Archive for ‘personal’

January 5, 2016

2015 in numbers and broad generalisations

Broad generalisation 1.:

Well it’s been a pretty shit year, hasn’t it? Good things happened (people I love got engaged or married, or had babies or achieved book deals or degrees), but wow, on a macro level 2015 was bad.

 

Disclaimer:

Before the numbers, the bit where I point out that the numbers are wrong. I made a decision this year to leave out rereads (I reread for comfort the way real people watch TV, and obviously my PhD work often requires me to go back to a book several times) in my reading round-ups; I made an exception for books where those rereads “mark a huge change in how I read the book in question”, but that’s an arbitrary judgement too. And obviously I read parts of books (anthologies, collections, plus there are several books this year that I didn’t finish, and that I plan to return to), short stories, literary theory (because thesis), and things on the internet (which you can partly track because of my infrequent Sunday Reading posts).

Over and above this already-wrongness, as it were, the numbers regarding authorial identity are also far from certain– people’s races and genders aren’t always going to be evident; the criteria by which we make those judgements are themselves often deeply flawed (I worry that my gender count might be erasing nonbinary authors, for example, and can’t imagine how I’d reasonably track how many queer authors I read); in any case, I haven’t figured out a reasonable way to take multiple-author or author-illustrator works into account within this framework. The best I can do is therefore to remind you at length (two paragraphs so far!) that these numbers can only ever be approximate.

 

Numbers:

All that being said, as near as I can make it out I read (about) 82 books this year. Of them, (about) 55 were authored by women, (about) 32 were authored by people of colour (of whom [about] 20 were women). Which is not perfect (what would perfect be?) but feels a lot closer to where I want to be than last year did–and though rereads are not counted, I think I did do less rereading than I did last year.

 

Shortlists:

I read two awards shortlists; the Carnegie and Little Rebels (thoughts on individual books at those links). I suspect I’ll be reading the Carnegie shortlist at least in 2016, and if I have access to the Little Rebels shortlisted books will be looking at that as well. However. Both of these shortlists, as far as I could tell at the time, were comprised entirely of white authors and illustrators. This is an issue for me–my work requires me to take an interest in contemporary UK children’s publishing, which currently appears to be so blindingly white (Broad Generalisation 2, except it unfortunately isn’t) that a couple of years of all-white shortlists aren’t treated as a crisis but as the natural order of things. Characters of colour do occasionally pop up, with very mixed results (this isn’t the place to rant about how a mostly white literary establishment is what leads to books like this and this being legitimised, but the thought of how many decent, well-meaning adults must have read them and thought “this is fine” before they ended up on the shortlist is mindboggling). So what’s a reader with a particular interest in the related topics of children’s literature in the UK and canon formation to do?  I’ve cut SFF shortlists out of my life, and that was a good choice, but children’s lit is what I work on and I can’t apply the same solution here.

What I can do, I suppose, is seek out alternatives. I’ve spoken elsewhere about my discomfort with #diversity! campaigns, and I love this Kavita Bhanot essay. But I’ve tied myself to these awards, and for as long as I continue to do so, this is a pledge that I’ll also seek out other contemporary children’s authors and books for every white British or American writer that a shortlist makes me read. And if the Crossword (or Raymond Crossword now, I’m informed) awards put out a children’s shortlist this year, I will be reading that as well.

 

My year in books and film:

The Strange Horizons year in review is up, with a couple of paragraphs from me. Here’s what I said (I have shamelessly replaced links to legit SH reviews to links to my own thoughts, but you should read the SH reviews):

It may not quite be SF, but if you have not yet read Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World (translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman), you should probably do so immediately. Other highlights of my year in fiction: Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, and Jennifer Marie Brissett’s Elysium. I loved Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song, shortlisted for the 2015 Carnegie award, and JiHyeon Lee’s Pool, a picture book about a fantastic underwater world. N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season was a book I had Issues with, but when it was good was intoxicatingly so. And though almost none of the nonfiction I read was new or SF-relevant, Black Quantum Futurism: Theory & Practice Vol. I, edited by Rasheedah Phillips, is a collection I think I’ll be coming back to over and over.

I missed many of the films I wanted to watch, but of those I saw I loved Mad Max: Fury Road and will defend Jupiter Ascending to the death. Avengers: Age of Ultron, meanwhile, convinced me that tolerating the MCU is no longer just artistically/intellectually lazy, but morally abhorrent as well. But perhaps the best pieces of SFF I watched this year were the utopian alternate universes (our world, if our world was good) of Magic Mike XXL and Paddington. One of the virtues of SF is its ability to help us conceive of alternate presents—I suggest that these films did just that in a year when they were sorely needed.

Other favourites: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Danez Smith’s [insert] boy, Uday Prakash’s The Girl with the Golden Parasol, Leela Gandhi’s Affective Communities, Robin Stevens’s Arsenic For Tea. I’m incredibly grateful to Naomi Novik’s Uprooted for giving me a sort of reading experience I very rarely have nowadays. Moviewise, other than the big films I mention above, I loved Girlhood, identified a bit too closely with parts of Appropriate Behaviour, really enjoyed Carol and … I sat through Hard to be a God; that’s got to count for something, right?

