science fiction Posts

Interview with Ashok Kumar Banker

Ashok Kumar Banker began writing stories at the age of nine. He is the author of over seventy books, including the internationally acclaimed Ramayana Series and the recent Burnt Empire Series which is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in USA and in the sub-continent by Simon and Schuster India. Ashok Banker’s works have all been bestsellers in India, and have been published around the world. He lives in Los Angeles and Mumbai. He has returned to the genre with which he first made his publishing debut – children’s fiction – with his first chapter book series released by Scholastic India. It is called the Secret School Mysteries. The first story called The Invisible Spy was released in July 2019. The second story in the series arc is called Aliens Ate My Homework! It is slated for release in early 2020.

  1. The Invisible Spy is a far cry from your mythological stories that you are better known for. So why venture into children’s publishing? Also why did you choose to tell a school story and not retellings of mythology? 

It’s actually the other way around. I started my career as a children’s book author and only ventured into mythology much later. As the headnote above says, I began writing at the age of 9. Now, that may seem like childish scribbles, but that’s when I became serious about writing as a vocation. I started my first novel at that age. It would be considered a children’s book today and was several times the length of The Invisible Spy. I never completed it because it was too ambitious and I had bitten off more than I could chew. It was titled Childworld and was about a plane full of children that crash on an island and learn that all the adults in the world have mysteriously died of an unknown virus, and only the children are left alive. I was reading my way through the classics at the time and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was a powerful influence. Today, looking back across the distance of five decades I would describe it as Lord of the Flies meets Lost meets The Stand.

I never finished Childworld but I continued writing stories (and poems and essays and novels) at feverish speed, filling dozens of ledger books with small cramped handwriting. (Ledger books were the biggest blank notebooks I could find, and I wrote small to make maximum use of the space.) I was recently contacted by an old neighbour from that time, Bianca, who now lives in Canada, and she told me that she remembered me sitting at the dining table in my grandmother’s house filling page after page, completely intent on the task. That was when I was ten. Almost five decades later, I’m still writing.

I wrote at least one book-length work every single year from the age of nine, several books – and stories, poems, songs, essays, scripts – and the vast majority of them were what would be classified as children’s books. I didn’t work up the confidence to actually start sending them out to publishers till I was 15, at which point, I would carry the manuscript of my science fiction YA trilogy (The Man Machine, The Ultimatum, The Last of the Robots) to publisher’s offices in Mumbai, in the hope of getting someone to read my work.

I was a published poet by that time – I published a lot of poetry in my teen years, in journals ranging from Jayanta Mahapatra’s Chandrabhaga in Bhubhaneswarto Menke Katz’s Bitterroot in New York, was interviewed on AIR and other outlets. When I was around 19, Doordarshan Mumbai even did a half hour interview-based feature showcasing my work as one of the youngest emerging poets in the country. I was published at the age of 14 and was a regular contributor to the children’s section of almost every newspaper and magazine that would take my work, from Illustrated Weekly to Evening News, The Afternoon, Free Press Journal, JS, and I don’t even remember all the other names now. I also self-published my first book of poems Ashes in the Dust of Time and it was selected to represent Young India at the World Book Fair in Paris, France, that year. There’s probably copies of it in the National Archive, Asiatic Society, and elsewhere. I had some wonderfully encouraging rejection letters from TLS, The Atlantic Review, and New Yorker. (I also never stopped writing poetry, by the way, and am planning to start sending out some of my more recent works to literary journals here in the US soon.)

Anyway, coming back to my children’s books. I found the addresses of Indian publishers and wrote to them. The first and only one to reply was Zamir Ansari of Penguin Books India. It was basically just a distribution office back then and I think he was the only employee. He was kind enough to meet me on a trip to Mumbai and was the first, and one of the kindest, people I ever met in Indian publishing. You can imagine a teenager in school uniform (I would take off my school tie and my Headboy badges in the hope that I would look older than my age, which I did – I looked mature enough to be allowed into The Exorcist when I was 13), sitting in the coffee shop of The Oberoi with this elderly gentleman, discussing publishing. I had done my homework, spending hours in the USIS and British Council Library, reading every book on publishing, every copy of Bookseller and he must have been impressed by me. He didn’t read my manuscript but he gave me some insights into Indian publishing.

Anyway, I persevered, still writing at least one children’s book and one novel every year, and eventually in my 20s, I finally got accepted by a small imprint called Better Yourself Books. It was the children’s imprint of the Daughters of St. Paul, also known as the Pauline Sisters, and my editor was a wonderful nun named Sister Nivedita. She offered me a small advance and they published what was my first fiction book, Amazing Adventure at Chotta Sheher. It sold over 10,000 copies, which in the 1990s was a huge number, and went in for reprints. I received royalties from it which was more than I ever expected.

I also adapted it to a feature film and it won a prize for the Best Children’s Film Script from the CFSI (Children’s Film Society of India). I was invited to a meeting with the jury, headed by chairperson Shabana Azmi, and I earned even more money for the adaptation rights. (I was already working in advertising as a copywriter, quite successfully, and writing scripts for some of the earliest TV shows such as Saanp Seedi and docudramas, winning a number of awards in both advertising and scriptwriting and making a decent living.) The film never did get made but it was such a zany, fun book that I wish I had a copy to see if it holds up even today.

(One of my quirks is that I never keep copies of my own books, I give them all away. I always believe that I can write much better and keeping my work around seems like an exercise in vanity. I also give away the books I buy to read, since I believe books should be passed on, not hoarded.)

