Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Words and Worlds: A ‘Gandhi Indian’ reads Sherman Alexie

January 18, 2015

Over at the Aqueduct Press blog I have an article about the stand-out books I read in 2014.  I start the article by talking about how the imagination, experience and intent of the writer, and the reader’s own context and desires form a separate little world, a bubble universe for the duration of the reading experience.  Each reader therefore creates a different, unique world during his or her interaction with the book.  Sometimes these worlds leak into our everyday existence, so that the books reverberate through our daily lives.  Our inner selves are shifted subtly.  Who knows – small shifts in the moment might well lead to large changes in the long term.  My own life has been changed by many things, and books are among them.

In the article I wrote about a dozen or so remarkable books.  Unfortunately I wasn’t able to finish one of the books I had hoped to include in 2014, because I was already way past the deadline for the article.  So I want to mention something about it here.

I’m talking about Sherman Alexie’s short story collection, Blasphemy.  I saw it staring at me in the library; I had heard of Alexie but had never read him.  With a title like Blasphemy, how could I resist?

My latest collection contains 15 classic and 15 new stories about, well, you know, various Indians and their father issues! You can learn more about the book at Grove Press.

 

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Some Thoughts Upon Reading Jose’ Saramago’s All the Names

December 31, 2014

I’ve long intended to read Saramago, and by a curious chance I came across mention of his book “All the Names” (translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa) somewhere on the internet.  I was having a difficult day; I performed various necessary tasks, trying to put the book out of my mind.  But the description of the book on the internet was too compelling.  So last evening I made my way to that temple of words and worlds, the public library, and returned triumphantly bearing the book in question.  I sat down to read it yesterday evening, intending to get a taste of it and then set it aside for other things.  Instead I read the whole thing in one sitting.

It is a slight book, physically speaking.  The story, at first sight, may seem slight as well, given weight only by eccentricity of concept.  Senhor Jose’ is a middle-aged bachelor, a clerk in the unnamed city’s Central registry.  Alone in the world, his sole interest outside work is to collect clippings of famous people.  A chance mistake leads him to the birth certificate of an ordinary woman, a stranger.  Like a thread that has come loose from a great weave, this small record of an unimportant life among millions of similar lives is something he feels compelled to follow, to unravel.  His journey across the city in search of this woman is paralleled by his secret nocturnal trips into the labyrinth of the Central Registry after dark.  Appearing in his life from moment to moment are other people who are part of the unknown woman’s story.  The enigmatic figure of the Registrar hovers in the background.  The story sounds Kafkaesque but I don’t think it is, despite superficial resemblances.

The idea of the thread that is unraveled, or the thread that must be followed to lead the way into the darkness, is written into both form and content.  The story confounds the usual rules and conventions of the novel – sentences go on and on, conversations are not separated by quotation marks, and there is no attempt to ‘hook’ the reader with sex, or violence, or even an irresistible first sentence.  Yet I found I could not put the book down.  It begins prosaically enough, with a description of the Central Registry of Births and Deaths, but each sentence is a thread leading into the darkness.  Ariadne’s thread, which was given to Theseus in the ancient Greek myth of the Minotaur so that he could find his way out of the labyrinth, is explicitly mentioned in the book, and in fact employed by Senhor Jose’ when he must venture into the darkness of the section where records of death are kept.  This is a book about loneliness and love, and compassion, and the tenuous, yet undeniable connections between strangers.  It is heart-rending in a very quiet way, taking one’s own defences apart fibre by fibre during the act of reading.  I found my tea grown cold, the hour advanced to nearly midnight, and the stereo had long since stopped playing.  Today my day was filled with small reverberations, little aftershocks and resonances from the story that I cannot quite explain or articulate.

American Indian Writers of Children’s Literature!

December 2, 2014

I’ve argued before and I’ll say this again — there is no substitute for authors from a particular culture or community writing from their own perspectives, whether they are writing SF or something else.  So I just want to give a shout-out to this website for American Indian Writers of Children’s Literature.  It has some famous names like Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich, but there are many, many more!  While I’ve appreciated, every once in a while, the writing of a white author about another culture, even the good outsider writers can’t speak in the voices of those who grew up in that culture.  What an outsider sees or fails to see is entirely different from the gaze of the insider.  And when the culture being written about has been subjected to colonialism and related ills, all the more reason for its own writers to speak out and own their histories, their stories, their words.

I am not saying that people from one culture, dominant or not, should not write about any cultures than their own.  Writing shouldn’t be a ghetto divided into watertight compartments.  But white writers in particular and outsider writers in general should approach such writing with care, and recognize that however wonderful and important their works might be, they cannot do what the insider writer can do, cannot see what they can see.

I am increasingly conscious of my own responsibility in this as I write — increasingly — about cultures and geographies outside of India.  And part of that responsibility is to bring to the attention of the world (or at least to whoever reads my blog) the works of the great insider writers from various cultures.  I’m particularly interested in Native American writing.  So watch this space!

