Women of Color in Speculative Fiction: A Round Table Discussion

Originally posted in Mithila Review, September 21st, 2017

“The term ‘South Asian’ is a broad banner in itself, encompassing different religious and cultural experiences, as well as sexuality and class. Can it be reduced to one distinct identity?’”— Priya Sharma

Hosted on a shared Google Drive as our previous round tables, this discussion brings together five women with distinct styles and experiences who interrogate what it means to be a ‘South Asian’ writer in SF. In this thought-provoking exchange of ideas, issues surrounding representation, fictional tropes and belonging are explored and expanded with sensitivity. We hope this round table invites our readers to think critically about ideas of identity and community, challenges them to question any unconscious bias or assumptions they may have harbored about South Asian SF, and encourages them to seek out the diversity of narratives from the region.

Isha Karki: Let’s start this roundtable with short introductions. Please tell us a little about yourself, how you see yourself as an individual and a member (representative?) of a cultural group or a nation, and how you reconcile these multiple identities, if at all. How aware would you say you are of your position as a Woman of Color in Speculative Fiction (SF)?

Mary Anne:  I’m Mary Anne Mohanraj. I identify as a queer poly Tamil Sri Lankan American mother and writer. I don’t know that I’d say I reconcile those multiple identities, exactly — they comfortably coexist, and have for a long time now. I’m still pretty aware of my position as a WOC in SF; we’re still rare enough to be noticeable, although the situation is improving.

Mimi: Hi! I’m officially Monidipa Mondal, and write as Mimi Mondal. (I was given both names at birth, like Bengali children usually are.) I grew up in Calcutta and now live mostly around New York, but my “permanent address” (and where I go back when I run out of rent money) is still my parents’ house in Calcutta. I identify as female, queer and Dalit, and the last of those identifications has only come into strength in the past couple of years, not without a lot of disappointment and pain. I can’t say my identities are very reconciled; I happen to be an actively angry person. I worry a lot about how India has changed in the past three-four years, and whether there’s creative space for someone like me in the country any more. I try to see myself as a writer both in India and the US, and the two identities are so very different.

Priya: My father is Indian and my mother Anglo-Indian. They came to the UK in the 1960s and I was born in the 1970s and grew up in a market town where we were one of two Asian families. My roots are Indian and my soil is the northwest of England.

When I was younger I used to worry a lot about what I was and how I fit in. Some things happened that made me feel very unwanted and very much an outsider, other people made me feel very loved and included. I’ve got to a stage in my life where I don’t have the time or energy to worry too much about what other people make of me or dwell too much on what I am. I want people to look at my work, not at me.

It’s the same in terms of writing and the writing community. I’ve made great friends who just want to talk about books. I don’t think we should be blind to color, culture or sexuality. I don’t want to live in a world where we’re all the same and all agree on everything. I’m just impatient to be in a place where my color isn’t the sum total of what people see when they meet me.

S.B. Divya: I’m Divya Srinivasan Breed, published as S.B. Divya (using the Tamil naming/initial convention). I’m also an electrical engineer, the co-editor of Escape Pod, and parent to a 7 year old. I came to the USA from India when I was 5 years old so I’m a mix of Indian and American culture and personality. I don’t have strong identification with any particular group, and I fit better at the intersections of Venn diagrams than in the circles. In terms of spec fic, I started reading science fiction when I was 10 and never stopped, but my being an Indian American never informed my reading because I had no friends or family (at that time) who loved the same books and stories. I’m used to being the only woman – of color or not – in a given space because of all my years in science and technology. Being a WOC in the world of spec fic doesn’t often register except when other people bring it up or when I encounter another South Asian.

Shveta: Hi, I’m Shveta Thakrar, and here’s what I say in my bio, but condensed: a writer of South Asian–flavored fantasy, social justice activist, and part-time nagini. I’m a Gujarati ABCD (American-Born Confused Desi, though I prefer “Creative” for the “C” *grin*) and a Hindu, and I’m very aware of being a woman of color in spec fic. How could I not be? I’ve been fighting for inclusivity since I started writing seriously back in 2006. As Mary Anne said, things have improved a bit, but we still have a long way to go.

There are a lot of communities & sub-communities in the SF world, perceived or otherwise, and Mithila Review has hosted features on Asian SF, Latin SF and Czech SF. Do you feel there is a distinct South Asian SF community or identity? How familiar are you with South Asian SF writers, homegrown or diasporic, historical or contemporary?

Mary Anne: I’ve tried to build a South Asian literary community, through my efforts in founding DesiLit, hosting the Kriti Festival, and editing Jaggery lit mag. None of that has been SF-specific, but it’s been SF-inclusive. I teach some South Asian SF writers in my Writers of Color in SF class, and try to keep up with the newer writers — it’s getting harder to keep up, which is a good thing!

Mimi: I am super familiar and have so many opinions on this! I feel like the homegrown SFF writing in India suffers from a sense of disconnectedness, because there’s very little reading of contemporary diverse SFF as well as of each other. Many people seem to be writing their first story/book after having reading only the “classics”, which means huge international bestsellers mostly by white male writers. (Hey, I also enjoy Asimov, LeGuin, Orwell, King, Pratchett, Gaiman, GRRM, etc. but there’s also so much beautiful, innovative, diverse SFF by writers who resemble us more.) South Asian SFF writers in the US/international scene mostly seem to be familiar with each other’s work – there is only a handful of us – but I cannot say the same about writers back in our countries. Most of them don’t bother to connect with writers or readers abroad either, so is there really a community? I don’t know.