By that time, Penguin had started local publishing headed by David Davidar, and he published another children’s book by me under the Puffin India imprint. It was titled The Missing Parents Mystery and while it was just as much fun as my earlier book, they simply couldn’t sell any of their titles in the market. I began my career as a children’s book author, and the mythological books, while great fun to write, comprise only about a small part of my total output as a writer. So, in a sense, I never really stopped writing children’s books.

Then I met my editor at Pan Macmillan India, Sushmita Chatterjee. Later Sushmita joined Scholastic who then commissioned a chapter book series — the Secret School Mysteries. The first three titles are The Invisible Spy, Aliens Ate My Homework, and The Haunted Centre.

Now, for some unknown reason, the dam seems to have broken.

I have picture books coming out from Lantana Publishing (I Am Brown, illustrated by the amazing Sandhya Prabhat) coming in March 2020, Tiny Tiger to be illustrated by Sandhya’s sister Chhaya Prabhat coming in late 2020, a baby book series called Superzeroes illustrated by Abhijeet Kini coming in late 2020/early 2021, graphic novel adaptations of my Ramayana Series from Campfire Graphic Novels starting with Prince of Ayodhya coming in September 2019, a graphic novel YA series on Shiva starting with The Legend of Rudra coming in October 2019, a YA graphic novel on the Gita in early 2020, an adventure series featuring an SC/ST protagonist called Bhumia Adventures from Tulika, a YA version of the Ramayana from Speaking Tiger, an original middle grade fantasy adventure series starting with Pax Gandhi, Sorceror Supreme, also from Speaking Tiger, and much much more. And those are only my children’s books, of course.

And I’m only getting started. As you can see, I have a lot of lost years to make up for! Besides, I LOVE writing and few books give me as much pleasure as a zany, fun children’s story. So expect many more. 🙂

2. What is your writing routine? How many words can you get done in a day? 

Oh, I don’t write every day. In fact, I don’t write most days. I never have a word target. You see, I have a problem of too much focus. I’m the kind of person who could write in a war zone. (I speak from experience, having written an entire book while reporting from Kargil in 1999 for Sunday Mid-Day and Rediff.com.) I have to be careful not to let myself get sucked into writing otherwise you would find me someday, with a miles long beard, filling my 100th Terabyte sized hard disk! I spend most of my reading, day dreaming, exercising, with my family. My wife and I take care of our grand-daughter Leia most days of the week, and she loves to read too. I take a very long time to live with a book and story before setting fingers to keypad, so when I do sit to write, it comes out fully formed. When you read a book or story by me, you are reading the result of several decades of gestation and several hours of actual writing. I’ll talk more about this when answering your other questions below.

3. You are a phenomenally well-read and an eclectic reader. So do you have a reading routine? What format do you prefer reading — print or digital (eBooks/audio)? In fact, any tips on what makes an individual a reader? 

It’s kind of you to say so. I read for pleasure, and am lucky (as well as unlucky) that I have such variegated reading interests. I think I actually read about 50 books a month, but that doesn’t include old favourites I dip into now and then, books I reference for my work, and books I start but don’t care to finish. It includes children’s books, which I love because they’re pure story vehicles. I prefer to read in print, hardcover ideally. (Thanks to the incredible library system here in the US, I’m able to indulge my love for reading like never before, ordering as many new hardcovers as I wish, all free. It’s a miracle!) But I also love to listen to audiobooks – also available here free through the library apps. I listen to audiobooks in the morning, while checking my email, cooking my breakfast, eating, and before I sit down to work. Later in the day, I’ll read a print book. And that doesn’t include the picture books I read with Leia.

Speaking for myself, I think growing up in a house full of books (my mother, grandmother, and grandfather were all avid readers) makes a huge difference. Books and reading are like blood and oxygen. You can’t get one without the other. Even as a parent, I was the first one in the house to get hooked on Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, you name it. I would buy those books, read them and leave them for my children to discover. They would ignore them or pass them off as “Dad’s latest obsession” until suddenly one day, years later, all their friends were talking about the book and they would come to me and say “Dad, where’s that Harry Potter book?” I was one of the first people in India to register for an internet account and I spent almost all my time (and still do) browsing for books! I think it’s something in your blood.

Leia, as you can see, is fascinated by all my bookshelves and by seeing me reading all the time. But she loves looking at books and being read to, and I have no doubt that she will grow up with books as part of her eco-system. It also helps that almost all my children’s books are dedicated to her!

Leia, Ashok Banker’s granddaughter.
(Picture used with permission of her parents and grandparents.)

4. This year is a first for you in many ways — many new book releases, spanning age groups and spanning continents. If the publications originate on different continents, does it inform your writing style, bearing in mind that you may be writing for slightly different sets of readers who perhaps different expectations? 

Oh yes, it changes completely. American editors have a completely different attitude. In India, editors still consider a book to be the author’s work. Children’s book authors here, by and large with a few famous exceptions, are essentially delivering what’s acceptable to their editors.

For instance, we have a wonderful boom in Indian’s children publishing right now, with such amazing books such as the h0le series from Duckbill, books like A Firefly in the Dark by Shazaf Fatima Haider, Calling Muskaan by Himanjali Sarkar, Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, Amra and the Witch by Arefa Tehsin, The Hidden Children by Reshma Barshikar, to name just a few.

