Putting Sri Lankans in Space: SALA Presentation

“Putting Sri Lankans in Space”

The previous times I’ve been to SALA, I’ve mostly talked about my mainstream fiction; Bodies in Motion is realistic immigrant stories, starting in Sri Lanka in the 1940s and coming to America down two family lines. It came out in 2005 from HarperCollins, as part of a two-book deal, and was supposed to be followed by a realistic novel featuring a Sri Lankan-Indian-Jewish threesome. That novel crashed and burned, which is a long, interesting story that I won’t be telling right now.

More than a little scarred, I took a break for a while, had children, and when I came back to writing, was determined to do something fun, something I loved. I had grown up with a passion for science fiction. (Half-human/ half-Vulcan Spock spoke deeply to me, an immigrant Sri Lankan child growing up as the only brown kid in a Polish American Catholic school. There was a while when I was more fluent in Polish than in Tamil. ‘W imię Ojca, i Syna i Ducha Świętego. Amen.’)

So I set out to write a light, erotic SF tale (I spent my 20s mostly writing erotica), a set of linked stories about Sri Lankans in space. They’d settle a university planet (of course), hang out with aliens, and generally have a fun, sexy time. (https://www.goodreads.com/bo…/show/18754952-the-stars-change)

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That book turned serious, despite my best efforts. The Stars Change ended up mostly about Black July; it centered on the opening salvos of a long and bloody war, an alien ghetto under attack, and the humans who must decide whether to risk their own lives and safety to help their neighbors.

I had tried to write about Black July in realist fiction over and over in those intervening years, had started more than one novel, but had run aground on the rock of diaspora, of being so distant in time and place. I was full of questions about stakeholding, about my right to tell a story where the details were being gathered from newspaper reports, where my mistakes, misrepresentations, might contribute to an ongoing, bitter conflict. Might even cost lives, with my own relatively safe in America. Translating the issues to science fiction was safer. Maybe that’s cowardly of me. I don’t know.

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But there’s a way in which translating the work to science fiction is clearly useful. When we teach science fiction, we talk about ‘cognitive estrangement’ – the way that setting a story in an alien time and place makes it possible to address issues in a different way, so readers might disengage from their preconceptions, see things more clearly.

Sheree Renée Thomas‘s Dark Matter is an excellent anthology of black American speculative fiction that traces the work of African American authors who have attempted to address the grievous history of blacks in America through stories full of aliens, vampires, goddess interventions. It offers machines that can change your skin color, aliens who arrive and offer humanity wealth and health in exchange for America’s black people, women who struggle to survive in a post-apocalyptic hellscape.

Cosmos Latinos (ed. Andrea L. Bell & Yolanda Molina-Gavilán) offers Latin American science fiction, with a perhaps unsurprising focus on the rush of oncoming technology, the problems of factory workers & their relationship to the factory owners, a host of Marxist critiques wrapped up in science fiction trappings. Similarly, Polish and Russian writers, who were at risk of being jailed by the state, cloaked their cultural critiques in alien skin.

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In The Stars Change, there is no overt mention of Tamil or Sinhalese, nothing so explicit for a reader to balk at. Maybe that lets the arguments of the book slip in under a reader’s radar, sometimes.

A linked story, “Plea,” is ostensibly about pacifist telepathic space whales. But it’s really about the Syrian refugee crisis, about my relatives who fled Sri Lankan after ’83, and about my son’s difficulties in kindergarten, when he was sent to the principal’s office seventeen times in one year. It’s about which brown boy (or adult man) gets labeled as ‘violent’ and why, and what desperate choices a parent might make in the worst of circumstances. (http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/plea/)

“Webs” is about Black July again, from a different angle, and also centers on transgender concerns and passing privilege, but on the surface, it’s about people who have genetically engineered themselves to fly. They do have tires shoved over their heads and set on fire, before they themselves are tossed off the edge of a cliff – that detail might give the game away. (http://maryannemohanraj.com/webs/)

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Recently I was flown to Paris to participate in the Plurality University, a response to the famous Singularity University in part, a gathering of futurists, science fiction writers, artists and designers, and more, from around the globe. I’ve served as a futurist board member for the Museum of Science and Industry, and for the XPrize, bringing speculative futurist perspectives to discussions of housing, environment, and more.

