Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Mundane and the Magical: an Interview with Vandana Singh

by Jesse Vernon

The newly released Of Love and Other Monsters, by Vandana Singh, explores the boundaries that shape our world—distinctions that we often take for granted: between man and woman, body and mind, human and other. Arun, the narrator of this novella, takes readers on a journey across the globe and through the minds of many captivating characters he encounters along the way. His unique ability enables him to see beyond bodies into the complexity of identities and interactions surrounding him. Through a series of emails, I asked Vandana about the ideas and influences that shape this story.


How has your own experience with gender/your gender identity influenced your writing?

I have to start by admitting that I might be the least qualified person to comment on my own writing. I can tell you about my life experience of gender issues but I can’t tell you why or how I wrote a particular story except at the most mundane level. One reason is that I often don’t know what I am trying to say in a story until months or years later, or unless someone asks me and forces me to think about it.

Having made that disclaimer I can tell you that as far as life experience goes, I’ve been involved in various ways in gender issues, not least of which is being female. Unfortunately I’ve discovered that in the West some people expect me to write about downtrodden females because of course I must be one, or must have escaped from India because I was one in the past, because of course all women in India suffer so much and bear their sufferings meekly. The truth about being female in India (and probably elsewhere, too) is a lot more complex than the simplistic assumptions of people here. I grew up in a middle class family with hordes of strong female relatives (where “strong” does not necessarily mean “strident” but might include it). My brother and sister learned to cook; I didn’t. We had female cousins who were denied treats by their grandmother in favor of their brother, but my sister and I were never treated that way. At the same time it was obvious that women, including all the tough ones, did the housework even when they worked outside the home. I learned early that Hindu goddesses were people you didn’t want to mess with, but somehow men got most of the perks.

I got interesting conflicting messages: women were weak, so had to be protected, women were powerful, they had to be contained or else they might destroy the universe. When trekking through the Himalayas as a teenager I came across indigenous women’s movements initiated by illiterate village women who had never heard of Betty Friedan. I marched in Delhi streets against the murderous abuse of the custom of dowry, shouting slogans that translate as “we are women of India, we are fire, not flowers.” Later, when I found myself living in the U.S., I volunteered in a couple of Asian women’s support groups for victims of domestic violence.

I suppose what fascinates and puzzles me about gender is that only a small fraction of it seems to be rooted in biology; the rest is a social construct, which is why gender roles can differ across cultures. The rigidity of gender can be very limiting if you want to be a complete human being.

And conversely, how has the creative space of speculative fiction influenced your experience of gender (your own or others’) in everyday life?

The wonderful thing about speculative fiction (of the best kind) is that it allows you to play in so many ways. For me one inspiring eye-opener was Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic “The Left Hand of Darkness” which showed me one way to be creative about gender. Since then I’ve read other spec fic works that play with the notion in interesting ways. I think imagination is the key to freedom: you have to dream a dream before you can realize it. In my own writing I’ve noticed (upon looking back) that I talk a lot about boundaries that people—particularly women—have to negotiate in order to find out who they are or to become complete in some way. Sometimes those boundaries lie between human and animal, sometimes between childhood and adulthood, or the mundane and the magical.

When your main character, Arun, perceives the mind-signatures of strangers, he cannot determine if they are male or female. Later he observes:

My ability to sense minds enabled me to see human beings as entities beyond man-woman categories. I decided, after some months of informal study, that rather than two sexes there were at least thirty-four. Perhaps “sex” or “gender” isn’t right—perhaps a geographical term would be more appropriate—thirty-four climactic zones of the human mind!

Will you talk more about this perception and how it affects the rest of your story?

Some years ago, when I shared an early draft of this story with some American writers (on various occasions), there was a very vocal reaction from some of the men and also from a couple of women. They complained that Arun didn’t come across as male. One woman even said to me that since Arun didn’t watch sports or drink beer, she couldn’t think about him as a man at all. I was rather flabbergasted by all this. Later I thought about it very hard and those thoughts led to the next draft, including the extract above. I realized that there are some rather rigid notions of how gender is expressed in America, at least in urban middle-class America. In India, despite the rigidity of gender roles (which again can be different depending on family, religion, class and region) there is a lot more fluidity in terms of how gender is expressed. I mean, I’ve met men like Arun, for heaven’s sake! (All this is apart from the fact that Arun isn’t exactly typical in any way).

To give a small example, men in India often walk around with their arms around each other. It is just fine to express physical affection if you are the same gender as another person. It also does not mean you are gay, although if you are, it is very convenient. There’s no gender police out there saying if you do that you are not a man. Although, if a man walks around in a sari everybody would laugh at him unless he is a hijra (the traditional sub-culture of gelded men) or a male shopkeeper in a sari shop modeling a sari for a customer. Also if you watch Bollywood movies you’d see that the traditional hero is in some ways aggressively male, fights like a man, but cries unashamedly “like a woman” if his friend dies, and wiggles his hips like a seductress during the dance sequences. There is a lot of androgyny in Indian culture—look at our Hindu gods, especially my favorite, Shiva! He’s cool!

