speculative fiction Posts

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

“Alice in Wonderland” continues to inspire readers across the world

( My article on Alice in Wonderland has been published in Hindustan Times popular and widely circulated Sunday 20151018_065049supplement Brunch on 18 October 2015. It is a generous two-page spread in print20151018_065100 with the title “Curiouser And Curiouser”. I am c&p the text from the digital version here. The original url can be viewed at: http://www.hindustantimes.com/brunch/alice-in-wonderland-continues-to-inspire-readers-across-the-world/story-NKnM2TiOACiTMXQXtUI51M.html )

Scottish writer George MacDonald persuaded Carroll to self-publish Alice. It had been tested out on the MacDonald children by their mother – and the family loved it. (Above, Carroll with Mrs MacDonald and her children.) (Getty Images/Science Source)

Who’d have thought a self-published story written for the daughters of a friend would become a world classic, eagerly bought, borrowed and downloaded even now, 150 years later?

 Alice in Wonderland was written in 1865 by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mathematics professor at Oxford, better known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll. He wrote it for Lorina, Alice and Edith, the three daughters of his friend, Reverend Henry Liddell.

Start of many things

Alice in Wonderland is about a girl named Alice who falls down a rabbit hole in pursuit of the White Rabbit and discovers a nonsensically delightful world with colourful characters like the Red Queen, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and the March Hare. More writers, artists and creators all over the world have credited Alice as an inspiration than any other book, thanks to its imaginative world filled with fantastic linguistic acrobatics in rhyme and prose.

That the book should have emerged in the staid Victorian era of verbose and righteous prose says much for the power of creativity. Carroll was persuaded to publish Alice with his own illustrations, by Scottish author and poet, George MacDonald.

The story had been tested out on the MacDonald children by their mother. The family thoroughly enjoyed the tale, and Carroll self-published it. Then, it was edited and published by Alexander Macmillan.

Alice, coverLewis Carroll requested the well-known artist of Punch, Sir John Tenniel to create the illustrations, many of which were ultimately based on the original drawings made by the author. To commemorate the 150th year of its publication, Macmillan, the original publisher, has produced a scrumptious edition of The Complete Alice, with the original Tenniel illustrations in full colour. It is unusual for a publisher to be celebrating 150 years of a text, but Alice in Wonderland is perceived to be “a world text”.

Alice in Wonderland is about a girl named Alice who falls down a rabbit hole in pursuit of the White Rabbit. On the left is an illustration of the character by Carroll himself, and next to it (right) by Tenniel. (Photos: Stapleton Collection/Corbis, The Print Collector/Corbis)

“It’s one of those texts that IS, like Shakespeare,” says graphic novelist Samit Basu. “Its constant reinterpretations in everything, from zombie comics to action-fantasy novels, have kept the original text alive, and that’s the greatest thing that can happen to any book.”

This is evident by the text’s vast influence across creative platforms and genres – storytelling, play on words, visual arts, filmmakers, still photography and translations.

According to filmmaker and author Devashish Makhija, a lot of motifs from Alice have been uncannily replicated across the world. “Tweedledum and Tweedledee seem to have inspired Herge’s Thompson and Thomson in Tintin,” he says. “Batman’s Joker seems to have shades of the Mad Hatter, at least in his inexplicable (but profound) reliance on creating some sort of chaos in anything he communicates.”

And there’s more. When Alice fell down a rabbit hole to discover a topsy-turvy world, Makhija argues, she opened a clear story-telling device for creators of the future. “The ‘hole’ – although in existence before this book – was used pointedly for the first time as a portal connecting two dimensions through which a character ‘travels’.

It has since been used in versions in almost ALL of fantasy writing: the wardrobe in CS Lewis’s Narnia series, the square drawn with chalk in Pan’s Labyrinth, platform 93/4 inHarry Potter, the bridge of Terabithia, HG Wells’s time machine and even the bathtub in Anurag Kashyap’s No Smoking.”

Follow that rabbit

“Every reader will leave with a different reading,” says Anil Menon, author of speculative fiction. “Fortunately, Alice in Wonderland has remained what it was intended to be: an invitation to play.”

