deepad: black silhouette of woman wearing blue turban against blue background (Default)
[personal profile] deepad
You know how sometimes you read something, expecting it might be a slight chore, and then your brain has to take a moment to catch up with your heart because you had not realised there was a hole in it that has just been filled by this thing you just read?

Yeah.

So desi sci-fi. I've read some, though not as much as I should for a representative sample, because of childhood disappointments when comparing Dilip Salvi to Isaac Asimov. I shunned a lot of desi writing in my early adulthood; resenting it for not meeting the standards my colonised palatte had set for it, not realising the jury was rigged.

I'm more forgiving now, and more eager to see a world that matches my own brown, Indian one, regardless if the craftsmanship is not as slick as what I was weaned on.

In that context, when I was pointed to Sultana's Dream, I was charmed by this feminist utopian sci fi novella written in English over 100 years ago by a Bengali woman called Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. The story seems a little naive (but then what utopia isn't?) and the feminism a little dated (but imagine how many boundaries her imagination would have had to break to reach to that point then?), but the joyous celebration of women and what they can do made it a fun read.

It's one of the perils of women's writings--their obscurity not only hides them from the mainstream male gaze, but also from their own literary descendents. People talk about Jules Verne and Tolkein as forefathers because they have been read since they were published--the lines of influence can be clearly traced. But women have often had to reinvent the literary wheel--each generation having to carve out its own space, and then, perhaps, having the resources to look back and discover; someone was saying similar things back then, too.

I don't know if [wordpress.com profile] vandanasingh or Manjula Padmanabhan or Priya Sarukkai Chabria have read Hossain's short story, as they have set about contructing their own versions of feminist Indian sci fi.

But today I read a story that was written by Rokeya Hossain's textual granddaughter.

It's fanfiction, set explicitly within the fannish context of a story written for someone's prompt, but there are plenty of other posts that have already established the ridiculousness of segregating 'fanfic' from 'profic' on the basis of genre, so I'm not going to get into that here. I do actually, hope that this story will be picked up by a print publisher and distributed to a wider, or at least different, audience than the online fannish one, because it deserves to be read on its own merits.

Fifty Years in the Virtuous City can be read on its own; like Neil Gaiman's "The Problem of Susan", there is enough heft in the world building to satisfy a reader who does not get the references that reward all the metatexuality. As a stand-alone, this reads as a quiet, poetic story of two women scientists and the challenges they face to build a world shaped in their image.

But read as a response to Hossain's original, this story coalesces into a deep pool of historiographical literary commentary.

The writer, you see, has lived the life Hossain could only imagine, and can therefore strengthen the warp and weft of her humourously fantastic world by weaving in the threads of hindsight and experience. Her approach to academia is painstakingly honest--the writer knows that women in power do not change the fundamental nature of politics and bureaucracy.
‘Can you imagine Suhela as an administrator?’, she asks Chaitali, who has come by her rooms that evening to find her still sorting through the intra-university mail.

‘Straight out of the Arthashastra,’ says Chaitali, who knew her in undergrad at Razia.

‘What do you bet that she has spies?’

‘Maybe I am one of them,’ says Chaitali, raising her eyebrows.

‘The fraudulent disciple! With a knife at your ankle. No, it doesn’t bear thinking of. But – no, really,’ says Amrita, scanning a paper in disbelief, ‘this is marked VERY URGENT, and it is to tell me that there’s a leak in the roof of Choudhury’s office. I wish people would use the system properly.’


Can you see why I'm so gleeful? It takes the nonchalance of a 21st century product of co-ed academia to joke about paperwork, but to make a reference to Chanakya requires a connection to a specific shared historical past.

Hossain herself was still struggling to find an audience. Although she wrote other stories in Bengali, this one was written in English, and in 1905, I suspect the readership of The Indian Ladies' Magazine was too select and Anglicised for the sort of integration of code-switching that this story does.

Hossain's imaginary world is called Ladyland; this story translates it (back) to Naaridesh, and gives it a geographical context that restores the geo-political tensions present in the past the story was written. Written today, the author knows that "the Republic is under constant threat from the Trucial States and the Ingrej", that during its formative years there will be rumor of invasion from Andhra Pradesh.

With a post-colonial pickaxe, this writer demolishes the self-effacement that had Hossain's protagonist defer to a Sister Sara and a deracialised, deculturalised Queen and Lady Principal. When the war happens--and it is ugly, because this writer's feminism knows the futility of flinching from the brutality of struggle and resistance--there is an invasion from the Ingrej Robert Jennings. This story celebrates the intersectionality of Hossain's identity as a Muslim, by building a world replete in the words and laws and customs that the author could not herself infuse her world with.

The first steps we take to place ourselves at par with our colonisers often imitate their flaws, and we write our own unassimilated selves out of those stories, having had no examples of how to include them. That's why I love this story so much--because a young desi author is restoring to a long dead woman the voice that it has taken a century of nationalism and anti-imperialism and subaltern studies and anti-communalism and, of course, feminism to find.

