Archive for September, 2015

September 27, 2015

Of Interest (27 September, 2015)


First and most importantly:

If you haven’t read Sofia Samatar’s Skin Feeling essay, you need to do so now. I’m a little shattered by it, but in as good a way as being emotionally broken can be. (Will this be the week the whole Sunday Reading crew post the same link? It might be.)


Other good things:

Black Love Post-Death, by Jessica Marie Johnson. “I’m interested in ways #BlackLivesMatter demands a radical seeing of each other — intra-black, infrared, diasporic, futuristic, historic, archived and unimaginable”. (Via Keguro Macharia)

Multiple excellent people saying multiple excellent things on this roundtable on gender and fashion.

An article on femininity and performance in fatshion blogs (link is to a pdf), via @nanayasleeps on twitter.

I love accounts of historical links between Africa and Asia, particularly India. This piece tracing the origins of baobab trees  in India is wonderful.

I was reading through the SH articles archive, as you do, and was reminded of this fantastic Karen Burnham piece.

I am trying very hard not to be charmed by Nell Zink, damnit. “I think Mikki will appreciate how hard it is for women to be feminists in a clinch, especially around strangers. ”

I do not want to not be charmed by Kiran Nagarkar, which is good because he is a delight in this interview. Via Anil Menon.

AnOther’s history of female Afrofuturist fashion.

Morgan Parker’s “If You Are Over Staying Woke”, which I found via Vajra Chandrasekera, is glorious.

Classical pigs. Via Alex von Tunzelmann

Karen Lord introduces Jamaica Kincaid’s “Ovando“.



September 20, 2015

Of Interest (20 September, 2015)


Okay, the Jalada language issue is HUGE.

In honour of the Strange Horizons fund drive, about which I’ll be doing a proper post soon, here’s a link to a book club discussion from some months ago of which I’m very proud.(You should also read the book in question, it’s brilliant.)

Alexander Chee being wonderful on Elena Ferrante, anonymity and public personas.

Here’s Nino Cipri on what does not look like a great book.

Via Ethan Robinson, Kurt Newman on Graham Harman on H.P. Lovecraft. (‘The knowledgeable reader is no doubt shouting at me: “Don’t go in the house! There’s so much racism in there!!!”’)

Via Gee Brunswick, Uma Narayan reviews Half the Sky.

I was lucky enough to livestream some of the amazing conversations at Ferguson is the Future, but if you missed them (or want to watch them again because they were so good) they still seem to be available here.

Really, really, really looking forward to Karthika Nair’s Until the Lions. Jai Arjun Singh interviews her here (and part II)

Also a good interview: this conversation between Mairead Case and Jessa Crispin.


Sofia Samatar:

Sofia Samatar interviews Sarah McCarry.

Sofia Samatar interviews Fiston Mwanza Mujila and Roland Glasser.

Sofia Samatar has a new story out and it’s amazing.



Ananya Jahanara Kabir on Black Magic Women, via Mahvesh Murad.

Aaron Bady on Hollywood and Africa, Taylor Swift and White supremacy, which is a good piece and also very relevant to my own interests.

… it also works well with Robin James’s piece on “Shake It Off”, here. (Via, unsurprisingly, Aaron Bady)


… Other?:

Sarah Jaffe on the “do what you love” myth feels vital.

How Britain Buried the Brutality of its Colonial Past. Maya Goodfellow at Media Diversified.

Shruti Ravindran’s science writing is wonderful and here she is on hearing (and listening to) voices.

Via Chapati Mystery, this interview with James C. Scott.

Landscapes of Exclusion: Hope Wabuke in conversation with Carolyn Finney, on blackness and environmental movements and existing in the world. This is wonderful.

Sinthujan Varatharajah on carrying his name across borders. Via Amba Azaad.

September 15, 2015

The Borrowers, Mary Norton

Have a version of a recent column.


I’ve been thinking about apocalypses a lot recently. Or perhaps not. I’ve been thinking about climate change, about worlds that end and worlds that change and the ways in which we might imagine them, and trying to work out what it is that I want from fiction that tries to tackle these things. What I don’t want seems clear: books where these huge things are relegated to background noise as if they weren’t fundamental to how we exist materially and emotionally in the world. What I want are several things at once, the sort of range that is beyond the scope of a single text. I want possible futures that could serve as horrifying warnings, and possible futures in which humans alter the ways in which we live in radical, beautiful ways; and I want the quiet, deep sadness of acceptance that the world we love is about to be lost forever. The world (or the publishing industry) seems willing to throw up several horrifying warnings (and endless stories of young white people finding love in hopeless places) but too little of the other things, and they are the ones I really crave.