Obviously I’m not entirely serious above when I claim Magic Mike XXL as a form of science fiction. But if art is about helping us find ways to navigate the world (Broad Generalisation 3 but let’s assume for the space of this post that it is), and if one of the reasons SFF is important is that it has such scope to do this (Broad Generalisation 4 but see above) the books and films I value most at a time like this (do I need to explain the hundreds of reasons the world is currently bad? are there people existing and moving about in the world thinking “well, that was a fun year! bring on 2016!”?), the ones that feel most radical, are the ones that offer some sense of that.

In May I wrote, of Gill Lewis’s Scarlet Ibis (which subsequently won the Little Rebels award):

There’s a magical moment towards the end of the book in which Scarlet’s new school friends think that she has done something terrible, but then they verify her story (well done, responsible kids!), ascertain that she’s doing something they find morally okay, and then stand by her in solidarity and give her what help they can. There are no mean girls here. Whether they are random employees of the local zoo, interfering but kindly neighbours, teenage boys who have just had a foster sister thrust upon them or primary school students, every person in this world is fundamentally decent; it is possible to ask for help and receive it. As a fantasy fan and a children’s literature fan I end up being presented a lot of literature that insists on confronting the grimdarkness of the world by reproducing it endlessly, and to me Scarlet Ibis felt radical in its goodness. This isn’t escapism, it’s imagining a world as it could be.

There’s something of this sense about Magic Mike XXL, as incongruous as these titles may look together, not just in the men’s attitudes towards women but towards each other as well. None of these worlds are entirely free of badness (Paddington, for example, has imperialism and UKIP), but their niceness still feels central to what I value in them. I don’t fully understand yet how to hold on to this position and also to the importance (moral, transformative, cathartic) of anger; I don’t want to defang us or to suggest that we sit here exchanging platitudes about the importance of kindness while the world burns. If I’ve got a resolution for 2016 (and for my thirties) it’s to be more uncompromising, if anything. And yet.

Or I could have just quoted Kate Schapira, here: “I read more and more not to escape in the often derogatory way that word is used, but to slip the limits on my own habitual knowledge of what is possible, to think of ways of living and, yes, even dying that I could not have thought of on my own.” That.

April 9, 2015

A Terry Pratchett post

I thought I wasn’t going to do a Terry Pratchett column (as I learnt after Leonard Nimoy died last month, I’m not good at talking about why certain public figures meant a lot to me) but then realised I couldn’t not say something.

So, this.

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At some point in my mid-teens a friend from school lent me a copy of something called The Light Fantastic, by someone called Terry Pratchett. It was the sequel to a book neither of us had read, which was a pity, but there was enough in there that we recognised to make this book, both a perpetuation and a parody of fantasy tropes, fun. I borrowed the book and loved it, she moved to another school, then another city, and we lost touch for years before Facebook made communication possible again, I kept the book. I found that there were others.kirby discworld

If parodying fantasy tropes had been the only purpose of the books, I suspect the joke would have worn thin very quickly (and reading the early books as an adult, I can see that it often did). But the Discworld books widened and deepened into something larger and deeper; while never losing the sense that a good portion of a book could be dedicated to the fulfilment of a terrible pun and that that was as noble a goal as any. In the first few years I read them in the order that I found them in, skipping back and forth in an already-chaotic timeline and across British and American editions. When I’d read all that had been published I moved on to making sure I had a complete set in the editions with the nicer covers (if there was a Josh Kirby cover, that was the one I wanted; a British edition was always preferable to an American one). As I caught up, I began collecting the books in hardback, as they came out, which was usually (serendipitously!) around my birthday. Friends in other countries would pick them up if they were delayed in India, or stood in line to get them signed. For years now I’ve associated the whole process of growing older with the arrival of a new Terry Pratchett book—I’m not entirely sure how to do that, now that there will be no more.

When I found out that Pratchett had died last week, it was through friends whom I’d badgered into reading him in college, messaging me to ask if I knew and to thank me for introducing his work to them.  I dithered over emailing my old friend and expressing the same sort of gratitude–I’m not sure “thanks for letting me steal your book fifteen years ago” is something I can articulate very well to someone who is now almost a stranger. But I am, deeply, grateful.

And I’m grateful to Pratchett, and to the books (particularly the Discworld books) themselves. For a world in which the insides of people’s heads (our second and third thoughts as well as our first) are important. For Granny Weatherwax’s ventures into Headology; for Sam Vimes who creates a policeman in his own subconscious to keep a check on his anger*.

I suggest above that the earliest books in the series are slight parodies, but they were still enormously important to me. You can’t think about why things are the way they are until you notice that they’re that way in the first place; Pratchett is one of a few writers who taught me how to read, and read critically. Eventually I’d turn that gaze on his own books—he gave me the tools to be dissatisfied with his work. I’m grateful for that as well.

But most of all I’m grateful for how kind the books are. One of the reasons that I find the books’ social commentary occasionally unsatisfying is that some things simply can’t be done nicely, however strong the author’s feelings or sharp his commentary. But kindness is safe, and warm and human (almost everyone’s human in Pratchett). Earlier this year, after a death in the family (not, alas, a Death in the family, though Pratchett’s Death might be the most human of all) I spent a couple of days in my parents’ house just reading Discworld books under a blanket.

I might need to do that again this week.

