Fabio Fernandes gathers a number of writers on SF Signal to discuss How To Write Science Fiction on a Post-Colonial World, with some fascinating answers.
Participants are Joyce Chng, Ekaterina Sedia, Karen Lord, Jaymee Goh, Jeffrey Thomas, Farah Mendlesohn, Jeff VanderMeer, Karin Lowachee and Vandana Singh.
I like this answer from Jaymee Goh:
Jaymee Goh is a writer of speculative fiction and scholar/blogger of critical theory. She has contributed to Tor.com, Racialicious.com, the Apex Book Company Blog, and Beyond Victoriana.com. Her fiction has been published in Expanded Horizons, Crossed Genres and Steam-Powered 2: More Lesbian Steampunk Stories. She analyses steampunk literature from a postcolonial perspective at Silver Goggles.
Man. Can I ask for a clarification of this question?
This question always crops up, and continues to crop up even more with discussions of race. I think it presents us with a false frame of how writing outside our experience happens, forcing us into a conversation on what “universal experience” is like, and eventually the conversation boils down to “a good story is a good story no matter who writes it.” Way back when, men would argue that women would never be able to write anything valuable or relevant, and women time and again disproved this. Colonizers convinced the colonized that there was a hierarchy of what was superior and more important, and for centuries we by and large swallowed this narrative, with some of our members proving otherwise. Being an outsider,outside the dominant narrative, has often produced revolutionary and incredible work.
But this question doesn’t always come from that frame; it usually comes from the frame of a historically dominant and oppressive group asking permission to do what it has always done to colonized groups: re-interpret the colonized’s experiences through the lens of the more powerful and privileged. So unless otherwise specified, I’m assuming this question refers to Western writers writing about non-Western cultures.
I’ll give this question a bone: when I was a child, I read Robert van Gulik’s Judge Dee comics. Van Gulik was an Orientalist in the first sense of the word: he studied the Tang Dynasty of China extensively, and wrote and drew nuances of the Tang Dynasty into his stories and comics. (Judge Dee is based on a historical figure from much earlier, but let’s just roll with this.) To this day, Chinese audiences still continue to read his stories; Judge Dee is our Sherlock Holmes. I think this answers the first part of the question quite nicely.
I would like to counter this question with another one: to what end does a writer write? For ourselves? Or for our audience? Both intentions are noble. However, if you are a Western writer, trying to write about a non-Western culture, I would raise my eyebrow at any talk of writing as an “enriching experience”. Isn’t economic dominance and touristic neocolonialism enough to enrich your lives? As a writer, I write for myself, as a colonized body, and I write for other colonized bodies as well. My first concern is for myself, to write a story that satisfies me as a reader. but my immediate concern after is for the audiences who don’t see themselves reflected or participant in any process of publishing.
As an academic, I tend to think of X literature as coming from a member of group X, especially if X literature touches on concerns specific to group X (this does not foreclose the possibility of someone from group X writing some other kind of literature). But if X literature comes from a member of group Y, and group Y has often been positioned as more powerful to group X, we need to question what exactly group Y writer is bringing to X literature: something new that re-frames the discourse surrounding group X? Or the same ol’, same ol’ talking about group X as if group X has no opinion or voice of its own? It’s vainglorious to assume the former, and ignore concerns to the contrary.
As such, this question is a self-centered one; it places all the attention on the writer’s intention and skill. I really have to question why any one writer would ask such a question, and am hard-pressed to come up with any other answer besides “seeking validation.” (This happens; it is normal. I do it too.) Western writers can and have written stories set in non-Western cultures. These stories have even been published. They have even *gasp* won awards! Bad stories that rely on racist stereotypes to carry them through and insult the people of that culture, they, too can win awards! Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi, Night Shade Press, I’m still looking at you. Why would a Westerner, with so much historically-granted permission and leeway, ask such a question? Why does no one ask, what kind of obstacles do writers from postcolonial groups face?
Recall Chimamanda Adichie’s story of a publisher who questioned her depiction of Nigeria; it felt inauthentic, because Adichie’s story didn’t fit any African narrative of poverty and ruin that the publisher recognized. Why, when a non-Westerner can be questioned on her writing of her own culture, must we focus on Western writers who have historically gotten away with racist, inaccurate writing, and give them the OK to write stories about us? Why now, when we non-Westerners have finally begun voicing our concerns of how we are depicted? And why we do keep having this particular conversation, in this particular frame, over and over again?