I have been an SFF scholar and publishing professional in India so I’ve had a distinct advantage over the regular reader, but even I had to search really hard for the homegrown writers I liked. This is complicated by the fact that the publishing circles in our native languages are again so separated from the English publishing circle, as well as from each other. I grew up reading Satyajit Ray and Premendra Mitra in Bengali, as most other Bengali kids did, but not many of my non-Bengali SFF-reading friends have read them, even in translation. The first SFF writer in English I read was Samit Basu in high school – he was an active blogger and friends with some people I knew – and I had no idea that Vandana Singh and Anil Menon had already been writing Indian SFF in English. Apart from everyone at this roundtable (big fan of each of you, by the way!), I really wish more people read Kuzhali Manickavel, Indrapramit Das, Shweta Narayan, Usman Tanveer Malik, Vajra Chandrasekara, Shweta Taneja, Jash Sen, the Ravanayan comics series by Vijayendra Mohanty and Vivek Goel, etc.

Priya: The term “South Asian” is a broad banner in itself, encompassing different religious and cultural experiences, as well as sexuality and class. Can it be reduced to one distinct identity?

I think there are fantastic projects out there showcasing South Asian writers. They foster new types of stories and new voices. One example is The Asian Writer, run by Farhana Shaikh, which looks to provide a voice of British Asian writing and is for readers and writers interested in South Asian literature.

In terms of genre writers, I think Usman T Malik, Rajesh Parameswaran, Salman Rushdie, and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. I know she’s a literary writer but I’ve got to mention her as she’s a master of the short story form- Jumpha Lahiri.

S.B. Divya: I’m new to the world of contemporary spec fic in a lot of ways, but I’m always taking note of South Asian SF writers that I come across both online and in-person. That habit is ingrained from being an immigrant and always looking out for other Indians/South Asians! Our identity is probably as unique as any other, but I think we have an advantage that most educated Indians have a good grounding in the English language and can bypass the lost-in-translation pitfalls that other SF sub-communities might face. I’ve read stories by many of the authors that Mimi mentioned. Naru Sundar is another (and a friend of mine from before we were writers), Rati Mehrotra, Keyan Bowes, Roshani Chokshi…I’m sure I’m forgetting some others, but we are a growing community.

Shveta: I’m not quite sure how to answer this. I’ve just tried to promote and encourage where I can, particularly in young adult (as that’s where my personal focus lies). I actually feel on the outside of the desi community in general, though I only write desi characters and am glad to see stories starring people who look like me start to have more of a presence in the North American market. I also do try to follow work by writers in South Asia, like Sukanya Venkatraghavan, Indrapramit Das, and Krishna Udayasankar.

Many in the literary world often equate South Asian SF with retellings of mythical epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata (also equating the whole of South Asia with Hinduism and one origin story!). Some of your works overtly touch on mythical creatures, folktales, legends, though not necessarily South Asian in origin. Have you felt that the idea of South Asian speculative fiction is homogenized? Are tales from your childhood, culture, religion, pop culture, South Asian or otherwise, a source of inspiration for you? Tell us what your lasting influences are.

Mary Anne: I have a tiny bit of work that draws on the Ramayana (primarily the figure of Sita), but for the most part, this isn’t my source material. My family was colonized and became Catholic a long time ago, so even though I’m not religious myself, my cultural tradition was different. I’m far more influenced by the Arthurian story, actually, which I found as a child in America and imprinted on. The one South Asian element that does tend to show up in many of my stories is an emphasis on our food — and, of course, for the last decade or so, I’ve been writing a lot of work (mainstream, SF, and fantasy) that is directly influenced by the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.

Mimi: I write a lot about folklore and mythology, but I haven’t written (and don’t intend to) about the more “mainstream” Hindu myths. Once again, I have many opinions on this, most of them scholarly/ political and quite long-winded. I grew up in Calcutta in a family that told me many mythological and folk stories, and as any non-right-wing-nut knows, practised Hinduism in different regions varies a great deal from the “official” narrative. My parents are actively religious, but they don’t go often to temples, because Bengali worship culture mostly takes place at home, or at specific festivals – the largest being the Durga Pujo – when you worship at temporary communal outdoor shrines, i.e. pandals. No one in my home or community was ever vegetarian, including Brahmins. My father’s family came from a village in the Medinipore district, so I was quite immersed in rural Bengali folklore as a child. I am deeply interested in specifically South Asian traditions of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism – because I know people who belong to these communities, and yet their stories just don’t exist in the “Indian” narrative. Dalit myths from different parts of India are also substantially different from caste-Hindu myths. Most of my writing derives from myth that already exists, but the resources never end or get stagnant. I think there’s immense potential for originality and non-homogenization in Indian mythology, if only the writers stopped writing about the five most popular gods.

Priya: My dad would tell me his version of Hindu myths when I was a child. At primary school I read the Greek myth books in the library. I loved fairy tales and in my teens discovered Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s collections and the superlative Angela Carter. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series is awesome as it draws on so many sources, be they Biblical or mythological. So, yes, myths and fairy tales have definitely made a mark on my writing.

While we’re on the subject, The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is an interesting reworking of the Mahabharata and The Ramayana: The Divine Loophole by Sanjay Patel, one of Pixar’s animators, is just glorious.

