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)


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.


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.


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/)


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.


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.


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.


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.]

Lime Juice!


At Galle Face Hotel, they greeted us with fresh sweetened lime juice and pieces of milk toffee. Kavi turned hers down, even though I told her I thought she’d like it. A little later, as we were walking towards breakfast, the following:

Me: Sweetie, I want you to at least taste things here. Little sip, little bite; I’ll only give you things I think you’ll like. Okay?

Kavi, somewhat begrudgingly, as she is very food suspicious: Okay.

Me: Okay, so try this lime juice. [holds out what remains of my glass]

Kavi: [tries it suspiciously] It’s okay, I guess. I don’t like it, but I don’t really dislike it.

Me: Try it a few more times while we’re here; I really think you’ll get to like it.

[a little later]

Kavi: I’m thirsty, so I guess I’ll have some more. [drinks more] It’s not so bad.

Me: [triumphantly] See! I said you’d like it! Here, let me stir in a little more sugar.

Kavi, as she finishes off the glass: Actually, I’ve liked it for a while. I just didn’t want to admit you were right.


Breakfast at Galle Face


I’ve been a little worried about feeding Kavi on this trip (and about whether Anand would be able to eat easily if he comes in a few years), but Galle Face has totally stepped up its game since 2005. Brunch offered a vast array of bagels and cream cheese shmears, a fascinating yogurt bar, classic American cereals, pastries and chocolate croissants and muffins, new potatoes and sausage and bacon and eggs and omelettes to order, plenty of fresh fruit and juices and whole milk — all of which would cover them just fine. And then there was the traditional Scottish kedgeree, grilled tomatoes, baked beans, and an array of Sri Lankan deliciousness — milk rice and coconut chutney, idli and sambar, chicken curry, fish curry, dhal, gotukola porridge with jaggery, hoppers with seeni sambol and pol sambol, and several other things I’m forgetting now. Oof!


Mid December

I had four BIG things to do this week before leaving for Sri Lanka on Sunday:
– finish semester grading — DONE, WOOHOO!
– finish Wild Cards story revision — DONE, ALSO WOOHOO! (though I really had to go lock myself in the shed to make myself finish — Ellie just came and whined at the door until I let her in for a bit, and then sniffed all around as if to say, well, this is interesting, but shouldn’t you be in bed?)
– finish maker space grant draft, due at the end of the year, but I really really want to hand it in before I leave the country, so this Saturday — getting close to done
– make Christmas (we’re celebrating early on the 23rd) — also getting close to done; most of the presents bought, with just Christmas cards to write and presents to wrap and maybe a photo album to make, but that can wait if necessary…
I think it’s all do-able, and I even think I get to rest and relax some in the next three days? Maybe? We’ll see. Kevin and I have some thought of going to see the Spiderman movie. We invited the kids, but Anand doesn’t like sitting through theater movies, and Kavi doesn’t feel strongly, so it’ll probably be just us. If we do it. We’ll see!
In excellent news, Karina was able to get away from work long enough to join us on the trip. So it’ll be me, Kavi, Jed, and Karina traipsing around Sri Lanka this time. Funfun.
I am irritatingly insecure about being on video, but I am semi-determined to get over it this time, so I can show you Sri Lanka a little better than just through my photos. We’ll see. Hopefully, some video clips will be coming your way next week…

Sweet & Spicy Brussels Sprouts with Pomegranate Seeds

People ask a lot how I do all this stuff, so I must periodically make clear that my life wouldn’t function if Kevin couldn’t feed himself and the kids as needed. Sometimes he’s cooking from scratch, and making well-balanced meals or fresh-baked bread; sometimes he’s throwing some frozen peas on the plate and calling it a day. That’s parenting for both of us around here. But I can go out of the country for a week, or spend all weekend at holiday fairs, and I know that as long as Kev’s not cross-scheduled (we do have to be a little careful about that), he’ll get the family fed. It’s not nothing.
I don’t know what the rest of the family ate for dinner tonight; I was still out. Kev would’ve made me dinner too if I’d said I’d be home in time. This picture is actually what I made myself for dinner tonight. With all the running around, I’d been eating poorly for a few days, grabbing mostly starch things because that’s what was easily accessible. Also too many sweets — it’s hard not to nibble truffles and marshmallows and rich cake when you’re making them!
So I came home from the sale today, flopped in a chair for an hour….and then got up, trimmed some brussels sprouts, tossed them with olive oil, salt, pepper, chili powder, honey, and apple cider vinegar, then roasted them at 375 for 25 minutes. Sprinkle with some fresh pomegranate seeds and a few more grinds of salt if needed, and you are good to go! It was nice to cook something not on a deadline and just because I felt like eating it. 🙂
Kevin loves brussels sprouts, so it’ll be nice for him too. Which is the only reason I didn’t eat all of them with a fork out of the roasting pan, standing right at the kitchen counter. Mmmm….