Let loose in the imaginative world of Alice’s Wonderland, children often find their own wonderlands when they become adults, says photographer and musician Ed Valfre. “Several years ago, I wrote two children’s books about a boy in the backseat of a car who creates stories from all that he sees on the road. As Alice decides to go down the rabbit hole to discover the fantastical world of Wonderland, my hero goes down a similar path but it is inside his own head. The rabbit I follow is some ordinary thing we see every day. The rabbit hole is our imagination and we simply have to pay attention to discover it.”

Jeff VanderMeer, who won the Nebula 2014 for his novel, Annihilation, says that Alice “was such an influence. I Jeff Vandermeer, Southern Reach Trilogy, Rabbit Totem, illustrated by Jeremy Zerfossstarted a far-future novel when I was 13 in which a human-sized bio-engineered white rabbit is found murdered at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. What appealed to me was the surreal aspect of Carroll’s book, even more so than the kind of mathematical logic and the humour. I couldn’t escape Alice even if I tried. It’s one of those constants, or compass points, that for some odd reason draws out originality despite being riffed off again and again.”

There are no white rabbits in filmmaker Paromita Vohra’s work, Unlimited Girls, but Vohra says it is deeply influenced by Alice in Wonderland. In the film, a young woman is drawn into an Internet chat room – kind of like a rabbit hole – and then proceeds on a journey through the world of feminism where she meets all kinds of characters and undergoes all kinds of transformations.

“I think Alice is (like a good Bollywood film, almost) one of those works that gives you permission to make a work out of what you see, what you feel as one,” says Vohra.

In many ways, Alice is a nonsense book. Not in the sense that it is the product of a muddled mind, but because of its willingness to see more in the world than a single outward façade. That’s the aspect that influenced children’s author, known especially for nonsense writing, Anushka Ravishankar the most.

“I remember reading Alice as a child and being fascinated, but also really disturbed because of the strange creatures and the weird, unworldly goings-on,” she says. “It was only much later that I began to appreciate the other elements – the nonsense, the logical games and the clever theories which the nonsense hid. I studied mathematics, so I do believe that Carroll’s mathematical mind came up with things that seem nonsensical but are actually possible given a different mathematical frame.”

It is extraordinary that a story spun to entertain a six-year-old girl on a boating trip has continued to brighten the lives of generations spanning more than a century.

And so just like the way it began in the beginning, Alice in Wonderland remains what it is – a story to delight children.

“My greatest joy,” says Samit Basu, “was the completely context-free sizzle that went through my brain when I first read it as a child, and there’s nothing that can either truly explain or analyse that.”

**

Looking back through translations

On 4 October, 1866, Lewis Carroll wrote to his publisher Macmillan, stating, “Friends here [in Oxford] seem to think that the book is untranslatable.” But his friends were wrong as the editors of Alice in a World of Wonderlands: The Translations of Lewis Carroll’s Masterpiece, would tell Carroll if they could.

Alice in a World of Wonderlands: The Translations of Lewis Carroll’s Masterpiece documents the classic’s translations in 174 languages and over 9,000 editions and reprints. (Pictured in it is Alice Liddell, the little girl the book was written for)

This book, edited by Jon A Lindseth and Alan Tannenbaum, documents translations in 174 languages and over 9,000 editions and reprints of Alice in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass.

“There are nine translations of Alice into Tamil, plus an unpublished draft, a short story, a serialised story, and a graphic version,” says Dr Rajamanickam Azhagarasan, contributor to the book. “It was popular among those involved in the movement for children’s literature from the ’40s through the ’70s. Each translation was unique, depending on which aspect the translators wished to highlight.”

Alice has been translated in Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Konkani, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Nepali and Sinhala. Here (left to right) are translations in Malayalam (2000), Urdu (1981) and Oriya (2002).

Much like the way storytellers have always found new stories to weave out of the Indian epics, Alice’s translators in India have created different Wonderlands – for instance, by weaving mythological elements into the story.

“The Telugu translation of Alice was available as early as the mid-1950s,” says Suresh Kosaraju, trustee, Manchi Pustakam, Secunderabad.

Editor Sushama Sonak says, “Mugdhachi Rangit Goshta (The Many Coloured World of Mugdha) written in Marathi by short story writer GA Kulkarni was heavily influenced by Alice.”

In Malayalam, the first translation was published by Balan Publications. Lewis Carroll certainly influenced the well-known children’s nonsense writer in Bengali, Sukumar Ray, as well as Hemendra Kumar Roy, who wrote wonderful detective stories in Bangla and translated Alice in Wonderland: it is called Ajab Deshe Amala.