S.B. Divya: The mythology of South Asia definitely entered my childhood, and I do sometimes find inspiration in them, but that’s usually when I’m writing fantasy, which isn’t often! The strongest example is a story I have forthcoming in Apex Magazine that is set in Vedic-era India, but it doesn’t reference any famous mythological characters. For my science fiction, most of my inspiration comes from the world of science and technology. Where my Indian background comes into play is more on the social and character development of my worldbuilding. I’m interested in exploring class structure – and partly that stems from awareness of caste. Discrimination comes in many guises, and it’s a topic that isn’t as well explored in science fiction as I’d like it to be. I also tend to write POV characters who are people of color, in part because their experiences and stories are the ones that most interest me. As for whether South Asian spec fic is homogenized, I don’t think so. From what I’ve seen – including Escape Pod submissions, which cover a wider range than published authors – South Asians, local or diaspora, don’t necessarily write stories that borrow from their heritage. They are wide-ranging in the characters, settings, and themes that they choose, inclusive of their ethnicity but not exclusive to it.

Shveta: “Are tales from your childhood, culture, religion, pop culture, South Asian or otherwise, a source of inspiration for you?” Without a doubt! In fact, even though some of my stories aren’t based on them, many are, and I’m not sure how I would write without referring back to them in some way, even obliquely. For example, I have a story coming out in an anthology that’s a retelling of “Savitri and Satyavan” from the Mahabharata. I’ve mentioned Uloopi and Arjun in another piece. And so on and so forth.

The theme of ‘outsider’ and ‘difference’ features in all of your works in some form or another. What motivates you to write about or from the perspective of the outsider?

Mary Anne: Well, growing up as the only brown kid in an entire Polish American elementary school might have had something to do with it. Also being queer. Also being poly. Also being a big geek!

Mimi: Given the long list of minorities I belong to, many of them not immediately visible (Dalit but upper-caste-passing because of my education; queer but hetero-passing; middle-class but affluent-passing, especially to my Indian friends because I live abroad; high-functioning depressive but with achievements, and so on), I have felt secretly like an outsider all my life. None of my friends, awesome as they are, has ever really felt like a peer, because there’s always some paradigm in which they measure up and I don’t. I think I’ve been writing outsiders-that-pass characters even before I knew these words and categories (for a long time, I only thought of myself as “weird”). I don’t even really know how it feels to be a complete insider at any place.

Priya: My inner freak. She makes me feel like a pretender in my own life. She’s outside everything. She’s made me see the world differently.

S.B. Divya: I’ve spent most of my life feeling like an outsider. My family moved around a lot so I was often the “new kid” in school. On top of that, I was an immigrant, and then a girl who embraced typical “boy” interests like science fiction, science, and engineering. Thankfully I always had some close friends and a very supportive family so I never felt unloved. My being Indian came up the most when I was in high school in Minnesota, one of the few non-white students. My being female has been a stronger “outsider” influence, though, as it’s been present from pre-adolescence through my adult life, especially professionally. Ironically, it’s in the corporate world where I’ve become close to other Asian and South Asian women, because they seem to be more common in the tech world. Unfortunately, the gender imbalance continues to be a problem in science fiction, too, though not as much as it used to be, which I’m glad to see.

Shveta: I could write entire dissertations about this. Instead, I’ll just say that I’ve felt like a changeling most of my life and still do in some ways, and so of course that bleeds into my work. It’s what I know.

We encounter a varied range of settings in your works – urban cities in the West, urban cities in South Asia, urban cities in whole other worlds, deserts, freezing tundras, rugged mountainscapes, ocean kingdoms, fairy tale kingdoms… How important is a sense of place for you? Is there a particular place – geographical or imagined – or a particular topography that arrests your imagination?

Mary Anne:  I tend to write the city, the suburb, and the garden / jungle, which reflects where I’ve spent most of my time.

Mimi: Most of my stories take place in cities, because I’m deeply fascinated with urbanity and how it breaks and mingles the boundaries set by other identities. Outsiders-that-pass characters only thrive in communities where your background doesn’t completely define you. I’m also really interested in the liminality of cities, so I’m less likely to write about white people from New York who’ve always taken their New Yorker-ness for granted. I often write about cities rising up or evolving, new people coming to cities, and so on.

Priya: Whatever serves the characters and the story best. I think the strongest bits of world building I’ve done are when they’re loosely based on somewhere I know- Liverpool (near where I live), the town where I grew up, places I’ve travelled to.

S.B. Divya: I’ve always been happiest in the wilderness. I like the creature comforts of a house with hot running water and electricity, but I can live without the usual draws of city life – theater, museums, fine dining, fashion. Being an introvert, I don’t mind isolation, and natural settings are fun to write because they are culture-neutral. Every country in the world has its open spaces. That said, the cities are where the personal interactions and connections often happen and, having spent much of my life around Los Angeles, city life gets represented in my fiction. But, like a many science fiction fan, outer space captivates my imagination the most. It’s unexplored territory (“the final frontier”), and I find that irresistible!

Shveta: I am naturally drawn to the fantastical, so I love the mythic version of any landscape, whether real or just imagined. And place definitely shapes my stories; they’re very lush and descriptive for a reason. I want to be able to share what I envision with my readers and take them along on the journey.

You all write pretty badass female characters who make difficult decisions to shape their own lives. Do you think the idea of the strong female character has become a meaningless trope? How to constitute what ‘strong’ is?

Mary Anne:  I write those characters, but I also write characters trapped by their situations, or by their personalities. I’d say genre fiction is, in general, quite focused on active characters; it’s harder to sell stories to genre markets when you’re writing different kinds of characters, which can be limiting. I’m interested in fiction that explores the entire scope of human existence — not just the active hero-types.

