August 2006

Geoffrey H. Goodwin

features

An Interview with Vandana Singh

Born and brought up in New Delhi, with summer trips to visit grandparents in Patna, Vandana Singh is a distinct voice in contemporary Speculative Fiction.

In a Year’s Best list for 2003, novelist Christopher Barzak highlighted Vandana Singh’s third published story, “The Wife,” writing, “…it seems that, with each new story, Singh is finding mythic resonance in the most unlikely of scenarios.” This "unlikely" element may come from Singh’s ability to draw on sources Speculative Fiction sometimes ignores. Along with insightful uses of her Ph.D. in theoretical particle physics, Singh’s fiction often explores identity from her perspective as an Indian woman.

In reference to Vandana Singh’s new book, Younguncle Comes to Town, Ursula K. LeGuin has said, “Vandana Singh is a most promising and original young writer.”

Singh’s stories have appeared in venues including Polyphony, Strange Horizons and Rabid Transit. “The Wife” was reprinted in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror #17 and “Delhi” was reprinted in the twenty-second volume of The Year's Best Science Fiction.

How old were you when you wanted to write fiction?  Did you expect to be doing it in English?

I’ve always written something or other, whether fiction, poetry or essay, pretty much since I could hold a writing implement. I started writing fiction more regularly and sending it off for publication quite late in life, in my thirties. 

As for English -- well, most Indian urbanites are raised bilingual (I learned English when I was around four-years old) so it isn’t a foreign language to me at all. 

In an interview for Small Beer Press’ lovely anthology, Trampoline, which contains your story “The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet,” you said, “When I was eleven I read my first SF book -- Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 – and a whole universe dropped at my feet.” Do you still feel that way? Is it true that you stopped reading SF for a period but returned to it as an attempt to understand the alienation of living in a new country?

Yes, well, one reason I write (and read a lot of) speculative fiction is that it is in the nature of the beast to drop universes at your feet. I had read some juvenile science fiction before Bradbury, such as the old Tom Swift books, which engaged me for the moment but they were ultimately forgettable. Bradbury opened to me the multifarious uses of the imagination -- to build societies, worlds, universes out of whole cloth, and at the same time say something about the human condition, about human nature. And to do so with elegance and passion. So that when you close the book at last you are still in that world, still caught up in wonder.

I then read and enjoyed truckloads of SF, including Asimov, Clarke, and others, but after a while I started to get disenchanted. I couldn’t articulate why, at the time. Only upon coming to America in my twenties for my Ph.D. did I feel the urge to start reading SF again, simply because there was no other literature that spoke to my condition of being quite literally an alien. And also because being outside my own culture, I began to realize that the world (including the familiar one I had left behind) was a very strange place indeed.

When I discovered the works of Ursula K. Le Guin I had a second revelatory moment. This relates to the disconnect I had felt with SF after my teens, that I had not been able to comprehend at the time. The reason, I realized all those years later, was that in the various futures of science fiction there was no place for us Third-Worlders, except perhaps as the faceless unwashed masses waiting to be uplifted, or the occasional caricature. There was a sort of Exclusion Principle in place. Then along came Ursula K. Le Guin and other writers who broke that barrier and put us back among the humans instead of the aliens. That was when I realized that there was a place in SF for the likes of me.

Do you think of Younguncle Comes to Town as a text that speaks across borders? Did it need cultural adjustments for publication in the U.S.? Does this tie to a recent interview with Samit Basu where you said that Indian writers of SF “have to write what is in our heart and soul and gut -- not what we think might sell abroad?”

I have no idea whether Younguncle Comes to Town is a text that speaks across borders -- I will leave that to others to decide. But I do hope that my book transcends borders of nationality and culture. If it doesn’t, either it is not a very good book or there isn’t much hope for us as a species.

It was first published in India by Zubaan press and Penguin India, but while the Indian audience is crucial, I’ve always had a wider audience in mind. The Viking editors here in the U.S. demonstrated a great deal of respect for the integrity of the work by only making minor changes -- spelling and some grammar -- to accommodate an American audience. So they’ve left in some of the (very few) Hindi words that are scattered around in the text. I think it is an act of courage on the part of a publisher not to automatically assume that the American public -- kids in particular -- are too dumb to get it. There was one reviewer who complained about the “Hindu” words not being explained (thereby revealing his ignorance in that the language is Hindi and the religion is Hindu). On the other hand another reviewer actually liked the Hindi words being there and said that the meaning could be understood from context.

When I was growing up, that is how I learned the significance of words and events in the English books I read -- from context.  I didn’t think of it as work -- it was an adventurous way of reading, figuring out the whys and wherefores of another culture through the way unfamiliar words and expressions were used. Readers of science fiction and fantasy are used to this as well, because they are often plunged into a completely different world without explanation. My book is not science fiction and only has a few fantastical elements -- it is set on Earth, in our own times, and there are no more than a handful of Hindi words. I suspect that there might be a certain unconscious First World arrogance in wanting everything from another culture explained, labeled, and served in little boxes on a platter.    

