Archive for October, 2015

October 27, 2015

Uday Prakash, The Girl With the Golden Parasol (trans. Jason Grunebaum)

This, for the weekend’s column, is shorter than I’d have liked it to be–there’s so much in Prakash’s book to work with that I could have gone on for at least a few more thousand words. I’d love, as well, to be able to link to Grunebaum’s introduction to the piece, which suggests (among other things) that Prakash’s novel grew more political in the telling, as the serialised version gathered letters from who identified with the caste politics of the story, and that the author decided that this simply couldn’t be a love story. Which raises all sorts of implications for the abrupt, filmi ending, which has the lovers safely and happily speeding away on a train, even as Rahul has nightmares that seem much more grounded in the book’s (real) world.

I want to talk about this book and Bollywood (fascinating!), and this book and gender (uncomfortable!), and the fact that Prakash ties global and racial and sexual and economic inequalities up with caste under the heading “Brahminism”, and I want to do a much more detailed reading of it in the context of the subsequent campus novel tradition, and I want to read it alongside Half Girlfriend at length and less dismissively of the genre than I have been here (though I’m glad I was, here). In an earlier piece about another Prakash book I wrote that the author “lays claim to the whole world“; the sheer scope of his imagined (political, philosophical, literary) universe makes it hard to write about but in that book, as well as here, this is the thing I admire the most. The result is rich and flawed and messy and brilliant and a better reader could probably talk about it for a lot longer than me.

In the absence of those unwritten pieces, have this profile of the author instead. And some of his own words, on the returning of his Sahitya Akademi award.

And my column, I guess.

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A boy named Rahul and a girl named Anjali meet on a university campus and fall in love. But while their friends (even a girl who has a crush on Rahul) are admirably supportive, there are obstacles to their coming together. This is unsurprising, for a book which opens with “the bare backside of Madhuri Dixit, the same one Salman Khan had aimed at and hit with the pebble from his slingshot”, and whose lead characters carry those names. Uday Prakash’s The Girl with the Golden Parasol (Peelee Chhatri Wali Ladki) is often in conversation with Bollywood; in plot as well as tone. Occasionally Rahul will go off into a daydream that suggests a well-placed song sequence; more worryingly, his ideas about wooing women seem derived from films—including Shah Rukh Khan in Darr. Late in the novel Prakash drives the point home, for any reader who had somehow missed it: “So this was the reality after all? Did Bollywood commercial cinema represent the most authentic and credible expression of the reality of our day and age …?”

Rahul is of a lower caste, one of the only non-Brahmins in the university’s Hindi department (to which he has transferred from Anthropology in order to better gaze besottedly at Anjali). Anjali’s father is a local politician, his position upheld in part by the local goons whose assault on Rahul’s Manipuri friend Sapam Tomba led to Sapam’s suicide. Rahul is involved in a student movement to organise and fight back against these goons, who form a worrying nexus with the university administration, politicians and local police. So far so filmi, but there’s far too much going on here to centre the love plot. Rahul’s political ideals, disillusionment with the system, with “Hindu Raj”, with capitalism and global structures of power take up at least as much of the book, and of his mind, as his romance with Anjali. And there’s no glib love conquers all message; when they finally consummate the relationship Rahul is very aware of the ways in which power, class, and caste (if not gender) are in operation.

The university campus setting is crucial here, and not only because it’s an appropriate setting for a romance plot. In few other situations would the earnestness of the characters work. Here we have students who read Che Guevara for inspiration and adopt Junoon songs as appropriate revolutionary chants (one of the few flaws in Jason Grunebaum’s fantastic translation is that the direct connection to familiar song lyrics is lost), and the spectre of Rahul’s uncle Kinnu Da, who occasionally swoops into the narrative to educate us further and refer to Foucault. But the local politics of the university campus have much wider implications, we’re reminded; with references to police brutality elsewhere, corruption, capital, caste. Sapam Tomba’s brother has been killed and he cannot go home (“they’ll say I am a PLA member and shoot me”); when Sapam kills himself shortly afterwards, Rahul hallucinates the brothers’ corpses walking side by side.