Peppermint Swirl Marshmallows and Chocolate-Dipped Peppermint Marshmallows

Peppermint marshmallows, two ways. I asked Kavi which she liked better, and she couldn’t decide — the peppermint swirl ones are more intensely peppermint; the chocolate-peppermint ones actually have more peppermint (same marshmallows, plus bits on top), but the dark chocolate has a strong enough presence that the overall effect is less peppermint-y.
Sometimes you just have to accept that you love them both, and it’s impossible to choose.   
3 packages unflavored gelatin
1/2 c. water
2 t. vanilla
1 t. peppermint extract
1/2 c. water
1 1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon salt
butter (for greasing the pan)
powdered (confectioner’s) sugar (about 1/2 c.)
a few drops of red food coloring
tempered chocolate for dipping (about 8 oz.)
crushed peppermints for topping
1. Empty gelatin packets into bowl of stand mixer (whisk attachment), with water, vanilla, and peppermint extract. Stir briefly to combine.
2. In a small saucepan (a bigger one will be heavy and hard to hold steadily at a later stage) combine water, sugar, corn syrup, and salt. Cover and cook over medium high heat for 4 minutes. Uncover and cook until the mixture reaches soft ball stage (240 degrees if you have a candy thermometer), approximately 8 minutes. Once the mixture reaches this temperature, immediately remove from heat; if it continues, it will swiftly turn into hard candy.
3. Turn mixer on low speed and, while running, slowly pour the sugar syrup down the side of the bowl into the gelatin mixture. (Be very careful with the sugar syrup, as it is scaldingly hot and will burn you badly if it gets on your skin.) Once you’ve added all of the syrup, increase the speed to high.
4. Continue to whip until the mixture becomes very thick and is lukewarm, approximately 12 minutes.
5. While it’s whipping, butter a large 9 x 12 pan. Prepare an oiled spatula.
6. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan, spreading it evenly (and swiftly) with the oiled spatula. (If making peppermint swirl, add a few drops of red food coloring and use a toothpick to swirl it around.)
7. Allow the marshmallows to sit uncovered for at least 4 hours and up to overnight.
8. Turn onto a board, cut into squares and dust all sides of each marshmallow with the powdered sugar, using additional if necessary. (If making chocolate-peppermint, melt tempered chocolate, dip marshmallows, and set on wax paper. Sprinkle with crushed peppermints immediately, then let dry.
May be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks, or frozen.

Plurality U (and Facebook note)

(Meta note:  I mostly try to copy at least the most significant posts over from Facebook to here, but if it’s not clear, I’m mostly living my digital life on Facebook these days, and I just don’t have the time to copy all of the posts over.  So if you want to see all the Paris photos from the last few days, or the Mexico photos from last week with the family, etc., please do head over to my FB page.  Sorry!)


I know you just want to see more of my Paris photos (gargoyles are coming! lots of gargoyles!) — but I need to wind down a little mentally first. I’m once again in this weird place where I’m having a very hard time deciding what I should work on.

– This weekend at Plurality U sparked a host of new ideas for projects, but none of them are my own fiction.

– Walking around Paris for a day actually did spark several good ideas for my own fiction.

– Spending a little time in the governance track at the U today reminded me that by now, I have a fairly developed skill set for governance, and I really would like this Plural U project to succeed, but getting involved with that aspect would take precious time. Maybe I can give them a year (by which I just mean a few meetings over the course of the year, hopefully, not an actual year of work) on the governance thing, just to help it start on the right foot? (How many boards can you sit on, Mary Anne? Be realistic here. No, really. I said REALISTIC.)

– I spent a little time just now reading about the current competitive field of trustees for the next Oak Park election (9 people running so far for 3 slots, and I know of at least 1 more), and while I’m not running this time around, it means that there’s a good chance that if I run in two years as planned, for trustee or village president, there will likely be serious competition necessitating a time-consuming campaign. I don’t have to run — but I am worried about most of the current slate of candidates, many of whom are clearly running on platforms that I do not support. There are 52,000 people living in Oak Park who depend on good governance, even if they’re mostly just living their lives and not paying attention to the decisions that are being made in the room…

I don’t expect you folks to give me any answers here. Just…feeling painfully torn.

This may be kind of the perpetual state from here to the end of my life?
Mortality, it is not very convenient when you have a lot of stuff you really want to get done. Is it time to start training my replacements yet? Training takes time too, but I will have to pass the torch eventually…

(Feeling so grateful to all the people who took over Strange Horizons after me and ran it so beautifully. Susan Groppi, Niall Harrison, Jane Crowley, Kate Dollarhyde, and all the rest of the staff over the last two decades — thank you thank you thank you for not dropping the baby.)


(This is the last conference photo, as Tomo Kihara and I walked to our Uber back to the hotel.)


Dark Caramel-Cashew Pralines

There is something pleasantly meditative about making sweets late at night, even if you burn the first batch a little. I forgot that my burners are misaligned and run hot (long story), so that even when I’m using my own recipe, I need to notch everything down a little — when I say ‘medium-high,’ I mean ‘medium’ on my own stove.

But it’s okay — milk toffee with cashews is still delicious even when it’s turned into dark caramel-cashew pralines. I wouldn’t serve it to Sri Lankans expecting our milk toffee, but otherwise, we’re good.