deepad: black silhouette of woman wearing blue turban against blue background (Default)
Two things.
One: The author of the story I recced is not desi, as I had guessed her to be. [personal profile] lionpyh commented on my rec and said so before the reveal, but I chose to screen her comment to preserve authorial anonymity. She later made a post talking about the dilemma my presumptious misrepresentation (my words, not hers!) placed her in.

I do feel bad for jumping the gun and placing her in that awkward position, but I don't regret making the rec. I do agree that I will need to edit it to point out that it does not (in my book) qualify as desi fic after the author's identity reveal. Whether it's still 'post-colonial' is a more complicated question; along the lines of can straight authors' work be called 'queer fiction' or male wriers' 'feminist fiction' based on subject and treatment.

I had a lot more to say on the subject; I have a draft post I've been poking at for a while. But instead, I'll say that I reread that story and still loved it, and then I talked with the beta of that story and asked her how much input she brought to it. And that led me to thinking about the relationship between authors and their cultural betas.

Two: I recently betaed two stories as I guess you would say a 'cultural beta'. Both stories were written by non-desis. I could get into the identities of the authors and the differences I thought those made to their approaches, but since I don't have the energy, I just want to finish saying the main thing that I need to.

I have been left deeply, jarringly unhappy with the process of being such a beta, though working on those two stories were two very distinct experiences. One merely left me thoughtful about the role and responsibility of a native informant in interacting with an outsider seeking to write an unfamiliar culture. The other left me angry, hurt, and resentful of the time and effort I gave, and inclined to retreat further inside a community comprised of writers and readers more like me.

Anyway. This isn't a very coherent post since I'm leaving out a lot of things I can't find the energy to articulate, but those are two possibly separate, possibly connected things that I needed to say.
deepad: black silhouette of woman wearing blue turban against blue background (Default)
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?


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 [ 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.
deepad: black silhouette of woman wearing blue turban against blue background (Default)
A few disjointed thoughts, since I am tired.

I read this quote from the charming and insightful Junot Diaz a few days ago, and found myself in profound disagreement with him, when he said:
I have not read realistic novels that approach the nightmare of the chattel slavery of the New World, that extreme reality of what it means to have been bred for generation after generation and the people who were “weak” were worked to death and the people who were “strong” survived to create another generation of slaves. I find that horror far more aptly approached in science fiction and fantasy novels than I’ve ever seen it approached in realistic novels.

For myself, I have never been as moved to visceral grief, horror, and empathy towards historical and present humanity than I have while reading fiction set in the world as exists. I find even the most exhaustive mythopoea and world-building to fall short of the nuances which the real world contains, and therefore, can bring, by sheer weight of extra canon, to any work of fiction that evokes it.

Also, I think there is something strange, and disturbing if I were to be able to empathise more viscerally with colonised vampires or massacred aliens than with humans whose stories came from actual experiences suffered by real people, the effects of which are still all around me today.

Possibly, this is because I never find the most extended and well-constructed metaphor to be more effective or brutal than actual fact.

Which is not to say that SFF can't be used to comment on the real world in ways that realistic fiction falls short of. Shaun Tan's work, especially stories like Eric is proof of that. Which is why I am glad I could see his illustrations for the John Marsden story The Rabbits right on the heels of [personal profile] sanguinity making a really trenchant post about it, riffing off of [personal profile] coffeeandink's review. Like Sanguinity, I found Marsden's last line appalling, and there's a whole lot of tiny things in his text that add up to a very patronising appropriated narrative. And also, I find the homogenisation by a white person of the Aboriginal and Native American colonialisation experiences extremely essentialising.

I thought Tan's illustrations were beautiful, as usual, but I am not sure how much his fantastic metaphors mitigated the fact that it wasn't really his story to tell. Images like the children being flown away in white balloons, for instance, seemed much more resonant to me with global economics taking young immigrants to Australia, the UK and US away from their parents and grandparents in Asia and Africa. But of course, the accompanying 'they stole our children' is a very specifically historical phrase.

When [personal profile] willow told me about an upcoming remake of a Hollywood film called Red Dawn (which I have not seen), with a Chinese invasion of the US instead of a Soviet Russian one, I mentioned that there was something rather disturbing about a dominant identity wanting to play and fantasise about being an oppressed minority.

I'm not at all convinced such fantasies help foster any sort of meaningful empathy. I think they:
a) Deflect attention from the dominant identity's present and actual actions as an oppressor.
b) Provide the kind of theatrical catharsis that Boal talks about that will "diminish, placate, satisfy, eliminate all that can break the balance - all, including the revolutionary, transforming impetus".
c) Train a mentality that encourages binaries and thereby encourages dominant majorities to frame themselves, however possible, as positive oppressed victim-survivors.
d) Legitimise fighting the Other in a more palatable framework while ignoring dismantling one's own position in hegemony and hierarchy.
e) Appropriate real life oppressed minority stories of resistance and struggle to construct world focussed on characters the dominant majority can identify with.
f) Perpetuate a false diversity of narratives through minority stories told through the lens, identity and with the resources and wealth of the dominant majority.