In Indian-English literature, of course, the campus novel has another set of connotations. In its original Hindi publication Prakash’s book precedes the rise of that particular genre; it was published in 2001 (Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone came out in 2004). In any case despite the hapless male protagonist and romance plot, it’s hard to see these as the same sorts of books, or even about the same sorts of people. Rahul and his friends inhabit a wide-ranging, multilingual imaginary where anything from Hazari Prasad Dwivedi to Jan Otčenášek to the movie Critters is available for them to draw upon. It’s a separate world from that of your average campus protagonist, and a difference that can’t be dismissed as the elitism of the English speaking world.

It’s a difference that was visible again earlier this week, when Bhagat dismissed the returning of Sahitya Akademi awards by various writers (Prakash among them) as a form of posturing, and his supporters hurried to assure the world that no one had heard of these people anyway. In Prakash’s works, it seems perfectly reasonable to mention Nirala, Alka Saraogi, Italo Calvino, whether the audience has read them or not. In that other world it’s a matter of pride not to know of Uday Prakash.

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October 25, 2015

Of Interest (25 October, 2015)

 

History(ish):

A link from a fellow Sunday Reader led me to something which led me to something else which eventually led to this piece by Daniel Salas, published last year, on the intertwinedness of religion and technology, and how this has played out in American narratives of apocalypse.

Via this by Zain Ahmed on Black Girl Dangerous, the secret history of South Asian and African American solidarity.

Naintara Oberoi is one of my favourite food writers (also one of my favourite people) and I am really looking forward to the whole of this essay, but here’s an extract: on Punjabi khana and histories, public and personal. (Also I’m craving home and food more than usual as a  result of this)

Via Maureen Kincaid Speller: the myth of the Cherokee ancestor in American culture.

Jessica Weiss on the secret linguistic life of girls. (Via Manjula Narayan)

The text from Kate Schapira’s Creative Medicine Lecture is up here, and is (predictably) wonderful, and I hope everyone reads it.

 

Books, film:

I’ve been writing a review of an Uday Prakash book (check back here in a few days) and therefore had cause to revisit this profile of him by Shougat Dasgupta, which I think is really good.

Trisha Gupta on folktales and the supernatural in Indian cinema, and the horror of Bhaskar Hazarika’s Kothanodi.

A thing that happened in my city that I missed because I’m poor at planning: Jo Lindsay Walton’s talk on SF and the future. (Also you should read his blog; this recent post is very good, for example.)

I don’t understand why Claudia Rankine’s Citizen should require defending (it’s phenomenal, she’s phenomenal, we’re lucky that it exists in the world) but Adam Fitzgerald has done it, here. (Via Aimee Pohl)

Rob Maslen on Lolly Willowes– I really enjoyed this, but am struck anew by the idea that Sylvia Townsend Warner’s work is unknown or even little known (in this post, less well known than Hope Mirrlees, and see also this column by Kari Sperring) I suppose in SFF this might be the case (Lud-in-the-Mist is a Fantasy Masterwork, Lolly Willowes is not), outside them, I’d be surprised if it wasn’t the other way around.

I haven’t read Paul Murray’s The Mark and the Void yet (I expect to like it; his Skippy Dies is close to perfect); I loved this interview of him by Mark O’Connell.

 

 

October 18, 2015

Of Interest (18 October, 2015)

Empire & Nationhood &c.:

Bruno Faidutti on board games and colonising space (in both French and English!). I like this a lot, and laughed out loud at “Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism was published in 1993, more or less at the same time as Catan and Magic the Gathering”, which is honestly a perfect line. (Via @nanayasleeps on twitter)

Karen Sands-O’Connor eats an Empire Pie, explores the children’s section of a bookshop, and wonders if the empire is making a comeback. “Slaves are labelled, confusingly, as “cheap labour” (111) and the “Indian Mutiny” (otherwise known as the Sepoy Rebellion) started with “resentment” (127) and ended with the British building “roads, railways and postal services” (127), all resentment apparently put aside.”

Amit Chaudhuri would suggest that yes, it is. (Also: “The sight of Snow and his colleagues among teeming crowds, asking Indians what they think of the railways, provoked in me a Goodness Gracious Me-type reverse fantasy, of Indian reporters on the streets of London inquiring into how the English are coping with the decimal system.”)

Abdul Majid Abid on Pakistan’s origin story.