Mimi: Drawing from Mary Anne’s answer, I would like to make a technical distinction – a strong character according to the plot doesn’t necessarily mean a strong person in the world of the story. Let’s say a story takes place in a society that’s governed by the queen, but this queen has no function in the story – that’s not technically a strong character. When people object to a strong female character, they don’t usually object to female characters being physically or socially strong (princesses who wait around to given as rewards to heroes have done just fine in literature for ages), but to the character having any influence on the plot at all. They can object to even a female character having thoughts, because thoughts that are mentioned in a story usually go on to influence the plot. So, no, strong female characters are never going to become a “meaningless trope”, because that useless queen or princess left there as a token is not a strong female character. Any female character that actually has meaning in the story, on the other hand, is not going to come across as a trope in the first place.

Priya: Strength can be physical, mental or emotional. Tremendous courage can manifest itself in small acts. I’d rather have interesting characters – ones who are flawed and damaged, than archetype heroes. Their strength is in how they overcome what I chuck in their way.

So, is the strong female character an outdated trope? No. Can we make it less conventional and more challenging to the reader? Yes.

S.B. Divya: I think the idea of a female character who is equivalent to her male counterpart has become a trope, but I would argue that it isn’t meaningless because there are so many parts of the world where women haven’t gained social equality. For stories about the Western world, though, I think we can move on to showing the strength of character that comes from attributes that are typically non-masculine. We need contemporary stories that extol the values of compassion, endurance, persistence, empathy – whether they appear in male, female, or non-binary characters.

Shveta: “Strong” to me means someone who finds a way to address her situation, whatever that is. She need not be physically muscular or loud and brash. She just needs to want to act in some way (and yes, that does involve sometimes being passive in response to a situation, like dealing with parents/elders).

So basically, what Mary Anne said. 🙂

In ‘literary’ circles, South Asian authors are often tasked with the ‘burden of representation’ – their stories and narratives must be about their homelands, must speak to the entirety of South Asian experiences, must be representative of all the food and flavour and myths and religion of the whole region. Do you ever feel this burden of responsibility or choose in some way to engage with it?

Mary Anne:  I felt it primarily as the first Sri Lankan American fiction author; I ended up writing Bodies in Motion as a set of twenty interlinked short stories in part because I wanted to have lots of characters — lots of women, lots of mothers, etc., so that it would be harder for the reader to assume that any given woman, for example, ‘represented’ all of Sri Lankan womanhood. And when I write about the ethnic conflict, now, I’m very aware of my diasporic position, once removed from the immediacy of the conflict. I’m a stakeholder, but in a different way from someone on the ground, living through it.

Mimi: This is not just in my role as a writer, but I constantly meet white people who talk to me for a bit before they reveal to me that “their other Indian friend” had given them a completely different version of India. So, in a way, everyone is doing representation, and some of them are doing active, oppressive misrepresentation, like the right-wing, male Brahmin engineer who tells his white colleagues that “we Indians” are vegetarian; Hinduism is a culture of peacefulness and acceptance; “Indian women” are smart but demure; “we all” respect and live in perfect harmony with our elders in large families; “we all” love Bollywood movies; “we all” open the doors of our lavish, ancestral bungalows back in the country to welcome our (*ahem* white) guests; and so on. How many levels of misrepresentation can you spot right there? These voices are always louder than mine, so I am not at all ashamed to write my own subjective dismissal of them in my fiction, because I know mine will never be the defining voice. The best I can do is to bring on the dissent.

Priya: My stories are entirely my own. If I felt the need to represent anything more than that I would be paralysed with fear. Also, I think my writing is pretty Anglicised so it would be stupid of me to pretend I can represent anything other than my own experiences.

S.B. Divya: I choose to engage with it mostly because it’s part of who I am and I like to see myself represented in my own stories. I don’t want it to become burdensome or a responsibility, in part because I don’t feel like the best representative of South Asian community. Having left India at age 5, I’m a blend of cultures, and there’s plenty about India that I haven’t internalized. So far, I haven’t felt pressure from the speculative fiction community to be representative of South Asian culture, but people have expressed appreciation when I include some of that background. Mostly, I’m relieved that I haven’t seen any backlash against writing stories with a global cast of characters.

Shveta: Years ago, when I was just starting out, I got shaken up by the idea that diaspora like me don’t have the “right” to our stories, but a kind friend talked me out of that. Ever since, I’ve chosen to ignore that kind of territorial thinking–if my grandmother and my parents thought those stories were mine, that’s all I need to know–or the flip side of that, which is the notion that one of us represents all of us (as if any white person or European could do that!). I can only write what I know, which is really different in some ways even from other South Asian Americans’ experiences. And of course even more different from that of nondiaspora. I’m just interested in adding to a much larger conversation rather than standing in for anything.

Give us a peek into your SF reading wishlist. People often say you should write what you’d like to read – how different is your wishlist from what you write?

Mary Anne: I’m poly, so have spent most of the past twenty-five years in unconventional relationships. There’s still very little of that in the genre; default monogamy is an incredibly strong narrative trope. So, personally, I’d like to see more complicated relationships and family structures represented in genre fiction — I’m writing threesomes and other poly structures, but I’d love to read more from other writers, especially featuring POC. Also, more brown people in space!

Mimi: I feel like many of us are writing the stories we’d like to see! I would really like to see regional mythology, folklore from India being used in stories. I am trying to do that; and among the people who have already (recently) done that include Indrapramit, Shweta Narayan and Shweta Taneja. I would also like to see more traditional performances, and actually uncensored historical research reflected in stories, because so much of Indian history that we know is curated to match the idea of post-British nationalism.