Now, writing as a non-Westerner, about another non-Western culture… the same rules and questions apply. For whom do we write? To what end do we write? What are the ramifications of our writing, and do we embed unconscious narratives that harm the groups we write about? As a Malaysian-Chinese writer, it would be easy for me to write something Islamophobic while writing about Malaysian-Malays, or something incredibly anti-black about African peoples. My status as a non-Westerner does not excuse me from these actions, no matter how well-intentioned I am. Would it be enriching for me to write about other groups that I know less of than the ones I identify with? Perhaps, but in my experience, it has been far more educational to actually just listen to them and support their voices than write about them, without their input.
So what, really, is this question asking? I think anybody asking this question really needs to interrogate themselves further on their reason for asking it. – read the full post.
SF Signal have just published the first part of a roundtable on race in science fiction and fantasy, with David Anthony Durham, Aliette de Bodard, Adrian Tchaikovsky, and Ken Liu:
Q: In what ways do you see readers reacting to the racial content of your work? As a follow-up question, has your race entered into that discussion, and if so, how?David Anthony Durham
Sometimes I think readers assume that I’m writing about race just because I’m a writer of color and/or because I’ve done so before.
With the Acacia Trilogy I’m a little surprised by readers that mention my exploration of racism. Surprised because racism isn’t, to me, much of an issue in the books. I wrote about these topics explicitly in earlier historical novels (like Gabriel’s Story and Walk Through Darkness), but the Known World is free from the racial hierarchy of our history. Sure, there are tensions, but I don’t think anybody in the novels believes that one race is inferior to another. They have national pride and-particularly in the case of the Meins-a desire for racial purity. But that’s a product of having been a proud clan of people that have suffered exile. That’s very different than the hundreds of years that our Western society used science, religion, laws and myth to differentiate the races in the starkest of terms.
I made the Quota/Mist trade one that takes slaves from all races of the Known World. I wanted to contrast that against our history of the Atlantic Slave trade. Anybody’s children are at risk. Anybody can be sent overseas to an unknown fate. And in the later books, I was interested in what that means for those slaves. How do they come to define themselves in their slavery? Not, surely, by their race. Are they more a part of the culture that sold them into slavery, or do they draw their identity from the one in which they’re raised-that of their enslavers?
I find that the readers most likely to engage with this are the ones that have spent the most time thinking about the role of race in their own lives, especially those that come from-or are themselves creating-multicultural identities.
The flip side of this is that some readers don’t notice anything unusual in the multicultural vibe of the books. I’ve heard readers express surprise that I identify as African-American. “I didn’t know he was black until he said so in a blog post.” That sort of thing. I think part of what’s going on there is that some readers expect a black writer to write about race in a certain way, to write primarily black characters and to have a particular platform that’s easily recognizable-and potentially dismissible-to them. I want to believe that what I do is a bit different than that. And, honestly, I’m very glad to be able to have a dialogue with these readers as well. – read the full post.
Djibril al-Ayad is general editor of The Future Fire, an online magazine of social-political speculative fiction. In the past, TFF published themed issues on Feminist SF and Queer SF, and two guest-edited, themed anthologies are currently in development:Outlaw Bodies, themed around trans, queer and disability issues with a cyberpunk flavor, edited by Lori Selke; and We See a Different Frontier, which will publish colonialism-themed stories from outside of the white, anglo, first-world perspective, edited by Fabio Fernandes, who also interviews.
Fabio Fernandes: First of all, Djibril al-Ayad is not your birth name. I’m not going to ask you your former name, but I’m curious to know why you chose this particular name, and what meaning (linguistic, social, political) it has in your life?
Djibril al-Ayad: Yes, “Djibril” is the nom de guerre I use in speculative fiction publishing and campaigning. I use another pseudonym as a horror/cyberpunk writer and a third (almost my original name) as an active academic historian. I use three names primarily to keep my web presence distinct, for convenience, rather than trying to hide my identity or anything. (Having said that, I do prefer not to cross the streams!)
In fact “Djibril” is pretty close to being my own name; it’s a regional variant of my given name, and Ayad was the family name of my Algerian grandfather. My (French) grandmother died when my father was a small child, and her relatives took him away to be raised in a vile orphanage run by sadistic nuns rather than let his poor and foreign father keep him, so my family has no real Algerian roots, we never learned Arabic, etc., and my grandfather is long dead. In a way my reclaiming the name is a reaction against the injustice of that story, which has always made me angry, although no one else on either side of the family seems to see it that way.
