6:4: Interview: Vandana Singh

6:4: Interview: Vandana Singh

Vandana Singh was born in New Delhi, India, and grew up in a cultural milieu that fostered the traditions as well as creativity and independent thinking. She acquired an early interest in the sciences as well as in writing and art. In her teenage years she was involved in a student environment group, an experience that shaped her life-long interest in the relationship between humans and Nature.

Later she acquired a Master’s degree in Physics from Delhi University and a PhD from the U.S., where she currently resides.

She divides her time between teaching college physics, raising her family, and writing non-Euclidean tales of science fiction and fantasy, as well as children’s stories. Her science fiction and fantasy short stories, deeply rooted in an Indian ethos, have been published in various anthologies and magazines in the U.S. and U.K. Her stories have appeared in “Year’s Best” collections and have been short-listed for the BSFA and Parallax awards.

Her first book for children, Younguncle Comes to Town, was published in India by Young Zubaan in 2004 and in America by Viking Penguin (April 2006). The sequel, Younguncle in the Himalayas, was publishing in 2005 in India by Young Zubaan and Puffin books. Her novella “Love and Other Monsters,” reviewed in this issue of Ideomancer, is available from Aqueduct Press. A collection of her stories will soon be available from Zubaan.


Sean Melican: Though you say “The Sign in the Window” is your only mainstream story, two others (“The Wife”, “Hunger”) would be comfortable under the ‘mainstream’ rubric. Certainly, they don’t have the usual science fiction or fantasy signifiers. Why have you chosen to submit to genre markets, or have they chosen you?

Vandana Singh: I’m obviously not very good at literary taxonomy or don’t care enough about it! “The Wife” is to me a spec fic story and “Hunger” was written after “The Sign in the Window.” (And I don’t update my website often enough). The latter story, by the way, while being mainstream, has something of a spec fic sensibility. You know, the universe being filled with messages that we try to interpret, to fit into our lives and circumstances, rightly or wrongly-all that is to me very spec fic. There has to be some element of the non-Euclidean in every story I write. I am utterly, totally, completely incapable of writing straight mainstream fare.

This is also why I submit to genre markets-I feel at home in genre. I enjoy a lot of non-genre stuff, but I’m a denizen of the spec fic world.

SM: As a corollary, how did you become interested in reading generally, and speculative fiction specifically?

VS: How does one become interested in breathing? : Seriously, though, I grew up in middle class, urban India where education and learning are a VERY big deal and all the kids know the alphabet in at least two languages by age three. I grew up in a house full of books and no TV, and my parents both had master’s degrees in English Literature, and I could read in English and Hindi from a very early age. My mother and my paternal grandmother also told stories to us kids from the old epics: stories about demons and gods, monsters and flying chariots.

SM: While I understand what you mean by ‘non-Euclidean’ writing, how do you go about consciously or unconsciously doing so?

VS: Well, I don’t consciously try to do it but the few times I’ve tried writing mainstream fiction I’ve stopped after a couple of paragraphs because I’ve bored myself to tears. It is not that I find mainstream fiction itself boring-I love a lot of realist writing-but I can’t seem to do it myself. Even if there is no overt magic or science fiction in a story of mine, there is awareness of a subtext that hints that things aren’t as they seem on the surface; that there may be hidden relationships and connections. Which I think gives it a fantastical sensibility. It’s a reflection of the way I look at the world, as a sort of palimpsest. The universe is non-Euclidean. I have an urge to bring that into my writing because I find it exciting. That’s it in a nutshell.

SM: How does being a Hindu, an Indian, and a woman affect you writing and your perception of speculative fiction?

VS: Well, I guess in the same way that a white American writer’s identity and experience might shape their writing. So where it might be natural for an American writer to set his or her story in Boston or New York, for me the natural place is Delhi, where I grew up. I was part of various women’s movements in India in my own small way, and witnessed or experienced the contradictions of being female in Indian society. My own vast family has some wonderfully strong women in it, even where the structure is more traditional, and I learned very early on that human systems are complex, that you can’t easily generalize. Hence my strong allergic reaction to stereotyping. As for Hinduism, I grew up in a Hindu family, listening to myths and legends and being part of various religious festivities and ceremonies. At the same time I was taught to be curious and tolerant, and left free to reject any part of Hinduism that I did not agree with-all of which are very Hindu attitudes. So my Hinduism, as befits a religion that has no founder and no single creed, is personal; I’m religiously an agnostic but I have a sense of the sacred, a sense of being part of a web of existence, of living in a rich metaphorical space. Complexity, connectedness, a blurring of boundaries between (for instance) animal and human, a sense that the universe is changing and staying still all at the same time. The audacity to think big, like the ancient Indian philosophers and mathematicians who came up with names for unimaginably enormous numbers. I don’t know how all that shows up in my fiction; I leave that to interested critics.

I should mention that my background in physics contributes as much (I suspect) to my writing as any of the above. I teach physics at a small and wonderful liberal arts college and although I don’t do research any more I still ponder the great unsolved questions. My writing ties into all this very directly because it can be a vehicle for the wild speculations of my imagination, allowing me an intellectual high or two in a different way from research.

SM: Since you are perhaps the only Indian speculative fiction writer, at least within the Western ghetto, it is dangerously easy to (unfairly) assume that you are not only an individual but speak for Indians in general, to say that the experiences you write about are not simply an individual’s life but represent the lives of all Indian women. Are you aware of any such pressure? How much is autobiographical?

