Archive for January, 2015

January 11, 2015

Himanjali Sankar, Talking of Muskaan/ Payal Dhar, Slightly Burnt

This was a bit uncomfortable to write, and I’m not even sure how objective I can be (one author’s a friend, both books were edited by friends), but there you go.

(Published column here)


A couple of weeks ago saw the anniversary of December 2013’s Supreme Court decision overturning the Delhi High Court’s ruling that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was unconstitutional. It felt like an important occasion, particularly since I was at the time reading two recent YA novels, both of which structured themselves in part around that moment in our recent history.

Himanjali Sankar’s Talking of Muskaan has been heralded as India’s first queer YA novel. The action opens on the day after the Supreme Court ruling, which is also the day after the title character has attempted to kill herself. The narrative then shifts to a few months earlier, and through the voices of three of Muskaan’s teenaged classmates (best friend Aaliya, clever-but-poor Shubhojoy, spoilt, rich Prateek) we piece together the events leading up to this moment.

Komal, the narrator of Payal Dhar’s Slightly Burnt, is another teenager who is shocked to discover that her best friend Sahil is gay. Even as she is absorbing this new information, the news about Section 377 breaks, forcing her to confront the levels of intolerance that still exist around non-normative sexualities among her friends and family.

Komal’s initial reaction to Sahil’s coming out is far from ideal—and perhaps this is realistic. She feels uncomfortable with his sexuality, resentful of his lack of normalcy, betrayed because he is not who she thought he was. So shaken is she that she must go to the school counsellor for advice on how to process things. Dhar doesn’t entirely indulge her in her discomfort—the counsellor gently, and the internet less gently, remind her that Sahil is probably suffering more than she is.

But this doesn’t change the fact that Komal’s discomfort, and the process by which she overcomes it, are the story of Slightly Burnt. Sahil probably is going through a lot, but we don’t see it directly. Sankar’s book too is talking of, about, around but never by, or to, Muskaan.

Dhar and Sankar’s choice of (mostly) heterosexual narrators makes sense in a way, and the references to Article 377 form a part of this. We’re reminded over and over that all non-heteronormative sexualities (it’s to both books’ credit that they do not erase bisexual, transgender, or other queer identities) are the subject of ignorance and prejudice, and that people need to be educated about them or risk causing unimaginable harm to vulnerable people. Komal’s change of heart comes when she reads up on LGBT suicide rates; Aaliya’s comes after her best friend nearly dies. There’s a sense in which the reader too is being educated along with the characters.

Both books, for all that they adopt the idiom of contemporary YA, are very much in the tradition of the teenage “problem novels” of the ‘70s and ‘80s, which brought their protagonists face to face with a social issue, and over the course of their pages educated, unpicked said issue, and generally promoted tolerance. In a country where the sex lives of consenting adults can be criminalized and queer youth must constantly be reminded that they are “unnatural”, education and tolerance can only be a good thing. And yet.

As an (admittedly very lucky) young adult, I didn’t think of my own feelings as a burning social problem. I looked for myself in poetry, in romance, in tensions simmering under the radar; not in novels that explained me and the harmlessness of my tastes to the world. Both of these books assume a heterosexual reader who needs to be educated past her prejudice and reflexive (both books seem to assume that this is inevitable) disgust, not a queer teenager trying to find herself in fiction.

“At some point it has to stop being about you,” says Usha, Komal’s counsellor. Perhaps as long as this law exists that point cannot be reached. For now, queer readers will have to resign ourselves to reading books about, not for us.



January 9, 2015

2014 in books (and stats, and angst, and possibly resolutions)

Firstly, the Strange Horizons reviewers’ picks for 2014 are up here. My section is right at the end, and I recommend books by Ghalib Islam, Kuzhali Manickavel, Jenny Offill and Megan Milks. They’re all brilliant, and the highlights of a year that included some very good things. There are other things I read and loved in 2014 but they weren’t necessarily speculative; most of them I’ve written about in some form or another on this blog.