Yet, they’re all incredible, amazing books. In the US. I’m incredibly lucky to have found a great editor in John Joseph Adams, and publisher in Bruce Nichols. Having said that, as I said, I’ve had a little luck and somehow managed to slip one through the cracks. The critical and reader response is wonderful and universally laudatory. The book is doing well and I’m very happy with my editor and publisher.

5. How do you work upon a series arc? Does the plot take shape as you write it or do you create an outline beforehand? 

I simply daydream about it. Over time, it all coalesces in my head. It just comes together somehow. I accumulate details, characters, writing styles, structure, all in my mind, and one day, I feel the urge to sit down and “write a little”, and it all comes out in a torrent, pretty much fully formed. It’s a gift from an unknown place and I don’t question or analyse it. I simply accept it with grace and piety.

6. Writing three different kinds of series arcs — chapter books, retelling of the Mahabharata and a yalit trilogy based on Indian mythology — must require a fair amount of mental agility. How do you keep track of all the story plots? Do you make extensive notes? 

I read. At some point, a story comes along. It’s all somewhere in my head. I generally have several dozen going at the same time, and I have no idea how I keep track of them all. I just do. No notebooks, no computer files full of notes, no assistants, secretaries, nothing. Just me and my laptop. Sometimes I write. Mostly, I read. Always, I dream.

7. Has dividing your time living in Mumbai and Los Angeles changed your perspective on writing or is context immaterial to your writing? 

Living in America makes it easier to see India in a different perspective. I’m finally approaching the completion of a literary novel set in Mumbai which I first started almost 40 years ago. It’s called The Pasha of Pedder Road and is one of those mammoth realistic literary novels that I aspired to write as a young author, but never had the life-experience to attempt. Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, I had to leave Mumbai (where I was born, grew up and lived for 51 years) before I could write about Mumbai again. On the other hand, I no longer feel the slightest bit interested in writing about the US.

8. How/ where do you find ideas for your stories?

Oh, I could never find them. They always find me. I believe there’s a Human Directory that’s secretly handed around by the Story community. My name must feature right at the top, since my first and last names are A and B. So they constantly come calling, at all hours of the day. I often have to pretend I’m not home, otherwise I’d never get any sleep or rest!  

9. How did you come up with these five delightful characters — Google baba Peter, gamer Sania, identical twins Usha & Asha, and aspiring scientist Arun? When creating characters, do you work on their backstory or is it sufficient to see them develop as the story moves ahead?  (I am always curious whether the character comes first or the plot or is it a bit of both and then it evolves.) 

Good question. I wish I had the answer. As I said, I simply write the whole thing. All fully formed. More or less the way you read it. When I hold a copy of one of my books in my hand, I read it and it’s all just as new to me as it is to you. I remember these words passing from my mind to the screen, but have no clue how they came to be there. As Erica Jong once wrote: “We write as leaves breathe: to live.” I simply breathe, and the air comes out as perfectly shaped stories, characters and all.

10. It is early days as yet but do you have any idea what is the response, particularly amongst children, to Invisible Spy?  

It’s my first book ever to receive five star reviews, and to be loved by everyone who reads it. The response is overwhelming. I think for the first time in my 72-book career I have a book that’s universally loved. It is a wonderful feeling!

11. Who are the writers you admire and may have influenced your writing as well? 

They change every few days. I read so much, it’s like pointing to one fish in the ocean and say, that one. It’s gone almost instantly, and then there’s another, and another. Hundreds. Thousands even. More than writers, it’s individual books. Often, I pick up a book at random in a library and if I like the first page, I keep reading. I may not even look at the title or author name until much later. I’ve often thought I would prefer that my books be published without my name mentioned anywhere. After all, all art is ultimately a collective creative experience. It takes a village to create a story. A writer merely jots it down.

12. Do you have any all-time favourite stories? Does this list change over time? 

Too many to count or name. Ever changing, ever expanding list. A monster with a bottomless appetite, that’s me as a reader! As a young kid, I used to read my way through entire circulating libraries. I can devour whole series like guzzling water. Books are life to me.

Thank you for these wonderful questions!

Happy Reading!

Ashok Kumar Banker

Los Angeles, July 2019

21 August 2019

Jeanette Winterson “Frankisstein: A Love Story”

Nothing — said Professor Stein — it tells us a great deal about Saudi Arabia.

Professor Stein, as you know, the Hanson robot, Sophia was awarded citizenship of Saudi Arabia in 2017. She has more rights than any Saudi woman. What does this tell us about aritifical intelligence?

Will women be the first casualties of obsolescence in your brave new world?

On the contrary, said Professor Stein, AI need not replicate outmoded gender prejudices. If there is no biological male or female, then –

She says, Professor Stein, you are the acceptable face of AI, but in fact the race to create what you call true artificial intelligence is a race run by autistic-spectrum white boys with poor emotional intelligence and frat-dorm social skills. In what way will their brave new world be gender neutral — or anything neutral?

Even if, even if the first superintelligence is the worst possible iteration of what you might call the white male autistic default programme, the first upgrade by the intelligence itself will begin to correct such errors. And why? Because we humans will only programme the future once. After that, the intelligence we create will manage itself.

And us.

Jeanette Winterson’s Frankisstein: A Love Story is a modern retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankstein. The story begins at the Villa Diodati (1816) on the shores of Lake Geneva a well-known scene for it is the one in which 19-year-old Mary Shelley conceived of her novel Frankenstein. Two hundred years on Frankisstein is about Ry, short for Mary, Shelley, a transgender medical professional self-described as “hybrid”, meeting Victor Stein, a celebrated professor of artificial intelligence, during a visit to a cryonics facility in the Arizona desert — a setting that exists in reality called Alcor Life Extension Foundation but is never mentioned by name in the novel. there is a professional and a sexual attraction between the two scientists.

