Archive for July, 2012

Coming Unstuck: Creative Resonances in Writing

July 31, 2012

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.

Science Fiction, Fantasy, Epics and All: A Conversation

July 29, 2012

Here’s a link to a podcast of a conversation between Anil Menon and myself that was recorded by the indefatigable Karen Burnham of Locus Online at Readercon this July.  While I always cringe at hearing a recording of myself, we did have a really interesting chat about our upcoming anthology, Breaking The Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana, and about science fiction coming out of India.  

Anil and I both have introductory essays in this volume: here’s an extract from mine: 

I first heard the Ramayana when I was very little.  From time immemorial, the epic has been carried down through the generations as an oral tradition.  I heard it from my mother and my paternal grandmother; the Amar Chitra Katha comic books came much later.  My grandmother was particularly fond of the Bal Kand in the Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas, which describes in beautiful verse the childhood antics of the young hero, Ram, and to this day I can sing or recite parts of it. 

It was my grandfather — a man of great intelligence, sensitivity and integrity, who first gave me a hint that there were multiple Ramayanas.  He loved many aspects of the ancient texts, particularly the Upanishads, and was the first person to inculcate in me an appreciation of the sounds of poems in Sanskrit, especially the Geet Govind.  Yet he did not hesitate to criticize when he had good reason to do so.  (One of the great freedoms of Hinduism is surely the lack of a Big-Brother-style religious police to prevent you from having your say).  I remember him raging about some sections of the Manu-smriti, or pointing out an absurdity in the Vishnu Purana.  Once he told me that there were many versions of the Ramayana, and that some versions contained interpolations that were clearly anachronistic, containing references that belonged to times later than that of the original story.  I didn’t think much about it then, being in my pre-teen years and distracted by cricket and climbing trees, but I remembered this later when I came across references to Ramayanas from the point of view of the villain, Ravana, and from Sita’s vantage point as well.  Now I think of the Ramayana as a kind of palimpsest, a tapestry in multiple layers, a creation of many voices through the ages, an entity always in the making, and thus always alive. 

This comes out from the wonderful Zubaan Books in New Delhi, any day now. 

Also of interest, Locus Online’s Roundtable on SF in translation includes short pieces by Anil and me as well as many other fascinating contributions.  


In Praise of Irrelevance

July 28, 2012

My daughter and I have been reading Moby Dick aloud, taking turns.  I got tired of simply hearing about this classic of American literature for much of my life, and since summer allows me to breathe occasionally, I decided to take the plunge.  It has been a ton of fun so far.  I like short chapters in a fat book — they are particularly conducive to reading aloud.  I like the protagonist.  But one of the things I like most about the book is that it is in no hurry to get to the plot.  It lingers, it wanders, it goes off into fascinating detail.  I can’t imagine that all the loving attention it pays to absolutely everything somehow justifies itself in Relevance to the Plot or the Story Arc, either directly or metaphorically.  I find that I like this mad extravagance: detail for detail’s sake.  It goes against what one is told by writing gurus: that everything in your story must be Relevant.

I wonder if that makes more sense in a short story, where one is restricted by word count and so perhaps every word has to count.  Epics such as the Ramayana, and even more so, the Mahabharata, are filled with fascinating excursions and delvings that explorations that aren’t necessarily vital to the ‘main arc’ of the story.  While they certainly flesh out the world of the story, they are clearly there for their own sake.

Similarly, reading Moby Dick, I find that its notorious ramblings and expositions are oddly pleasing.  They might slow the action, but I like taking the time to stare at a painting on a wall through the eyes of Ishmael.  I like the fact that at any moment in the story, that moment is the most important thing.  The person, the painting, the dining room of that time and place is what there is.  There is an almost Zen-like quality to this kind of writing.

Life is like that too — full of objects and people and occurrences that have no relevance to the main plot, because, guess what, there is no main plot.  We choose to draw out this thread or that from the tapestry, giving us the illusion of a sequence of characters and events and meaning, but it is only one thread in the tangle.  Art need not be compelled to imitate life — but let there be some works at least that burrow into the tangle and mix up the threads for the joy of it.

I’m working on a short story now that is mostly a series of ramblings, and I’d like to see if I can, in a small, modest and likely inadequate way, imitate what the fat, epic-like tomes do.  Throw in lots of irrelevant detail, rejoice in it, and see what happens.  Hopefully the reader will get a story where it is his/her choice to pull out this thread or that one, and play with it as a kitten might play with a ball of wool and a half-knitted sweater.