I found something of what I’m looking for in a 1950s children’s book that can in no way be said to be about apocalypses, or even climate change, at all. Mary Norton’s The Borrowers is a book about tiny, human-shaped people who live under the floorboards (and in other secluded places) in human houses, and who subsist on what they can “borrow” from the humans in whose homes they live. The story (once you get past the multiple frame narratives) opens in an old country house, once inhabited by a big family and staff, as well as several families of borrowers: the Overmantels, the Harpsichords, the Rain-Barrels, the Linen-Presses, the Bell-Pulls, the Hon. John Studdingtons (this family live behind a portrait), the list goes on. But time has gone by and most of the humans have moved out, and so too have the Borrowers. At the beginning of this book, then, the only borrowers left in the house are the small family of the Clocks—teenaged Arrietty and her mother and father, Homily and Pod.borrowers3

We’re seeing all this from Arrietty’s perspective, and all she can really tell is that the humans are slowly leaving. The (human) reader may ask if it was a war that did it or general social change—as far as the Borrowers are concerned, their major resource is drying up. Because that’s what humans (“human-beans”, appropriately a sort of vegetable) are to them; it’s why taking from them is “borrowing” rather than “stealing”. (“Human beans are for Borrowers”, explains Arrietty to the young human boy whom she befriends.) We (presumably) human readers are immersed in the Borrower perspective–if we can’t quite distance ourselves enough to think of ourselves as a mere resource, it’s easy to see this vast, increasingly empty, increasingly run-down house and imagine our own extinction. If the humans are dying out—and the reader can easily imagine this huge, lonely boy to be the last of us—what are the Borrowers to live on? But it’s more than that, more than a mere depletion of resources. It’s the empty house that used to be filled with people–we’re asked, over and over, to imagine a world emptied of the creatures, human and borrower, that once filled it.

This is not to claim The Borrowers as a piece of apocalyptic fiction—or to turn it into a clumsy allegory for our own times and situation. But Arrietty and her parents’s whole understanding of the world and their place in it is unsustainable and they know it—at some level they have already accepted their own ending.

The humans are not (yet) facing extinction, as it turns out. The boy speaks of “railways stations and football matches and … India and China and the British Commonwealth. He told her about the July sales.” There are billions of us–and what if it’s the other way around, and Arrietty and her parents are the only Borrowers left? In later books we’ll learn that this is not the case, that other Borrowers still live in exile, but their numbers have dwindled. Mrs May, through whose voice we first hear of them, thinks they may no longer exist. The Borrowers is suffused with this sense of an ending, and while we’re never explicitly asked to grieve, I think this may be the source of much of its power.



September 13, 2015

Of Interest (13 September, 2015)

Links! Unsorted this weekend.

One of my favourite authors on one of my favourite books. I’d read anything Karen Joy Fowler wrote, and that she loves The Once And Future King doesn’t surprise me, and also makes me very happy.

Something about this piece by Helénē Schouten feels to me like it should be a short animated film–and there are moments that made me stop and gasp.

America’s Wild West narratives, sheikhs and desert love. I like this Amira Jarmakani piece and simultaneously want to be reading another piece (possibly also by her) that reads the books themselves more closely.

Darren Anderson watches The Wizard of Oz.

Joshua Clover on Children of Men

On The Witch of Clatteringshaws and Joan Aiken’s vision for our future (and where is the essay on The Shepherd’s Crown and The Witch of Clatteringshaws that this blogpost (by the author’s daughter, Lizza Aiken, I think?) has convinced me we deserve?

Luke Bennett on the A380.

@piercepenniless, who I follow on twitter, was suspended by the site recently for quoting Sean Bonney and wrote this in response and it is good.

Dara Khan on war games and gaming in a time of war.

Is Anne Boyer ever not amazing? Serious question.

Tananarive Due on Fear of the Walking Dead and being this culture’s zombies.

Kagiso Mnisi interviews Lindokuhle Ngosi and it’s just a really good conversation.




September 3, 2015

August Reading

Leaving out rereads for comfort and things I’m rereading for the nth time for my thesis, this is the sum of my reading  in August. I am also working my way very slowly through Jessie Greengrass’s An Account of The Decline of the Great Auk According to One Who Saw It, John Gordon’s The Giant Under the Snow, and Annie Zaidi’s edited anthology Unbound, but reading has been very, very slow.


Penelope Lively, The House at Norham Gardens: I love the feel of this book–the prose, the quiet interiority of it, everything. What I don’t like about it (and I don’t know to what extent this is the result of reading it for work rather than for itself) is its sense of aboutness–it feels very much a book About Memory and About PostImperial Britain in ways that  reduce its potential to be more than those things. But again, possibly this is more my fault (or the fault of the context in which I’m reading) than the book’s. It is still gorgeous, though.

Terry Pratchett, The Shepherd’s Crown: I was worried about reading this one because Raising Steam was terrible, in nails-down-chalkboard ways of jarringly bad. The Shepherd’s Crown is certainly far, far better than that– and a good Last Book in the ways it attempts to tie things up, marry existing plot threads, and generally create an impression of things ending (and things beginning). And it’s about old men and women and happy deaths in ways that could easily feel manipulative but (to me) did not. What I’m not sure about is whether it’s a good Discworld book, and whether, considering that its final act is a version of the final acts of the last two , possibly three, Tiffany Aching books, it counts as a good book in this sub-series. But I’m glad I could enjoy it.





