When I was at Clarion West, I listened in on a conversation about a Clarion West graduate, Anil Menon, who was conducting a writer’s workshop in India together with the writer, Vandana Singh. Late 2012, I received an email from Nisi Shawl asking if I’d be willing to review a book for Cascadia Subduction Zone. The book is an anthology of short stories edited by Anil Menon and Vandana Singh. It was titled Breaking the Bow. A fair number of stories in this anthology come from writers of Indian ancestry. It also includes a story written by a Kanpur workshop graduate–“The Chance” by Pervin Saket.
While not without its flaws, I found myself to be quite enchanted by this collection of stories that centered on the Ramayana. Late 2013, I asked Anil and Vandana if they would be willing to do a process conversation with me about the work involved in putting together Breaking the Bow, the workshop in India, and their experience as writers in a field that’s continues to be very much Western-centric.
What was the inspiration behind Breaking the Bow and what process did you go through in picking the stories for this collection? And what were the things that you took into consideration when picking the stories?
Vandana: Well, I grew up with the great Indian epics – the Ramayana in particular has always been part of the air I breathe. Anil and I, and Suchitra Mathur, an academic in India, conducted an SF writing workshop during which one of the participants, Pervin Saket, came up with a science fiction story about Sita, the consort of Ram in the Ramayana. That suggested exciting possibilities to both Anil and me. In particular, there are many historical versions of the Ramayana, and it seemed to me that coming up with an anthology of Ramayana-inspired stories could be both a part of the tradition of multiple Ramayanas and an extension of it into new territory.
Anil selected the first crop from the initial submissions so he is best able to answer specifics about selection criteria, but we both had a similar vision, I think. We didn’t have any kind of thematic constraints as long as there was some relation to the Ramayana, but we wanted stories that engaged the original framework imaginatively, with boldness, vision, and/or playfulness — so for instance many of the stories examine issues gender, or race, or class. We divided the final stories between us and went through each in detail, with suggested edits as needed. We also commissioned a few stories from well-known authors.
Anil: It was an iterative process. We got about a hundred submissions for our open call and after setting aside the easy rejects, we spent a few months going back and forth on the rest. We’d also sent out invites to established writers; their stories were treated separately. The overall plan was to represent as many interesting new voices as we could. We also wanted an international collection of stories. I think we succeeded on both those counts. When you have an Israeli writing an awesome Cyberpunk take on the Ramayana or you have a Tamil woman author from a quiet little temple town near Chennai writing a Jerry Springer type talk-show around the Ramayan, then you know you can light that cigar.
I wish I could tell you we had such-and-such list of criteria for including a story. Truth is, we mostly winged it; at least, I did. For me, it was mostly a series of emotional decisions. I could drum up a set of plausible-sounding reasons but they’d probably be rationalizations, not reasons. However, there was one sharp criterion that did influence some rejects. The Ramayana is a religious text for a large number of believers. If a story was offensive for the sake of being offensive, then it was out. Similarly, if a story was overtly religious, then it was also out.
I remember wanting stories that would make people understand, if only dimly, why the epic has such a hold on the subcontinent. Just as stories can die if they’re untold, they can also die from over-telling. An oft-told story can become something of a zoo animal– gawked at, adored, but not really seen for the wild living thing it used to be. As a story, the Ramayana has been domesticated over time. As a story, it’s become tame, safe, used as a kind of Barney for teaching moral phonics. Parents stand by with indulgent smiles as their children thrust their hands through the bars of the cage. But the Ramayana has very sharp teeth and I wanted stories that would bite. The anthology has some remarkable stories but I think we could have done better. Still, the volume was always intended to inspire other efforts. The best response to an imperfect anthology is another anthology. That’s how spec-fic works.
What was the impetus behind the workshop that you held in India? Can you share with us some of the insights that you gained from the workshop?
How did you decide on participants for the workshop?