On Exxon and climate change (and don’t tell me this doesn’t belong under “empire”)

 

Books:

I wrote a review! It was of Nigerians in Space by Deji Bryce Olukotun and it was in the Strange Horizons fund drive (donate here!) special issue.

Kenzaburo Oe on Huckleberry Finn and being Japanese in America in 1965.

Isabel Ortiz on the mutable Nancy Drew.

Andrew Leonard suggests that reading Dune might save California. I’m bound to link to this because it’s a long piece of writing about the environment and an SF novel but UM. (I’m fully expecting some amusing shouting to follow.) (via Shruti Ravi)

 

Film/TV/Visual things:

Jaideep Unudurti talks to Vishwanathan Anand about chess in the movies. (via Rukmini Shrinivasan)

Krish Raghav travels to Mexico City and discovers M.N. Roy. (This is a comic, and it’s great)

How good is Annie Mok at pretty much everything she writes? (Ans: very good).

Will Partin reviews Prison Architect, says good things. (via Ben Gabriel, who causes me to read a disproportionate amount of games-related stuff for someone who doesn’t play them)

Finally, not a link but a reminder that in some lucky countries there is now a new season of Please Like Me and you should watch it, and the first episode is (legally!) on youtube and it is great.

October 18, 2015

Various Marses

Water on Mars, and so this.

 

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“ … since Mars is older than our earth, with scarcely a quarter of the superficial area and remoter from the sun, it necessarily follows that it is not only more distant from time’s beginning but nearer its end,” explains H.G. Wells, at the beginning of The War of the Worlds.

silent planetEarly science fiction makes much of Mars’s age, of its supposed greater proximity to its ending than our own. Its fabled canals become the waterways and irrigation systems of a dead or dying people, elaborate civilisations that the books in question talk about with a sort of yearning regret—because they are dying, because they are unreachable, because they were never real, because it’s the turn of the century and everything anyway feels like the end of the world. Occasionally, in the midst of all the fantasy adventure of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars books, we’re reminded that the world is ending—in A Princess of Mars the atmosphere is kept breathable via machinery that fails, after its (earthly) human hero John Carter kills the operator in self defense. With only days left to live the red Martians prepare themselves for doom, and only Carter’s fortunate intervention may (since the book ends inconclusively, though all is made clear in the sequels) save them. C.S. Lewis has another well-populated society in his Out of the Silent Planet, in which the canals of Mars are really only giant rifts in the surface of the planet that open into lower, warmer valleys with plenty of water and vegetation and three sentient races of aliens living in harmony. Yet we learn towards the end of the book that the surface of the planet was once populated, that there was a golden age of beautiful, winged beings living on those vast red expanses. This is Fallen Mars much as Earth, for Lewis, is fallen, but it’s also postapocalyptic Mars.

And then there are Leigh Brackett’s Mars stories, which are gorgeous in their own right but gain extra weight by unashamedly placing themselves in this tradition—decadence and doom and adventure—and I think they might just be my favourite.seakings

Mars was my first dying Earth. My first encounter with that particular sub-genre of science fiction (surely having a revival at the moment, though I’m not sure anyone has explicitly connected this wave to those earlier ones), but also my first encounter with the larger concept. I sometimes worry about my own tendency to respond to our actual dying planet with doom and nostalgia, and I wonder how much my tastes in genre fiction have to do with that. Later science fiction, working with more information, treats Mars as a real place, subject to actual science, and I find myself not caring very much. Is there something a bit exploitative (and a lot colonialist) about treating real places as places to project your own desires and emotions? Yes.

And watching The Martian, the movie based on Andy Weir’s novel, I find myself again not caring very much. Matt Damon’s Watney is stranded on Mars due to a tragic error—the only man on the planet, his chances of survival are low to non-existent. Yet there’s no real facing or waiting for the end here—only potatoes and problem-solving and a brilliant, upbeat soundtrack. Perhaps the book, which I haven’t read, is more interior, but there’s no indication that this is ever the sort of story that The Martian wants to be. Which is fair enough, and it’s not as if we’re short on narratives of characters waiting for the end.

It may, possibly, mean that the only great recent Mars story that is also a powerful story of loss and hopelessness may be an xkcd strip about the poor little Mars rover Spirit, stranded on a desolate planet and unable to contact home.