FF: How the idea of creating The Future Fire came to you? And, speaking of names, how did the magazine get its name?
DA: I’ve always liked the idea of running a science fiction magazine. I grew up with this romantic image of the pulps and of xeroxed fanzines produced at home, and the idea of putting something out there full of weird fiction, surreal art, political agendas and baffling juxtapositions appealed to my love of collage and recycled scrap art. It wasn’t until I was working in digital publication myself that I realised I could actually do this, and so in 2004 I got together with a bunch of friends in Scotland, Switzerland and the USA, bought some webspace, and started writing a “manifesto” (really a call for subs).
The name was the hardest thing. Twenty years ago when I thought about putting out a 12-page xeroxed pamphlet, I was going to call it “Ya God, it’s a…” The idea was for each month’s theme to add a different word to the end of that phrase—but the juvenile humour was in the fact that yagoditsa is apparently the Russian word for “buttock”. (So clever. So glad we didn’t have the internet then.) I think The Future Fire name was more or less random, or the result of a brainstorm between the five original editors or something. It worked because of the alliteration, the dystopian connotations, and the environmental postapocalypse feel of it too. I think we all thought this was mostly going to be an Eco-SF magazine in those days.
Lavie Tidhar’s latest book, the picture book Going To The Moon, about a boy with Tourette’s Syndrome who wants to become an astronaut, is now available. Lavie is interviewed over at SF Signal, who also review the book.
Photo (c) Sandy Auden 2012
From Paul Weimer’s review:
Going to the Moon is the story of a young boy named Jimmy who wants to be an astronaut. He wants to go to the Moon. Jimmy also doesn’t want to have to fight his constant, taxing struggle against the Tourette’s syndrome that dominates his life. He doesn’t like the dance-like involuntary movements it causes in him. He’s bullied, in the way young people who are different are often bullied. The corprolaia of Toruette’s syndrome means that he involuntarily uses curse words, even though he doesn’t want to. As such, the book doesn’t shy away from trangressive words. Words I can’t use in this review.
The real heart and soul of the book is found in the pictures by Paul McCaffrey. They are beautifully and colorfully drawn. But there’s more to the book than just Lavie’s words and the pictures. Like the best picture books, the text and the images engage and interpolate with each other, in a dialogue that makes the book stronger for that interaction. The theme of aliens (and Jimmy himself is definitely an alien in some ways) is reflected in the imagery much more than the text. To cite another example, the use of curse words in exclamation in the imagery reminds me of the innovative subtitles in the movie Night Watch.
And the end brought tears to my eyes as the reader figures out what Jimmy and the friend he makes are too young to realize. Curse you, Lavie Tidhar…your audacity strikes me again.
It’s not a book you’d want to read to your children, because of the language. Although its about a young boy and his concerns, its a book for adults. And it moved me. It will move you, too. – read the review, or interview!
Over at SF Signal, Charles Tan interviews World SF Blog contributor Athena Andreadis:
Athena Andreadis was born in Greece and lured to the US at age 18 by a full scholarship to Harvard, then MIT. She does basic research in molecular neurobiology, focusing on mechanisms of mental retardation and dementia. She is an avid reader in four languages across genres, the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek and writes speculative fiction and non-fiction on a wide swath of topics. Her work can be found in Harvard Review, Belles Lettres, Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Stone Telling, Cabinet des Fées, Bull Spec, Science in My Fiction, SF Signal, The Apex Blog, World SF, SFF Portal, H+ Magazine, io9, The Huffington Post, and her own site, Starship Reckless.
CT: Related to definitions, do you think genre boundaries are important? Or is it part-and-parcel of our genre, the way that Star Wars and Dune is considered science fiction when there’s a lot of fantasy elements in it?
AA: I think that genre boundaries are neither important nor useful. They may be convenient for publishers, bookstore shelvers and people who want to re-read the same thing over and over. But the most interesting work is always at the liminal areas, between worlds.
You’re probably aware I detest Star Wars, which combines the most pernicious clichés not only of SF and F, but also of triumphalist ersatz mythology and the cruelties of several religions (analyzed in my essayWe Must Love One Another or Die). Dune is a bit better, though not by much; it has a tad more imagination. Of course, space opera is invariably more F than SF: it routinely relies on scientifically impossible concepts – stable wormholes, FTL, a plethora of earthlike planets… not that hard SF is much better, mind you; as I said once, hard SF is at best sciency and its relationship to real science is like truthiness to truth. Its claims to verisimilitude are usually achieved by Hemingwayesque tricks. – read the full interview!
