Friday, July 6, 2007

A Brief Conversation with Vandana Singh

Timmi: I met you a year ago at Readercon, Vandana, when you presented a paper about science fiction in the Third World. As I recall, you not only discussed a tradition of sf in India that goes back a century, but also noted that an sf magazine in China has the kind of circulation that sf magazines in the US could only dream about. Would you talk a little here about sf in India, please, and what kind of readers it appeals to?

Vandana: Until recently there was no SF in India that was labeled and marketed as genre, apart from foreign imports like Asimov, Bradbury etc. About three or four years ago Penguin India came out with what it called the first SF book by an Indian author that was marketed as SF: The Simoqin Prophecies by Samit Basu. So it is hard to say what kinds of readers in India like SF, since that category did not exist until recently. On the other hand SF in India has existed for a long time, although marketed under general fiction. This is particularly true of SF in Indian languages other than English (there are 18 languages in India). For instance consider the extraordinary works of writer Premendra Mitra, who wrote in Bengali in the 1940’s. I discovered him only recently after a translation into English came on the market, although he’s been a major hit among Bengalis for decades. Part of the problem with answering your question also has to do with the multiplicity of tongues --- where there are no translations I cannot tell you much about the work or the readership, since I’m only fluent in English and Hindi.

On a personal note, however, I can say that for bilingual urban kids for whom English is a familiar language, science fiction is very much a thing of childhood and the teenage years, and probably more popular with boys than with girls. By the age of ten or eleven I had read Asimov and Clarke, and discovered (with much delight) Bradbury. But apparently my tastes in reading were a little unusual for a girl. In any case as children grew up they seemed to be turned off SF, at least SF in English by foreign authors. Whether this turning off also occurs in other Indian languages I cannot say, but judging by the popularity of Premendra Mitra, I doubt it. There are SF traditions in Marathi, Tamil and other languages that I know very little about; I know, however, that there are some women writers.

I should mention that fellow writer Anil Menon and I are trying to put together an anthology of Indian SF with translations from various Indian languages as well as SF written by Indians in English. I don’t know when or if this project will be complete but it is exciting and difficult, and involves following up traces, hints and rumors of Indian SF writers and their stories.

Timmi: You have published fiction in both the US and India. Are the audiences and markets in the US and India substantially different, or do you feel you can pretty much sell everything in both places?

Vandana: The fiction I’ve published in India consists of two children’s books, Younguncle Comes to Town and Younguncle in the Himalayas. Both have some fantastical elements and are completely grounded in an Indian ethos. They seem to have been a hit in India --- I heard that pirated copies might be selling in the streets of Bangalore, which I take as a sign of having arrived. I’ve also heard from various readers, from age five to eighty-five (kids start reading really early in India, when they have the opportunities) that they love the books.

The first book, Younguncle Comes to Town, was published in the U.S. in 2006 by Viking Children’s Books. The editors took a big risk because, as one of them said, nothing quite like this exists in the American market and nobody could be sure how the book would do. Perhaps it was too foreign. Maybe the Hindi words would be confusing. Perhaps the use of big words like “ambrosial” or “prosaic” would turn kids off. And indeed there were mixed reviews in which some raved and others declared that the subject matter would not interest American children. But ultimately the book seems to have done wellit is a selection of the Junior Library Guild (and so is in public libraries nearly everywhere), an ALA Notable book, one of New York Public Library’s 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing, among other honors. The one reading I have been able to doat a public school in Bostonwas a real eye-opener. Kids from elementary through seventh grade knew the characters and plot lines and laughed in all the right places. So I realized that American kids are like kids everywhere: because when you give them something that is interesting and does not talk down to them, then they will take to it, even if the setting and culture are unfamiliar.

Of my short fiction for adults only one story has been published in India, in an anthology called the Inner Line: Stories by Indian Women, published by Zubaan (they also published my children’s books). It got some favorable reviews. Now Zubaan is publishing a collection of my stories and I am hopeful that these will appeal to the Indian reader also. While I write for the world, the Indian audience is crucial to me.

I don’t know that my adult fiction is of interest to the American genre reader at large, since I haven’t had success selling to the big SF magazines like Asimov’s or F&SF, and in fact for some years I haven’t been sending them material. The small press anthologies, Strange Horizons, and British magazines like The Third Alternative (now Black Static) seem to like my work. The fact that two of my stories have made it to Year’s Best volumes, and have been shortlisted for awards, is also encouraging.

Timmi: Zubaan Books, which will be publishing your forthcoming collection The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories, is a feminist publisher located in New Delhi. Could you talk a little about what sort of work, generally, they publish and who in India reads feminist sf?

Vandana: Zubaan Books is a non-profit publishing house descended from India’s first feminist press, Kali for Women, which changed the Indian publishing scene by promoting women’s writing and women’s voices. Zubaan continues the work of Kali for Women by publishing both fiction and nonfiction that puts women and women’s struggles in the forefront. Their books explore the areas where gender meets economics, sexuality and health, and conflict. They also have biographies of and fiction by women. Their readers include academics but also general readers. For instance the autobiography A Life Less Ordinary by a domestic worker called Baby Halder was translated into English and became a best-seller. Zubaan’s website is at <>.