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October 14, 2015

Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Mr. Quin

For Christie’s 125th birth anniversary, a column and a bunch of generalisations about detectives and absolutely no Identifying With Mr Satterthwaite at all.

 

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I suspect I’ve been reading Agatha Christie all my life. In the case of most other authors, my first encounter with their work is something I actually remember; but while presumably I read my first Christie novel at some point, I  don’t know which, or when, or even whether I liked it. As an adult, I’ve made my way through the vast bulk of the Christie canon and I do know what I like—I know which stories (and which series) I will visit over and over again because I enjoy them and find them comforting. I know which ones I will not revisit because they unsettle me (Christie is not normally the author to whom I turn when I want to be unsettled, as skilfully as she may achieve that effect), which ones I will not revisit because I just don’t enjoy them, which ones I might revisit only to check that I didn’t hallucinate them (Passenger to Frankfurt). I’ve fluctuated between being a Poirot loyalist and a Marple loyalist, all the while knowing that one could be both and neither. But to  ‘celebrate’ the author’s birth anniversary a few days ago I found myself rereading the Mr Quin stories.

QuinI’ve generalised wildly about detective fiction here before, so feel I can safely do it again: the detective story is fundamentally comforting. However much violence and bloodshed and psychological harm they may contain, the structure is that of a puzzle that is solvable—by you, the reader, if we’re going by the rules of fair play; by the characters themselves if this is not the case. There are clues, and they only need to be pieced together. There is only one solution that fits all the facts. Of course, it’s easy to generalise about the whole of a genre and detective stories have been undermining all of this for as long as they’ve existed. (Terry Pratchett’s police/detective Sam Vimes has a wonderful rant on the “insult to the rich and chaotic variety of the human experience” that clues assume.) Christie’s own detectives challenge those notions—in Poirot’s disdain for physically hunting for footprints, or Marple’s apparent belief that likenesses between people are somehow infallible markers of character. And yet even these are only alternative methods towards solving a world that is, fundamentally, solvable.

And then there are Mr Satterthwaite, and Mr Harley Quin. Satterthwaite is an observer of human nature, we’re told (often by Quin); a rich, elderly man, interested in art, never in a romantic relationship and often aware of, and worried by the knowledge that his experience of life has been at a remove. But it’s precisely this detachment that makes him an able agent for Quin, a mysterious dark figure bearing a puzzling resemblance to a Commedia dell’arte character, who shows up on occasion when a crime has been committed and hints to Satterthwaite about what has happened and who has done it. Not a figment of Satterthwaite’s imagination, since other people see and recognise him, it’s clear that there’s something not quite real about him, even in the stories where his appearances and disappearances might have a rational explanation. Occasionally his supernatural nature is openly acknowledged—at more than one point he is said to speak for the dead.

The Mr. Quin books are detective stories, but crucially, they are also ghost stories. There is a crime, there is a solution, there is the sense at the end that we have grasped What Really Happened, but we’re also reminded over and over that none of this would have been possible without the supernatural intervention of Mr Harley Quin. It’s a yoking together of two genres that should not work together (and yet of course they do, so many ghost stories are stories of unsolved crimes); truth and justice are attainable, in this world, but only through a sort of divine intervention.

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October 11, 2015

Of Interest (11 October, 2015)

(The guess who’s thirty and spending a weekend away with family and cannot be bothered to organise links? edition):

Poorva Rajaram compares various trailers for Suffragette and comes to some conclusions (I think this was written before either the cast decided to pose in the world’s worst t-shirts or the film’s red carpet was stormed).

David Brothers on problematic faves, via Kajori Sen.

A thing I enjoy about this Alana Massey piece is the link’s response to the piece’s title.

Pedro Oliveira and Luiza Prado’s Cheat Sheet for Non/Less-Colonialist Speculative Design is pretty great. Via Sridala Swami.

Zac O’Yeah on India’s four (remaining) Jantar Mantars.

Trisha Gupta on how class operates in Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar.

Kirsten Johnson’s short The Above, via Brendan Byrne.

David J. Schwartz on masculinity and the Nerd Box.

This is a story about an evil sheep. Via the babygoatsandfriends tumblr account.

Rafeeq Ellias on a too-little-known episode in Indian history. Via Samira Nadkarni.

