, and are thus peppered with redactions and long, apparently unrelated diatribes. These books are full of acerbic dark wit and bleak philosophies, and represent, in some ways, Cook’s ultimate success at writing fantasy that transcended the sword and sorcery models of the genre. For all their apparently random digressions beyond the story, these two books might be seen as the pinnacle of Cook’s genius, for there is a depth to these tales that no amount of Feistian swashbuckling or Eddingsesque adventuring could rival. Some readers even suggested that ‘Hugh Cook’ was not one writer but many, a collaboration of individuals writing in isolation with a single grand design in mind. But Hugh Cook was just one man, a prolific author and poet, whose storytelling skills ascended beyond the formulaic norm into something infinitely more enduring.
Ironically it was these two books, with their challenging diversions into philosophy and metaphysics, that seemed to undermine Cook’s mainstream success. Book sales for these two volumes showed a steep slide from his earlier highs, and may have contributed to the W.H. Smith decision and its consequences for Cook’s publishing career. Cook did with fantasy what hard science fiction does to that broader genre, by delving into in-depth ruminations of the unknown and fantastical in the body of his storytelling. Cook teased apart the nature of magic and the supernatural as demi-scientific concepts, as well as exploring the brutal underside of human nature as represented by its practice in politics and warfare – stark metaphors for the real world, despite being dished up in the barbaric soup of a fantasy setting. Apparently, booksellers suspected that works of this complexity and wisdom would not be appreciated by fans of the tales of blood-soaked armies, pirates, and torturers that had preceded them. This was truly a pity.
Cook’s epic plan for a sixty book series was accordingly cut short, and after publishing the brilliant conclusion to the Chronicles, The Witchlord and the Weaponmaster, he went on to champion print-on-demand technology and electronic formats, constantly moving into newer and stranger worlds with his writing. He was among the first authors to publish works through Lulu.com with the Oceans of Light trilogy and later, Cancer Patient. Even so, the Chronicles remain Cook’s legacy, and copies of these volumes continue to fetch outlandish prices in second-hand book markets around the world (my own collection must be worth a small fortune, according to Amazon – but it is most certainly not for sale).
Cook was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in 2005. He endured months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment in Auckland, which briefly sent the cancer into remission. During this ordeal he wrote Cancer Patient, a collection of musings, poetry and recollections which document his struggle with the disease and what he learned about life and the human condition in the process. This book is available for free as an online e-book or as a download from zenvirus.com, one of Hugh’s many websites (http://zenvirus.com/cancer-patient/index.html). Unfortunately in 2007 the cancer returned, and Cook passed away on November 8th, 2008, after bravely battling the disease for so many years. It is a testament to the scope of his fanbase that the obituary I wrote for him, which was published in the New Zealand Herald and which I posted to my blog in December last year, remains one of my most frequently visited pages (http://freshly-ground.blogspot.com/2008/12/hugh-cook-obituary-published.html).
Ultimately, Cook was both Wordsmith and Warrior. Poems, stories and characters were his tools and his weapons. He wrote with a passion, producing fiction at a prolific rate, and the English language would be greatly enriched if all the words and terms he had coined in his oeuvre were to be introduced into common parlance. He fought to find new ways forward in the publishing world, exploiting technologies that are only now starting to establish their true place in the electronic market. He maintained his integrity as an author to the very end, determined to always share the stories he had to tell, and not those that others wanted him to tell. At the end, he fought an unseen enemy – fought it and beat it, if only for a short time. Even in this, he had a story to tell, one that may not have been able to completely defeat that insidious foe, but which may yet bring comfort to others who face those same demons at some stage.
For those of you interested in reading Hugh Cook’s work, samples and full-length copies of some of his books can be found at http://zenvirus.com/. Also, keep an eye out for a reissue of The Walrus and the Warwolf, due for release in 2010 by Piazo Publishing (http://www.colinsmythe.co.uk/books/walwa.htm), with an introduction penned by China Mieville. Walrus is recognised by Hugh’s fans as his finest hour, and well worth a read by any lover of epic fantasy. To quote Mieville again, “To honour the memory of this wonderful and generous-spirited writer and man, those – too bloody few – of us who know his work should do all we can to bring it to the world’s attention.”