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*Vimes remains my favourite Discworld character, even though the correct answer to that question is Granny Weatherwax, precisely because of that anger. It has been vital to me–and it was only in the weeks following the author’s death that I realised how many people I know for whom this is true.

September 23, 2014

Changes, Announcements

Or just one change and one announcement really, and by now most of those who are interested in/affected by it have probably seen it.

I’ve spoken here before about how important Strange Horizons has been to me as a fan, for the things it publishes as well as for providing me with a community of readers that feels more like home than anything else I’ve found in SF fandom. A huge part of that has been due to the work of the reviews editors – (in the time I’ve been reading the magazine) Niall Harrison, then Abigail Nussbaum.

Abigail is stepping down as reviews editor at the end of the year, and the reviews will be passed on to a team of people. Maureen Kincaid Speller will be Senior Reviews Editor, and (this is my big announcement bit) she’ll be working with me and Dan Hartland. We (we!) are also hoping to find someone to do media reviews (details here).

What this means is:

a) I get to work with people I like and respect (and if you’re not already reading Dan’s and Maureen’s criticism you should be) on something I really care about.

b) Abigail will hopefully have more time to write for us (if you’re not already reading Abigail’s criticism you should be).

c) I will shortly be having a minor crisis about Being Good Enough.

d) This is going to be great!

August 27, 2014

What I Did On My Holidays (Nine Worlds, LonCon3)

I spent two weeks this month in London meeting people I like (Sunny! Sid! Uttara! Yoav! Other people I have embarrassingly forgotten!) and going to museums and attending cons, also filled with people I like. I took very few pictures, and the ones I did didn’t have people in them, but such is life. This is not a con report, because such a thing would require more rigour and a better memory than I have brought to the process.

 

I was on three panels at Nine Worlds. The first of these was on myths and fairytales, with Lauren Beukes, John Connolly, Joanne Harris and Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, moderated by Nazia Khatun. I was commuting from friends’ house in central London, had slipped into a panel directly before mine to avoid having to speak to new people, and was probably too disoriented to say much of value. I’d have liked to be smart and eloquent enough to properly problematise some of what other panelists were saying re. the universality of myth, but I did get to talk about the Ramayana, bestiality and Karen Joy Fowler (separately, she added hastily) and probably did not embarrass myself.

Other things I attended on the Friday: the “Archaeological Worldbuilding” Monsterclass with Debbie Challis from the Petrie Museum (great, and so well attended that most people had to sit on the floor and Jared performed bouncer duties), two good academic papers (Kelly Kanayama on Asian female assassins in comics, Samantha Kountz on immigration in post-cold war SF film), Nine Fanworks Recs (I was neutral on this–it turns out hearing people talk about their fandoms is mostly interesting only if everyone’s familiar enough with them not to need the plot explained), and the LGBTQAI and Race and Culture tracks’ joint tea party, which was the best thing because queer people and people of colour and cake all in the same room. Then I went to my second panel, on school stories, with Zen Cho, Emma Vieceli, and Tiffani Angus, moderated by Ewa Scibor-Rylska. It involved wavy hand gestures, commiserating with the audience over the later Chalet School books, and at some point I shouted something about the MORAL LACUNA AT THE HEART OF HOGWARTS. So that was alright.

The journey home featured a regular bus, two night buses, and an angry drunk man who wanted to murder our bus driver. Also two fellow subcontinentals who watched from the upper deck of the bus as the man was removed and applauded and said “good show”. I don’t know.

On Saturday I had no panels and felt very unburdened. I went to a genuinely wonderful panel titled “This Will Always Be Your Home” in the Race and Culture track; I walked in too late to hear the panelists introduce themselves but  Zen Cho and Iona Sharma and Kelly Kanayama and Koel Mukherjee were all there, and another person whose name I missed (help, someone?), and it was about carving out a space for oneself in fandom and it was personal and funny and familiar. I then went to the books panels on Westerns (Jared Shurin, Will Hill, Stark Holborn, John Hornor Jacobs, Joanne Harris) and “Looking Backwards” (Gail Carriger, John J Johnston, Marek Kukula).

Sunday was the “Reading SF While Brown” panel, with Rochita Loenen Ruiz, Taran Matharu, and Camille Lofters, moderated by Stephanie Saulter. There was a point at which it was the Reading C.S. Lewis While Brown panel because apparently Narnia stretches its tentacles towards us all, but we also talked about how people of colour are described, and smelling spicy to werewolves, and magically being a white person for the duration of reading and I may have told a roomful of people that I had a thing for racist Victorians, which was made extra odd because there were a couple of people (cosplayers? time travellers? who knows?) wandering around in solar topees. It was recorded, so it might be on the internet at some point. I think we were entertaining. It was also the last Nine Worlds panel that I attended, because socialising and book buying intervened.

[We pass here over a few days of sightseeing and being fed wonderful food. There was the comics exhibition at the British Library and Matisse's Cut Outs at the Tate Modern and the single Rachel Kneebone piece at the White Cube that made me have to go home and reread Mervyn Peake and Derek Walcott.]