September 1, 2015

Nikesh Shukla, Meatspace

This isn’t really a column about Nikesh Shukla’s Meatspace, which I read many months ago and quite enjoyed (or about the Anouk ad, which features two queer women who look and sound nothing like me). It might be about naming in the present and the future–about the half-assed but (to me) vaguely endearing thing Jupiter Ascending did by having a white, blonde space!cop called Gemma Chatterjee and a black space!cop (Nikki Amuka-Bird, who was astonishingly, unfairly beautiful throughout) called Diomika Tsing.* Or the thing Arthur C. Clarke does in Rendezvous with Rama with the information, just thrown in there, that Norton’s full name is William Tsien Norton. These names work as quick signifiers (but then they assume that you will notice what they’re doing, and I don’t know if Shukla can make that assumption) for the sort of future, or in Jupiter Ascending‘s case the sort of genocidal multicultural galactic capitalist empire, that this is.

And I’m pretty sure it’s a column about Sofia Samatar’s fantastic tweets about authenticity some weeks ago.

And possibly about who has the right to write inauthentically? I don’t know. Anyway.



I don’t know what to make of Kitab Balasubramanyam.

Kitab is the social-media-obsessed protagonist of Nikesh Shukla’s Meatspace, a book that is, depending on my mood, either a smart, and often moving satire of the way we live now or daddish panicking about social media taking over our lives. But my mixed feelings about the book are pretty slight, when compared to my mixed feelings about Kitab himself.

Kitab Balasubramanyam has a brother named Aziz (Balasubramanyam?), and a father who notes that it’s nice that Kitab and his Indian cousins all speak the language of the internet so that “you don’t have to pretend you know Gujarati anymore”.

The paper in which this column is to be published is read in the main by people who will be well aware that Kitab Balasubramanyam is an unusual name. When, early in the book, the character meets, apparently, the only other Kitab Balasubramanyam in the world, the real surprise is that there are two of them. (Were I to hunt down every Aishwarya Subramanian in the world I’d probably collapse from exhaustion somewhere in the middle of Chennai.)

Implied context and assumptions about what audiences (and authors) know are central to my Kitab-confusion. As an Indian reader in the genres I read, I’m all too familiar with books by British or American authors who haven’t done their research (or who have decided that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom constitutes research); when the Indian character shows up I’m often already bracing myself to laugh or cringe. Nine times out of ten I’d assume that the improbable Mr Balasubramanyam was the result of similar ‘research’; half-knowledge of friends’ names and experiences cobbled together. That I don’t make that assumption in this case is entirely due to the fact that Shukla is of Indian origin himself. Perhaps that’s unfair and I should grant him the same right to ignorance as any British author (it is possible that I have been overthinking this).

And yet, and yet, and yet. Kitab Balasubramanyam is unlikely, but he’s not impossible.

Earlier this year an advertisement for the clothing brand Anouk, featuring two young women in a relationship, went viral. Amidst the several conversations that immediately sprang up were those who questioned the authenticity of one character’s speaking Tamil over the phone to her parents—no one spoke Tamil like that. I found myself bristling each time (some of these critics weren’t even Tamil speakers)—my own Tamil is significantly worse, but then I’m a very inauthentic Indian (and Tamil person, and probably several other things) myself. I have the sort of roving accent that comes of a lot of moving around, a lot of code-switching, and an excess of self-consciousness. Demanding authenticity from characters in literature, film, or even advertising is a dangerous path to tread because it can only ever mean deciding that certain people/identities are inauthentic, or impossible, or unreal. Less (?) seriously, it means distilling characters down to their most obvious traits, making them the most average they can possibly be. I’d say it was the equivalent of populating entire universes with people called John Smith, except that we know the John Smiths of the world are the least likely to have their identities policed. But think of every western TV series you’ve ever watched with the one Indian guy either in I.T., or a doctor, named Ravi or Raj.

If all of this seems like it’s drifted rather far from the book in question, I’m going to claim that it has not. Because of its subject, Meatspace is very strongly about identities, real and projected, and implied audiences. I don’t know if I want to claim that the naming of the main character is part of a cunning strategy; maybe Shukla just wanted to write about a character whose complex family history could lead to his having that name without the need to justify his existence to his audience; maybe he just didn’t care. Either way, I think I prefer Kitab Balasubramanyam to Ravi from I.T.



I’m … less convinced, shall we say, about the movie’s choice to have an elephant-headed alien space cop called “Nesh”, but friends who have seen Sense8 tell me this isn’t the most hilaribad invocation of Ganesha in the Wachowskis’s oeuvre (or even in said oeuvre in 2015) so hey.