Hugh Walter Gilbert Cook (1956-2008): Wordsmith; Warrior; New Zealander.
Man’s first death is the random potential
Of aeons before conception,
And the surf, merging life with form,
The surf is creation and rebirth.
(Cicada Sun, Landfall #118, 1976)
Prompted by a conversation with Jeff Ford, we thought we’d take a look at what stories have been published in 2009 from people who could be termed world SF writers. We’re focusing on people from outside of the traditional Anglophone world (so no US, UK, English-speaking Canada or Australia – all of whom have an obvious advantage), or American/British/etc. ex-pats overseas.
Caveat: my name pops up in these lists. Got to make a living somehow…
And next up is Fantasy Magazine (in descending order this time):
- Into the Monsoon, A.M. Muffaz (Malaysia), 18/11/09
- Lost for Words, Kenneth Yu (Philippines), 02/11/09 (winner of the Halloween Flash Contest)
- Jews in Antarctica, Lavie Tidhar (see?), 12/10/09
- Golden Lilies, Aliette de Bodard (France), 10/08/09 (also in audio)
- The Integrity of the Chain, Lavie Tidhar, 27/07/09
- The Most Dangerous Profession, Sergey Gerasimov (Ukraine), 06/04/09
- Birds, Jean-Claude Dunyach (France), 16/03/09 (translated by Cheryl Curtis)
- Teaching a Pink Elephant to Ski, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz (Philippines/Netherlands), 02/02/09
So, 8 stories by my count, making Fantasy Magazine our top international publisher so far!
Over at Strange Horizons, Nicholas Seeley takes an in-depth look at the themes and concerns of The Apex Book of World SF in Universal Language? Authors from the Apex Book of World SF Discuss the Global Reach of Speculative Fiction:
There is a particular problem that often accompanies the reading of “foreign” literature. It is (to risk stating the obvious) the question of “foreign-ness” itself. Most SF fans must surely remember the day when, after a diet of Heinlein and Clarke and Asimov, they first picked up something by the Polish author Stanislaw Lem, and thought: “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” Ardent fantasy fans may have had similar feelings about their first encounter with Jorge Luis Borges or Mikhail Bulgakov, mystery readers about Natsuo Kirino, and so on.
In high school we are taught “French literature” and “Russian literature” as if they are monoliths, each featuring distinct national characteristics. In college we are then gently corrected, and informed that “national identity” is a construct lacking an underlying reality—like fairies, or the market economy: it only exists if you believe in it.
Clearly, neither of these can be entirely true. We intuitively recognize something different about authors who are outside the standard run of our local print-mill. We know Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch novels feel different than the urban fantasy that’s currently coming out of America, or that Natsuo Kirino’s thrillers are miles away (literally) from Elmore Leonard.
On the other hand, can we really define people’s worldviews with a criterion as broad as nationality? Worse, in an increasingly globalized world, can we really expect “world” fiction to produce something truly alien, not subject to many of the same influences as our local stuff? There is probably some considerable value in questioning whether the feeling that Lem or Lukyanenko sees the world in a fundamentally different light is tainted by an elaborate prejudice, a psychological shell game in which we see “difference” because we are predisposed to believe it exists.
Some authors of speculative fiction see their work as explicitly national, reflecting fears, concerns and dreams that are specific to their society. Others see literature of the imagination as something that is universal, that transcends national and cultural boundaries by creating entirely new worlds that reflect our shared dreams and nightmares. Both have a point. – Continue reading the article.
Remember you can support the World SF News Blog (and read some kick-ass fiction from around the world!) by purchasing The Apex Book of World SF:
Editorial: The Raw And The Cooked
by Anil Menon
In the months of June and July this year, I found myself at IIT-Kanpur in the completely unexpected role of a workshop instructor in speculative fiction. It was a first for me, and I discovered what all gurus discover: you can learn a lot teaching. The sixteen students were a fascinating mix of places, histories, motivations and ambitions. I read a lot of their stories. Some were brilliant, beautifully written. Others failed in the way first attempts sometimes fail. But a couple of the stories were unclassifiable and evoked an odd pleasure. They were neither well written nor poorly written. The best way I can describe the writing is that the stories were not written at all. These stories had come straight out of the Raw.
