Recently, in about a seven day period, I read five books. It was a feverish reading spree, starting with Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, followed by Flight Behavior, her latest book. I also read Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are Completely Beside Ourselves, Maureen McHugh’s Mission Child, and Michael Frayn’s Spies. This is one of the great luxuries of my summer, although even in summer it is not easily done. But reading good books is one of the things that keeps me alive.
I was listening to an old Hindi film song not long ago in which a man addresses a woman thus. “You, who are smiling so, what sorrow does your smile conceal? Tears in your eyes, laughter on your lips…” The original is much more elegant than my translation, but the idea is clear. There are people who might be some of us, or all of us at some time or another, who are — despite appearances — swimming upstream through a river of sorrow.
One of the best last lines I’ve read is from Alan Paton’s novel, Cry the Beloved Country. I read it as a schoolgirl and have never forgotten it.
And when that dawn will come, the dawn of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why that is a secret.
That day did come, the day when apartheid became history. It was worth the wait. I’ve realized, after thinking about this for some months, that a certain kind of waiting has to do with love.
A long while ago I wrote a piece called “Why People Don’t like Science, Especially Physics” in which I speculated as to the answer to that question. About two years ago I decided to delve more deeply into that and related questions, and ended up writing three columns for Strange Horizons. The columns involved interviews and email exchanges with scientists, a historian, and anthropologists, and revealed some very interesting things about the culture of science. So I thought it would be worthwhile to post the links here.
So here goes.
1) Diffractions: On Science, Emotions, and Culture, Part 1, where I pose the question as to why so many scientists are embarrassed by emotions.
2) Part 2, where a mere physicist discovers the explorations of anthropologists in… physics labs
3) Part 3, where I start with a poetic quote from Richard Feynman and end by growling at Descartes. Actually I end with a quote from Bell on new ways of seeing. And hoping for a new way or ways to thinking about, doing, teaching and learning science.
Note: Back in 2008, the incredible Jeff VanderMeer invited me to guest-post on his blog. Recently I had occasion to re-read this post, and I decided to post it here on Antariksh Yatra, minimally edited. Unfortunately the post isn’t complete without the discussions in the comments, so here’s the original link.
When I was around ten years old my family moved from New Delhi to the town of Patna, in Bihar, for two years. Patna was a small, untidy, sprawling little town (relative to Delhi) and the area where we lived consisted of large, old-fashioned houses set among enormous gardens. We stayed with my grandparents, and a little way from their house you could see fields. Sometimes my brother and I would wake very early and go on a trek through the fields, pausing to watch a farmer and his bullock drawing water from a well, or looking at pond life in a ditch filled with rainwater. In the evenings there would be kids playing cricket in the big maidan in front of the house, and my brother and I would be there too (it was in those days that I developed my now-lost skill as a fairly fearsome spin bowler). Some of the pariah dogs that lived in packs in our neighbourhood would join in, especially if we were playing football (soccer). Pariah dogs are descended from the earliest domesticated dogs — they are a tribe unto themselves, and live parallel lives with humans in towns and cities in India. They are also beautiful, intelligent animals — you can see some really nice pictures here.
One of these pariah dogs was a brown and white dog of noble bearing whom we called Moti (the word sounds like “more-thee” without the ‘r’, and means “pearl”). As he was a regular on the football field, we became friends. He would come over to our house if he wanted a meal. Sometimes he would walk me home if I was late returning from a friend’s house. There was a boy who lived next door who was friendly with Moti too, but he wanted Moti as a house-dog. So he trapped the dog for three days in his house, spoiling him, feeding him delicacies and playing with him. But at the first opportunity, Moti escaped.
First I want to say that this is not a review, but my personal feelings about some aspects of the novel 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. I’m not going to discuss plot points and language and story arc except where they speak to the points I do want to make. And there are spoilers galore. STOP HERE if you want to read the book first. Read the rest of this entry »
Once upon a time I was a newbie, a writer larva. I had a couple of short stories published, but I was still unsure of myself, not quite ready to call myself, you know, a writer. At that time I had just completed a ten-year exile from academia and was about to start a teaching position at a local college. My exile had been wonderful in many ways, not so wonderful in others, and I was excited and anxious, but not yet ready to call myself a physicist again. I felt smudged, undefined, a shade of grey. Sometime during that period I published a short story with Strange Horizons.
I still remember the announcement that Mary Ann Mohanraj made way back on a South Asian women’s listserve — that she was planning to start a speculative fiction ezine with some friends. That was before I was published, but I got up the courage to send them a science article and a poem (both were published; the poem went on to be runner up for a Rhysling award). Two published stories later, I sent Strange Horizons a rather unusual fiction piece, with a lot of trepidation. To my utmost delight it was accepted. It was called Three Tales from Sky River: Myths For a Starfaring Age, my first pro sale. I still remember feeling for the first time like a writer — a giddy feeling indeed. Later the story got an honorable mention from Gardner Dozois, the first time that my name was printed in one of the august Year’s Best volumes.
