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
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
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
To give a small example, men in
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
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
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
How have different cultural contexts in this novella—rural
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
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.