Priya: My wishlist would include:

  1. A collection of horror stories by Jumpha Lahiri. I doubt this will happen but I can dream
  2. A Neil Gaiman rewrite of Le Morte d’Arthur
  3. A script for a reworking of Beauty and the Beast by Jeanette Winterson and directed by Tarsem Singh
  4. A Cormac McCarthy space opera
  5. An African fantasy trilogy by Marlon James (Oh, wait, that actually is happening!)
  6. Rabindranath Tagore wanted “humanity to be studied somewhere beyond the limits of nation and geography”, so a novel by him setting this out

S.B. Divya: Most of my reading these days happens from Escape Pod’s submissions, but outside of that, I tend to read what I like to write: idea-based science fiction with interesting characters and lots of moral gray areas. What I’d like to see more of (and what I write, because that’s the benefit of being an author!) are stories that show a broader, more creative future that represents the whole of humanity. It’s hard to think outside of your immediate social mores, but the earth is a large and varied planet. Once we move into outer space, that diversity will increase. A lot of the SF I read feels like today but transplanted into another setting (the future or a colony planet or a generation ship) in terms of culture. When I think of how much global culture has shifted in the past half-century (thank you, internet), I get dizzy imagining the possibilities for the coming years.

Shveta: Lots more fantasy using Hindu and Buddhist mythology and folklore! Which isn’t different than what I write, ha. 🙂 (I’d also like for these books to be called what they are instead of just “Indian fiction.”) I’d love to see retellings and completely original stories that work in bits from these old tales.

Tell us what you are working on or what we can expect to see from you.

Mary Anne: Survivor is an anthology I co-edited coming out in February 2018, stories of trauma and survival; I also have a small cancer romance coming out in 2017, Perennial, and a second edition of my Sri Lankan cookbook, A Taste of Serendib. I’m currently working on a memoir about love, writing, and nationalism, Arbitrary Passions, and a postcolonial SF novel in the same universe as my recent novella, The Stars Change.

Mimi: I recently completed editing Luminescent Threads, an anthology of letters written posthumously to Octavia Butler, the first Black female queer SFF writer, whose work has been a major force in injecting diversity into the genre. It will be available from Twelfth Planet Press in August 2017. I am writing more stories in a steampunk/historical South Asia, of which the first two (“Other People” and “This Sullied Earth, My Home”) were published by Juggernaut Books. I will also start working as the Poetry and Reprints Editor of Uncanny Magazine from September, so that’s something to look forward to.

Priya: I’m working on new stories for my collection, to be released next year from Undertow Publications. Earlier this year I was included in“Back Feathers: Dark Avian Tales” edited by Ellen Datlow. I have a story in “ Mad Hatters and March Hares: All-New Stories from the World of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland”, edited by Ellen Datlow and out in December 2017.

S.B. Divya: At the moment, I’m working on a full-length novel set a century into the future. The story is more of a thriller, but thematically, it explores the future of labor and the intersection of biotech with AI. I have short stories forthcoming in “Where the Stars Rise,” an anthology of Asian speculative fiction, and Apex Magazine, as I mentioned above, as well as some more on the back burner. On the editorial side, Escape Pod is about to announce the next Artemis Rising event, which is our month-long celebration of stories by women and non-binary authors. Last year, I guest edited Artemis Rising 3, and this year, I’m happy to pass the baton to two of our associate editors so that I can focus on our regular publications.

Shveta: I have short stories coming out in various anthologies, including the retelling of “Savitri and Satyavan” I mentioned above in A Thousand Beginnings and Endings (East and South Asian fairy tale and mythic young adult retellings) and Toil & Trouble (a feminist, inclusive young adult collection about witches), along with a poem I co-wrote with Sara Cleto that will appear in Uncanny. I’m also aiming to get my YA novel about stars back to my agent later this summer, so hopefully it can go out on submission soon after.

After Pulse

Originally posted in Riksha Magazine, April 11th, 2017

His father said:  he saw two men kissing
in the street, and it made him angry.

I was eighteen the first time I
spent the night with another girl,
walked back to campus with her
the next morning, wanting to hold
her hand, afraid to.

This is what I was afraid of:
that my parents would somehow hear,
that they would stop speaking to me
would cut me off.  That my sisters,
friends, would turn away, repulsed
by thoughts of what two girls might do.

There were incidents on campus.
Gay-bashing, injuries. We wore pink
triangles in solidarity, passed them out
on campus, asked our straight professors –
please.  Stand with us.  Many did.

Matthew Shepard, a student, was tortured
and murdered a few years later, in 1998.

I didn’t think anything would happen
to me.  I reached out and took her hand
or maybe she reached out to me.  Kissed
her goodbye, knowing already that it
was over, not regretting anything.

Later, my friends and I went to the gay
nightclubs and danced, the straight girls
glad to be able to dance as freely and
sexually as they wanted, without fear
of harassment.  I danced on a table, hoping
the gay boys knew, somehow,
that I was one of them.

Twenty years ago; now I’m a wife and mother –
husband, two kids, a dog, and a house
in the suburbs.  Still bi, and poly too, but
living as safe a life as one might wish for,
as parents might hope for their children.

The death toll rises, now up to fifty dead,
the worst mass shooting in American history
the worst mass murder of gay people in America
since 1973, Upstairs Lounge, thirty-two burned.