Even Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita, translated Alice into Russian. According to translator Sergei Task, “By and large, [Nabokov] translated the text as is, except for Russifying the names (Alice/Anya, Mabel/Asya, and the Rabbit got a last name – Trusikov) and introducing pre-revolutionary forms of address such as barin (master) and vashe blagorodiye (your honour). Of course, with the playful verses, he had to take liberties – again, trying to adapt them for Russian readers.”

18 October 2015 

Books in Indian advertisements

Breaking-the-Bow-finalTwo advertisements that have been shown on television recently have shown the women models reading two splendid books.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6YBUMkQDadg

This is an advertisement for a property portal, 99acres.com and it shows the model reading Breaking the Bow. It is a fabulous anthology of short stories edited by Anil Menon and Vandana Singh. This is speculative fiction inspired by the Ramayana, published by Zubaan. ( http://zubaanbooks.com/shop/breaking-the-bow-speculative-fiction-inspired-by-the-ramayana/ )

The TITAN Raga watch ad has been garnering a number of rave reviews for its representation of a modernAleksander Hemon Indian woman. But I like it too for the impeccable good taste the woman shows in the book she is reading — Aleksander Hemon’s The Book of My Lives, published by Picador. It is a collection of essays he has previously published and updated. These are accounts of his life in Bosnia, before and during the war, leaving for USA for a scholarship and unable to return, his new life in Chicago and the heart wrenching essay about his nine-month-old falling ill.

The first time I saw these advertisements I was delighted. For once the women models were shown reading…and reading books– two books that I liked very much!

1 Jan 2014

Modern day travelogues

Modern day travelogues

Punjabi ParmesanTravel writing has always had a special place in literature. Readers have been fascinated by stories of other places, cultures, people. In the past it was understandable when there were text-heavy descriptions of people, dresses, cities, architecture, food, vegetation and terrain. But today? To read modern-day travelogues when it is the “image age”, the most popular news feeds on social media platforms are photographs. It is akin to being immersed in a National Geographic-like environment 24×7. There are websites such as Flickr, Pinterest, Mashable, Tumblr, and YouTube, wonderful repositories of images and movie clips uploaded by institutions, media firms and individuals. So to read three books — Pallavi Aiyar’s Punjabi Parmesan: Dispatches from Europe in Crisis, Rana Dasgupta’s Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi and Sam Miller’s A Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes — was an intriguing experience. Except for Sam Miller’s book that is peppered with black and white images laid within the text, the other two books are straightforward narratives. I would deem them as travelogues written in the “classical tradition” of relying solely upon the narrator/author taking the reader along a personal journey through a country/city different to the land of their birth. They make for a sharp perspective, intelligent analysis and just a sufficient mish-mash of history with a commentary on current social, political and economic developments, without really becoming dry anthropological studies. The writing style in all three books is lucid and easy.

Pallavi Aiyar’s Punjabi Parmesan is a fascinating account of her travels through Europe from 2009 onward–at a time of economic gloom. It is part-memoir, part-journalism and part-analysis ( mostly economic) of what plagues Europe. It has anecdotes, plenty of statistics and footnotes, accounts of the meetings, conferences she was able to attend as journalist and have conversations with influential policy makers and politicians. After spending a few years in Beijing she moved to Brussels, so is able to draw astute observations about the decline in Europe. Having been a foreign correspondent for over a decade, reporting from China, Europe and South East Asia, mostly on business stories from the “frontline” of action, she has an insightful understanding of the depressing scenario in Europe. It is a book worth reading.