The stories had their rhetoric. They had jokes, similes, ironies, POV shifts and unreliable narrators. But they didn’t seem to have been put together using these strategies. There was a lack of artifice. It was like eating sashimi for the first time. Or reading Kerouac, especially the parts where he doesn’t try so hard to be spontaneous. If I may channel:
Kerouac: If possible write “without consciousness” in semi-trance (as Yeats’ later “trance writing”) allowing subconscious to admit in own uninhibited interesting necessary and so “modern” language what conscious art would censor, and write excitedly, swiftly, with writing-or-typing-cramps, in accordance (as from center to periphery) with laws of orgasm, Reich’s “beclouding of consciousness.” Come from within, out-to relaxed and said.
Me: I guess. Sounds trippy though. You high, Kerouac?
Kerouac: On life, punk. I invented the Raw.
Maybe he did. For him, it was “spontaneous writing.” For Whitman, it was a song in which “one’s self I sing.” For Lévi-Strauss, “the Raw” was a stand-in for “natural,” and “the Cooked” was a stand-in for “culture” or “artifice.” I think of the Raw as a combination of authenticity and naturalness. Sushi is my basic model. Of course, my “authentic” might well be your phony, and my “naturalness,” your kinky weekend. In any case, at IIT-K, I became sensitized to the taste. I’ve even developed a hankering for it. These primal categories– the Raw and the Cooked– are fundamental to the structure and content of so many myths, but they are even more influential in the telling of stories.
Say an editor is faced with two manuscripts. In one, the writing is raw, straight from the street, in living language, uncooked, and it provokes all sorts of doubts within her. The writing is unclassifiable, different, unfamiliar and perhaps a little pathetic. There’s a good example of such writing in Jane Addams’s memoir, The Long Road of Women’s Memory. She describes how a rumor had spread that a “devil baby”, complete with forked tail and horns, had been born at Chicago’s Hull House, a settlement house run by Addams. She received hundreds of letters from people wanting to know if the rumor was true. Letters such as this anonymous one, presumably from a young woman:
“me and my friends we work in talor shop and when we are going home on the roby street car where we get off that car at blue island ave. we will meet some fellows sitting at that street where they drink some beer from pail. they keep look in cars all time and they will wait and see if we will come sometimes we will have to work, but they will wait so long they are tired and they dont care they get rest so long but a girl what works in twine mill saw them talk with us we know her good and she say what youse talk with old drunk man for we shall come to thier dance when it will be they will tell us and we should know all about where to see them that girl she say oh if you will go with them you will get devils baby like some other girls did who we knows. she say Jane Addams she will show one like that in Hull House if you will go down there we shall come sometime and we will see if that is trouth we do not believe her for she is friendly with them old men herself when she go out from her work they will wink to her and say something else to. We will go down and see you and make a lie from what she say.”
Let us suppose that the editor now picks up the second manuscript. This one is correctly formatted, grips the reader from the get go, builds suspense, works in interesting conflict. The story ritually stimulates the right emotions, hits the right notes, and if it provokes, it has the decency to do so with irony and without sentimentality. It might still get rejected, but if it does, it’s not because the editor has any doubt about the culinary skills.
Who can blame the editor for not publishing the first story? Every editor has had the experience of seeing a powerful story with a lot of passion, written in a moving unaffected manner, but also a story that cannot possibly be accepted because it’s clearly from somebody who doesn’t really write or think in educated English. If the mistakes were deliberate, a stylistic experiment, then the piece would have been of literary interest. But to make mistakes unconsciously– ignorantly, naturally– that is simply barbaric.
I use the word in the old Greek sense, from bárbaros: roughly, people whose speech sound ber-ber-ber. Incomprehensible people. Throughout history, Literature has deliberately or inadvertently barbarized entire peoples. For example, we know next to nothing about how the “lower” castes lived in ancient India because they couldn’t tell their tales in Sanskrit. When their stories emerge in Pali, a “lower” language popular and powerful during the brief four-hundred to six-hundred year sunrise of Indian Buddhism, the un-stylized stories display an unparalleled depth of feeling and honesty. But we only see that now. The experts didn’t see it then. It’s not unique to India. Medieval Europe. Early United States. Arab Africa. Every civilization evolves its Sanskrit.
