My 2017 Award Eligibility Post ._.

I have put off writing this post for months. That doesn’t make me special — I am not the only writer, by far, who cringes at the notion of having to beat their own drum. But others have already written theirs, and prioritizing my cringe over everyone else’s is nothing but complacence.

2017 has been a year of many disappointments and personal struggles for me, but it has also been a year of exemplary kindness from quarters I did not expect, and working with a lot of wonderful, talented people. It was the first year I was solicited to write anything at all, and the “What? Me? Really? Are you sure?” sensation of that hasn’t yet subsided. I worked with editors and teams from India, the US, the UK, Australia, Canada, which is… not quite an achievement on the literary scale, and yet is for me, for where I come from and who my people are. I am writing this post in the spirit of celebrating all these amazing people who have given me opportunities and love. I feel very blessed.

1. Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia Butler

Eligible for: Best Related Work at the Hugo Awards; Best Non-fiction at the Locus Awards

2017-12-03 13.33.00.jpgThis book was a labour of love. That’s a hackneyed phrase, but no publisher (or editors) expect to get rich from a nonfiction anthology that presumes the knowledge (and love) of another author’s work. I came into this project only halfway through, and I accepted it because it was a book I believed should exist, a vision that gave me strength and hope at a time little else did. That is the same reason Alisa Krasnostein and Alexandra Pierce of Twelfth Planet Press started it. Every contributor in this book – well-known or not – has written out of love; and I hope everyone who has read has imbibed it from their words.

This is the entry I am campaigning the hardest for. I believe 100% in its capability to win All the Awards. If you really like me and for some reason want to spend a vote on me, vote Luminescent Threads up, please.

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An excerpt from Gary K. Wolfe’s review in Locus Magazine:

[B]y far the most moving section consists of contribu­tions by recipients of the Octavia Butler Scholar­ships to Clarion, not only because some of them have begun auspicious careers of their own (such as Rachel Swirsky and Indra Das), but because their own accounts are often powerful tales of self-discovery, even when they repeat the same points: no one expected to get in, no one certainly expected a scholarship, no one thinks Octavia would remem­ber them. Maybe not, but the point now is that they remember her, and they do it beautifully. She’d be cool with that, if a little embarrassed.

2. Missive from a Woman in a Room in a City in a Country in a World Not Her Own

Eligible for: Best Related Work at the Hugo Awards

I’ll be honest – this is a very long shot. This is more of political/identity/intersectionality article than an SFF article. But it is one of the first things I wrote in 2017. It loosened up an awful knot in my chest; brought me back from a very dark, unproductive place. I would love for some of you to read it again.

An excerpt from Charles Payseur’s review in Quick Sip Reviews (which I’ve posted before; my apologies for repetition):

This is an essay about erasure and about place. About feeling like you belong to a parallel dimension. Or that you’ve passed through some portal and instead of the fantasy realm where things were going to be magical and just, you find a banal and ruthless place that is actively seeking to create a past that never existed.

3. On Translating the Stories Yet Unwritten: A Dalit Perspective from India

Another political/identity/intersectionality article I wrote last year, touching only very slightly on SFF. It’s eligible for the same as above, and an even longer shot. Once again, I would mostly love for you to read it. I had never published this kind of nonfiction before these two articles. They are probably a new direction in my life, both as a writer and a human.

I have received heartwarming feedback about this essay, but I don’t think I can point to a review.

4. Learning to Swim

Eligible for: Best Short Story at the Nebula, Hugo, Locus Awards

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Honestly, the above line took me five minutes — and a lot of facial-muscle-and-diaphragm exertion — to write. I don’t believe yet that I’m ready to win any awards for my fiction. (I will tell you about the many, many really great stories I read last year that are. Let me do that on Twitter, since I’m rarely ever here, and so are you.) But this is the only story I published in 2017, and once again, it reflects all the thoughts and anxieties I was going through last year. I’ll be very glad if you read it. It somehow happens to be in the Nebula Reading List.