Vandana: Well, Anil and I had always wanted to explore SF in the Indian context – and when, during his wanderings through India Anil met Suchitra Mathur, who teaches at IIT Kanpur, once of the premier technological institutions in India, she expressed interest in hosting something like this at IIT. We wanted to see what Indians in India who may or may not have written SF before would write about when given the chance. We have a long history of SF in several Indian languages and at that time there was also some English language SF being published in the country, but not very much. Still, SF isn’t on most people’s radar. So we put out the call, and people were accepted based on the quality of their writing sample. Only one participant had any connection with SF before (as a fan and critic). The experience turned out to be phenomenal. Our students, now our fellow writers, produced stories that knocked our collective socks off. Some of the stories were nothing like what I’d read of SF in the West. Many were rooted in an Indian setting or ethos but not constrained by it – they were articulate, feverishly imaginative, intelligent. We were so thrilled! Not only did this confirm what I’d suspected about the potential of SF from India for enriching and enlarging the body of literature, but I learned a lot from each participant’s work. For more details read my blog posts (here and here) and Anil’s to get a sense of the experience (here and here).
Anil: Impetus: I attended the Clarion West workshop in 2005. What I took away from that great experience was that many more writers should have access to such experiences. I saw the workshop as a technology that could help writers become less efficient readers. Good readers are able to immerse almost effortlessly, even with clumsy texts. But that’s a problem if you’re a writer. After the workshop, I stopped reading novels as only novels. I woke up from the Matrix. For six weeks, that’s not a bad investment, and I figured India could also use such workshops. The second reason was that it’s not just text that becomes transparent; so do places. Live in one place and you stop seeing the obvious things. Wasn’t it Robert Graves who said that the surest sign the Qu’ran originated from a desert people is that it has hardly any mention of camels? I hoped the workshop would help Indian writers see the camels around them. Finally, workshops when done right tend to give you friends for life. To be a writer in India is to be in one of those ‘lonely in a crowd’ situations and I figured a workshop could help with that too.
Insights: In retrospect, other than attitude, I had little to teach. But its not just my problem. Much of what passes for writing instruction is just lore. Creative writing instruction, as a discipline, is a genteel amateur sport. We could do a lot better. Still, at IIT-Kanpur and later in Bangalore and Pune, I did connect with the participants; I love each and every one of the rat bastards. As the Nobel laureate Herbert Simon pointed out, even if we do not know how to teach, people will still find a way to learn. That’s the dark secret of the education-industrial complex.
Selection procedure: We had difficulty getting applicants. I wasn’t particularly well know (I’m tempted to add ‘then’ but sadly, it remains true) and even Vandana is much more well-known in the West (though that’s changed). Another problem was that not many Indian writers could afford to take three weeks off just to write. But these difficulties paid off beautifully. First, we got participants who were a little crazy; I mean, three weeks in Kanpur’s summer without air conditioning? Second, we got people who had time because they were at a transition point: between jobs, relationships, degree programs, etc. This made them open to change. And third, because we weren’t peddling famous reputations or resume bumps, we got self-selected stakeholders. The result was a kick-ass bunch; we got a lot of diverse backgrounds entirely by accident, which is probably the best kind of diversity. They’ve all gone on to do wonderful things.
I was also wondering if it’s become an annual workshop just as Clarion/Clarion West. (Do you plan to have a repeat of it?)
Anil: We held a workshop in Bangalore a couple of years later (2011). I’m planning on making it an annual event. Starting 2014, I’ll be spending a lot more time in India, so I can invest the skin & time to help organize the event. It’s difficult to do it from the US.
As editors and writers, what are the observations that you have of SFF in India? What are the major challenges/obstacles that Indian writers encounter?
Vandana: I have only been an editor once, so I can speak mostly as a writer. As I’ve mentioned, I think Indian SF coming out of India is really quite amazing and in many ways different from what you find in, say, American SF. There is no way to classify it or put it in a box – the themes and styles are quite varied, and just that makes it stand out in comparison. There is also more and more of it – in English as well as other languages. There is an Indian SF association, that is very active, and an Indian SF zine as well (http://indiansf.in/). I can’t speak for challenges and obstacles as I no longer live in India, but I do know that there is no large and organized fan base, and until recently no publishers devoted to genre.