Futurists don’t claim to be able to predict the future, but we do think about it, in great detail. Sometimes the far future, sometimes the very near. I recently wrote a story for Welcome to Dystopia, an anthology of stories responding to the election of Trump – my piece interwove my concerns around reproductive rights, revocation of immigration status, and the challenges of parenting mixed-raced children in the current and near future political climate. (https://www.goodreads.com/…/sh…/36359199-welcome-to-dystopia)

At the Plurality University, I was introduced to the term ‘perspectivist,’ currently in use in France and Latin America, where historians are founding companies that offer perspectives on the past and the future to tech companies, to NGO’s (one woman I met served as the official futurist for the International Red Cross), to governments, and more. I find that term useful.

Speculative fiction writers have been trying to offer alternate perspectives, lenses of cognitive estrangement, for a very long time.

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I admit, I often find it irritating when mainstream writers, readers, and academics dismiss the vast corpus of science fiction, and then go on to stumblingly reproduce the beginnings of what we’ve been working on for decades. At the Museum of Science and Industry futurist board sessions, for example, it was incredibly frustrating hearing people of power offer brainstorming suggestions as if they were brand new, as if no one had ever thought about the future of housing, or space travel, or gender expression before.

I (along with spec fic author Mary Robinette Kowal) promised the museum staff that I would give them a booklist of science fiction titles they should read. Speculative fiction writers have been interrogating human nature, life on this planet, for a very long time; there’s a vast, deep conversation that museums, corporations, governments need to get up to speed on.

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What’s exciting to me right now is seeing who else is joining that conversation. For a long time, science fiction was the province primarily of white men. The 70s saw a wave of serious feminist work, from authors like Russ and Tiptree and LeGuin. A little later, Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale, which is classic dystopian science fiction, as much as she might hate to admit it. The magical realists started breaking down some of these barriers – Marquez, Allende. Salman Rushdie, in Midnight’s Children, gives us telepathy and time travel, classic SF tropes.

In the last decade, writers of color have exploded onto the speculative fiction scene, with African American writer Nora Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy winning the Hugo Award for three successive years running (a feat never seen before in the field), with Nnedi Okorafor’s stories being picked up for development by HBO. Anthologies are now coming out featuring sourceland African writers (Imagine Africa 500, edited by Billy Kahora), Ken Liu has just edited a major new volume of Chinese science fiction in translation, Broken Stars. South Asia is coming too.

Mimi Mondal recently published a round-up of South Asian speculative fiction at Tor.com, an excellent primer for those who’d like to familiarize themselves with the beginnings of this field; it includes familiar writers like Anil Menon and Vandana Singh, but also some newer voices (https://www.tor.com/…/a-short-history-of-south-asian-specu…/).

I expect an explosion of South Asian speculative fiction in the next few years – I’m talking to a few different publishers about editing an anthology right now, in fact. South Asian visions of the future, perspectives on the past, will surely provide fascinating and productive lenses on what’s to come.

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As for me personally, I’m delighted and thrilled to see more speculative fiction writers from Sri Lanka (both sourcelanders and diaspora) joining the conversation. I’ll end this with a brief introduction to some of their work, so you can see a little of what they’re bringing to the conversation.

R.K. Kalaw is a diaspora author of Sri Lankan & Filipino descent, writing various short fiction pieces. (https://twitter.com/rk_kalaw)

Naru Sundar is writing short fiction and poetry; I’m passing along his black July story, “A Ghost Among the Mangroves.” (http://podcastle.org/…/…/pc-478-a-ghost-among-the-mangroves/) (http://www.shardofstar.info)

• Vajra Chandrasekera is currently a fiction editor at the magazine I founded, Strange Horizons (a particular delight to me) – they’ve written short stories that have appeared in the genre’s foremost magazines, like Clarkesworld and Lightspeed. http://vajra.me

• Mandy Jay (Mandy Jayatissa) is the author of a steampunk novel, The Other One.

Navin Weeraratne is the author of Zeelam and a few other novels; Zeelam is a zombie novel set in Colombo, but also explores government / military brutality.

Yudhanjaya Wijeratne is the author of Numbercaste and a new series from HarperCollins India, the Commonwealth Empire books – the first one, The Inhuman Race, takes place in Colombo in 2033, and centers on robot sentience in a world where the British Empire stayed in power.

Finally, I offer you a story by Tobias Buckell, published in Nature, titled “Toy Planes.” Toby is a Caribbean American writer, and this brief story lays bare the pain of those who are trying to find a place in the future, when their relatives in the homeland don’t understand why they would bother. (https://www.nature.com/articles/4371064a)

Thank you.

[remarks presented at SALA 2019, Mary Anne Mohanraj.

Nalini Iyer and Madhurima Chakraborty, thank you very much for the opportunity.]

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