 

And on to Worldcon! I arrived on Thursday afternoon, delayed by Yoav’s providing me with dhokla and mangoes for breakfast. This meant that I missed the earlier panels I wanted to attend and also failed to meet my roommate (Hugo Nominee Liz Bourke*) until late that night. It also meant that I missed most of the terrifying registration queue, rumour of which had reached me as I travelled across the city, and was out in about forty minutes. I caught the second half of “When is a fantasy not a fantasy?” (it was good) and then proceeded not to attend any panels in favour of talking to Maureen Kincaid Speller until the evening’s panel on the Hugo best novel shortlist. Maureen had read the whole of the Wheel of Time in two weeks. Matt Hilliard had read Larry Correia’s Grimnoir Chronicles. Ruth O’Reilly tried to be nice about Mira Grant’s Parasite. Everyone, in short, had suffered nobly for their art and their pain was amusing to us.

On Friday I went to “Constructing Genre History” (which had good people on it and ended up being largely about personal histories of genre, but was interrupted by mysterious noises in the room next door), “An Anthology of One’s Own” (also very good; I’m sure someone more responsible than me livetweeted it), “Imagining Fantasy Lands: The Status Quo Does Not Need Worldbuilding” (disappointingly aimless, considering how great the essay that inspired it was), and then Naomi Alderman and Christopher Priest in conversation about being on the Granta list thirty years apart, and what this has meant for genre’s place in the literary world. I felt rather let down by this one because it turned into another iteration of Literary Fiction Hates Us and I am so bored of that argument. Also people were Wrong about Jane Austen (or Jane Eyre, the two appeared to be interchangeable?!); in mitigation, Priest was pleasingly caustic about Amis/McEwan/Jacobson. Later, there was the You Write Pretty Panel and I loved this. Writers arguing for sentences (by other people) they thought great before getting the audience to vote. Frances Hardinge had to take over because moderator Geoff Ryman had disappeared; luckily she was very good at it. Greer Gilman’s line of Marvell was clearly the best thing read out; Hardinge’s choice of a line (also very good, fine) from Jabberwocky won the audience vote, but as the Hugos so often teach us democracy is all wrong.

Saturday began with the Strange Horizons brunch, at which there was fruit (a few days of con and I’d begun to worry about scurvy) and tea and all the good people, before I went to my first panel, on South and South East Asian SFF. It was a small, crowded room and we all talked over each other and I thought it was great–hopefully the audience thought so also. Later in the day I went to “The State of British SF“–as with the Worldbuilding panel, I’d had my expectations raised by a really good discussion online. This one ended up being too much about the publishing and marketing sides of things (and not in a particularly interesting way) and then someone in the audience asked the question about women writing SF and it just got embarrassing. I moved on to a book launch in the terrifying South Gallery before my next panel, “Saving the World. All of it“, where I hope I was sufficiently coherent.

Here is a picture taken on Saturday morning:

I imagine it growing tiny legs, Luggage-like, and trotting away.

 

Here is the South Gallery, which I am convinced had no end. It’s blurry because I was shaking. With fear:

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Sunday began with painful cramps and I missed two panels I wanted to attend while I waited for painkillers to kick in. But when I finally staggered in, “Representation, Whitewashing and Internationalism in Fandom” was such a warm hug of a panel; everyone was smart and funny and bounced off each other so well. “The Gendered AI“, which I went to immediately after, was also very good, even when a member of the audience brought up Enthiran and used it to Explain Indian Culture (he was not Indian: it turns out we as a people are against saving the lives of women if said women are naked, or something). Being in a good mood I was mostly just amused that everyone in the room was taking the trouble to pronounce the title right(ish); in the North of the country we just dubbed it and called it Robot. Most of the day was spent meeting people and contemplating the mysterious bubbles that seemed to come out of nowhere to attach themselves to Will. I then had two back to back panels; first the “Writing Postcolonialism” one, where I got to recommend Sofia Samatar and Derek Walcott and was too frazzled to do the obvious thing and tell people to read We See a Different Frontier, and where Shaun Duke and E. Lily Yu were both amazing. Then “Fandom at the Speed of Thought“, which was slightly truncated because everyone wanted to get to the Hugos (and in any case we had a tiny audience) but surprised me by going in directions I didn’t expect in really thoughtful ways.

The Hugos happened, we snarked in the bar. Most categories were won by works or people I quite liked but had not been my first choice (Strange Horizons, “Selkie Stories” and Abigail Nussbaum were robbed, etc), but a thing that wasn’t Doctor Who won the Doctor Who category, Sofia Samatar won the not-a-Hugo, and we had twitter and cider. We missed Ethan very much (he was with us on twitter, and also in our hearts) so we made an effigy of him. Obviously.

Later that night Liz and I recorded video footage of an unusual feature of our hotel room.

Monday began with the panel I’d been stressing about since I received my Worldcon draft programme. We started (or the rest of the panel did, because I am no fun) with a mic check that turned into a not-very-good a capella session (when they finally make the Science Fiction fans do Glee crossover show it will not have me in it); when we started talking things got genuinely good and I think we could have gone on quite a bit longer. I suspect other good things are going to come out of that panel also, but more on that later. I spent most of the day at a rapidly growing table of people I like (as the crowd grew other tables were absorbed into that one); there was a lot of wine. I would have been quite happy for it to have gone on for another few days.

 

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I’m not great at dealing with crowds of people, or new people, or a lack of privacy, or really any of the things that come with spending a couple of weeks in buildings full of people and living out of a suitcase. I was dreading the whole thing. If I thought I was likely to enjoy any part of the experience, it was Nine Worlds, because of its relative smallness and friendliness and explicitly stated politics that I agree with. And yet I quite enjoyed Nine Worlds and I loved LonCon3.