 

October 4, 2015

Of Interest (4 October, 2015)

 

Books and films and stuff:

I haven’t read Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant and I don’t think I’m likely to. But there’s been a discussion about it, and tragic queer narratives, and occasionally empire, bouncing around my internet space for a few weeks now, and I thought this post by Arkady Martine was very good. Also worth reading, this storify of tweets by Heather Rose Jones.

As the possessor of a wobbly accent, I loved Rega Jha’s defense of Priyanka Chopra’s.

Because I’m reading Signs Preceding the End of the World, here’s Yuri Herrera in conversation with Daniel Alarcón.

Shameless self-plug: Me, Ethan Robinson, Erin Horáková and Ben Gabriel talk about Jupiter Ascending and (I think) say some good and entertaining things. They are all great and I want to watch movies with them all the time.

Alejandro Zambra and Matt Nelson talking about opacity, morality, other things. (Are all the good book and film pieces conversations nowadays? I’d have linked to this last week but I was linking to so many interviews.)

 

Not-books and not-films and stuff:

George Yancy and Paul Gilroy on Blackness in Britain.

Mirza Arif Beg has a photo essay about the bridges of Delhi and what goes on beneath them, and it’s lovely and also makes me homesick.

Ravish Kumar on the murder of Mohammed Akhlaq. Everything about this story is horrifying, but this piece is unashamedly personal and hit me harder than anything else I’ve read about the case has yet.

I’m suspicious of Public Intellectuals but this, by Pratap Bhanu Mehta,  is searing and necessary and … public in ways that feel like they might be important.

Rahawa Haile on being Eritrean, on climate change, on being human and less than human. This is so good and I just want to read it out loud to myself.

Via the Interstitial Arts Foundation on twitter, this amazing stained glass botanical garden in Toluca, Mexico.

This piece, entirely for the line “Indeed so refined were his feelings, according to his daughter Emily Bayley, that he could not bear to see women eat cheese.” Or mostly for that line, anyway. 

October 3, 2015

September Reading

Not many books, but some good books.

 

Aliette De Bodard, The House of Shattered Wings: I have a whole separate post that I’m not sure what to do with about reviews/responses to this book and The Present Moment in Genre; this is probably not the place for it. Suffice it to say (for now) that I disagree with, for example, Mahvesh Murad in this review (chosen in part because I edited it, and in part because talking to Mahvesh about the book helped me clarify my own ideas to myself) that this is “more importantly … also a story about imperialism, about displacement and belonging,” but that I don’t necessarily mean that as a criticism of the book. A thing I do criticise about the book is the pacing, which feels off to me at the beginning. But I really enjoyed the haunting/murder mystery when it got going, and I am very glad of the moment towards the end when Philippe is allowed some proper  Plague On All Your Houses anger.

N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season: I’m less able to do the balanced “I liked this, I didn’t like this” with The Fifth Season. It starts out dizzyingly, intoxicatingly good, sometimes lives up to that through the rest of the book, often is unflinching and nauseating, sometimes is only quite good (which itself is infuriating, considering what it is when it’s at its best), there’s a lot of playing with perspective and style. There are things it does brilliantly, there are other things I really wish it didn’t do at all, and when I attempted to rant about it to a friend I found myself arguing against the novel as a form, which says something about the book, probably. Also, I have a fondness for inexplicable obelisks as an SFFnal trope.

John Gordon, The Giant Under the Snow: Work, and enjoyable. It pleases me that the protagonist is called Jonk, and that it (like so many surprisingly powerful books from its era) feels so oddly rough and unfinished. Also, the leather men things are terrifying.

Zen Cho, Sorcerer to the Crown (and also a Spirits Abroad reread): Reviews of both forthcoming (in different publications, no less!); I genuinely enjoyed them both.

Phillipa Pearce, Tom’s Midnight Garden: Work, still enjoyable, I’d forgotten how central the sibling relationship was to the whole.

Mavis Doriel Hay, Death on the Cherwell: 1930s crime novel set in a fictional women’s college in Oxford. It is no Gaudy Night and its murder is very solveable; on the other hand, it is funny, and has idiotically plucky undergrads (of both genders) amateur-detecting, and refusing to actually buy books in Blackwells when they could just sit there and, like, read them, and boys nagging their friends to buy their self-pubbed poetry chapbooks, and in short I was charmed.