Much like my discomfort for the arguments surrounding the defense of texts like To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn being used for racial education -- to say such a book can awaken a white reader to the horror of racism (at the cost of the discomfort of her fellow PoC readers) with the implication that any of the PoC-authored books about the same time and place would not -- I do not believe in SFF produced by the dominant majority to be the key that would unlock its wells of empathy and understanding realisation at its own culpability. I think we are far better served by playing with fantasies that help us practise what it is like to recognise ourselves as oppressors and fight ourselves and our systems. After all, it is not that the colonised did not have enough stories of resistance to inspire them to become heroes. The problem was that the colonialists did not have enough stories of repentance and rethinking to prevent them from becoming monsters.
deepad: black silhouette of woman wearing blue turban against blue background (Default)
I had a reading experience recently that was unique from any other book I have read. Two actually, in a cumulative way. Both books were written by authors whose blogs I follow and enjoy, both of whom had recently written about reader reactions to their own books and characters as examples of discussing internalised problems within all of us readers.

And after having read those blog posts as well as fannish discussion around the books, I read the books and found myself feeling like the author was sitting on my shoulder like a haloed angel, judging me every time I reacted unfavourably to anything.

I have never before felt so self-concious about my emotional reactions to a book and what they might say about me morally and politically.

As a novelty, I think its a valuable experience to have had, because it gives me greater sympathy with a writer who feels perhaps, a similar pressure of an influencial blogger or reviewer judging her words as she is writing them. I don't think any of the authors I have shredded know of my existence, but it was a sobering thought.

However, what I concluded is that writers (both of books and reviews) are going to have to deal with that pressure, and if they can't do it with public grace and dignified non-whinging silence, they lose my respect, and if their writing suffers... so be it. Because similarly, I have seen blog reviews get tamer and more compromised as the reviewers become more socially interactive with the authors they are talking about, and while it is natural, I think I value most the reviewer who is writing for and as a reader. This means that someone who shares their opinions publicly is going to have to deal with the likely possibility of not being on equable social terms with the authors they disagree with. It also means that they have to acknowledge that friendship can and does compromise their ability to judge a creation by a friend.

I think that the sword of intent-guessing swings both ways - and that if writers are going to make posts talking about the purported reasons why readers react to their characters in certain ways, then they should not consider it that illogical that readers will make posts about the purported reasons why writers wrote those characters in certain ways.

An author-friend of mine once told me that she read a book and pronounced it good not if it was the book she might have wanted, but if it met the intention she thought the author wrote it with. It is easier, these days, when authors have blogs, to have more information about their intentions. And likewise, it is easier for authors to have more information about what readers might chatter about, amongst themselves in the obscurity and false privacy of the internet.

And the thing is... this information is not really that much more intrusive, or intimate. Stories have always tended to congregate within a shared community, enough that narrators and listeners can judge each other.

So on the whole, though I have winced at both authorial and reviewer posts that seemed ignorant or offensive (or both), I am content with judgement being passed on readers as it is on writers. And with a certain degree of surmising of intent being made, because, after all, isn't that a hoary and respected pillar of literary critique?

But what I also value is the 'author is dead' convention that allows discussions to happen without the heirarchical and power-imbalanced skewing that 'ultimate arbitrator' status provides, and this is where I think I fall on the side of defending readers, since their posts about books are generally much more valuable to me than those of authors.

And so I choose to talk about books out of sight of their authors, and not argue with them in their space when they might pass a judgement on their readers' opinions that I find unfair or disagreeable. And I wonder at the choices an author makes when they choose to publicly post opinions about their readers that might make it less likely for said readers to give them access to their thoughts about the book.
deepad: black silhouette of woman wearing blue turban against blue background (Default)
Via [personal profile] the_future_modernes (and consider this a permanent rec for her journal, because the lady is a one-stop social justice link machine):

Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie giving a talk about 'The Danger of a Single Story'

She says what I tried to say in my I Didn't Dream of Dragons post so potently that I will edit it to add a link to this video, and she says it so clearly and simply that I think this is a link to forward to people who may not otherwise choose to enter the complex dialogues about privilege and narratives.

Listening to her prompted me to make public a resolution I have been working on, so that other people might choose to adopt it, as well as call me out when I stumble:

I'm going to avoid using the word "African" as a descriptor. The dominant narrative that flattens a vast and diverse range of nationalities and ethnicities into one cover-all continental identity is too pernicious and pervasive.

African-American scholar Brenda Dixon Gottschild introduced me to the word 'Africanist', which she uses to talk about the presence of various African influences in the Americas. That's a word that I will use in place of African, just because by virtue of the extra syllable, it stands out as a reminder to think about its meaning.

But I am going to try to not reference people, places and things as 'African'. When I fail, it will be my responsibility to google and get my brain to learn and remember that the Kalahari is a Botswanian, Namibian and South African desert, that Fela Kuti was a Nigerian musician, that Nervous Conditions is a Zimbabwean novel.

And that will help me remember that The Lion King is NOT 'African', but is a story told by a U.S.-based multinational company that uses Africanist elements while erasing, flattening, exoticising, and misrepresenting the multitudinous sources of those influences.


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

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