To me, personally, it is a great honor being published by Zubaan. When I was in my early twenties, marching for women’s rights on the streets of Delhi, Kali for Women was a name I had heard about and looked up to, and I never imagined that I would one day be published by their successor, Zubaan.

Timmi: How did you come to choose to take a doctorate in physics? Has your training as a theoretical physicist been important for your fiction? And conversely, does your science-fictional imagination influence how you think about physics?

Vandana: I’ve always been fascinated by the natural world, and in my childhood I explored it through scientific observation (of birds mostly) as well as through writing. I was going to be a biologist but I was put off by the degree of rote learning involved at the time. Also I wanted to know about the root of things, and it seemed to me that in biology you couldn’t ask deep questions without ending up in chemistry and ultimately in physics. (Later I realized that this was too reductionist an approach but that is another story).

But also I was fascinated by astronomy and the possibility of life on other worlds, which stemmed from my reading science fiction. So that played a role in my taking up physics, too. I finished my undergraduate and Master’s degrees at Delhi University but I wasn’t a very disciplined student. I aced the courses I loved, including some really tough ones, and neglected everything else. My bias was toward the theoretical --- to find the great abstractions, the underlying patterns that connected apparently disparate phenomena. That aspect of physics is still what really turns me on.

So I came to this country for a PhD. Feeling like an alien (and a card-carrying one at that) I turned back to my old and neglected love, science fiction, only to realize that people like me didn’t seem to exist in most science-fictional futures. (This was the cause of much despair until I came across Ursula K. Le Guin’s work). As far as physics was concerned, the area I researched for my thesis was the truly bizarre realm of quark interactions. The problem I looked at was very tough and had to do with the question of why a quark, the smallest particle of matter (as far as we know) is never observed alone, but always with at least one other quark. You might rephrase that in these words: why is there no lonely quark in Nature? The solution involved a massive simulation on a supercomputer that was mostly frustrating but also challenging and fun, and we got hints of an answer that led to quite a bit of work in the area by other people, long after I had left research.

Although I dropped out of physics research after a year of post-doctoral work in India I came back to the U.S. after marriagethe break from academia allowed me to start writing. It also made me question some of the assumptions and paradigms that were driving my field of particle physicsreductionism, for instance, which, while powerful and useful, is not without its limits. The appropriation of science by Wall Street and the military also has negative consequences. I home-schooled my daughter for eight years, and during that time I had time to think broadly about physics. But on the other hand I really missed being actively involved in it, and it was natural that I started writing science fiction because that was the only way I could get my intellectual “highs” then. Even though my science fiction was as much or more about humans and their peculiarities the science appeared sometimes directly, sometimes as metaphor, and I found this intellectually fascinating.

About four years ago I found my way back to academia, to teach basic college physics at a liberal arts college. It was and is a wonderful experience and keeps my brain happy and active. I get ideas for stories while I’m teaching (although I generally can’t write until the summer break). For instance one short story that is coming out in my collection The Women Who Thought She Was a Planet is called “Conservation Laws,” and it occurred to me while I was conducting a lab on rotations. So the story is an amalgam of classical physics, a very weird extrapolation of modern physics, and the regional characteristics of people from my home state, Bihar. It is also a tribute to the giant of Bengali SF I mentioned, Premendra Mitra. I’ve also written the first draft of a novella that is about a woman marooned at the other end of our galaxy in a massive spaceshipsome of the science is based on my PhD thesis but it is also about what identity means when you are (possibly) the last human.

Physics and literature are to me like breathing and eating. I need them both to be alive, and in a sense they give me a sort of binocular vision of the world. And sometimes my speculations about science are not too far off. For instance I learned that the way I had portrayed the force of gravity in the aforementioned novella is actually one way that modern physicists are looking at it now.

To me the great divide between what C.P. Snow called “The Two Cultures” is cause for much sadness. I think that the sciences, especially physics, are taught quite poorly in general, not introduced early enough in the school curriculum, and the people who teach it are not trained, supported or compensated sufficiently. The other thing is that what I’ve seen of American popular culture is very anti-intellectual, and erodes away at our natural tendency to be awed by the universe. I’ve spent a good few minutes of introductory physical science class passionately recounting (to future elementary school teachers) how we originate from the stars, and that the heavier elements in our bodies were forged inside supernovasand while I get the occasional “Cool” from my audience, I’ve also gotten the dreaded question: Will this be on the exam? I think that to lose the ability to connect with the physical universe, to lose awe, is to die a sort of death.

I’ve given talks at a local Unitarian Universalist church about science and art, and their possible reconciliation, and some of the people most excited by this are senior citizens, especially women. They’ve spent much of their lives divorced from and bored by science and now they are curious and want to learn more about it. My most recent talk involved an introduction to the forces of Nature, looking at them from the scientific perspective as well as the mythological (without being disparaging to either), and I can’t begin to tell you how enthusiastic my audience was, and with what childlike curiosity they performed the experiments. Grandmothers were like five-year-olds!

So, to sum up: to me, science and the arts are part of the great continuum of human experience and creativity, and despite their true and great differences, they arise from the same bedrock. The happy place where the two cultures meet make it possible for me to be fully alive in this universe, to be open-minded, curious, critical, suspicious of authority, and lost in awe at the miracle of a spider-web or a rainbow.

Timmi: Thank you so much, Vandana.

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