VS: First, I’m happy to announce that there are increasing numbers of Indian or Indian-origin speculative fiction writers now living and writing in the Western world (as well as in India). There’s Anil Menon, for instance, who is brilliant and has been published in many anthologies and also in Strange Horizons, and a whole crop of other talents emerging from Clarion workshops. There are also many writers in India who are writing spec fic of various kinds, and in fact there is a long tradition of science fiction in some Indian languages like Bengali. But when I first started to write this stuff (which was after I came to the U.S.) I didn’t know about most of that. I also didn’t know any other Indians in this part of the world who were into spec fic, and it was pretty lonely. My first writers’ conference (in Portland, OR) I stood out among the science fiction and fantasy crowd. An agent who was one of the guests advised me not to worry about writing SF and told me quite kindly that I was a multicultural writer who should be writing about saris and arranged marriages. That was the first time I realized that some people saw me as an alien in the SF field. This was both annoying and extremely amusing. Later on I became part of the Cambridge Science fiction Workshop and made friends among other writers, so that changed.

But to get back to your question: I don’t know if people take me as representing all Indian women or not; I hope they don’t! What I’d love to see are many more voices than mine in spec fic from Indians, including women, and that is happening slowly.

As for whether any of my writing is autobiographical: to an extent everything I write is, because it is the world as seen through my eyes, through the filters of my own experiences and discoveries. Some stories have a kernel based on actual events but I extrapolate wildly from those to form the story. For example my story Hunger took off from the memory of an old man who lived at the top of the stairs in our apartment building in Delhi, who had been thrown out by his son and who ultimately starved to death despite our attempts to help him. My story Delhi is filled with personal reminiscences of various places in the city of Delhi, although the events that happened to the protagonist certainly never happened to me. I’m also working on a novella set in the far future on a space station at the other end of the galaxy. Among other things it is about a woman’s search for scientific truth and for identity, and I’m no stranger to that sort of thing.

SM: Is there the beginning of a theme with “Hunger” and “Thirst”? Will we see “Exhaustion,” “Desire” or “Fear”?

VS: J Perhaps we can also add “Despair,” “Dyspepsia” and “Love-sick Yearning!” But seriously, no, there is no theme. It is sheer coincidence that I happened to write stories with those titles

SM: On your website, you mention that you “…discovered [you] wanted to be a writer.” Traditionally a writer says she or he has always wanted to be a writer. How did this discovery occur?

VS: Well, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve always been writing, but I never thought of being a writer in the sense of submitting stories and being professional and all that, until much later in life. To me writing, like reading, is akin to breathing: I do it because I can’t seem to help it. (I suppose that makes it some kind of pathological condition).

When I took a nine-year break from academia in order to home-school my daughter, I realized that I wanted to write, not just for myself, but because I thought I might actually have something to say to the world. So it was a discovery. Not a one-time revelation but something that dawned on me over time.

SM: You seem to move easily between adult fiction and children’s fiction, and while you’ve said you don’t have an interest in the taxonomy of fiction, at the very least, they have different audiences. What differences are there in your approach to each? Many writers say they write for a particular person (sometimes persons). Do you have such a person or persons? Are they different for each type of writing?

VS: I still read a lot of children’s fiction. I haven’t outgrown that and hope never to do so! There’s a part of me that is always eleven years old, and I like to honor that when I write. So for me the boundary between children’s fiction and adult fiction is blurred. The only difference is that I limit such things as sex and violence and similar themes that kids may not be ready for. But I do put in things that all kids go through: the pain of having to grow up, the realization of their parents’ fallibility, the realization that security in this world is a fragile, illusory thing. And spades of the whole sense-of-wonder thing, which is how I still remember seeing the world as I grew up.

I don’t have a particular person or persons for whom I write, although my Younguncle stories for children were first told to entertain my daughter when she was sick. To some extent I’m writing for myself, for the eleven-year-old inside me, as well as the alleged grown-up.

SM: Is some of the artwork for Younguncle Comes to Town intended to resemble the art in Curious George books? I realize writers rarely have control over the art, of course.

VS: The American edition has cover art by Sandy Nichols, but the interior art is by the New Delhi artist B.M. Kamath. I am not aware of any deliberate attempt to make the art resemble that in the Curious George books.

SM: What particular impulses have driven you to tell your stories?

VS: Well, the world is a complex and endlessly fascinating place. In various ways my writing is an attempt to help me make sense of this complexity. And to celebrate it or comment on it in some way. I don’t seem to be able to stop myself from doing that.

The things that excite me about the world generally show up in my writing: the quirkiness of human beings, animals, the physical universe, the mental spaces we inhabit. How we impose structure on the world-from sociological expectations, customs and rules to our attempts to scientifically model Nature-and yet, despite these attempts, the world keeps wriggling out from under our various schemes. So people and animals confound our expectations and the universe turns out to be mostly made of dark matter, all of which makes it a lot more interesting than it would be otherwise. The impulse that leads me to ponder scientific questions is at heart the same one that leads me to write: to try to make sense of a gorgeously complex tapestry while being the size of a mite crawling about in it. The green and red threads indicate a sort of pattern, and that works for a while, but then there is this unexpected blue weave. You know? And what can you do but follow one thread or another, and make your little hypotheses and thought experiments, and be hilariously wrong much of the time before you discover another local truth. And you have to step back from it at various times and just celebrate how confoundedly crazy and interesting everything is. The way I choose to do that is to tell a story.

SM: Thank you!

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