Nine Worlds did a lot of things right, and there’s a lot I really liked about it. A room for quiltbag and poc fans (my people!); pronoun badges; gender-neutral loos; lists of panellists’ book recommendations; being able to make it clear whether you were able to be talked to/photographed. A weekend of this and I was genuinely a bit surprised to see pictures of myself appearing on twitter after LonCon panels I’d been on–it’s not something I find hugely bothersome, but coming after 9W it was particularly … visible.

On the other hand (and this is in large part because I wasn’t staying at the hotel and therefore couldn’t retreat to my room), at 9W I felt constant pressure to be switched on and interacting with people. There simply weren’t quiet spaces I could escape to and rooms full of strangers, however lovely said strangers might be, are still something of a nightmare. I had some great conversations with people (Zen! Alex! Ewa! Rhube! Sophia!) and I wish I’d spent more time with all of them, but the bits in between were not always great. This is one of the ways in which the hugeness of a worldcon worked in its favour for me. The Excel was big and impersonal enough (I think this may also be why I like airports, which are a thing the Excel resembles. Complete with frequent plane noises.) to absorb even the thousands of people who attended, and if I needed a space to be alone there were lots of them. And as it turned out I didn’t need that space; there was so much going on, much of it involving people I wanted to see, that I kept going for days and am still feeling weirdly energised. As well, the LonCon3 programme was a thing of wonder; here too the sheer size of it meant that I could choose at any point between multiple things that interested me, and individual panels could focus on a super-specialised subject (9W’s general “myth!”, “westerns!” etc meant more flexibility, but they also meant that discussions started from such a broad base that they couldn’t really move much beyond “so, why is this thing cool?” I caught myself speaking in platitudes more than once and being quoted, which was worse.)

Being a brown queer woman at a con was still not an eyeroll-free experience in either case. I don’t feel like the inclusiveness that is so consciously a part of 9W’s larger structure and part of specific tracks has quite made its way into all of their programming yet. I spent a lot of books panels as an audience member not raising the question of race or empire because who wants to be the brown person in the audience who keeps asking about race? (But it’s a panel about Westerns. But it’s a panel about Victorians studying Egypt). LonCon was conscious about diversity to the point that I know a few people of colour felt they were only on panels about not being white and/or western, and there were still a number of well meaning con-goers** whose “welcome” to all these new young fans was more cringeworthy than encouraging (shoutout to Will, who not only rescued me from one of these situations but did so with wine). Occasionally Men Told Me Things. I know there were a few fraught moments at panels. I was in one such fraught moment and I did not handle it well. But as far as I could tell, the organisers jumped in to fix things as soon as possible; I got the sense that people were really trying.

 

Highlights of this two weeks of con-going: too many to name. Mahvesh dealing with a patronising man in the most glorious of ways, Maureen’s disapproval of things, the mysterious Karen, several conversations with people I look up to (some of whom know who I am), Niall’s leg ears, discovering that people I like on Twitter are exactly the same in person, a famous writer’s opinions on the modern toilet system, finding a beloved bracelet I thought was lost (a LonCon miracle!), Sid’s biryani, Yoav’s pumpkin kuzhambu, Emily’s Ursula dress, sitting in the Excel and looking up at the rain and wondering when the see-through roof was going to cave in, the disgust of Erin’s cat, any number of embarrassing things that I said that have hopefully been forgotten by the people who were there to hear them. I wish I’d spent more time with almost everyone I met. I even miss Tiny Shower.

 

 

*Sorry Liz

**Which needs a hyphen, because I’m not sure what the verb “to congo” suggests but it’s probably not this.

August 24, 2014

Tove Jansson, The Moomins and the Great Flood

Tove Jansson’s birth centenary was on August 9, and I thought a celebratory column might be appropriate. It’s been less than a year since I wrote about Fair Play (here) and I do try not to write about the same author too often, but this was clearly a special occasion.

While in London I also went to this small exhibition about her life and work; if I’d had time I’d have gone back just to look at one particular picture again. Recommended, if you can get there in the next three or so weeks.

 

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Anniversaries are useful things. It is Tove Jansson’s birth centenary this week, and in celebration of her work a number of her books have been published or republished this year, and an exhibition currently on display at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. But this Jansson revival has been going on for some years now among English-language readers, ever since Sort Of Books republished some of her wonderful writing for adults (including Fair Play, discussed in this column in the past). Yet it’s as the writer and artist of the Moomin stories that Jansson is best known, and they are some of the finest children’s books ever written.

“It was the winter of war, in 1939. One’s work stood still; it felt completely pointless to try to create pictures”. The first Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, was begun the year the war broke out, set aside and completed the year it ended. It was also, for some reason, the last of the series to be translated into English; appearing in a limited edition in 2005, some years after Jansson’s death, and only widely available since 2012.

Moomintroll and his mother, Moominmamma, walk through the great forest in search of a place to build a home. The forest is dark and full of danger, the swamp is home to a giant Serpent, and Moominpappa has gone missing and they may never see him again. The world is vast and unknowable and terrifying, all they can hope for, as Moominmamma suggests, is that “we’re so small that we won’t be noticed if something dangerous comes along”. Jansson’s illustrations add to this effect; the moomins are so tiny, so fragile compared to the landscape around them, and when the serpent appears, the artwork suggests that the moomins are about the size of one of its eyeballs. They are subject to a storm, and to the flood of the title. They are never safe in their smallness.