The novel makes this overarching connection between Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with modern science advancing sufficiently to enable those who wish to, to have a sex change to the application of AI. Frankisstein starts off really very well but after a while fizzles out particularly when The Romantics are clumsily described. Byron and Polidori come away nowhere like the characters one has known them to be and the Shelleys too are an odd couple. The descriptions of Mary Shelley come across as too modern or more as if a twenty-first century interpretation has been imposed upon her character.

Nevertheless artifical intelligence is gaining significance by leaps and bounds every single day. Real life is rapidly morphing into something out of a science fiction story. AI research is helping these initiatives in many, many ways. Some more apparent than others but AI is most certainly here to stay. “The world is at the start of something new,” Winterson writes, “what will happen … has begun.” It is a brave new world but with its many challenges. The crux of Frankisstein is well articulated in the conversation quoted above. It is an unnerving thought when expressed so clearly to have a new world created by a handful of AI scientists propogating their own biases — knowingly or unknowingly, we will never know!

Jeanette Winterson explores her pet themes in Frankisstein of gender, sexuality, and individual freedom. These issues are gaining importance in a technologically driven world. It is rapidly transforming the reality as we know it into something that is increasingly unpredictable as the evergrowing and controlling presence of computers increase in the human world.

Frankisstein is a curious novel that some may find readable and others a tad alarming. But it is a novel meant to be read.

7 June 2019

Book Post 28: 18 February – 2 March 2019

At the beginning of the week I post some of the books I have received recently. In today’s Book Post 28 included are some of the titles I have received in the past few weeks. 

3 March 2019

Women writers and science fiction

At Jaipur Literature Festival 2019, I moderated a discussion with two Indian women writers on their speculative fiction novels — Sadhna Shanker’s Ascendance and Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s Clone. 

5 Feb 2019

Book 23: 9 December 2018 – 5 January 2019

Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter.

In today’s Book Post 23 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received during the holiday season.

Enjoy reading!

7 January 2019

M.G. Leonard Talks Beetles with Bookwitty

I interviewed the fabulous award-winning writer M G Leonard for literary website, Bookwitty. It was published on 1 August 2017. The original url is here but I am also c&p the text below. 

M. G. Leonard is the award-winning, bestselling writer of the Beetle Trilogy. So far, Beetle Boy and Beetle Queen have been published to a resounding welcome from readers worldwide. These are delightfully told stories about Darkus and his father Dr Bartholomew Cuttle who get mixed up in Lucretia Cutter’s mad, hair-brained, bordering-on-dangerous scheme. The two novels published have a big dollop of the fantastic but are an utterly delicious blend of modern science and imaginative storytelling that explores the plausible but so far speculative limits of life as we know it. The stories are meant for middle-graders, and deftly etch the grey area children and adults cohabit, as children enter their teens. M. G. Leonard spent her early career working in the music industry, and then trained as an actor, dabbling in directing and producing as well as performing, before deciding to write stories. Maya Leonard lives in Brighton with her husband and two sons.

Why write a trilogy about beetles? Was the trilogy worked out as one composite plan or did the stories develop as you wrote them?

Beetles are so interesting, that it would have been impossible to fit everything I wanted to say into one book. It was always going to be a trilogy because I like tightly structured stories, and didn’t want to write an open ended series that went on until readers were bored of the concept or characters. I had a loose outline for each of the three books, but these developed as I wrote them. One thing I’ve always known is the ending for each book in the trilogy.

How did you get into storytelling? The blend of science and stories come together so nicely.

I became a storyteller by working in the theatre. I have worked at some of the best theatres in the UK for nearly twenty years, and had the honour to share a working space with some of the greatest writers and performers in the world. This has been both a joy and an education, and given me the confidence to start telling my own stories. I have never been a scientist, but a playwright that I respect once told me that you should write about what you want to learn about, because the joy of discovery and the wonder of understanding will infuse your work. This is what I have done. At the beginning, I knew nothing about beetles and was afraid of all insects.

How did you get into writing for children? What is your routine?

I did not make a decision to write for children, but I knew my protagonists had to be children because they have open minds, hearts and are curious about the world. More often than not, Adults have made up their mind what they think about the world. An adult could not experience the same journey as Darkus, because they already know what they think about beetles. Of course, now that I am writing for children, I’ve also realised that my inner age is around twelve, I don’t feel like I’m a grown up. I don’t know many adults that do.

If I’m on the road, promoting, then I will write on trains, in hotels or in airport department lounges. If I’m at home, my writing routine is to get up early, before my children wake and write as much as I can. Then I must begin the day and take them to school. Once I return I will edit something else and take care of admin. I write best in the early hours.

Although Beetle Boy and Beetle Queen are meant for children, these stories address a range of “adult-like” issues: environmental disasters, evolution, genetics and transgenics, funeral rituals etc. It seems if you have been concerned about these for a very long time. Is that so?

I am a mother and a gardener, and I fear our attitude to the planet is abusive and will ultimately lead to great suffering and perhaps our own extinction. I mourn the number of creatures who have become extinct because of our attitudes to their habitats, and hope that by writing about these things I may inspire children to care about insects and the environment. Once a person cares about something, they are more likely to protect it.