I continued to read and delight in the ezine — it was publishing work by newer writers as well as established ones, and it tasted (in a manner of speaking) adventurous, different, and richer than the other offerings, print or otherwise, that were then available. After Mary Ann handed over editorship to others, the ezine continued to flourish, driven by committed volunteers based on a model that your average banker would have laughed at all the way to the golf course. But it worked, and it is still working. There are reviews, and stories, and columns, and poetry, and a blog, and it makes for fine, thoughtful reading that stirs the imagination and the intellect.
My old Strange Horizons story was about tales from a future age, but said nothing about the futuristic tale-teller. Over the years his voice kept haunting me until I saw him in my mind and discovered his name: Somadeva, a wandering poet and collector of stories from 11th-century India. He then told me his story, which was published (where else?) in Strange Horizons in 2010. A year later it was reprinted in the Hartwell and Cramer Year’s Best anthology.
Then I got to be a columnist for SH in 2011-2012, covering science and environment, a role I thoroughly enjoyed, not least for the learning it enabled me to acquire. Strange Horizons is the ezine I read all the time, although I often only have the time (in my overworked life) to read it in snatches, stolen moments between stirring the pot on the stove and grading papers. But I read it. It’s published stories by my favorite writers, and by complete unknowns whose work was and is a delight to discover. It’s reviews connect me to what other writers are doing. Its poetry transports me. Its columns and articles are always interesting, and its blog keeps me in touch with what’s happening in the spec fic world. It’s the means by which I remind myself, even in the middle of a busy semester, that I am a writer. It is my connection to the spec fic world, a mooring rope, a reminder of places and paradigms beyond the mundane.
Strange Horizons is having a fund drive at the moment. If you like speculative fiction and want to support an ezine run by volunteers that pays professional rates to its writers and presents fine work every week, go over to http://www.strangehorizons.com/ and support them!
Summer is officially over in North America. As of about an hour ago, autumn has begun.
I was born and raised close enough to the equator that the change of seasons was very gradual, and leaves did not all at once drop their leaves. Many trees stayed leafed throughout winter. The seasons edged, blurred and bled into each other, with the exception of the monsoons. The monsoons! After the mad, crackling heat of summer, the great armada of clouds assembled in the sky and loosed the torrent upon us, as suddenly as a magician’s snap of the fingers. The coming of the monsoons meant instant relief, an abrupt lifting of the spirits.
Here in North America the seasons change nearly as suddenly. Autumn is one of my favorite times, because it is not so cold yet, and there is a stark beauty to it that I can perhaps appreciate better now that I am myself in the autumnal stage of life. But it also comes with a kind of melancholy that can descend abruptly. One is not gentled into autumn here. Leaves turn color and fall very quickly, and temperatures drop, so once again we know the struggle of mind over mattress, the difficulty of getting out of a warm bed, the shock of bare toes on a cold floor. After all these years here I am not quite used to the sudden onset of autumn, the abrupt drop of temperatures and spirits, the hint of winter’s breath around the corner. The change is too soon, too cruel. This child of the sub-tropics seems unable to get used to it, although in past years I have always muddled through to the point where the beauty of the fall season becomes apparent: the colors of the leaves fallen against the dark asphalt are startlingly brilliant, and at last one can behold the fractal beauty of bare branches against the sky. Death is in the air, death of the year, death of the old. There is no hint yet of the renewal that follows winter, only the apprehension of cold and snow, and the turning inward, the cocooning of thoughts and rooms and fragile beings against the coming chill. The sun, always so faithfully high in the sky of the tropics, is a low, skulking, sullen being, ember rather than bright fire, reluctantly bathing us in unearthly, beautiful, inadequate light.
In the fall I want to start building my winter nest, my burrow where I could hibernate through the long cold, or at least sleep through most of it like the bears. But I am not a bear, alas. I am a human who must venture out, and work, and grade papers, and give exciting lectures, and have responsibilities that preclude a winter sleep. I feel myself as crisp and fraught and solitary as the leaf still trembling on the tree-branch, filled with apprehensions about change and gravity. Perhaps there is only hope in the unreliable wind, which might, while blowing me to oblivion, show me places I have not seen before.
Vladimir Ouch is my excuse, my justification, for not weeding my garden.
Who, you may ask, is Vladimir Ouch? None other than the thistle growing near the door of my little house. I have seen it grow from a prickly little thistlet to a spiky wonder taller than I am. It was named in collaboration with friends who also enjoy a non-Euclidean way of viewing the world.