Anil: About SFF in India: Like the rest of the world, Indian writers are becoming aware that the US is no longer where the future happens. The future’s body is still to be found in the US, but the soul’s gone. In a sense, the US has never recovered from 9/11. Core values have been compromised, there’s the sense of a people adrift. But the future’s not to going to wait. It’ll simply shift to Latin America, Europe, Asia, and perhaps more exciting of all, Africa. I think we’re going to be seeing a major breakout of some truly radical SFF from the rest of the world, including Indian writers. But attitude and high expectations are key.
Challenges/obstacles: First, the demographic issues. Indian writers tend to be from the middle-class. This means you get writers with establishment worldviews and a limited range of experiences. This includes me by the way. Things have to be imagined. The maid’s life isn’t lived, its imagined; the dalit’s life isn’t lived, its imagined; the nomad’s life isn’t lived, its imagined. That leads to a lot of stories being not told, or if told, told without soul.
It’s hard to make a living at writing anywhere, but in India, it’s made harder by the broken distribution system. It’s hard to get publishers to appreciate the seriousness of the distribution problem. I’ve been to any number of conferences or lit meets where people will drone on and on about lowbrow readers (a demand problem) or lowbrow writers (a supply problem). But there’s neither a supply problem nor a demand problem. We probably have more talented writers with varied experiences at this point in history than any other. We also have an enormous thirst for books of all kinds, especially English books. However, the distribution system is a disaster. Things like Amazon India and Flipkart are beginning to fix this problem, but the hinterlands are still mostly cut off from the main.
I know India has a rich literature of the fantastic, I am quite interested as to how fluid the genre boundaries are in India. Are they more fluid than in the west or are they just as fixed? Could you share something about this?
Vandana: Most things in India are fluid – boundaries in many contexts are context-dependent. There was no such thing as a genre category until recently. When I was growing up in India, as a teen or young adult I would go into a bookstore and find science fiction mixed in with fiction – that was just normal; I didn’t even think about it. I remember seeing physicist Jayant Narlikar’s stories appear in the same magazines that published regular mainstream stories. That said, I think the literary establishment out there does look down on genre fiction to some extent.
Anil: Fortunately, it’s quite fluid. Fortunately for the Indian writer, the Indian reader is an indiscriminate goat. For example, Amitav Ghosh can work in historical fantasy, science fiction, realist fiction, you name it. There is such a thing as a genre author, but these are largely bookstore distinctions that haven’t divided readers’ mind yet. The main quarrel is over writing that sells (commercial fiction) and writing that shelfs (establishment fiction). In recent years, the quarrel has gotten quite bitter, just as it has in the States.
Both of you are successful authors in your own right. Vandana has been publishing since 2002 and Anil since 2005 (please correct me if I’m wrong). What were the things you came up against when you were starting out as SFF writers? Do you think these things have changed? If so, in what ways?
Anil: That is correct; discounting my attempts as a kid, I’ve been muddling since about 2005. I wouldn’t count myself as successful though. Where’s my Booker award? My website-temples? My signature perfume, my own fashion line? Mary Anne Mohanraj warned me it would take me about 10 years to learn to write and she’s been right so far, damn her.
Vandana: At that time I was the only non-white, or at least the only Indian in science fiction conventions. I remember going to a writers’ conference on the West coast where an editor told me that ‘like it or not, you’re a multicultural writer’ and said almost in so many words that I should write about saris and arranged marriages. I was stunned and angry. Why should I limit myself in any way? Later when my work was being looked at by other writers or editors, I had to deal with the stereotypes and preconceived notions of Americans about India, but I was also lucky because there were a few people who got my work. Now, based solely on my own experience, I feel that things have shifted somewhat – we have racefail discussions, we call people out when they are sexist or racist, there are many dissections of xenophobic works that once only received blind adulation, and there are so many more zines that consciously encourage work from the historically othered – Strange Horizons, for instance. Also, I am no longer the only brown face or even the only Indian in the crowd when I go to a con. But I am not complacent – we still have a long way to go. The values of “Golden” age SF that Athena Andreadis appropriately refers to as “Leaden Age SF” are still strongly entrenched in the Western imagination.