Rana Dasgupta, CapitalRana Dasgupta’s Capital is about Delhi, the capital of India. Delhi has been settled for centuries, but became the capital of British India in 1911. The first wave of migrants who formed the character of modern Delhi came soon after the country became Independent in 1947. Over the years Delhi grew but at a moderately slow pace. Twenty years after post-liberalisation ( 1991), Delhi transformed so rapidly that the old world, old rhythms and culture became quietly invisible. Delhi continued to be a melting pot of immigrants. It became a city synonymous with wealth, material goods, luxury and uncivil behaviour, bordering on crassness. It is a city of networking and networked individuals. Rana Dasgupta’s book is a meander through the city. He meets a lot of people — the nouveau riche, the first wave of migrant settlers post-1947, members of the old city families who bemoan the decline of tehzeeb in the city. Capital is a commentary on Delhi of the twenty-first century, a city that is unrecognisable to the many who have been born and brought up here. Rana Dasgupta moved to the city recently — over a decade ago–but this brings a clarity to his narrative that a Delhiwallah may or may not agree with. It certainly is a narrative that will resonate with many across the globe since this is the version many want to hear — the new vibrant India, Shining India, the India where the good days ( “acche din”) are apparent. There is “prosperity”, clean broad streets, everything and anything can be had at the right price here. It is a perspective. Unfortunately the complexity of Delhi, the layers it has, the co-existence of poor and rich, the stories that the middle classes have to share are impossible to encapsulate in a book of 400-odd pages. It is a readable book that captures a moment in the city’s long history. It will be remembered, discussed, critiqued, and will remain for a long time to come in the literature associated with Delhi. (The cover design by Aditya Pande is stupendous! )

Sam Miller A Strange Kind of Paradise by Sam Miller is a gentle walk through the history of India, mostly written as a memoir. William Dalrymple’s blurb for the book is apt —a “love letter to India”. When India was celebrating its fiftieth year of Independence there was a deluge of books and anthologies reflecting, discussing the history of India. To read Sam Miller’s book is to get a delightful and idiosyncratic understanding of this large landmass known as India, a puzzle few have been able to fathom. The author is not perturbed by doing a history of the things he truly likes about the country or that he has been intrigued by conversations he probably had. To his credit he has done the legwork as expected of a professional journalist and discovered people, regions, histories, spaces, cities for himself. For instance he states he is an “aficionado of cemetries and of tombs”, but discovered “many Indian are scared of cemetries — except when they house the tombs of ancient emperors and their consorts. They often find my desire to visit graveyards a little strange, as if I were a necrophile or had a perverse desire to disturb the ghosts of the dead.”( p.232) A fascinating observation since it is true — cemeteries are strangely peaceful oasis of calm. If you say that out aloud in India, people will look at you in a strange manner.

Anjan Sundaram, CongoModern-day travelogues are many, available in print and digital. Two recent examples stand out. Anjan Sundaram’s Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey into Congo about his time in the African country. Fabulous stuff! Very reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s writing ( especially his diaries) written in Africa. And the other is a recent essay that physicist and well-known speculative fiction writer, Vandana Singh wrote on her blog, “Alternate Visions: Some Musings on Diversity in SF” ( http://vandanasingh.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/alternate-visions-some-musings-on-diversity-in-sf/ ). It is a long and brilliant essay about her writing but also a though-provoking musing about diversity, different cultural experiences and writing — elements that are at the core of travel writing, have always been and continue to be.

6 July 2014 

Pallavi Aiyar Punjabi Parmesan: Dispatches from a Europe in Crisis Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 320 Rs. 599

Rana Dasgupta Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 460 Rs. 799

Sam Miller A Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 430 Rs. 599 

“No Child’s Play” Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay

“No Child’s Play” Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay

9789350297018.20130731184251

“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.

Neil Gaiman, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”

Neil Gaiman, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”

Neil Gaiman

I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.

Adult stories never made sense, and they were to slow to start. They made me feel like there were secrets, masonic, mythic secrets, to adulthood. Why didn’t adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?
p.71-72

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is Neil Gaiman’s latest offering. A delight for Gaiman devotees, and a treat for those who are yet to discover this fantabulous storyteller. He tells a story about a few days in the life of a seven-year-old boy, being recounted by the adult version, forty years later. Gaiman so casually pushes the limits of conventional storytelling. Visiting a farm, watching a garden patch with overgrown foliage or visiting a placid lake, will probably never be the same experience once you are done with this story!

It is worth remarking upon how Gaiman seems to write for a young reader just discovering fantasy and the magical world of literature, while at the same time giving an adult, a seasoned reader, the same pleasure of reveling in a good story. Gaiman retains a child-like, illogical wonder of the world around. His imagination is stupendous, combined with the wisdom of age and maturity makes the text so rich and memorable. At the same time he is able to weave in very pertinent issues of child abuse, death, adults “ganging” up against children, age, discussing family structures– the conventional and the unconventional.

Read. You will be disappointed that the story ends as quickly as it does.