The Moomins and the Great FloodThis vastness and bleakness is a part of the later Moomin books as well, particularly in Moominland Midwinter (my own favourite of the series). But in the later books there is generally the solidity and comfort of home and family. Here, Moominmamma may have dry socks in her bag, but there is no home to go to, the family is divided, and the world is full of unhappy things. “But you see, sir, it’s really all very sad. Moominpappa has disappeared, and we’re freezing and can’t get over this mountain to find the sunshine, and we haven’t anywhere to live,” says Tulippa the flower fairy to an old gentleman who is also lonely, though his mountain home is made of sweets.

Jansson’s short introduction, and the knowledge that the book was written during WWII make it difficult not to read it in that context. But this effect is enhanced by the artwork, which combines drawings of the style familiar to readers of the other books in the series with painted, sepia-tinged pieces that give the whole a quieter, elegiac feel.

But if there’s sadness, and fear, and a lack of safety, there are still other things in the world. Moominpappa is found safe and well, and has built a splendid home for them all. Disparate creatures, brought together by the ravages of the flood, help one another. Tulippa finds a home in a lighthouse, guiding other lost creatures to safety. In the face of awful things “one’s work [stands] still”, as Jansson puts it. The more I read the Moomin books, the more I value their kindness, their sense that if all we have to hold on to are spontaneous acts of kindness, of generosity, of willingness to make homes and open them those who need them, that these things may –almost—be enough.

**********************************************

 

July 13, 2014

Worldcon and Nine Worlds

I seem to be going (perhaps unwisely) to two SFF conventions in London in August– Nine Worlds Geekfest and LonCon 3, and they have (perhaps unwisely) put me on Panels. The Nine Worlds programme is out, and LonCon sent out their draft schedules a while ago. So if you’re going to either convention (and LonCon prices go up from tomorrow, so this is probably a good time to decide), this is where you can find me, and possibly heckle.*

 

Nine Worlds:

 

Mythology and Fairytales: pernicious supernaturalism or meaningful exploration of existence?

Friday (8/8) 1.30pm – 2.45pm

Where do myths and fairytales come from, and how are they influencing genre today?

Panel: Lauren Beukes, Joanne Harris, Rochita Loenen Ruiz, Aishwarya Subramanian

 

School Stories: prefects, headmasters and tuckshops, oh my!

Friday (8/8) 10.15pm – 11.30pm

School stories: why are we so fascinated by them? From Harry Potter to Ender’s Game, from St. Trinian’s to the X-Men, will we ever really escape our school days? Oi, no talking in the back of the class, there.

Panel: Aishwarya Subramanian, Zen Cho, Emma Vieceli, Tiffani Angus

 

Reading SF While Brown

Sunday (10/8) 11.45 – 1.00

For many of us, reading science fiction and fantasy was a formative experience — one that introduced new ideas, and shaped what we knew or hoped to be possible. But what imaginative leaps does a reader have to make to buy into worlds that don’t include anyone who looks or talks like them? And what impact does making that imaginative leap, time and again, ultimately have? Genre writers and readers talk about their experiences of reading SF while brown.

Panel: Aishwarya Subramanian, Taran Matharu, Camille Lofters, Rochita Loenen Ruiz

 

 LonCon:

The World at Worldcon: SF/F in South and South-East Asia

Saturday (16/8) 13:30 – 15:00

South and South-East Asia include a huge span of nations, cultures and languages, so does it make any sense to talk of “Asian SF”? What are the traditions and touchstones of fantastical storytelling in South and South-East Asia? What is the state of genre there, and how have shared myths and a joint heritage of colonialism influenced it? A panel of writers and critics from India, Pakistan, Malaysia and The Philippines compare notes

Panel: Mahvesh Murad (M), Zen Cho, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Victor Fernando R. Ocampo, Aishwarya Subramanian

 

 

Saving the World. All of It.

Saturday (16/8) 20:00 – 21:00

When aliens invade, why do they almost always hit New York? With a few partially-honourable exceptions, such as Pacific Rim and District 9, the American-led alliances of Independence Day and its ilk are still the norm for SF cinema’s supposedly global catastrophes. What is it like to watch these films outside the Anglophone world? Do attempts to move away from American exceptionalism feel real, or are they just window-dressing? And how do different countries deal with apocalypse in their own cinematic traditions?

Panel: Victor Fernando R. Ocampo (M), Yasser Bahjatt, Aliza Ben Moha, Irena Raseta, Aishwarya Subramanian, Samantha Joseph Ms

 

 

Writing post-colonialism

Sunday (17/8) 18:00 – 19:00

Many sf novels of invasion and colonisation end with the glorious liberation. But what happens next? How deep does the impact of colonisation go – culturally, politically, economically, socially – and how long does it really take to recover from its consequences? In what ways is the coloniser, too, changed by the experience? What can we lean from real historical case studies of conquest, settlement and trade exploitation?