Anil: Against? For, mostly. I found the SFF community of writers and editors a welcoming bunch. I’ve never had major difficulty in publishing a story that I was proud of. When I started there weren’t that many Indian spec-fic writers. Now there are lots of them, and hopefully the trend will continue. One thing I found was that it was much harder to sell stories I’d written for an Indian audience to a western magazine. Which makes commercial sense. But since I like writing stories for Indian audiences, it told me we need a lot more non-western magazines.
Occasionally I get the sense its hard for some American writers, almost all from the older generation, to understand that it’s no longer enough for us folks from rest of the world to sit at the back of the bus; we are aiming to drive the bus. I don’t hate them or anything; often they are writers I used to enjoy reading, and I get their distaste for how things are changed. There’s a certain innocence about them that I like. We need reactionaries too.
What should writers from a non-western background/country bear in mind if they wish to enter the field as SFF writers?
Vandana: There might be pressure, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, to write to the expectations of a Western audience, if those writers are in the West. It is important to be aware of that. I am not saying one shouldn’t be influenced by the Western SF canon, but why not let that be one of many influences rather than the only thing, if you want to truly let your imagination run wild? There are so many ways to think, read, breathe and write SF, and it is important to be open to the possibilities. At the same time it is important to be aware, when writing for a world audience that comprises inevitably Westerners, that people will read your work through the lenses of stereotypes. Now you could take the view that you write what’s in you and to hell with how people choose to read your work, and I believe that, but because (to me anyway) all writing is political, it is important to be aware of stereotypes. So for instance people in the West expect that a story set in India about a woman must portray that woman as suffering, and some of them read such stories and feel reassured that they live in such a superior, civilized place where women can do what they want. Well, the truth is that women suffer in India and everywhere else in the world, even in the US — but not all women, contrary to stereotype, take their suffering lying down, even in India, which has among the strongest women’s movements in the world. Things – people, circumstances, culture — are a lot more complicated than the stereotypes suggest. So if a writer wants to tell his or her truth, it is important to be aware that truth is complex, and for that aspect to emerge in a story. Then the story will naturally mess with preconceived notions at least to some extent, without the writer consciously having to worry about the audience. Now we have the good fortune of zines that welcome interesting, different work rooted in other realities, and that can only be good.
Anil: Pretty much what all writers should bear in mind. Focus on things you can do, invest in people, try to see the world behind its many masks. And write; it’s amazing how many good writers find excuses not to write.
Are you working on anything new right now? Would you like to share something about it?
Anil: Yes, I’m working on an establishment novel with a mild speculative element. I hope to have it done by Jan 2014.
Vandana: I have a very intense job that I love — as a physics professor at a small but lively university which makes it impossible for me to write except in summer. But my job generates ideas, so that near the end of the semester I am generally reaching critical story idea mass and am ready, no desperate, to write it all down. Right now I only have time to think wistfully of this novella that I have been working on off and on for some years and that is now complete in my head – but I have no time to write it! I am also generating ideas and thoughts for my first novel and a new children’s book. Forthcoming is a story called Peripateia in Jonathan Oliver’s anthology The End of the Road – in November, I believe.
(*since the publication of this interview was delayed, The End of the Road has already been published. The anthology is available here. The anthology contains stories from both Anil Menon and Vandana Singh.)
Can you tell us where to find you on the internet?
Anil: anilmenon.com. I can be reached at email@example.com and on facebook. I love email, so feel free, friends.
*We want to thank Anil and Vandana for their time and their generosity. Do feel free to click on the images and follow the links. If you’d like to get in touch with us about this interview or other things on the blog, feel free to send mail to chieandweng @gmail.com