I took her hand, and later, madly in love, I kissed
my girlfriend in the street, knowing always
that it might make someone passing by
angry.  In love and defiant, knowing enough to worry.

I didn’t know we’d have to worry about this.


This is Our Work: What Star Trek Asks of Us

Originally posted in Uncanny Magazine Issue 12, 2016

“It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.”—Rabbi Tarfon

I was tremendously lonely my first year in high school. My parents had insisted I go to a prep school they could barely afford instead of going to the local high school with all my friends from elementary. The girls at Miss Porter’s seemed alien to me—most of them came from far more wealth than I did, the sorts of families that endowed buildings and wore trendy clothes I couldn’t even recognize, much less afford. Those girls often spent spring break in the Bahamas; I spent mine at home, babysitting my little sisters.

And of course, I was a brown girl, born in Sri Lanka, raised in Connecticut, at a school that was overwhelmingly white. After classes, I took refuge in the library, waiting for my dad to come pick me up (there was no bus service, of course, since most of the students were boarders). The adult librarian was probably my closest friend at school that year; she always had a kind word for the short brown girl with glasses who curled up in a wing chair and steadily worked her way through the stacks of paperbacks from the spinning wire racks.

Until one day, something magic happened—I forgot my copy of Diane Duane’s Star Trek novel, The Wounded Sky, in English class and one of those blonde girls, Lisette, picked it up and told me, excitedly, she loved that book. We traded our other favorites: The Final Reflection, Uhura’s Song, The Romulan Way, Dwellers in the Crucible, Ishmael, The Prometheus Design, Triangle. Many of our favorite Trek novels shared similar themes: attempting to understand alien cultures, to find ways to connect and avoid the lurking potential for violence. Lisette quickly became one of my best friends. It’s a very Star Trek story—two people from different worlds, coming together in shared delight. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations.

I’m now a college professor, which means my summers tend to be less scheduled than the rest of the year. In between trying to write books, I usually end up rewatching one of the Star Trek series; this year it was Enterprise, which I had somehow gotten interrupted watching the first time around. That series has its flaws, certainly—they all do, in one way or another. Enterprise was perhaps the weakest of them all. But still, I find it valuable, immersing myself in the Trek universe. I laugh; I sometimes cry. I’m reminded of the values I hold most dear.

Star Trek is my comfort TV, my comfort stories. Like Terry Pratchett’s work, and Lois McMaster Bujold’s, like the Arthurian saga, the Trek universe is one of my touchstones. It’s work I return to when life is feeling too hard, too dark, whether personally (as in my last two years of cancer treatment) or more broadly (as in the various challenges facing our planet—environmental, economic, racial, gendered, etc., and so on). When the news on my Facebook feeds seems an endless stream of death, callousness, horror, and more needless, greedy death. When I can’t bear to listen to NPR anymore, for fear of breaking down in tears on the highway—that’s when I need these works most desperately.

Comfort does not mean simple escape. This is not work that centers on running away from the world’s problems to some lovely place where they don’t exist. Often, there is just as much darkness in these stories as in our own world. But! Those very different works all share a certain angle of vision. They feature characters who value integrity highly, who struggle to do the right thing, even in the face of overwhelming difficulties, even at great personal cost to themselves. Sometimes they fail, because they are only human (or Vulcan). But they keep trying.

Much of the credit for that approach in Star Trek is due to Roddenberry’s vision; he crafted a universe which holds darkness and even evil, but centers on a bright dream—a galactic Federation where species can come together in exploration, in community. It’s there in the original show. Even when the crew was engaging with the monster of the week, when each episode had to be finished off with a neat little bow and a joke (due to the network priorities at the time), the community and camaraderie were there, between diverse races and even species, facing the darkness together. The friendship between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy was strong enough to withstand everything, even death. I have been, and always shall be, your friend.

And even though Starfleet is a quasi–military organization, even though they too sometimes fail to live up to their own bright ideals (I’m looking at you, Section 31, secret police)—it matters greatly that their primary purpose is exploration. To seek out new worlds and new civilizations. There is space within Starfleet for individual judgment, for bending or even breaking the rules when it’s the right thing to do. Some things do transcend the discipline of the service.

In 1969, Star Trek: The Original Series was cancelled, in what was later called one of TV’s greatest blunders. A brief animated series was offered in 1973–1974, and we were given four movies between 1979 and 1986. There were novelizations of the original show and a host of new novels. But there is something particularly powerful about having a live–action series on television; it reaches a massive, broad audience, people flipping channels and landing on a starship inhabited by a shockingly diverse crew. It would be 18 dire years before ardent fans succeeded in their letter–writing campaign to bring a live–action show back to TV, with Star Trek: The Next Generation premiering in 1987.

The original series opened with the words “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five–year mission…” That five–year mission was truncated. But because enough people cared, because they poured their time and energy and hearts and words into fighting for Trek, they brought it back, for all of us. I am so grateful. When I watch Next Gen now, the words have changed slightly. Patrick Stewart tells us, “These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission…” Continuing. That word brings tears to my eyes because for so long, we feared the TV show would never come back.

If we want to shape a brighter, better future, the future of Roddenberry’s vision, we must continue to fight for his vision—not just in the fictional realm, but in the real world as well. We must hold onto integrity and complexity and nuance, letting go of our prejudices and preconceptions. We must struggle to understand the Other, no matter how different their origin or point of view.