What is the most interesting aspect of genetics for you?

The debate about when it is right to interfere with the genetics of a creature and when is it not goes back as far as Frankenstein, which is one of my favourite books. I do not have an opinion on what is right or wrong, as I don’t understand the complexities of the science or the implications of the act, but I know that humans have modified fruit flies and mosquitos. It is only a matter of time before someone modifies a beetle, and they are the most evolutionarily successful creatures on the planet. This both terrifies and fascinates me.

This story is worthy of good speculative fiction. Do you enjoy reading sci-fi? If so who are the writers you admire?

I do enjoy sci-fi, but have not read it exhaustively. My favourite sci-fi book, and one of my favourite books ever, is Dune by Frank Herbert. There is so much to be admired about this book. A great sci-fi book marries philosophical thought with science and Frank Herbert does precisely this. As I mentioned above, I am a huge fan of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is possibly the greatest science fiction book ever written. The third science fiction writer I have to take my hat off to is Douglas Adams, because I like to laugh and I find humour a wonderful digestive aid when it comes to facts. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a delight and ferociously clever. All three books I have mentioned I’ve read more than three times, which is a testament to how good a book they are.

What are your views on the debate about environment versus evolution?

Several well-respected scientists have suggested that there is no intelligent life form on other planets capable of communicating with us because whilst there will be life in the universe, intelligent life evolves to a point where it causes its own extinction. I suspect, unless we alter the way we live, putting the environment first and preserving the balance of the ecosystem, this is what will happen to humanity. There can be no positive evolution without protecting the environment.

Will Beetle Boy and Beetle Queen be optioned for film or an animation series? These seem to be stories that would work very well in the edutainment space.

I will do everything in my power to create a film or animated version of the books, because I wrote them with this in mind, however I feel very strongly that the central message and educational content of the books not be thrown out in a desire to make it commercial. I am searching for producers who will honour these important elements of the stories as well as having the clout to get a production off the ground.

Your writing is very visual. Do you draw as well?

I do draw, but not well. I think the visual element of my stories comes from being a producer and working with film, which I’ve done on and off for over twenty years.

What are some of the more interesting questions children have asked you?

I get asked all sorts of questions about writing but mostly about beetles, and I can usually answer them, but, after explaining about the short life span of some adult beetles, one child asked me if beetles experienced time at the same speed as humans, and I was flummoxed! Other than saying that time was a human construct, there was no real way for me to answer, and I think it is a wonderful question. I often sit and think about it.

Both the books are originally published by Chicken House and distributed in India by Scholastic India. 

2 August 2017

Sami Ahmad Khan, Sci-Fi writer from India

I first came across Sami Ahmad Khan a few years ago when he reached out regarding a manuscript he had written and wanted it evaluated professionally. It was one of the few science fiction novels I had read set in contemporary India. I did read and made a few constructive suggestions. Then I did not hear from him for a while as he was busy finishing his thesis unsurprisingly on contemporary Indian science fiction writers. Now his novel is to be published more or less simulataneously by two publishers — Juggernaut Books ( digital) and Niyogi Books ( print). Meanwhile he has published two articles exploring Indian science fiction.

Daily O article “What if aliens one day land in India? A sci-fi writer asks” ( 8 June 2017)

Huffington Post India article “Aliens In Allahabad, Zombies In Zamrudpur: Discovering Indian Science Fiction” ( 10 June 2017)

Sami and I had a brief and intense exchange over email about his interest in science fiction and the publiction of Aliens in Delhi.  Here is an extract:

  1. Who were the authors you featured in your thesis?

I worked on select (SF) novels/short stories of Anil Menon, Amitav Ghosh, Ruchir Joshi, Shovon Chowdhury, Rimi Chatterjee, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Manjula Padmanabhan, Vandana Singh, Ashok Banker, Mainak Dhar, Suraj Clark Prasad, and Jugal Mody.

  1. Who were your PhD guides?

Prof. GJV Prasad and Prof. Saugata Bhaduri at JNU

  1. Why did you start writing sci fi stories?

I couldn’t resist! I could see eventualities concretizing in my brain, working out and extrapolating from the current material realities…I love doing that. The question of ‘What if?’ really interests me. And SF I think gives me the best mode of narration to express myself. Not to say that writing and thinking about SF gives me a massive kick!

  1. How did the deal with two publishers happen?

I got two simultaneous offers, within ten days of each other. The first (contract) wanted paperback rights, and the other digital. I opted for both.

  1. Two Books, Two editors

I sent almost the same MS to both these publishers, and editors from respective houses worked on the MS simultaneously. It’s still the same book, but there are minor differences, such as a different sentence here, a different one there, not to mention different copy-editing. But the essence and general narrative is the same.

  1. Due dates of publication

Paperback, brought out by Niyogi, already out.

Digital version by Juggernaut in July 2017

  1. If you had to translate this novel into any other language which version would you use?

Both would do!

  1. How many years did it take to write this novel?

Almost four and a half years. The first draft was written in October-December 2012. Then I let the novel stew in my brain for some time. Then endless drafts and revisions. I kept reworking it till 2015, when I was finally satisfied with it.

  1. Who are the SF writers you admire?

Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov, Shovon Chowdhury, Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who

  1. Why did you start writing sci fi stories?

I could see eventualities concretizing in my brain, working out and extrapolating from the current material realities…and SF I think gives me the best mode of narration to express myself. Not to say that writing and thinking about SF gives me a kick!