People who know children’s books, such as reviewers in School Library Journal and the Horn Book, have praised the book, which makes me hopeful that it does, in fact, speak to Americans as well. Also, Younguncle Comes to Town is a selection of the Junior Library Guild, which makes me very happy. I am a confirmed library addict/fanatic.  

And yes, all this ties in with what I said in the interview with Samit: you’ve got to write what’s in you. If you want to reach people you have to make your work accessible, but that does not mean you have to dumb it down, or oversimplify. To sum-up: I have complete faith in the intelligence of kids everywhere to “get it.” I’m not always sure about the grown-ups. 

The central character, Younguncle, is an iconoclast with a knack for creative problem solving. What were some of your inspirations for him, or was he cut from whole cloth?

Younguncle arose some years ago when I was making up stories for my daughter while she was sick. It was a cold Boston winter and she wanted some stories about India. He appeared as a minor character in some wild tale that I only half remember, and then took on a life of his own. It was only much later that I realized that I’d been modeling him on at least three different people in my life. All of these people have a healthy disrespect for authority, don’t care what the establishment thinks of their antics and have a very different way of looking at the world. They reject labels and constantly violate society’s expectations of them. They make friends with children and old people and camels passing by on the road and really seem to live full, liberated lives in the midst of social constraints. They are engaged with the world and care what happens to people and animals.  Younguncle adopted all these traits and developed a few eccentric ones of his own.

How long have you been working on the Younguncle stories? How many exist?

It’s been about four years now. I’ve written two books about Younguncle, and the first one, Younguncle Comes to Town, is the one that was just released in the U.S. The second one, Younguncle in the Himalayas is one novel rather than a series of related stories, and is currently only available in India. I’ve told my daughter one other Younguncle story that I need to write down before I forget it, and I know there will be others coming, whenever Younguncle is ready to tell me more.  

Will one of Younguncle’s favorite texts, Life Experiences of a Wandering Mendicant, see print?

If you’d read the second Younguncle book, my answer to you would have been two words: “Jackfruit Curry!”

But since that isn’t available here I can only say that until I turn into -- or succeed in channeling -- a hairy guy in robes and a long beard who grins toothily at you while regaling you with an account of his previous life as a grapefruit, his book will likely not see the light of day. But who knows? Weirder things have happened. 

How hard would it be to give a nutshelled history, from the beginning to the present, of Indian Science Fiction, from the female perspective?

Very hard because this is a subject I am still learning about. If by “the female perspective” you mean Indian Science Fiction written by women, I can only give you one historical example, Rokeya Sukhawat Hussain’s utopic story “Sultana’s Dream” that came out around 1905. I know a couple of other women writers’ names (apart from my own) but I am still in the process of finding out who they are and what they wrote. This is actually a project of mine, since I am going to be editing an anthology of Indian Science Fiction for Penguin India, and I am frantically following up leads, rumors, hints and mythological accounts of various SF writers (men and women) in various languages. As an aside, there is a thriving SF tradition in various non-English Indian languages like Bengali and Marathi.

So ask me this question some time in the next year and I might be able to give you a real answer.

You live and teach in Massachusetts and write in English. You’ve said that you love English but that it needn’t plow over Hindi or other languages, that you desire a multiplicity of tongues. Is it difficult reconciling a life lived, and thoughts shaped, in different languages?

I also love Hindi. I think it is wonderful to be able to think and speak and write in two languages. It is only difficult in that I don’t have as much exposure to Hindi any more -- as a spoken language or as literature -- as much as I used to in India, and sometimes I feel that a part of me is slowly eroding away. While I am still fluent in Hindi I’m losing vocabulary because I don’t use it or hear it on a daily basis. I fight this as much as I can.

Having two languages to call your own is like having two windows with which to view the world. The two views are sometimes at odds but they often coalesce to give you some depth perception, some insight that you may not have had otherwise. Less mystically, the literature of both traditions has influenced me and formed me as a writer (although I take responsibility for my own shortcomings, of course): examples include works by Premchand, the great Hindi writer, and the Indian epics and the Sanskrit poets Kalidasa and Jayadeva, and Ghalib and Sahir writing in Urdu, as well as the writings of Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, Ray Bradbury and Ursula K. Le Guin. 

Have you ever written poetry or fiction in Hindi?

Yes. In my childhood I’d make up the occasional Hindi comic verse for my sister and younger cousins, and I liked to write essays in Hindi. My mother’s Hindi writings are very beautiful and assured (although she’s never sought publication), and I’ve always aspired to that. I’ve dabbled a little in fiction from time to time, but these days I mostly write poetry in Hindi, mostly for myself. It is strange: English is my language of communication with the world, so when I want to reach out, I write in it. But when I want to express things to myself, things that I probably could not express in English and wouldn’t want to shout out to the world, I write poetry in Hindi. I’ve no idea if it is any good, but that is a moot point as I write it just for myself and as long as it satisfies my personal aesthetic and emotional needs, it is fine. Hindi to me is the primal element, the first air I breathed.