Neil Gaiman The Ocean at the End of the Lane Headline Publishing Group, Hachette, London. Pb. pp. 250 Rs. 399
( An e-book and an audio book are also available. Price not mentioned.)

When I was interviewed by Samit Basu (3 July 2006)

When I was interviewed by Samit Basu (3 July 2006)

 

July 3, 2006
Jaya Bhattacharji Interview
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Jaya Bhattacharji edits books for Zubaan, an imprint of Kali for Women. Young Zubaan is Zubaan’s children’s/young adult imprint. Jaya is also guest editor, children’s and young adult literature, at The Book Review.

Q: You recently published a fantasy novel aimed at children/young adults. What was the crucial factor in deciding to publish this now? Is there a market for speculative fiction already, or is it a potential market?

A: During the World Book Fair, New Delhi 2006, Young Zubaan released A Shadow in Eternity. It was not a “crucial” decision, but I guess the time was right to publish something like this. By time, I mean that the market was ready to receive a book of this genre.
Pottermania has contributed a great deal to the surge in this form of writing. Given that the Rowling phenomena has been pivotal in encouraging reading, irrespective of the size of the book, I think, a lot of children’s writers, feel that since this is probably the genre that is selling, it is the one to emulate.
There certainly is a market in India for this kind of fiction. I am certainly all for any genre that encourages reading and releasing the imagination. But the Indian market has to evolve its own signature/stamp of fantasy fiction. We cannot rely totally on imitating fiction that is necessarily based on a Western/Christian tradition or of even trying to yoke the two systems together. A lot of the fantasy fiction that comes from the West is in the classic form of Good vs Evil; or in the Romance tradition of being on a Quest; or in search of the Holy Grail, whatever it may be; or reliance on Greek mythology. In India, we have a huge amount of influences to rely upon, which don’t necessarily encompass the idea of a quest or the Holy Grail. Sure, we do have a strong sense of Right and Wrong; Good vs Evil, but it is tempered by the cultural melting pot that we live in, where a lot of traditions are being intermingled. So, if fantasy has to emerge in India, it has to develop its own distinctive identity.
The other kind of fantasy could be good Science Fiction, but I am not sure whether we have a strong tradition in this, except for maybe in Bengali literature.

Q: Do you feel SF/fantasy (speculative fiction) has a future in India? Why, either way?

A: Well, personally speaking, I think speculative/imaginative/slipstream/fantastic/science-fiction or what-you-will-genre has huge potential in India. But, it has to be a story well told and not necessarily a mish mash of all that is to offer. Sure, it can be a genre that transports one into an imaginative world, but it has to be a world that is well created, detailed and to some extent logical. It may not be logic as we know it, but it is perfectly rational in the parallel world that is being created.

Q: Internationally, a lot of speculative fiction aimed at the age group you’re looking at ends up being part of a cross-media franchise – TV, books, merchandise. There’s no history of this in India, but do you think it’s possible eventually, or are the worlds of TV/film and books in India too isolated for this to happen unless something fundamental changes about the markets in question?

A: I don’t think you should consider the marketing blitzkrieg surrounding some of the recent Hollywood blockbusters based upon books/comic characters like Harry Potter, Superman, Spideman, as being a model that needs to be emulated lock, stock and barrel in India. This cross-media franchise is marketing gimmickry and sure, to some extent brings in the money, but except for a few in India, I don’t think most people will be able to afford it even if the youngsters fall for it. There may not be any history of this, but there is only a very thin line between the film and the book world in India. It has seen some cross-pollination, but maybe not in the same way as is evident in the West. (Or in the East? I don’t know!)
Having said this, it maybe possible some way in the near future, but such a huge market control depends upon a great deal of accurate monitoring of IPR, and ensuring that there is no piracy of the products. At the moment, even if it were possible, financially speaking, to hire spin-doctors in India for a film based on a book or a good film rights agent to hawk a good book to a film-maker, it would prove near impossible to stem the leaks in the system. It is a very tough call to monitor cross-media franchise. It requires a lot of efficient and corruption free systems to be installed. Funnily enough, India may not have a history of cross-media franchise, but many of our garment sweatshops/factories in Coimbatore are mass producing “movie” franchise clothes for kids solely for the export market! And these are sold at the exclusive retail stores of movie giants like Disney, Time and Warner. Surprisingly poor imitations of these garments have not necessarily entered the local market in the numbers expected, so may be there is hope for cross-media franchise in the Indian future.
The only fundamental thing that has to change in both the industries, in order for such cross-media franchise to be viable is a close monitoring of the © and stemming the leaks in the piracy market. Also, the Indian market is not one, homogenised market as is noticed in most countries abroad. So, a marketing model that may have been adopted and at least cost applied across the country may not work in India. We are many markets in one, in terms of languages, communities, literature, regional characteristics and tastes. So, in order for cross-media franchise to be successful, it would require huge amounts of direct investment and I don’t think any publisher or film distributor or literary/film agency or even the creator/author would be willing to take such a risk!