  1. What is that you wish to explore the most in your SF writing?

Space (interplanetary exploration), time (alternate realities/time travel) and ET life (preferably hostile to humans). I love exploring these themes through pulp.

11 June 2017 

 

An Interview with Shandana Minhas of the New, Karachi-based Mongrel Books

( My interview with Shandana Minhas was published on the literary website, Bookwitty. )  

Award-winning writer Shandana Minhas and her husband, journalist and playwright Imran Yusuf recently founded Mongrel Books, a small press based in Karachi. Their first title, The Mongrel Book of Voices, Volume 1, Breakups was published in January 2017. It consists of different forms around the theme of breakups, very broadly interpreted, with work by 21 writers from 9 countries. It’s available in bookstores across Pakistan, and there is a Kindle edition too. Three more titles are to be published later this year.

Shandana Minhas’s first novel, Tunnel Vision, was nominated for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the second, Survival Tips for Lunatics, won the Karachi Literature Festival Fiction Prize. Daddy’s Boy is her third novel. She has also written for stage, screen, Op-Ed pages, and is an honorary fellow of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Her short fiction has appeared in The Indian Quarterly and Griffith Review. Imran Yusuf’s play Stumped won the first NAPA playwriting award in Pakistan and was staged in Delhi and Kolkata as well. He has also had readings in theatres in London.

An Interview with Shandana Minhas of the New, Karachi-based Mongrel Books - Image 1

Following is an interview with Shandana Minhas:

Why did you decide to found Mongrel Books? How did you choose the name?

We thought shelves in Pakistan had room for, and need of, books that might not otherwise make it to the market. And books that are affordable too. For instance, I am currently reading Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission, which Imran bought from the local chain bookstore for Rs 2095. Which means that was the only book we could buy that month. Even second hand books in ‘old book stores’ now cost between 250-650 rupees. That’s the price range we would like to stay within.

I have always called myself a mongrel, in terms of being a little bit of this and a little bit of that. My father is Muslim, my mother is Christian and I’m not even going to start on the ethnic mix. We also had a lot of mongrels around the house when we were growing up, in Karachi, we’d spend all day on the streets and bring them home with us. When we were deciding on a name it was the first choice for us. There were others though. What made up my mind to stick with Mongrel was somebody I was brainstorming with telling me I shouldn’t call it Mongrel because a lot of Pakistanis didn’t like dogs and I would alienate potential customers. I heard a lot of that when I was a kid too, of course, when there were so many dogs around. ‘The angels won’t come to your house’ or ‘You can’t pray with them around’. I still say ‘Excellent!’ Seriously, the term reminds us of a kinder time, of a less homogenous or monolithic culture.

What is its focus? What are your first books about?

Mongrel Books’ focus in fiction is good story telling, and in non-fiction work that challenges or enriches contemporary ways of looking and seeing.

Will you be publishing only in English? Or in translation as well?

We will publish original work in English as well as translations into English. Pakistan itself has a vast reservoir of stories in Sindhi, Punjabi, Hindko, Seraiki and other languages, and we hope to build relationships with translators to bring some of those to people who might not otherwise know them.

What are the new projects you are working on?

We are set to publish a comedy of errors set in space, a first novel from talented Pakistani sci-fi writer Sidra F. Sheikh. And a non-fiction title from journalist Kamal Siddiqi, The Other Pakistanis, which bears anecdotal witness to the lives of non-Muslims here. Then there is another first novel about corporate life in Karachi from a highly original, unsettling writer who prefers to remain mysterious till the pages – and the bodies –cool. For next year, I’m collaborating with gifted illustrator Aziza Ahmad on a collection of graphic short stories, In Laws from Space and other tales of Domestic Woe, there is a novel and a short story collection from the reading pile I’ve got my beady eyes on, and fiction that children here can actually relate to as well. And of course we plan to do the second volume of The Mongrel Book of Voices.

Does your having previously published fiction in India have anything to do with launching a publishing house in Pakistan?

Peripherally, yes. Indian publishing is excellent; skilled, curious, open and vast. That vastness…there is a fine line between being embraced and being swallowed. Apart from a respite from the strangeness of being intellectually intimate with somebody you will never meet – your editor, your publisher, your agent, there is a practicality to local publishing for local writers as well. Distance, visa regimes, arbitration options and banking laws are not friends to Pakistani writers being published across the border. Even something as simple as receiving your royalties can become a Kafkaesque nightmare. For example, I still haven’t received a payment I was due in 2014.

What is the Pakistani readership like? Is there sufficient book hunger for local books in English?

All I can offer you is what has been offered to me, in spoken words. There is no centralized data collection. The circulation of Urdu digests featuring a steady diet of misogynistic moralizing to upwardly mobile women is in the hundreds of thousands. The number of people who go to the Karachi International Book fair – where sales actually happen – has climbed every year and might now be half a million, and though a lot of stalls there sell what might politely be dubbed literature of a religious persuasion, children’s books do well too, as do cookbooks – ring binding and all – and cheap editions of novels considered to be classics. Cookbooks, pulp piety, platonic romances, children’s books, nostalgia…it seems, then, that Pakistanis are hungry readers but they just might not have the most balanced diet.

…it seems, then, that Pakistanis are hungry readers but they just might not have the most balanced diet.