 

Hateship, Friendship… Spaceship! On ‘Good’ Stories

June 22, 2014

I finally saw the movie “The Namesake.”  Based on Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel, it is a story about the struggles of a young Indian-American man, born of immigrant parents, growing up in America.  What lends freshness to this tired old theme is the particularity of the story, and the fact that it doesn’t cater to stereotypes.  I thought the movie was pretty good, but a bit thin on substance.  Yes, it is a coming-of-age story, an immigrant story, a story about belonging, identity and maturity, done rather well.  But it (the movie, not the book, which I haven’t read) reminded me of a comment my mother had once made, years ago, upon starting to read Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.

The Vikram Seth book is apparently a multi-family saga, centered around a family’s search for a groom for their daughter.  It is a doorstopper of a book.   My mother’s point was – why write a novel (and such a fat one at that) about ordinary, everyday things that happen in so many families?  What’s so special about that?  Where’s the story?

Some people have compared Seth’s monumental work to Tolstoy and Dickens.  I will read it at some point when I have enough time to tackle a tome that voluminous.  I don’t want to detract from its virtues, which are spoken of as many – suffice it to say that the amount of drama in my family, particularly the maternal branch, is enough for a dozen novels that would put most fiction to shame.  This is kind of where my mother was coming from when she made that comment.

Nevertheless I want to pursue the notion of story from various perspectives based on my personal encounters, viewpoints, eccentricities, and sets of assumptions.  When we say “that was a good story,” and shut the book reluctantly, with a sigh, what are we saying?  How might personal quirks, cultural and other assumptions determine a ‘good’ story for one person and a bore for another?

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Alternate Visions: Some Musings on Diversity in SF

May 27, 2014

I was recently in the remote Alaskan town of Barrow for an academic project.  Barrow is profoundly different from any place I have been: at 71.3 N latitude, it perches at the edge of the Arctic Ocean.  During April, when I visited, the ocean is frozen as far as you can see.  The tundra is white and flat, and there is no vegetation.  Most of the people who live there are Inupiat Eskimos.  It is as far removed as you can imagine from Delhi, where I grew up, or for that matter, Boston, near which city I now reside.

I was wandering through the bright hallways of Ilisagvik college in Barrow, looking for someone with whom I hoped to speak, when I found an efficient young administrative assistant.  She assured me she would find the person I was seeking, and took my name down.  As is usual in the US I had to spell it for her.  “I’ve never heard that name before!” she said.  “Where are you from?” There was only curiosity and friendliness in her gaze.  I could tell that she was trying, and failing, to place me.  My skin was about the same color as hers, yet I looked different.  I was clearly not white, or African-American, and I was certainly not Inupiat, like her.  The innocence of her question was such that it did not occur to me to be offended, and I explained.

She said: “Wow!  It must be really strange for you to be here.”

I must have looked a question as I nodded, because she explained that she had once gone to Washington D.C.  Having lived in Barrow all her life, it was her first trip south.  South!  What was it like?  “It was so weird!” she said.  “So different!”  After that experience she realized how strange her home would seem to people from other places.

The best speculative fiction, like travel, does that to you – it takes you to strange places, from which vantage point you can no longer take your home for granted.  It renders the familiar strange, and the strange becomes, for the duration of the story, the norm.  The reversal of the gaze, the journey in the shoes of the Other, is one of the great promises of speculative fiction.  Much of the time it doesn’t deliver, however.  Much of the time you get to go to other worlds with your feet firmly encased in your own shoes, carrying around your perspectives and prejudices as though you had never left home.

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On Listening to Mahler on a Rainy Night

May 26, 2014

It’s been a strange sort of day, with sunshine and rain alternating. I’ve been sitting in the breezeway working on a long post for this blog about diversity in science fiction. The topic makes me think about distances, literal and metaphoric, about solitude, about the difficulties of relating to the other, who may be an alien, your next door neighbor, or both. As I’ve been writing, dark has been falling, bringing rain. I love the sound of rain drumming on the roof. It makes me long for samosas and hot tea, and music from the likes of Lata Mangeshkar. But for some reason tonight the rain has brought me a desire for Mahler. So I’ve been playing this youtube video of one of my favorite lieder ever Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. The music is fabulous, soaring, somber. Since I first heard this in a little student flat over two decades ago with my Korean roommate, it has haunted me. It was sung in a remarkable French movie, Le Maitre De Musique. All these years later I find myself humming the melody under my breath at odd moments.

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A Frenetically Fruitful Summer Reading

July 15, 2013

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.

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And When That Dawn Will Come…

June 6, 2013

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.

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Re-Post: The Creatures We Don’t See: Thoughts on the Animal Other

March 22, 2013

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.

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Why KSR’s 2312 is a Fail on Many Counts

March 19, 2013

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.   (more…)