SF Signal have posted their latest Mind Meld feature, this time asking:
Q: Who are your favorite international SF/F authors?
Participating are Marianne de Pierres, Nick Mamatas, Lavie Tidhar, Maurizio Manzieri, Glenda Larke, Sylvia Kelso, Panagiotis Koustas, Jukka Halme, Sissy Pantelis, and Luis Rodrigues. Check it out!
Maurizio Manzieri: Living in Italy, I’ve always been used to read non-English authors in their Italian translation. Luckily in this country of excellent translators and enlightened publishers many masterpieces have found easily their way on our shelves. My favorite international author, still to be overreached, can be definitely considered the Polish Stanislaw Lem. He’s gone now… Despite his controversial relationship with SFWA, I think his words will talk a long time to the generations to come. In 1961, on the year I was born, he wrote the novel Solaris, a book I’ve been reading eight times since its discovery, one the most successful interpretations of our close and incomprehensible encounter with an alien entity. I enjoyed very much the first movie rendition by Tarkovsky in 1972 – a tad less the last one by Soderbergh in 2002 – and I found the topic quite terrific for the hugeness of concepts and feelings involved. One day I’m sure there will be a new remake paying a due homage to his vision.
Jukka Halme: The world of international science fiction and fantasy has in recent years turned into a small, but interesting smörgåsbord. This is truly a great thing and something I, as someone hailing the rest of the world from a non-English speaking country, am both grateful and hopeful about. It reminds me of them Olden Days, when the relatively small translated SF/F-book market in Finland was fairly broad in scope, including not only well-known Anglo-American masters as Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke and Aldiss, but also Lem, Strugatski’s, Klein and Nielsen.
I will start by mentioning French SF writers. I have worked as a co-editor in French SF magazine GALAXIES for a few years. Also, having spent many years in a French speaking country, I can understand French and write and read it almost as if it were my native language (which is Greek). So there is no wonder that I am more familiar with French speaking writers.
Sissy Pantelis: French SF is quite different from its Anglophone counterpart. It is more literary, fantasy elements are often incorporated in it in a very natural and attractive way. It is often associated with other genres like horror, humor or surrealism. And French writers pay a huge attention to the literary aspect of the story – whatever its genre- so, not surprisingly, French SF is rich in diversity of writing styles and it is often poetic. – read the full article!
Over at SF Signal, their latest Mind Meld feature looks at women in science fiction, with a long comment thread. I get to rave about some of the contributors to The Apex Book of World SF and the (forthcoming) Apex Book of World SF 2:
If I look at the writers I’m excited about today, the ones working in short fiction or getting into novels, the ones in my two (to date) Apex Book of World SFanthologies, they’re people like Lauren Beukes, who picked up the Clarke Award recently for her novelZoo City; it’s Aliette de Bodard, who won the BSFA Award for short story, was up for a Nebula and is still up for a Hugo; it’s Kaaron Warren, who just has this very weird mind… all three happen to be with Angry Robot (also my publishers for the Bookman books), but that just shows we may have similar editorial tastes! AR are also bringing out debut novelist Anne Lyle soon, which is very exciting.
The second Apex Book of World SF volume opens with a writer I’m very excited about (can you tell there’s a recurrent theme here??) – Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, with “Alternate Girl’s Expatriate Life”, fromInterzone. I think she’s a wonderful writer and I know she’s working on a novel, and I can’t wait to see it!
And we have, for instance, Joyce Chng from Singapore, who recently released a novel, A Wolf at the Door (as by J. Damask) – werewolves in Singapore! Who could resist that?
And we have Silvia Moreno-Garcia, who is working on a couple of very exciting novels, writes wonderful stuff. Shweta Narayan, who was up for a Nebula recently. Ekaterina Sedia, who is just such a great writer – you have to read A Secret History of Moscow! And I just love her short stories. We were lucky to get a story from Nnedi Okorafor, who is incredible. Or Gail Har’even, a highly regarded Israeli author who does both mainstream and SF (the story we reprint is from the New Yorker). We have original stories from Anabel Enriquez Piñeiro from Cuba, and Csilla Kleinheincz from Hungary.
So, you know, do we want to talk about women writers? Well, obviously I do! They’re such a vital and vibrant part of the field that I see – and this is just talking international stuff, you know.
Check it out. Comment if so inclined.
The best comment quote so far comes from “Chad”. Thought I’d share it!