I don’t believe there’s a conspiracy. And it would be simplistic to blame the Brahmins or the Church or Islamization or the slave-holding gentry. Literature doesn’t create barbarians by turning them mute. It does so by turning us– writers, editors, instructors, gatekeepers– deaf. They may speak, but we can’t hear. When writers are able to hear, they often become, as some ancient Sanskrit scholars did, eloquent champions for the unheard.
In fact, the cry for Raw is not particularly new. The Hindus made it a centrepiece of their belief system, defining salvation as the liberation from Maya, the freedom from illusory order, the freedom to see things as they are, uncooked. In Greek mythology, the Maenads, followers of Dionysius, the epitome of the Raw, tear Orpheus, the epitome of Art, into pieces. Schopenhauer in The World as Will and Idea speaks of the transcendent moment when humankind, secure in Maya’s boat, is forced to confront four raw impossibilities– the man returned from the dead, the past brought forward, the future dragged to the present and the distant brought instantaneously near. Aren’t these the four basic speculations of SF as well? Isn’t the claim of SF that it subverts our cooked reality? Nietzsche, de Sade, Walt Whitman, Dos Passos, Hunter Thompson, Kerouac, the charismatics, New Journalism, the Bhakti movement… the Raw has always had its champions.
But it hasn’t had many practitioners. Storytellers face a dilemma. They are trained to effect illusion, not dispel it. They are trained to be aware of what words can do. And this awareness is fatal, because the moment we become aware of a reality we start to cook it. Becoming aware of the Raw turns it into another style, sometimes a lifestyle. It’s now easy to write like Kerouac because mimicry only requires an example; what remains hard is to push out into the unheard frontier the way he did. And novels like James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or Adiga’s White Tiger are all brilliant works, but they are just as cooked as if they’d come straight from Henry James’ kitchen. These stories get their energy from the Raw, but they are as related to it as Mickey Mouse is to mice.
The truth is that our literary magazines have no place for the kind of stories barbarians tell. Or rather, we are interested in their stories, but we are not interested in the way they tell it. The poet Cavafy said that in a decadent age, we sit around waiting for the barbarians. Not true. We wait for their interpreters. Jhumpa Lahiri’s parents won’t get to tell their stories in the New Yorker. Or rather, they can, as long as Jhumpa tells it for them. It’s not very different in genre lit. In SF, it is easier to have aliens warbling in faux languages than it is to have characters speak in their authentic, native tongues. For all its claims of estrangement, the “literature of the imagination” has as hard a time with the Raw as does the literature of the unimaginative. Kerouac’s one SF story, cityCityCITY, could only find a home in Nugget, an S&M rag, not in any of the SF magazines of the time.
That’s cool. The story did get published after all. There’ll probably never be a huge market for the Raw. That’s cool too. There’s no market for the horizon either, but we’re glad it’s around, someplace. Perhaps what matters is this: when the barbarian approaches our formidable gates and begins to speak, even if the speech is strange and the story incomprehensible, it should suffice if we recognize that it is speech and that it is a story, for then who knows, we may look again and see not a barbarian, but a brother.
Available immediately, you can purchase an electronic copy of The Apex Book of World SF (for the discounted price of only £3.27!) over at Fictionwise.
Please note: this edition does not include Zoran Zivković’s story, “Compartments” (which closes the print edition of the book).
Over at the Nebula Awards Blog, Larry Nolen discusses “International SF” and Problems of Identity.
This problem raises what might be a central problem involving “international SF,” that of possible conflicts between Anglo-American expectations of what “SF” constitutes and what the various non-Anglophone countries might view as being an essential story. Some might argue that the very use of the term “international SF” might constitute a form of cultural hegemony, where norms established by American and British writers are viewed as being not just dominant, but pre-eminent over any other possible conceptions of SF. There might be something to this. After all, no matter how many ways one might say “I’m loving it” when one enters a McDonald’s, there is a pre-determined template that allows only for a little bit of variation for local customs and expressions. – read the rest of the essay.