So I guess what Arun is trying to say is that at heart the difference between one individual’s mind and another’s may be greater than (or at least as important as) the difference of gender. Gender is just one dimension of a person’s being; there are so many more. I think (but can’t be sure, since he hasn’t told me in so many words) that Arun finds gender differences fascinating because they seem so artificial to him; yet they provide a sort of analogy for him to understand the boundary he’s negotiating: that between human and alien. And that’s all he’s telling me about it now.

Many people tend to conflate sex, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation—i.e., a biological male who identifies as a man will necessarily be ‘masculine’ and therefore attracted to women. Your character Arun challenges these assumptions across various lines of identity and relationships. Can you talk more about encountering these assumptions (in readers and perhaps yourself) and what it’s like to play with boundaries?

I think my childhood and young adulthood in India has a lot to do with how I perceive boundaries. In my first published story, “The Room on the Roof” (Polyphony, Volume 1, from Wheatland Press), the protagonist is a thirteen year-old girl in New Delhi, who, in the beginning of the story, has just realized that she lives within the intersection of many worlds. I used a mathematical analogy to explain that—Venn diagrams—and it is exactly how I felt growing up. Whether the boundaries were between animal and human, male and female, body and mind, I felt I was in some kind of space where these categories overlapped. Not everybody growing up in India has this experience so it was also me: I was the kind of shy kid who got along better with animals than with people. My friends included the local pariah dogs that throng Indian towns and cities along with the occasional human. My experience of gender was also interesting because I saw strong women at the helm of things in my family—matriarchs in all senses of the word—but mostly acting within roles defined by the patriarchy. At the same time education was a big deal in my family and women were as likely to have advanced degrees as men. So the complexity of it was really interesting.

I don’t really know how readers react to what is in my stories apart from the few people to whom I have shown my work, or the few who have written reviews. I have a sense that what I write isn’t really of interest to “mainstream” science fiction and fantasy in the U.S. although I hope I’m wrong about that!

You also write children’s literature. In an interview with author Samit Basu, you comment that you “read happily and indiscriminately across boundaries” of age categories in fiction. Do you notice a difference in the way you portray gender in your children’s characters compared to your novels for adults?

I should make clear first that when I set out to write a story I have no message or intent in mind. Most of the time I have a character in my head, sometimes with an image, and a feel for when the story has brewed enough in my mind and is ready to be written. Often I vaguely know the ending or the beginning but not much else. The first sentence leads to the next one and so on, and there are all kinds of surprises along the way. So for me writing is an act of discovery as well as a deliberate act, which is what makes it so interesting and addictive.

So I don’t deliberately set out to write something about gender, for instance. There are stories of mine in which it plays a limited role. But if I’m asked to look back I might be able to see a pattern in my work (or not), which is what I’m attempting to do now.

My Younguncle books for children do comment on gender, although in a subtle way. Younguncle, the main character, is a maverick problem solver who follows his heart and his whims and cares nothing for the frowns and disapproval of the world. He has no problem helping a Great-Aunt shop for saris, or dressing up as a bride to play a trick on an unpleasant man. He is likely to tap dance on the street if the impulse takes him, or burst into song, or cook the most incredible food for his nieces and nephew. When chased by villains he runs away, screaming “help,” while at the same time having some aces up his sleeve. And he’s no less a man, for all that.

These books also feature resourceful women, including one who is a super-manager and talks in capital letters, and another who uses tears and melodrama to cleverly get what she wants. Yet another young woman is a brilliant mathematician who considers marriage neither necessary nor sufficient, and figures out a solution (with Younguncle’s help).

Many of my short stories for children (published mostly in India) feature girls who discover important things about themselves: one in the context of a trip to Mars, and another in a situation set in a totalitarian future Delhi where she has a chance to change the course of events. So I guess gender issues do permeate a lot of my writing, although I may not always be aware of it until I look back.

How have different cultural contexts in this novella—rural India, the metropolis of New Delhi, small towns and large cities in the U.S.—influenced the identities of your characters?

Well, geography, including its cultural aspects, does affect character—hence the stereotype of country mouse and town mouse. Growing up, I experienced life in a big city, in small towns and also visited the ancestral village. Since I was mostly brought up in the bustling metropolis of New Delhi, the contrast between it and the small town and village scenario was striking to say the least.

One of the most obvious things that is affected by cultural geography is one's sense of time. I remember summers in the town where my grandparents lived, and where we also lived for two years. Time ran thick and slow as honey. Then there is space too. In the smaller places there was more of it to wander in. Time to explore ditches after monsoon rain, look for tadpoles, watch out for cobras, time to wander through the neighborhood at four in the morning and find our way to the fields where a lone farmer drove his oxen. A largesse of time and space make it possible to participate in and experience life in a completely different way, to mull over things, to wonder idly. This, I think, is important to have at least in one's youth. It shapes who you are.

In the story, Arun had that. I think his special ability might have helped him to retain that need to participate in the world, to be a taster of its mindscapes, its joys and sorrows, like a curious kid in a magic shop. It kept him from ambition, from becoming obsessed with getting to the top of the ladder like other young men. In a way it kept him from so-called growing up. Sankaran was like that too, in a different way from Arun, though. That's my astute observation of the day. I leave the rest of the analysis to interested readers.


For more information about Vandana Singh, visit her website. To purchase Of Love and Other Monsters, go here.

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