I know I sound all dry and academic, in this theory-based recommendation. I'm sorry. I love this story with an enthusiastic squeeful heart--I love it for its femmeslash. I love it for its older women, who are still loving and active. I love it for science. I love it for its humour. I love it for the meticulous poetry of its images.
Amrita herself should not like to be compared to a flower or a fruit, an animal or a bird, and she turns this problem over sometimes in her mind, what Barnali’s beauty is like: if she solves it, she can forget it, and go on to something else. This is how her mind works: turn the thing over, turn it over, pry, catch at its seam, pry, crack it apart, work the kernel out and pick up the next. After she decides that Barnali’s beauty is like an electric light in glass – the slenderness of the brightening and dimming filament, the clarity and fineness of its casing, the perfected minimalism – she ceases to be distracted, or attracted. Once categorised, the thing is safe.


I love it for passages like that.

(I should say that while I am 99.9% sure I know the friend who wrote this, it is possible that I am wrong, and that perhaps the writer is not even desi. In which case, I would heap even more accolades on the writer.)

(And for those who are fannishly inclined, [community profile] dark_agenda's Kaleidoscope Exchange has a wealth of enjoyable fanworks to offer.)

ETA (6/1/12): Soon after writing this rec, I learned that the author was not desi. I have made a follow-up post here that discusses a few of the repurcussions of that reveal. I still stand by the rec, though.

(no subject)

Date: 21/11/11 11:37 am (UTC)
kass: Zoe is made of awesome. (zoe)
From: [personal profile] kass
The excerpts you have offered here are gorgeous. Thank you for the enticement; this is on my to-read list now.

(no subject)

Date: 16/12/11 06:57 pm (UTC)
kass: white cat; "kass" (Default)
From: [personal profile] kass
Oh holy wow, I just read both Sultana's Dream and Fifty Years in the Virtuous City, and I am blown away. Thank you so, so much for this rec!

(no subject)

Date: 21/11/11 03:03 pm (UTC)
surexit: A brightly smiling girl in a spotted headscarf. (:D)
From: [personal profile] surexit
Definitely going to read this, thank you.

(no subject)

Date: 21/11/11 03:59 pm (UTC)
futuransky: a small silhouetted person beside a large shiny lightbulb (idea!)
From: [personal profile] futuransky
Oh wow––I don't have time to read these at this moment, but I am saving the links for when I do, which hopefully won't be too far in the future. Thank you for the gorgeous work of theory and recommendation! Hossain may in fact be just what one of my dissertation chapters needs...

(no subject)

Date: 21/11/11 05:47 pm (UTC)
futuransky: Romaine Brooks self-portrait with Lila Futuransky superimposed. (Default)
From: [personal profile] futuransky
But of course! :)

(no subject)

Date: 21/11/11 04:33 pm (UTC)
stewardess: (Default)
From: [personal profile] stewardess
Saving this!

(no subject)

Date: 22/11/11 07:50 am (UTC)
lionpyh: A glass liquor bottle with a panther shape molded into the glass. (Default)
From: [personal profile] lionpyh
Hello – I am the author of the story in question. Just saw this. I am glad it worked for you – but not only am I not desi, I am white; I don't know whether you want to edit your post, but I felt it would be deceptive in the worst way for me not to disclose that at once, having seen this, given that you describe the story as being by 'a young desi author'. I know that this was because you believed the story to have been written by a particular friend of yours, and that you mentioned at the end it might not be, so perhaps no editing is necessary, but any situation in which a white person receives attention for their work because it's thought to be by an author of color strikes me as unequivocally wrong.

And (despite your very kind note at the end) I feel like I owe you an apology, for not being who you thought – because it becomes a subtly different story if known to be written by a white person, and I'm acutely aware of that. The author's university-student background is different for it; so is the moment's worth of hideous casually dehumanizing Englishman, even if I promptly exterminate him with an arc welder. So I am truly sorry if that is a disappointment – I guess I can only say that my intent in writing it was to celebrate and not to appropriate, for all that intent is largely irrelevant.

ugh, this is a very stiffly anxious message so far, I need to say also: I am really honored that you liked the story enough to rec it, not least because I know who you are through fandom (basically because you kept being a voice of reason during various conflicts that arose in it) and I respect you a lot; I actually had been refraining from looking at any of the AO3 comments until I saw this post on my Reading page, which was fairly surreal. So: thank you very, very much for what you have said about my work, and I hope that what you liked in it retains its significance, even if it did not originate where you had thought.

(no subject)

Date: 22/11/11 05:52 pm (UTC)
kate_nepveu: sleeping cat carved in brown wood (Default)
From: [personal profile] kate_nepveu
I look forward to reading these stories, thanks for linking.

(no subject)

Date: 23/11/11 02:32 am (UTC)
tigerlily: (Default)
From: [personal profile] tigerlily
Thank you for reccing these: I will make time to read them. I loved Herland and this dealing with both feminism and colonialism, being a dialogue between women, and having good writing about science and lesbians is going to perfect, I know it.

(no subject)

Date: 23/11/11 02:21 pm (UTC)
sun_onclouds: (Default)
From: [personal profile] sun_onclouds
Fifty Years is amazing. Thank you for linking it, it absolutely took my breath away--the substance and thrust of it alone is more than enough, but the prose and beauty of the language make it sublime. I'm going to spend a long time rereading and thinking about it.

(no subject)

Date: 23/11/11 08:26 pm (UTC)
sun_onclouds: (Default)
From: [personal profile] sun_onclouds
Like you, I hope it gets picked up by a paying publisher. This needs to be read more.

I'm linking it furiously.

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deepad: black silhouette of woman wearing blue turban against blue background (Default)
Deepa D.

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