Though each Trek captain approached the universe’s problems very differently, they shared the same goal—a universe where diverse people could come together in peace. Jim Kirk might charge in boldly, relying on charm and luck and sheer courage. Jean–Luc Picard asked us to reflect, to think deeply before we act. Benjamin Sisko offers quiet power, the certainty of a man who knows where he comes from, deeply rooted in his people’s history and culture. Kathryn Janeway sometimes struggled to find space for her personal life as a woman, but she never compromised what she needed to do as captain; in the end, she brought her crew safely home.

As for Jonathan Archer—he was perhaps the most suspicious of the Other, the captain nearest to us in time and spirit, and with the furthest to go. But eventually, Archer came to embody the best ideals of Roddenberry’s universe, and it was his actions that made it possible to finally found the Federation. If he could get past all of his preconceptions and prejudices, then maybe we can too.

When I am overwhelmed by the world’s grief, when the work of fixing even a small part of it seems more than one small person can encompass, Star Trek lends me strength to continue. I am not in this alone—just as Trek brought me and Lisette together in those high school years, Trek has brought together a host of ardent fans who share that vision of infinite diversity in infinite combinations. When I look forward into the future, I feel them by my side. I feel Kirk and Picard, Sisko and Janeway, and yes, even Archer, looking over my shoulders.

Oh captain, my captain. Let us build a world you can all be proud of. This is the work we have been asked to do.

Nimoy and Spock, Reflections and Farewells

Originally posted on Strange Horizons, March 2nd, 2015

Somewhere in my house there’s a videotape of me, playing Spock, on the Enterprise bridge. I was fifteen years old, at Universal Studios, acting out a scene in front of a green screen; the final version had Kirk, the rest of the crew, and the bridge set in it. I was such a terrible actor that I was only able to bear to watch the video once, and it’s a little surprising that I didn’t just burn the damn thing. But I didn’t, because it featured me—as Spock! My teen heart was fluttering almost as fast as a Vulcan’s.

I first fell in love with Spock in the 70s, watching re-runs on our first tv. My dad and I watched together, both of us immigrants from Sri Lanka. I don’t know what he thought of Star Trek, but I was completely smitten. I wanted to be Kirk, bold captain of the Enterprise, beloved by all—that was the role I dreamt of, the leader of men. But Spock was the one I actually identified with.

One of the smartest kids in the class, a loner, an outsider, the bookworm, the one with glasses who read on the playground—I might have filled his role regardless. I was a nerd long before geeks were cool. But there was an added layer to my identification with Spock; I’d been born in Sri Lanka, came to the U.S. at age two, and was the only South Asian in my entire school. Spock and I shared a special bond, forever strangers in a strange land, and no matter how well we mixed with the locals, how well we managed to pass, he and I knew that we were really aliens under the skin. When he bled green blood, I bled with him.

I grew up in Polish Catholic neighborhood; I could never pass for one of the locals, even after studying four years of Polish and attaining a modicum of fluency. Dzień dobry, good day. People would be startled, hearing the words fall from my brown lips—once, I thanked a restaurant server in Polish for the pierogies she’d handed me, and she almost dropped her tray. They’d be impressed, amused, even charmed, and that was certainly better than a hostile response. But I grew up always marked as Other, as different.

Spock was that for all of us, but perhaps especially for the immigrants, those of us who came across vast distances, to find our memories of the homeland fading a little more each day, supplanted by the constant overwhelming presence of the new land. Eventually, we found community; I found one of my best friends in high school over a Star Trek book, Diane Duane’s The Wounded Sky—we bonded over our mutual enthusiasm for the story. She was Kirk to my Spock, the beautiful blonde popular girl and I her shy alien sidekick, grateful that she was willing to accept me as I was, for all my strangeness and differences.

Star Trek helped us with that, with its hope for infinite diversity in infinite combinations. We grew up on those books, that vision of the future, one that Leonard Nimoy helped to shape with his often heart-wrenching portrayal of an alien from a distant world. Always a little separate, a little apart—but also able, finally, to find true friendship and great love among those who valued him for himself, and who eagerly called him to join their adventures.

Wherever my adventures take me now, I carry Spock with me.

Fresh Green Stuff

We’ve been trying to get more takeout to support local restaurants, but one thing I find tricky about that is getting enough fresh green stuff. I don’t really want salads in winter; I have a hard time motivating to eat them when I’m cold. So far, Vietnamese is a helpful option for me — I can have a fresh spring roll, and that clean crisp herby goodness just tastes right.

And then the hot pho soup is fun, because it comes in its component parts for freshness, and you get to assemble it to your liking. Kevin gets the rare beef; I like the seafood one, spicy and tangy, which has shrimp and clam and fish balls and mussels and crab. That’s just the soup itself — it comes with masses of delicate rice noodles, fresh Thai basil and sliced jalapeños, red onion, cilantro, lots of bean sprouts (more crispy veggie goodness), plus some rare beef too, and the sauce (some sweet, some spicy).

You put it all together in your bowl (one order of pho ($13.95) is enough for 2 full meal servings for me), and the beef cooks in the hot broth and it feels like healthy deliciousness as you eat. You can also order just broth for $5, or extra noodles for $2, or extra rare steak for $5, etc, so once you know how you like your pho, you can easily figure out how to inexpensively stretch it for another meal or two.

When I’m feeling indulgent, I get myself a little fried catfish in claypot — it comes in a rich, spicy sauce, served with rice, and I won’t claim the deep-fried part is particularly healthy, but I typically just have a little at a time, and fish is good for you.