An excerpt from A. C. Wise’s review in Apex Magazine:

“Learning to Swim” is a beautiful story, even as it touches on the painful subjects of xenophobia, prejudice, and the way marginalized groups such as immigrants and religious minorities are too often treated in Western countries. However, it’s also a story of hope, found family, and community building, reminding us there is kindness in the world. Samantha and Raon’s refusal to give up on Uma, and the way they see her truly even when she cannot see herself shows that sometimes reaching out to someone in pain can make all the difference in the world.

Okay, that would be all. Hope all of you are having a very lovely 2018 so far, filled with beautiful stories and other things.

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OTHER PEOPLE has started publishing from Juggernaut Books!

 

Earlier this year (on 29 February, specifically, because what other more appropriate date for a book about weirdoes?), I signed a contract with Juggernaut Books for my short story collection Other People. Last week, along with the rest of the first list of Juggernaut Books, the first two stories came out in India.

Other People is a collection I’ve been writing for a long time. I started writing “Other People”, the first story, for my creative writing class at Jadavpur University in 2009. It was supposed to be just one story, but it expanded into a whole world and a cast of characters I loved, and I was so lost in exploring them that I never finished writing the story for the deadline that was breathing down my neck. I wrote another story in that world – a simpler but anachronistic story – for a later submission, but then I kept the project aside for a later time when I could develop it more fully.

Life happened. MA happened. Working at Penguin India happened, followed by Scotland, London, many other thoughts, places, people.

In late 2014 I picked up that world again, dusted it off a little, and started writing more stories in it. I loved it still. Older by five years and made a little wiser by life, unleashed into the world from my cloistered existence at home, I felt like I understood this world better, could see the characters clearly, why they were unlike the people who surrounded them, where they were coming from. In 2009 I was only looking at these people from the outside, observing like a visitor; in 2014 I was finally in the midst of them. Inside their heads – where I wanted to be.

I wrote two stories at home in Calcutta – the first two stories that you can read now. I wrote another at Clarion West, Seattle in the summer of 2015, and two more at Rutgers University–Camden, where I enrolled for an MFA now. I am writing another story as I write this post. Other People is a work in progress. The stories will keep appearing from Juggernaut as I write them, and after a while we will have a whole book.

The reason why Juggernaut Books can publish Other People as a serial is that their primary platform is an app. The Android app is out in India already, and the iOS app is soon to follow. (My mother, who has an ancient Windows phone from Nokia, feels a little excluded from the party.) They are new, and they have a fantastic team – probably the best team in India I could publish with right now. Chiki Sarkar, who is the publisher, was my employer back at Penguin India; and R. Sivapriya, who is now my editor, was a senior colleague I was always too much in awe of. (She used to curate the literary classics and translations list back at Penguin India. How many languages does Sivapriya read in? We junior copy editors back at the office could never stop speculating.) They enjoy literary fantasy, which not many publishers in India do yet. The monsters and other outcasts of Other People feel like they’re in safe hands with them.

Orijit Sen – River of Stories (Article in the Kindle magazine)

Backlisting, my new column to write about books and publishing, started this month in the Kindle magazine from Calcutta. The plan for the column is to take an interesting non-canon book from Indian writing in English each month and do a review/interview/anecdote-chasing/study of publishing history, as much as I’m allowed to do within the space of one article.

The first instalment is on River of Stories by Orijit Sen, presumably the first graphic novel in English to be published in India. I spoke to Sen at his People Tree studio on a violently rainy afternoon in Delhi, two days before I packed up and left the city. I came home to Calcutta, also flooded, and there was no sun, no air, no internet signal in my ground-floor bedroom. I wrote the article mostly at the newly acquired and very spacious quarters of Jadavpur University Press, in the intermittent (and very cheering-up) company of Tintin’da, Rimi’di, Deeptanil’da, Debo. Somak came over and fed me biscuits one day when I was quietly starving. Ah well, excuse the spurt of homesickness. Here’s the article that came out of those days.