Q: Do you get a large number of SF/fantasy submissions, given the overwhelming popularity of crossover/YA speculative fiction abroad?

A: Well strangely enough not too many. But the trickle that we get is talented. Yet, I have my reservations about it. Indian fantasy has to break its shackles from the West and really learn to come into its own, otherwise it is going to just generate a great deal of confusion in the young reader’s mind.

Q: In fiction aimed at adults, SF/fantasy tend to be seen as low-caste, but in the world of children’s publishing, the most popular books in recent times always seem to contain speculative elements. Do you think this is because children are seen to be more accepting of non-identifiably-real-world situations, or because the children’s’ book market is now large enough for it to have its own rules – or is it something different entirely?

A: Speculative fiction is such a convenient and oh, so modern a term for the plain and simple use of imagination in literature for children. The number of categories or kind of titles that this category subsumes is of those books that are very difficult to categorise in any other way. Also, this kind of fiction has existed from whenever literature began to be written down with the young reader in mind. It is not necessarily a recent fashion.
It is not a case of being low-caste, as SF/Fantasy has always had a steady following. It is just that it is now clearly visible as it has been dominating markets recently. Also visibility of this genre has to be linked to the access to information. Today, more and more of the children and young adults have a direct say in their reading tastes and to some extent have the purchasing power as well. So, it is not being mediated by the parent/educationist/teacher. There is direct marketing of books in schools. Spaces have opened for youngsters to hang out, like coffee shops which also have bookstores in them. There is also the Internet where it gives one access to blogs, author websites, online bookstores, reviews, fan fiction sites etc. Children/YA are better informed and to a large extent know what they want.
Children’s publishing has always accommodated a variety of genres, I believe it is the only place where one has the space to experiment and fine tune different genres. So, if you are interested in SF, then you have the freedom to explore the limits of technology, science, etc. Sure, this reader audience is far more discerning than an adult reader, but they can be equally critical and damning.
The book market for children is completely unpredictable, so the current flavour of the decade is fantasy as it has a reading public, hence sales. Given the huge investments required in children’s publishing, most publishers, authors, literary agents will want/ten to be conservative and capitalise on a winning formula rather than take a risk. It is pure economic sense to promote fantasy and hence, its noticeable dominance of the market.
Children and young adults are actually reading a wide-range of stuff. A visit to any local bookshop will confirm that. In fact, as I said earlier, there is a sense of inverted snobbery being noticed in the younger generation today of what and how much they have read. Interestingly enough, it is a greed/thirst for anything that can be read. They will devour anything but very honest in their opinions. Most of the time, it seems that their opinions are not necessarily formed by what is dominating the review pages of newspapers, but their gut feel. Hence, an extremely difficult market to gauge and monitor. It is quite unpredictable.

Q: What sort of children’s fantasy/SF would you like to see coming out of India? And what do you think writers in the genre in this country would do best to avoid?

A: Fantasy for children in India, can be set in any context, time zone etc, but it has to be well written. In the sense, that there should be good, cohesive logic to the universe that is being created. There should be details of the environment and the people and certainly not a cacophony of voices, which really don’t do much for the characters. Each character should have a distinct voice. If different traditions are to be mixed (and frankly, I am all for experimentation in literature), then it has to be done cleverly, treated lightly and presented in an interesting manner. By clever, I mean that the author should not be “showing off” their immense reading and familiarity with these other traditions, but create multi-layers and echoes in the story, that will prompt the young reader to submerge, discover and be totally entranced by the new literary creation. At the end of the day, it has to be a GOOD STORY. Also, a story well told will live for a very long time to come and not necessarily be written and created with “a” single market, fixed in time. In fact, it will then be read for many generations to come.