Other recommended dishes I didn’t get tonight, but have enjoyed greatly in the past: green papaya salad, the Saigon sandwich (French bread with Vietnamese ham and pork pate, spread with mayo and filled with cucumber, pickled carrot, white radish, jalapeno and cilantro), bubble tea. My kids like the fried rice and the BBQ pork with rice.

The full menu is here: https://www.allmenus.com/…/507659-saigon-pho-cafe/menu/

I linked that menu because the online ordering menu through GrubHub seems very truncated, but if you call for pickup, they’re happy to have you order off the full menu.



Tote Bags and Mutual Aids

A quick note for Oak Parkers that if you’d like to support the work of the mutual aid society AND get yourself a gorgeous tote bag, sweatshirt, mug, t-shirt etc., featuring Marcy Grant’s gorgeous artwork, those are all now available.

I just picked up two tote bags for myself (I picked the royal blue backing, as black is not so much my thing), and am looking forward to using them at local stores when we can freely shop again.

You can also conveniently add a donation to OP Mutual Aid (they’ve been doing a lot of grocery deliveries for families in need) as you’re placing your order. Thank you.

OAK PARK MUTUAL AID-Green Line El Stop tote | Bonfire

Looks like your text is -181 character over the limit. Please shorten it to 200 characters or less. Oak Park Mutual Aid is a coalition of neighbors dedicated to directly caring for one another and those around us in greatest need.

Milk, Spice & Curry Leaves

Grading ’til close to midnight last night, and I fell a little behind on my other class; the wrist injury really did slow me down — I rely on my ability to type fast to make my life work at all! I’m feeling a bit muzzy-headed this morning, and had a hard time getting out of bed — I ended up reading there until 10 a.m., which felt rather sinfully indulgent. Finished book 7 in The Expanse series, and though I did immediately buy book 8, I have resolutely plugged in my e-reader and put it aside for now. Must get back to work.

I’ve finally managed to make it downstairs for coffee and meds, so hopefully will be more wakeful soon and can get to critiques for my other class. I also have a few new recipes to post shortly (Milk Rice with Bottle Gourd, and Bottle Gourd & Spinach Curry), but while I’m waiting to wake up, I’m going to start reading a new Sri Lankan cookbook that arrived yesterday, Ruwanmali Samarakoon-Amunugama’s _Milk, Spice & Curry Leaves_, which just launched.

I haven’t had a chance to cook anything from it yet, just paged through, but the photos are really gorgeous — her publisher did a great job. And she has a nice section on tips and tricks, with illustrations of things like how to cut a mango, which I’m sure people will find helpful.

From her name, I’m assuming she’s of Sinhalese descent, so while her recipes will likely to be similar to mine, there’ll probably be some notable differences too — mine definitely tilt towards the Tamil side of things. Will be interesting to see how they compare! She lives in British Columbia now, but was in Toronto for a while — I wonder if any of my Toronto cousins know her…

She doesn’t appear to be on Facebook, or I’d be tagging her into this post, alas! But you can find out more about her and the cookbook here:https://www.savouringserendipity.com/cookbook

The Laneways

Good morning, folks. Coming out of this morning’s iGov meeting, I had an idea that I wanted to run past people, something that might help out some of our struggling businesses. (This is mainly aimed at locals, though others with relevant experience are welcome to weigh in!)

In Melbourne, there’s an area called the Laneways. (Also sometimes referred to as the arcades.) This is a vibrant shopping district in the alleys behind buildings. It is utterly charming, full of cute little restaurants and tiny shops, plus lots of great graffiti-style street art. I think sometimes businesses split the back of their space to rent to a separate business that operates out of the alleyway, and sometimes it’s all the same business, street side and alley side.

We’ve had a tough time here with street construction + COVID seriously affecting local businesses. I heard that while some businesses are about to have to close down their sidewalk patios for construction, they may be allowed to set up alleyway options.

I think that’s great, but I’m a little worried that unless there’s a concerted effort to support that, people just won’t even think of venturing into the alley to find their open-air dining (and I know it’s rainy today, but with a canopy, I think you could eat outside for another month at least, maybe more with a patio heater or two?)

I’m wondering whether we could use a local community group to work on a Laneways project here, something that might extend beyond the pandemic time, and add a rich additional bit of cultural bustle to the shopping districts. It would beautify the relevant alleys too. They might have to shut down for winter, but once the pandemic is no longer an issue, hanging walls might also help extend the season.

I’m trying to think about what downsides might be. Would neighbors object? It’d be a little extra noise in the alley, but that might be counteracted by additional safety with more people around. It’d likely feel a bit more urban, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing?

This is just a brainstorming post (cross-posted to Shop Local Oak Park and Oak Park Development Watch, as well as my own wall). I’d love to hear people’s thoughts.

If it seems worth pursuing, I’m envisioning a coalition of business owners and interested consumers coming together to discuss and shape the project, defining parameters of a first test alley or two, to present a plan to the Village Board for their approval, to perhaps raise funds to help businesses who need financial assistance with supplies, but mostly to help get the word out and patronize those businesses once it’s up and running.

(I cannot take on another thing to run, but I’d be happy to be part of the committee, at least for the initial brainstorming, which is my strong suit. :-))

Photos of Melbourne’s Laneways for inspiration.

A Nice Surprise

Hey, this was a nice surprise — my native Great Blue lobelia (new this year) had finished its spike of blooms — but then it sent up a bunch of new blooms surrounding the central spike. I didn’t know it did that. Cut off the finished spike and dropped it on the ground (hoping it might drop some seeds for next year?) and am enjoying the new flowers.