River of Stories by Orijit Sen (Possibly the only extant copy)
River of Stories by Orijit Sen (Possibly the only extant copy)

Orijit Sen sits at his desk in an inner room of his sprawling and chaotic studio upstairs from the People Tree store in Hauz Khas Village. Inside a wooden bookcase at one corner of this room lives the only physical copy of River of Stories I know. It is tattered and discoloured, with the gum on the spine dried up and several of the pages come loose. This is not the copy I had read. As a young student in Calcutta six or seven years ago, I had downloaded the book in a CBR file from a torrent site I can no longer locate. When I mention this to Sen, he is not displeased. For the past many years, anyone who comes looking for River of Stories to the older People Tree store in Connaught Place is allowed to take a printout of the pages. The book has been out of print since its first publication in 1994.

Graphic novels in India have a chequered and not very long history. The medium came into widespread appreciation only after the publication of Sarnath Banerjee’s Corridor in 2004 by Penguin Books India. It was around the time when people started asking about River of Stories again, Sen tells me, but when he wrote and published the book—more than ten years before—there was little awareness and lesser to look forward to. The sixty-two-page-long book was a labour of love, written and illustrated over three years at Sen’s own expense—a leap considerably large for a comics creator, for the production process is more entwined with the creation of a comic book than it is with text. Art supplies and paper are expensive. Reimagining and drawing a panel is considerably more time- and labour-intensive than rewriting a paragraph in text. If factors such as page size, quality and texture of paper, whether the comic book would be in colour or in black and white are decided too late in the process, whatever has already been created may even need to be entirely discarded and recreated from scratch.

Fortunately for Sen, who was newly out of NID Ahmedabad and got interested in the Narmada Bachao Andolan around 1990, there were friends and others who understood his medium and as well as his vision. Through his participation in protests about the Narmada valley and his visits to the affected areas, he had befriended activist and musician Rahul Ram (key member of Indian Ocean, a band that would later produce the acclaimed hit ‘Ma Rewa’ from a folk song of the Vindhyas) and his then wife Amita Baviskar, a sociologist who was researching the tribal myths of the Bhilala people of Madhya Pradesh, inhabitants of the area in which River of Stories is based. His friends arranged for Sen to receive a publishing grant via the environmental-issues’ NGO Kalpavriksh—a government grant that went into the making of a book supporting an anti-government protest, Sen chuckles in reminiscence. With the grant he went out to find a printing press. His budget did not allow printing in colour but Sen insisted on using a particular kind of thick semi-glossy paper which the press he selected happened to have at that time. The size of the paper decided the page size of the book—at 8-by-11 inches, slightly smaller than an A4-sized page—and its quality lent crispness and detail to the black-and-white art, which Sen put to efficient use all through. The lettering was done by hand by Baviskar.

River of Stories is a succinct and visually sumptuous work on the subject of the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Vishnu, a young journalist from Delhi, goes on a journey to Ballanpur to do a story on the reactions of the protesters and the locals, following a road that Sen himself may have taken. Interspersed with the narrative of Vishnu is the story of Malgu Gayan and the birth of the river Narmada (known locally and in the book as Rewa)—soft grey and pencil-shaded, as opposed to the fluid, cartoonish quality of the Vishnu strand of the story—rendering each panel like a painting. The two narratives come together as the story progresses, and so do the two styles of art. This technique is not entirely unprecedented, but Sen’s use of it in River of Stories receives significance from the fact that the Narmada Bachao Andolan questioned a development model that prescribed the replacement of age-old—and till then quite independent and self-sustaining—tribal cultures with large-scale modern structures for agriculture and industrialization. When Malgu Gayan of myth steps into Vishnu’s world, the transition is seamless not only due to Sen’s mastery of his medium, but also because the adivasis of the Narmada valley are still largely similar in both attire and perspective about the world.

Elsewhere in the book, in an overwhelming three-page-long pullout, Sen—who considers the double spread the basic unit of a comic-book story—depicts the course of the river Narmada from its source in Ambarkhant to the Rewasagar dam under construction, a map that transcends the topographical and becomes, as he calls it, ‘a map of stories told and as yet untold’. The map is superscripted with stories spoken in many voices, from Malgu Gayan singing the creation myth of the river on his rangai to the adivasis protesting in Hindi and urban activists explaining the ecological and humanitarian consequences of the dam-building projects.