But figures are much lower for English titles. In chain bookstores, state-of-the-nation non-fiction sells the most. One bookseller tells me English language fiction only has to sell five hundred copies to be considered a bestseller. An internationally visible title from conglomerate publishing will have no trouble getting pre-orders. Other figures I have been given for what constitutes a bestseller in the English language in Pakistan are eight hundred and fifty and three thousand. Pricing does little to diminish the perception that English is just the language for the narcissistic preoccupations of a parasitic elite rather than, say, the language of a minority whose holy book might be the King James Bible. The more upmarket demographic happily invests thousands in the latest coffee table exceptionalism – Our ruins! Our textiles! Our jewellery! Our truck art! Our haemorrhoids!

So far, most books were routed through India but will having a local publishing program make a difference to the price points?

Absolutely. And that might have all kinds of interesting knock on effects. Like most other places in the world, here too there is an increasing gap between the haves and the have nots. If we persist in the perpetuation of a world where our children can’t eat, wear or drive the same things, or go to the same schools, maybe they can at least read the same books?

If we persist in the perpetuation of a world where our children can’t eat, wear or drive the same things, or go to the same schools, maybe they can at least read the same books?

 


What are your plans for the future?

The plan for the immediate future is financial survival, the acquisition of knowledge about the nuts and bolts of publishing, and Jedi level time management. It would be premature for us to project further than that.

Today in global publishing there is stress on ensuring free speech and it is not muzzled in any way. What are the pros and cons of publishing in Pakistan?

I note with sadness that the second question would not be prefaced by the first if Mongrel Books was, say, an Estonian press. But there are real dangers, and there is real loss. This makes the need for stories greater. Human beings, as far better writers than me have noted recently, think in stories, learn how to live and how to love from stories, which is why the control of storytelling seems to be a matter of such concern to fundamentalists. So it is a bittersweet truth that, as a pro, we know that what we do here matters.

The cons of publishing in Pakistan are the cons of running a small business in any developing economy. Our most pressing concerns are childcare for the working mother, sourcing quality paper, shoddy printing jobs, the ethics of unregulated labor practices in the binding industry, or that big academic publishers snap up and hoard what paper does come in its warehouses, uninterrupted electricity supply, and the bank manager having no internet access when we need to make international payments. So to temper any impulse to simply label us as yet another example of ‘defying the Taliban’ – something we see being used to market everything from T-shirts to bad filmmaking – please note that the only thing we are currently defying is common sense.

Will you be publishing in traditional print format or embracing ebooks and digital features such as audio, augmented reality etc.?

We will be publishing in traditional print format as well as e-books. As for augmenting reality, I will simply say that I still do not own or know how to use a smartphone. (But my partner does.)

Pakistani authors writing in English are very prominent internationally. Why do you think no other publishing house apart from OUP [Oxford University Press] has set roots locally to encourage literary talent?

OUP in Pakistan is primarily an academic publisher looking to engineer its own access to the cash cow of state curriculums, so its risk aversion makes business sense. The only reason we are actually even mentioning it in a conversation about literary talent is because in recent years it has muddied the waters by pitching its self-marketing fairs in Karachi and Islamabad as ‘literature festivals’, effectively capitalizing on lucrative sponsorship from imperialist powers struggling to maintain influence amongst suddenly speaking subalterns. Other older publishers seem comfortable with the grooves they are in, textbooks and backlists. And there are issues like piracy, lack of transparency in accounting and royalties keeping writers away too. An increasing amount are choosing to self-publish.

What is the history of independent publishing in Pakistan? Is there space for it now?

I can’t answer that. I don’t think anyone can! There is no way to tell what is going on or what has been going on in terms of publishing, beyond the surface of it, because as I mentioned earlier there has been no centralized data collection. And booksellers here still play things very close to the chest.

Karen Jay Fowler, ” We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves”

Karen Jay Fowler, ” We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves”

WAACBOLanguage is such an imprecise vehicle I sometimes wonder why we bother with it. 

( p.85, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves)

Karen Jay Fowler’s award-winning novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves , is about the Cooke family. It consists of the parents who are research psychologists and their three children — Lowell, Rosemary and Fern. A normal family except for a minor difference, Fern is a chimpanzee who has been brought up with Rosemary from infancy as twins. It is an experiment the parents conduct, funded by their university and it entailed having a “village” of grad students living with them at home to help. For the first five years of the girls lives, all is well. Then Rosemary is sent off to her grandparents, when she returns she discovers her sister is nowhere to be seen, her parents have moved into a new home, with no extra bedrooms and no grad students. Her brother too vanishes only to send postcards periodically and one brief visit, many years later. Rosemary begins telling this story when she is a college student and completes it when she is a kindergarten teacher for some years. The story spans over thirty years. As the narrator, Rosemary Cooke, says:

My brother and my sister have led extraordinary lives, but I wasn’t there, and I can’t tell you that part. I’ve stuck here to the part I can tell, the part that’s mine, and still everything I’ve said is all about them, a chalk outline around the space where they should have been. Three children, one story. (p. 304)