When you’ve named something, it is hard to uproot it. I have a soft spot for thistles to begin with. They are prickly, and to most eyes, ugly, and yet they produce flowers that are extravagantly purple and beautiful. We saw a moth-like beast nestling in the swirls of one flower — the mothy one was colored just like a wasp, in dark brown and yellow (“Batesian mimicry,” whispered my daughter). I am waiting for the local goldfinches to discover Vladimir, since I’ve seen them before on thistles. Idly I wonder if the gold-and-brown creatures of the air have a special relationship with Vladimir Ouch. Do they particularly like purple? Does Vladimir exude a secret scent discernible only to such beings?
My neighbor’s garden is a complete contrast to mine. His lawns are manicured, his bushes neatly trimmed, and you can smell the pesticide on spray-day even if you are a few blocks away. Not a single dandelion raises its head on that lawn. My garden has a shaggy shrubbery in the front, and the lawn behind is innocent of herbicide and pesticide. This summer the rains have turned the front garden into a jungle, which is something I have to deal with quickly before it becomes impenetrable. My idea of a garden is certainly much less civilized than my neighbor’s, but a jungle is a bit much. Sadly (or gladly?) I have neither the time nor energy to be a hardworking gardener, like certain of my friends. :-P
The trouble is that being an academic and a writer can be a disadvantage, in that it enables creative excuses. I find myself interested in the greenstuff that comes up after the rains. I enjoy the uncommon, unacknowledged beauty of the weeds, their defiant, celebratory, nonconformist existence. I get curious about their lives. Without lifting a trowel I find my creativity, not my hands, stained with green. Here’s an extract from a work in progress. The protagonist shares only two things with me: being female and being lazy about her garden (or fascinated by its wilderness potential, whatever you prefer).
And lately she had been distracted by the beauty of the weeds, bemused by their lust for life. How quickly they had grown after that first rain! She had thought: I really must pull that one out, it is so tall… I wonder how much taller it will grow? And she’d let it stay there just to find out. At the moment it was taller than her, its whorls of leaves like spread hands stacked vertically, holding the stem that seemed destined for the stars. Then there were the thistles, so charming in their prickliness, promising those absurdly luxurious purple flowers. I’ll pull out a few and leave one or two, she’d thought vaguely, but which few? And who had appointed her executioner? The little shrubs on the other side of the driveway were also aggressively full of life — a neighbor told her they would become trees if she didn’t pull them out. But she had to let the leaves, coiled like green embryos on the stem, she had to let those leaves unfurl like slow banners. She imagined the sap pulsing through the veins, straightening the folds and crenellations until the leaf stood out straight as an arrow. She watched that happen over days while the weed forest grew madly around her.
I’m not sure how Vladimir Ouch figures in this story but there is no doubt in my mind that he is much more than backdrop.
There’s a story I’ve been trying to write for a year. I like how it starts, and I like the main character, who is a woman brought out of a refugee camp/slum to serve a function she doesn’t completely understand. Around her the city is drowning, the sea is sweeping in. Nicely atmospheric, but guess what, it stops right there. Doesn’t go anywhere after that rather dramatic beginning.
Sometimes stories just need to brew. Knowing that, I set it aside. This month I have had the good luck of editors asking to see my stories, so I picked up this one, brushed the metaphoric dust off it, and tried to make something of it. No luck. The deadline being Tuesday, I decided to give up on the damn thing.
Then I happened to look at my friend Anil Menon‘s erudite and always enjoyable blog, where he mentions the translation of a story “Sheesha Ghat” by an amazing Urdu writer called Naiyar Masud. I’ve been meaning to read it for a while, so I did. It was very compelling and rather strange, the kind of story that stays with you long after you’ve read it, partly because (like the real world) not everything makes sense. Relationships and events are implied, hinted. It is magical realist but in a completely Indian way — although in a way I haven’t seen before. .
Well, I enjoyed the story, and thought no more about mine. Thinking I would write to the editor who had sought a story from me the next day, and apologize for the non-delivery, I went to bed. I woke up in the morning knowing exactly what I needed to do in order to finish the story. The events and a crucial secondary character just showed up in my head as though they’d been always been there. .
Now my story is quite different from Naiyar Masud’s. But something about ‘Sheesha Ghat” opened the locked door in my mind, behind which the rest of my story was waiting. This has happened before, when I’m stuck. I haven’t figured out what it is about the story I’m reading that resonates with my own story because it isn’t style, or plot, or character. “Atmosphere” is close, but that doesn’t do it either. In fact the stimulus or key that opens the door isn’t even necessarily a story — it might be a song, for instance, or a melody.
I’m just grateful that the rest of my story has been revealed to me. it is stranger than I thought it would be. I still don’t have it completed and I can’t say for certain it is going to be a good story, but it has substance now. Tomorrow I finish the first draft.
Writing is such a mysterious process. It is often a lonely process but at the same time, it isn’t, because we are always haunted by the voices and imaginations of others.