It’s not projection. It’s anger. It’s being tired of being told you are evil, a racist and a sexist since you were born, because you are a white male. That you should provide every advantage possible to everyone else, even though you have never conciously discriminated against anyone. That you are constantly being told that every negative thing that happens to everyone else is either racist or sexist. You get tired of hearing the boy cry wolf so much that you struggle to listen to legit issues anymore.
Why did I ever write an urban fantasy set in Singapore? What possessed me, anyway?
These were the thoughts that crossed my mind when I started the process of editing my urban fantasy novel. It was the start of January 2010. The novel… mess.. whatever it was began as a challenge to myself: write an urban fantasy set in Singapore, my country. Granted that I also wrote it for Nanowrimo and I had recently given birth… So, I was insane. But at least, I did it. Wrote the story out within the space of a month – relatively easy as the landscape was familiar and the world-building was already done, somewhat, in my mind. The world of the Lang (Mandarin Chinese for ‘wolf’) grew, followed by a whole menagerie of shifters and non-human types.
Then I started looking for publishers. Would an urban fantasy set in Singapore sell? Would it find readers, for crying out loud? And with a nom-de-plume like “J. Damask”… it would, right? [How do you pronounce ‘Chng’ anyway?]
My first forays in looking for the right publisher were (not surprisingly) bleak. I was told that it wouldn’t sell, that it wasn’t marketable. What? I thought urban fantasy was selling like hot cakes. You know, leather-clad babes with angst and surrounded by a coterie of drop-dead handsome men. Considering the chilly publishing industry in Singapore, I was half-tempted to self-publish the story of a werewolf mom, dealing with non-human shenanigans and family politics. [Hey, wait.. you mean no sexy babe in leather and hunks with abs of steel???]
Oh yes, did I mention the chilly publishing industry in Singapore? It’s a pet peeve/hot button issue of mine, so bear with me.
Singaporean publishers are not friendly to genre submissions. True that horror is popular (and there is a whole series of ‘ghost’-written stories to whet the public’s appetite on all things ghoulish), but general science fiction and fantasy… nadah. Currently, the local SF/F books in the bookshops are by small independent publishers who dare take the challenge to produce genre books. Yet the general population seems hooked on poetry books, recipe books, memoirs and self-help books. And assessment books and academia. Oh, having a big name helps. A big plus if you are writing “post-colonial” literary fiction too. Not that what I am writing is considered “post-colonial”…
Given such an environment, I didn’t know where to send Wolf At The Door. I was already active in web-fiction and was in the process of writing a web novella at the same time. Was self-publishing the only way? Should I end up presenting the novel as a crowd-funded web project?
Hell, was it my only way out? [Did I dig myself into a quandary?]
Disappointed but not wanting to give up, I probed further and found Lyrical Press. I thought: “Heck, why not?”, crafted a query letter, synopsis, tidied the MS up and – with a prayer – sent it on its merry way.
Imagine my (dance-around-the-house) delight when I saw the acceptance email. I was unagented. I was a relatively new author, unlike the big name authors from big publishing houses. But hey, I did it. Lyrical liked my stuff.
[Of course, as any industry pro would tell you, submission is the easy part. There began the edits. I have a brilliant editor who whipped the MS into tip-top shape like a personal trainer.]
There you have it. The novel’s life-story, my life-story (edited and abridged) and the Singaporean publishing environment.
Any questions? Bueller?
Why small press? Well, that’s another blog post all together.
SF Signal have posted Indian writer Shweta Narayan‘s story, Eyes of Carven Emerald, from the anthology Clockwork Phoenix 3:
Sunrise glinted bloody on giant tumbles of statue; it edged the palace beyond with blood.
A limestone arm, severed elbow to thumb, came almost up to Alexandros’ waist. Fingers thick as logs lay scattered behind it. Sunrise glimmered in the statue’s blank, rain-filled eyes and trickled down the pitted stone cheek. So too would Dareios of Persia have fallen, had the coward not fled.
But the statue had been a symbol of Persia’s might; it could serve Alexandros’ purpose well enough. “Leave it,” he said, turning away. To his general Kleitos’ raised eyebrows he added, “They will see our victory in it.”
“But…” Kleitos shook his head. “Basileu, it had nothing to do with our victory. We simply outnumbered—”
“It trembled in fear of our coming, and fell at the taste of defeat.”
“They will see it so.” As they saw him, more clearly with every city he took, as unstoppable. With Egypt, with all the length of Persia’s royal road, and now even Persepolis in Alexandros’ power, Dareios knew he fought a losing war, and his knowing made it so.