Panel: Jennifer Terry (M), Nin Harris, Grá Linnaea, Aishwarya Subramanian, E. Lily Yu

 

Fandom at the Speed of Thought

Sunday (17/8) 19:00 – 20:00

The story of fandom and the SF field in the twenty-first century is the story of the internet: more voices, fewer gatekeepers. How are authors, reviewers, editors and readers navigating this shifting terrain? In what ways has the movement of SF culture online affected the way books are written, presented, and received — and how has it affected the way readers identify and engage with authors and books? Do the old truisms — never respond to a review! — still hold sway, or are author-reader shared spaces possible, even desireable?

Panel: Chris Gerwel (M), Ana Grilo, David Hebblethwaite, Kevin McVeigh, Aishwarya Subramanian

 

 

Critical Diversity: Beyond Russ and Delany

Monday (18/8) 11:00 – 12:00

The popular history of SF criticism might just be, if possible, even more straight, white and male than the popular history of SF — but things are changing. Online and in journals, diverse voices are starting to reach a critical (if you’ll excuse the pun) mass. Which publishers and venues are most welcoming to critics from marginalised groups? What are the strengths and weaknesses of academic and popular discourse, in this area? And most importantly, whose reviews and essays are essential reading?

Andrew M. Butler (M), Liz Bourke, Fabio Fernandes, Erin Horakova, Aishwarya Subramanian

 

[Shorter version: they gave me a school story panel! They gave me a ranting about the state of crit panel! I have just noticed that they put me on back-to-back panels, one of which is about "the speed of thought" and there is probably a joke in there somewhere!]

When not on panels I’ll be lurking in corners and looking ill at ease. Feel free to say hello if you see me.

 

*Please do not heckle, I’m easily flustered.

January 4, 2014

2013 (in reading and in bulletpoints)

(That up there is a zeugma)

 

Things I did in 2013:

  • Moved to another continent and started a PhD.
  • Became a parent. [Okay, not really. Ollie the puppy a) is technically my grandparents' dog and has my grandfather's surname b) is no longer a puppy. But I did the important staying-awake and saying "no!" a lot bits, and at some point I started saying things like "mummy's hair is not for chewing!" so I guess that's me. Mummy.]
  • Was forced to autograph a book.
  • Helped judge an award.
  • Won a prize for knowing about pigs.*
  • Started writing about movies in bulletpoint form but I don’t know why.
  • May have done some other things also.
  • Read 186 books. I’m not counting academic books because that would just get complicated.
  • I’m also not counting short stories, for the same reason.
  • Read 114 books by women (as a subset of the 186 above, I mean).
  • Read 57 books by non-white writers.
  • (The above stats are a bit off –I can’t always be sure what race or gender particular authors identify themselves as, and in things like multi-author anthologies I just go with the editor. But still, it’s nice to have a broad idea)
  • Was in a book.

 

Things I did not do in 2013.

  • Too many and too disappointing to name.

 

This time last year I was looking at reading stats that suggested a mere 10% of the writing I read was not by white British and American authors. I’ve graduated to almost a third, but that’s still something that I should be doing better at. Luckily there’s some fascinating stuff coming out this year, and … we’ll see?

*Here is a picture of a small piglet. It played a major role in getting me through 2013; I hope everyone’s 2014 is peaceful and pig-filled.

April 27, 2013

Justin Landon and Jared Shurin (ed), Speculative Fiction 2012

Not a review, for reasons that will be obvious. This is just to let people know that Speculative Fiction 2012 is now available in its paperback form here or here, and will be available for the kindle (and in epub form, I think?) soon. This is a collection of some of the “best”  writing about speculative fiction published online last year.

I’m don’t just mention this because I’m in it (though I am! Twice!). It’s full of things by properly smart people with whom I’m both honoured and slightly bewildered to be sharing a TOC–people like Abigail Nussbaum, Dan Hartland, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Adam Roberts, Lavie Tidhar, Maureen Kincaid Speller. And the proceeds from all sales go to Room To Read, which is another good reason to buy it.

As far as I know, all the pieces included in this book are available to read online anyway. But collecting them in this way is an attempt to create a record of sorts. This is what the speculative fiction community was reading, thinking, arguing about in 2012, these are the conversations we were having. And while my first instinct is to question that “we” and that “community”, I think this is going to be a useful project (it is to become an annual thing) as well as a way of preserving some excellent critical writing. I’ve just started reading, and I’m curious to see what Landon and Shurin’s choices say about us (and about Landon and Shurin, I suppose). Ana Grilo and Thea James will be editing the 2013 volume, and they have already made the submissions form available.

February 21, 2013

South Asian Women Writers Challenge

Some of you will remember that I wasn’t very impressed with my reading stats from last year. I did read more women writers than men, but only a tenth of the things I read were by writers who weren’t white, and I have a worrying suspicion that the number of romance novels and school stories I reread made the gender balance look more impressive than it really was.

So I’d planned to fix that this year, and I like to think I’ve already made a good start. And then a couple of days ago my friend Aishwarya G (with whom I am proud to share a first name) suggested a writing challenge along the lines of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

So we spent some time trying to work out how many books people read per year on average, arguing over whether we wanted to focus on Indian writers or not, and finally came up with what seem like a comfortingly liberal set of guidelines. An introductory post is here; there’s a twitter account here, there’ll probably  be a facebook page soon (Aishwarya has done most of the work so far). Join in, read things.