It is not surprising to discover that this novel has been shortlisted for the ManBooker Prize 2014. The story is a sensitive understanding of sibling relationships, loneliness of a woman and the ethics of scientific experiments–anthropomorphize a chimp and what are the human complications/repercussions of conducting such an experiment.  This is a story based primarily on Winthrop Kellogg’s work at Indiana University, but also of many others; most notably Jane Goodall’s work with the Gombe chimpanzees. Jane Godall, 1965In an interview with the Book Slut ( Oct 2013), the author says “I did hear from a daughter in the Kellogg family, I didn’t realize that there was another child. She was born about the time the experiment ended, so she has no memory of it herself, nor would her brother, who was only nineteen months old when the experiment ended. But she feels strongly that it completely deformed her family, that experiment that was so much briefer than the one I put in my book. She emailed me and said she realized I must have based this on her father’s work. One of the things she said that had happened to them, something I did not think about in my book and did not anticipate, was that they got hate mail and death threats from fundamentalists. …She wished to tell me how horrible it was to be part of the experiment, and what it did to her brother, what it did to her family. Although it’s not clear to me — to go back to my daughter’s original question — whether the damage to the family was done by the experiment itself or by having the kind of father who would do an experiment like this and who, therefore, was the kind of father who did other things as well; clearly, not a great father. It was a shock too, because I knew that the boy, Donald, who was involved in the experiment, had died quite some time ago. And I did not know there was another child. So I wrote about this family and it did not occur to me that any of them would be reading it.”

Karen Jay Fowler also refers to Keith and Catherine Hayes experiment at raising Viki ( a chimp) in the same manner as a human infant. “…Mr. Hayes said that the significant, the critical finding of their study, the finding everyone was choosing to ignore, was this: that language was the only way in which Viki differed much from a normal human child.” ( p.288) Karen Jay Fowler is known for her science fiction writing, her strong sense of storytelling. She has brought to the fore in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by telling an extraordinarily beautiful story, but also making one think ( as good scifi should do!) about experiments conducted on animals in the name of research and what does it mean for animal rights. Coincidentally, the August 2014 issue of the National Geographic has an essay where Jane Goodall celebrating her 80th year reflects on her career of getting to know unforgettable chimps. ( http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2014/08/gombe-chimpanzees/shah-rogers-photography ).

Read this book. Just as all good science fiction blurs the lines between reality and experimentation and continue to be influential such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451  and Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics, so will We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves — it will dominate conversations about literature, science, animal rights, literary fiction for many years to come.

Miscellaneous

An interview with Karen Jay Fowler, Book Slut, October 2013 ( http://www.bookslut.com/features/2013_10_020334.php )

Is your process for writing a novel dramatically different from writing a short story?

Yes, it is dramatically different. When I write a story I can keep the whole thing in my head. I usually pop backward from the climax so I know what I want the climax to be, how I want it to work, what I want the effect on the reader to be. It’s just a much more conscious kind of creation where I’m very aware of the reader, I’m very aware of what I think the readers experience is going to be and try to make it what I want. And then, of course, readers are obstreperous and go and have all kinds of experience that I did not intend, but I like that too.

With novels, I’m much more muddled, muddling my way through them. What I do like about novels is being able to spend that extended period of time with the characters. I get to know those characters in a much more deep and attached way. I’ve never missed one of the characters of my short stories when I finished the short story — I wish I were still thinking about her, I wish I were still making her up. But I do have that experience with a novel. I am very sad to say goodbye to Rosemary and Fern. I liked them both a lot.

In conversation with Karen Jay Fowler, The American Reader ( http://theamericanreader.com/an-interview-with-karen-joy-fowler/ )

Carmen Maria Machado: Your fiction tends to move between (for lack of a better word) genres. What do you find so compelling about the borderlands between fantasy, realism, historical fiction, and science fiction?

Karen Joy Fowler: I think I like places where the rules are still visible, but need not apply. I get a lot of energy from having conventions I can push against.

And I’ve long felt that reality is so strange that realism really isn’t up to the task of adequately presenting it. The world is a whole lot more horrible than I imagined as a child. But it is also considerably funnier. I try to make do with that.

I always say that I write history as it might have been reported in the National Enquirer. And I guess I’m more interested in the fact that someone believes he’s been abducted by aliens than I am in exploring actual alien plots and connivings. An interest in the abductees as opposed to the aliens seems to me to be a borderland concern.

Karen Jay Fowler We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves Serpent’s Tail, London, 2014. ( Distributed in India by Hachette India.) Pb. pp. 340. Rs. 499  

“No Child’s Play” Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay

“No Child’s Play” Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay

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“Charming” is how Samit Basu describes No Child’s Play. Charming it certainly is. A novella written in Bengali (1990) and recently translated by Bhaskar Chattopadhyay. It is a simply told sci-fiction novel, something that we would probably bracket in speculative fiction now. It has all the fancy footwork of embedding chips in the brains of foetuses by an evil-minded doctor, so as to control them and create an army of workers. It has all the lovely bits of bad men on the run, a scientist escaping from China and using false passports to reach America in order to help a baby who has been used as an experiment and then the creation of a sensitive robot. Much of this now seems plausible.

It is like reading a Gene Roddenberry story now. At the time of publication it must have been amazing to see how the imagination works, and the possibilities that lie with science. For instance his descriptions of the doors opening automatically when a person approached. Now such technology is common. So when many of the things that they describe come to pass it no longer seems extraordinary. Yet the story does not lose its charm. It remains a good story. Likewise with No Child’s Play.

As for the translation. It is done competently but “Indianisms” like “dicky” (instead of “dickie”) are retained in the English translation. Instead of translating it as the trunk or the boot of the car, the word “dicky” is used. It left me wondering how many allowances can we make in a translation transmitting a culture too. Do we aim for perfection in the destination language or make concessions for such words?

Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay No Child’s Play Translated from the Bengali by Bhaskar Chattopadhyay Harper Perennial, HarperCollins, Delhi, 2013. Pb. pp. 130 Rs. 250.