Which was as it should be. And yet . . .
“As you say.” Kleitos’ voice held little understanding and less curiosity; like most of the men, he fought only for land. Alexandros bit back irritation and wished once more that he had Hephaistion at his side. At his side, on the field, in his bed; but his reasons were the same ones that had sent Hephaistion, not Kleitos, back to Babylon to quell an uprising.
He said, “Call it a reminder.”
“And of course they will need that reminder, Basileu,” said a woman’s voice, “because you and your restless army will move on.”
He spun, hand going to his sword; felt Kleitos brush by. A piece of the statue’s crown shifted. It spread wings and hopped with a whirr of gears onto the nose. Its feathers were tarnished bronze, blurred with age, and it had human hands instead of claws. Not sharp. Little chance they would be poisoned. Keeping an eye on the beak for darts, Alexandros said, “Of course. Persepolis could not hold me, not with half the world yet to see.”
He lifted a shoulder, not bothering to respond to the obvious. “Do Persian automata generally speak to kings without offering so much as a name?”
“I wouldn’t know,” said the bird. “Those creaking parodies aren’t worth my words.”
Alexandros’ eyes narrowed with the first glimmerings of interest. What might this mechanism be, if not Persian? Surely not Northern barbarian work; it was too fine, though it wore around its neck a ring of shining gold, as they did. It looked old, but shifted without noise or stiffness. And it spoke Greek like a Persian; badly, but with meaning beneath the words.
And that last mystery implied a challenge worth taking. Alexandros said, “To whom do you belong? A king who is long dead, it would seem, or else one who neglects you.”
The bird rustled its feathers. “The last king who tried to own me died of slow poison while his city burned.”
“A queen, then.”
A rapid, ratcheting click, and the wings rose. Kleitos stepped in front of Alexandros, arm up. Alexandros put his own hand on the arm and said, “Do you mean me harm, bird?”
“Not yet, King of Asia.” The wings came slowly down. “But keep trying to weight me down with an owner, and I might. I had heard the Greeks were barely civilized, but I had expected better from a student of Aristoteles.”
“And not from a son of Zeus-Amun?” said Alexandros around a surge of anger. To dismiss one the Oracle had named half-divine as a mere student—
The bird laughed, a strangely human sound. – continue reading.
From the Sinisalo interview:
CT: What is it about the Finnish epic Kalevala that interests you?
JS: It is quite original compared to many other European epics, because it has such a strong emphasis on our ties with nature. There are a lot of woodland and water deities, magical animals, and the bear is in Finnish mythology almost a semi-god. Kalevala’s heroes and heroines also all seem to have a very humane side – they are not invincible or faultless, quite the opposite. In that aspect they’re quite modern. I have actually written even a whole novel called “Sankarit” (“The Heroes”) in which I converted the main characters and plots of Kalevala to be set in the 1990’s. The sages, magical smiths, adventurers, witches and so on were in my novel rock stars, athletes, computer wizards etc. It was a very fun thing to write.
From the Narayan interview:
Charles Tan: Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, what made you decide to combine Selkie stories with serpent/Naga stories?
Shweta Narayan: I don’t think “decide” is quite the right word. I doubt I could approach a Naga story any other way.
Let me unpack that. I’ve loved snakes since my mother took me to the Madras Snake Park when I was five or so, and I’ve actively looked for Naga images and stories as long as I can remember. But while I am a heritage Tamil speaker, I’m neither fluent nor literate in any language native to the Indian subcontinent, and that leaves my understanding of my “own” folklore pretty sparse.
Most of the tales that I grew up with were from Northern Europe; my parents made an active effort to counter that trend, but the European stories were just easiest to find. And since I read a lot, and we didn’t live near any English-language bookstores till I was twelve, just keeping me in reading material must have been a task!
So Selkie tales were part of my formative reading. And when I was seven or eight, I wasn’t left thinking about the objectification of the Selkie bride and her reasons for leaving, or about the distraught husband. Forget the grownups — I wanted to know what happened to their kids! So that’s a story hook that has been hanging around in my brain waiting to latch onto something for a long time.
I only know three patterns of traditional Naga tales: sentient snake interacts with religious figure, hero goes to the land of the Nagas to gain magic or wisdom, and hero goes to the land of the Nagas to get a bride– and that last lies so close to Selkie stories that I never consciously “combined” the traditions, because they were not really separate in my mind to start out with. It felt obvious that Naga brides would be compelled to stay somehow and would leave as soon as they could.