After having printed River of Stories, Orijit Sen went around bookstores in Delhi trying to distribute it. He was met with baffled questions—was it a book for children? Why was the spine so thin? Even the bookstores that hesitantly agreed to sell the book would accept no more than five or ten copies. A few hundred copies were kept by Kalpavriksh to be sold at its events, but the rest of the stock remained with Sen, to be sold over the next five or six years from his independent People Tree store. “My friends and the people at Kalpavriksh loved it,” says Sen, “but at that time there was no impact on the media or the general public at all.” The author Khushwant Singh— who was sent a copy of the book, enjoyed it and invited Sen for a chat afterwards—was the only one who covered it in the media when he mentioned it briefly in his column in the Hindustan Times. Reader responses were few and far between, but also sometimes charmingly unexpected—for instance, a letter Sen received from a schoolteacher in Ethiopia who had somehow landed a copy of the book. It wasn’t until ten years later, with the rise in interest in graphic novels following Corridor, that Amitabh Kumar—fellow comics creator and a member of the Pao Collective, a comics ensemble started by Sen and a few others—made a scan of the only remaining copy of River of Stories and put it up online, the file that had made its way to my hands.

Back in the 1990s, though, the only substantial return from River of Stories was a WHO-and-NACO commission Sen received to put together a comics anthology about AIDS awareness in Manipur three years later. Lack of funding kept him from creating other longer works, but he continued to make short pieces in his own time, including a series of one-page shorts called Telling Tales for the India Magazine. The greater part of his years, however, had been occupied in establishing People Tree, which now has two branches in Delhi and one in Goa. Today, as both the store and the Pao Collective have caught the interest of a receptive public, Sen intends to republish River of Stories with a new prologue for the Pao Reader in 2014. (The first book from the collective, called the Pao Anthology, was published by Penguin Books India in 2012.) Reverberating with his distinct creative sense in both story and art, one hopes this will bring greater appreciation to non-fiction comics creation in India.

And this is a link to the article on the website of Kindle.

Jerry Pinto – When Crows Are White (Chat/Article in the Striptease magazine)

I am back from Europe (from Germany and Budapest, specifically) after a short vacation, so here’s a story I wrote for Striptease, a new online magazine for comics. This was published on 18 October, the day I’d left for my trip. I had the chat with Jerry a long time ago – back in summer when I still lived in Delhi, and When Crows Are White was very new — but the article took months to materialize, partly because of my series of relocations, partly because I was returning to journalism after many years and kept writing and rewriting the first line. Nevertheless, this was a fun thing to do.

Jerry Pinto and Garima Gupta - When Crows Are White
When Crows Are White by Jerry Pinto and Garima Gupta

Jerry Pinto is a delight to interview but a daunting man to write about. The first is because he’s humble and engaging and startlingly perceptive about human nature. On the other hand, besides having claimed the Hindu Literary Prize last year for his debut novel Em and The Big Hoom, Pinto has a writing career behind him that is as old as twenty years. He is the author of eleven books, nearly each of them from a different genre. He hasn’t written a graphic novel before, but that probably made it the least surprising that this was going to be his next publication.

The book is called When Crows Are White and combines words by Jerry Pinto with black-and-white art by Garima Gupta. At 56 pages it’s a small book, but with wide pages for the reader to take in the detail and the eclecticness of the art. The characters are crows, an odd choice to make for a story, perhaps more so for a story for children, which is what it is. ‘I wanted to talk about the way in which we create the other, the way in which we define ourselves. In India, it’s one of the most important things,’ Pinto tells me over a chat conversation. ‘I wanted to write a fable. I tried several ways, but they ended up sounding preachy and horrible—so I let them fade into oblivion. Then one day, I saw a murder of crows attacking an injured crow. I tried to intervene but the injured crow pecked at me as if it would rather die at the beaks and claws of its own kind. And When Crows are White was born.’