In the context of different cultures and speculative fiction, you’ve said that, “like all Indians fed on a diet of Enid Blytons, I often thought in my younger days that adventures happened to blond-haired Juliets or blue-eyed Harrys.” This is sometimes tough for Americans to comprehend, perhaps because American readers are entrenched in cultural biases. Could you please elaborate?

Well, when I was growing up and reading more and more English books, there were very few English books available (published at home or elsewhere) that featured Indian characters. This was surprising even then because since colonial times India has always had a substantial English-fluent population (a playwright in India told me last year that we probably have about 60 million people who are fluent in English, which is only a tiny fraction of 1 billion, but still enough to justify the indigenous publishing industry). Books by the British author Enid Blyton were standard fare for children growing up in big urban areas, and they were set in the contemporary era, featuring plucky kids having the most intriguing (if improbable) adventures. By comparison, my own life seemed utterly ordinary and boring. In Hindi I had read some lurid and engaging tales of magic and adventure in a series of small, fat pocket books -- but they were perhaps too wild for me to relate to at the time. So I grew up with the notion that exciting adventures in our times only happened to kids in far-off, exotic places like London. While I did acres of homework and played tamely in neighborhood parks, English kids apparently led lives fraught with danger and excitement.  

At that time India had been a free country only for some thirty years or so. It takes decades or centuries to throw off the mental shackles of colonialism, to come into your own. Perhaps that is one of the reasons we didn’t have much indigenous publishing in English that focused on Indian characters, back then. Things have changed now -- while Harry Potter is still at the top of the charts in India, there is a thriving and growing publishing industry in English featuring Indian authors writing about Indian kids. There are translations from non-English Indian languages (we have 18 major languages) in which authors have always written about interesting things happening to Indian kids.   

It took my coming to the U.S. to realize that one of the most interesting places in the world was actually my own backyard. The city of Delhi is thousands of years old and I grew up surrounded by history, almost literally in the shadows of crumbling fort walls and nameless medieval monuments (among the modern high-rises). The very air was -- and still is -- thick with stories. But I had to go away, to take the view from a far shore, to see all this.   

What’s Delhi like this time of year? How about the MetroWest area of Massachusetts?

Delhi is currently experiencing the monsoons, which means that between the thunderstorms there are periods of great heat and humidity. The thunderstorms themselves are rather magnificent -- Nature gets all melodramatic. The mango season is about ending so you have to eat all the mangoes you can get. 

Here in Massachusetts it is warm and humid, with the occasional rainstorm. I got caught in one recently and it brought me back to Delhi in an instant. Summer has a slow, languorous feel to it here (as opposed to sitting in a furnace, which is what it is like in Delhi before the monsoon breaks) and the evenings are cool. But no mangoes! 

How does your work teaching college physics inform or affect your work?

My background in Physics (and my current teaching job) influences and inspires my writing as much as anything else. We live in a gorgeously strange and quirky universe -- sunsets, supernovas, animals, people, mountains, deserts -- are all intrinsically interesting and wonderful. The same impulse that inspires me to write also leads me to ponder the physical universe. It has been a long time since I did any research in physics -- and indeed I had been out of the field for years before returning to teaching three years ago -- but the joy of discovering or learning about a pattern in apparently disparate phenomena, of finding the underlying elegance and beauty -- that has stayed with me. In my science fiction writing my physics background is more directly relevant. Teaching also ties into my SF because when I am explaining something or when a student is asking an interesting question, I often get ideas for stories. 

One of the things I feel strongly about is science education -- the fact that it is so pathetic in this, the most powerful nation in the world, is a disgrace. I’ve also not come across such a deep divide between science and the humanities anywhere else -- where people who choose one seem to completely reject or be fearful of the other. (There are happy exceptions of course.) This is a great pity because science is one of the most beautiful of human endeavors. For writers, especially, science is filled with deep, strange metaphors waiting to be mined. One of the things I find most unfortunate (and boring) about much contemporary realist fiction is that it seems to be completely disengaged with Nature, the physical world, whatever you want to call it.

You’re known for your passion for music.  What have you been listening to lately?

I’ve been a student (on and off) of Indian classical vocal music for many years. It is a tradition that is probably five thousand years old and keeps me grounded. I listen to a lot of that, but I also love good fusion music, old Bollywood film songs, Sufi music from India and Pakistan, Persian classical, Early European music especially Renaissance (my husband plays the Renaissance lute, among other instruments), some Western classical, including Italian opera, and folk music from practically everywhere (English, French, Bulgarian, Greek, Indian). Lately I’ve been listening to some wonderful Punjabi fusion rock by an Indian musician and singer called Rabbi Shergill, and some Sufi music from the Pakistani singer Abida Parveen.