 

For my own challenges: I will not be counting books I am asked to review professionally as part of the challenge, but I will count books I choose to review for my column. I don’t want to commit to a number (though I hope it will be more than 10 at least) but I will review at least half of the books by South Asian women that I read.

January 7, 2013

Studies

In school in Delhi in the mid/late 1990s it was a commonly done thing, when boys asked girls out, for the girl to explain that she had no time for a relationship, that she was “busy with her studies”. I didn’t do this; for one thing, no one would have believed it (exhibit A: my maths, physics and chemistry marks). But then, I can’t imagine anyone believed that was the real reason anyway, even when someone smart and quiet and capable of good grades said it. If I thought about it at all (I didn’t, much) I assume I thought it was a way to let someone down kindly; it’s not you, it’s me. Now I wonder if letting people down kindly was the problem. To turn down one teenaged boy you had to make an excuse that left you unavailable to all teenage boys, you couldn’t reject a relationship with this boy without rejecting relationships, full stop.

Perhaps we should have stuck with that other classic form of Indian maidenly rejection- the adoption of the rakhi brother* that at least acknowledged the individuals in this relationship/non-relationship, rather than reducing us all to our component genitals. (We were, of course, working on the assumption that everyone was heterosexual and cisgender, even as some of us were learning that we weren’t).

This is possibly reading too much into teenaged girls’ perfectly kindly impulse to spare people pain. But I think of it when rape culture suggests that a woman who has consented to a relationship with one man is therefore available to all men. I think of it when Delhi police, in last year’s horrifying Tehelka piece, explain that a woman who was going to have sex with her boyfriend anyway is hardly justified in crying rape when a bunch of his friends join in. I think of it when we still haven’t gotten rid of the “two-finger” test, in which someone can shove a couple of fingers into you, decide that you are “habituated” to sex, and therefore cannot have been raped- because all men, and all sexual encounters, are the same thing really. I think of it when Anurag Kashyap thinks it reasonable and natural that “the lament of a boy who has been rejected by a girl and is expressing his feelings musically” should take the form of the generalised violent hatred of women displayed by Honey Singh’s “Choot”.

And I suppose I think of it to a far less serious extent when family members and friends of family members treat marriage as a goal in itself, independent of who the person one marries is (assuming of course, that he’s a he, and not of the wrong caste or social background. Or at least not muslim or black – or, my grandfather insists, american). This not wanting to get married is just a phase, insists a cousin (my age!) when I tell her I don’t have plans to do so in the near future, you’ll be lonely if you’re not married to someone. An unspecified someone, whose only attributes are broadly generalised negatives- not the wrong gender, not the wrong caste, not the wrong degrees from the wrong colleges, not cruel, not ugly, not fat, not shorter than you — and if you have found this man why are you complaining? My parents still sigh over the end of my last relationship with someone who was for many reasons exactly what good Indian parents are supposed to want; but those reasons weren’t why I loved him. The (tragically) recently shut down “Nice Guys of OK Cupid” mocked the stereotype of the Nice Guy™ who believes himself to be entitled to sex from the women he’s attracted to because he’s a nice guy; he’s not like those other guys who stupid women inexplicably choose over him. He’s been so kind for so long, when is he going to get the sex he’s owed? The only way any of this makes sense is if women as a whole are fundamentally flawed, and foolish enough not to want him. As if nothing about individual men mattered except that they not be violent or openly horrible.

I suppose what I’m trying to get at is that when the patriarchy (or the kyriarchy, generally) makes it hard for us to believe that women are human beings with individual subjectivities, it also in a wayturns men into an amorphous blob — to me, this is the natural conclusion of the “if him, why not me?” logic. And this isn’t a “What About The Mens?/The Patriarchy Hurts Men Too!” conclusion because while this logic may be demeaning to men, it’s proving to be life-threatening to women.

And I’m not sure what any of this means; I certainly don’t mean to suggest that this “why not me?” attitude to women doesn’t come from a place of the grossest entitlement, and I don’t think my family wanting me comfortably “settled” is necessarily propping up the patriarchy. I don’t know if gendered violence (or indeed racist violence, or classist violence or or or) is going to just magically vanish if we all take the radical step of treating individual people as if that is what they were, but then the sheer amount of structural change something as simple-sounding as this would require is terrifying.

I’m lucky in my immediate family, in that they’re far less invested in my adherence to the trappings of ordinary adult life than many I know. If I can scrape together funding I’ll be starting a PhD later this year, and at the back (and occasionally the forefront) of many of my conversations with them has been the terrible fact that this means I’ll be in my thirties before they can reasonably bring up the marriage thing again. Finally, a good decade-and-a-half later, I’m using the “busy with studies” excuse to opt out of heteropatriarchal relationships.

Except if there’s one thing the last three weeks in Delhi have reminded us (as if we needed a reminder beyond mere existence in this city or any other) it’s that opting out isn’t an option. And I think it’s amazing that my entire country is coming out and having this conversation, and that we can finally hope for things like police reform and better laws (and please, please make marital rape illegal) but beyond all of that there’s the thing where we need to initiate the personal and structural reforms that allow us to conceive of people first and I’m not sure how to even begin.

 

 

*Yesterday “spiritual leader” Asaram Bapu suggested that the victim of the recent gang rape in Delhi was to blame for not calling her attackers her brothers. Such is the power of the Rakhi, it seems.