It’s a story that goes straight for the heart, delicately sidestepping the familiar traps of cliché and patronization. Pinto, who has taught for many years and is an active campaigner for child rights, knows better than to take his young readers for granted. The framing story is a lesson in itself—a female crow called Saawri has a premonitory dream that the baby to be hatched from her egg is going to be white. In a murder of crows that is traditionalist to the point that every ‘unnatural’ crow is ‘culled’ without exception, that kind of anomaly simply has no space. To save the life of her unborn child, Saawri seeks recourse into the stories and myths of crows, and the reader follows her through them.

There are fascinating world-creation myths in the book, at least one of which I am sure I’ve never come across. ‘I think I invented the Aviana story, so yes, some of them came from my head,’ admits the author, adding smoothly, ‘but then, all myths have their origin in some head or the other, so I thought why not mine as well.’ The others are products of somewhat painstaking research, often with the help of the author Shanta Gokhale, whom Pinto calls ‘a national treasure for her spirit and her knowledge and her enthusiasm for other people’s ideas’.

Motherhood, child-hood (the act of being a child, rather) and bringing up children seem to be a recurring concern in Pinto’s work. Em and The Big Hoom—the fictionalized memoir of a son trying to save and survive his mentally unbalanced mother—is almost entirely constructed on this theme. When Crows Are White reads like an optimistic reversal of the novel, in which a mother tries to save her unborn child. When I put this observation to Pinto, he tells me, ‘I suppose there is some fascination with the way in which human beings are created. Perhaps that’s why the bildungsroman is such a big deal. Because it deals with the way in which a man or a woman may constitute himself or herself. I think, therefore, the primal fear and fascination with the figure of the mother comes from this recognition—that nothing will be as important in determining who you are. Which perhaps accounts for the image of the vagina dentata, the mother goddess who takes the baby in her arms and then bites off its head, the image of Kali, the power of Mariolatry that is at present shaking the Roman Catholic Church. But is it what I am fascinated by?’ He pauses, reflects, adds, ‘I’ll have to think about it. It’s an interesting observation, though.’

What brought him to the format of the graphic novel? ‘I think Arvind Krishna Mehrotra said it best when he said to me once in an interview, “When you’ve read a great deal of books, eventually you want to see your name on a spine.” And I spent my youth reading comics,’ says Pinto. ‘I read everything from Sad Sack to Amar Chitra Katha, from Tintin to Chandamama. I read Family Circus, Peanuts, Archie, and in between, only when the comics ran out, I would read books. Today, we call comics graphic novels so that we can escape the feeling that we’re being a little immature but a comic is a comic is a graphic novel is a graphic novel is a comic, if I may riff a little. And so, when I wanted to talk to children, I went back to Lewis Carroll’s Alice who falls asleep because her sister’s book has no pictures and no conversations.’

He offered the script to many publishers, initially with little success. One publisher advised him to work it into a short story to be put into an anthology of moral tales. Another said it wasn’t a book at all, just an outline. It finally struck a chord with Sayoni Basu, then editor at Scholastic India, who accepted it and brought Garima Gupta on board. Pinto and Gupta did not meet in person until a long time after the book was finished. And while he believes that the art in a graphic novel is always a meta-narrative, Pinto does not quite mind the lack of prior acquaintance. ‘I have never believed in doing someone else’s work,’ he says. ‘If I work with a designer, I may make suggestions, but mostly I’d leave the designer alone. I speak from my magazine experience.’

He enjoyed writing this book, but Pinto doesn’t know if he’ll write another graphic novel. ‘If something moves under the skin, I’ll do it again. It’s not easy. I’ve never been rejected as many times as I was rejected with Crows, and who likes being rejected, however kindly? So there’s always that conscious moment when you’re thinking, Never again,’ he says, but adding, ‘I’ve felt this for so many things. No more anthologies, I’ve said to myself. No more collaborations, I’ve said to myself. No more scripts. But somewhere deep inside, the need to say is surfacing, and suddenly one day, it’s there again and it’s in a form that you’ve just forsworn.’ As enchanted readers, I guess that’s something we all hope.

This is a link to the published article.