A quick count through my monthly reading posts suggests that in 2014 I read:

  • 200 books total
  • 140 books by women
  • 40 books by POC*

All of which, particularly the last, are numbers that need unpacking. I don’t feel like I read 200 books this year, and I’m pretty sure that is in large part because most of them were rereads–children’s books for the thesis, and romance novels for downtime. I’m toying with the idea of not counting rereads at all in 2015 unless they mark a huge change in how I read the book in question. Particularly since cutting out my romance novel and school story rereads might also provide a less flattering account of the number of books by women I read in any given year.

But more importantly, I’ve somehow managed to read less books by people of colour in 2014 than I did in 2013, and that is unimpressive. I have a bunch of excuses lined up: I read a couple of awards shortlists, which tend to be pretty white; much of my reading was for my thesis (though the fact that I’ve chosen to study white-men-who-wrote-series-fiction is a pretty poor defense); I read a LOT of Diana Wynne Jones; but still.

So, plans for 2015?

  • Read less. Too often I’m lazy and don’t want to waste effort on something new and go back to something I’ve read a million times before that I can race through. I can’t need this many comfort reads. Genre series fiction (across a range of genres) is a major culprit here.
  • Bow out of SFF. Recent events have made this feel necessary; I’ll still be involved with the community aspects of Strange Horizons, as well as editing some of the reviews (here and here are some great recent book club discussions I’ve participated in), but other than very occasional reviews (I thought about giving this up as well but as all editors whom I owe things know, it wouldn’t really be very different), I don’t see myself being active in the community as a whole. No cons, no reading awards shortlists or arguing about things that clearly are not going to change, significantly less twitter. I’m looking forward to the extra time this is going to give me.
  • I will read the Carnegie shortlist, probably.
  • I committed to doing the South Asian Women Writers Challenge a couple of years ago, and suspect in 2014 I failed it. In 2015 I’m planning not to.
  • Maybe write some thesis, even.


* Disclaimer: given that some books are by multiple authors of various genders and races, some are by authors and illustrators, and people’s race or gender identities are not obvious (“poc” and “women” may not be very useful categories at all and “queer” would probably be impossible), these numbers are of necessity only approximate.

January 7, 2015

December Reading

Late, because I went on holiday without my laptop and consequently did a reasonable amount of reading. I have left out my ritual Christmas eve reading (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, a bit of The Sword in the Stone) because my feelings on these are known. I’ll be doing a round-up post about my year’s reading at some point in the next few days.


Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists: For work, and I really didn’t like it. It’s almost tick the boxes literary fiction: war, memory, nostalgia (thesis: the presence of nostalgia is what makes litfic litfic?), a postcoloniality that doesn’t feel very challenging, and that annoying thing where it keeps telling you what it’s doing. My students also did not like it, but for very different reasons.

Alan Garner, Elidor: Still really powerful. I happened to attend a paper on haunted technology a few days after I read it, also, which made me read the static electricity sections in a completely new light.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, T.H. White: I’ve been planning to read Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk for a while now, and thought a good way to do this would be to also read T.H. White’s The Goshawk and STW’s White biography first. I don’t know whether these are really going to affect Macdonald’s book for me, but this is a good biography of a writer who fascinates and confuses me.

T.H. White, The Goshawk: This made me cry, as it always does.

Leslye Walton, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender: I came to this after a couple of people who I trust raved about it. It’s a little bit Chocolat-era Harris, a bit Angela Carter, and is odd and lyrical and whimsical and it … did nothing for me. I’m missing something, clearly. Meanwhile, I’m waiting for someone to write the essay on Maleficent’s sheared-off wings and Ava Lavender’s climatic scene.

Karthika Nair and Joelle Jolivet, The Honey Hunter: This is gorgeous. I read the earlier version; it seems in the wake of the Sunderbans oil spill the authors are reworking the book. And that is fascinating in itself.

Janice Pariat, Seahorse: A thing that Pariat succeeds in capturing both here and in her earlier Boats on Land is this sort of hazy, adolescent-ish atmosphere that I find really compelling. I have other thoughts about this book–its use of the DU English syllabus (did Nem only do the third year modernism paper though?), its use of myth, its cast of multiple bisexual characters; I liked it a lot, in short.

Niveditha Subramaniam and Sowmya Rajendran, Mayil Will Not Be Quiet: I suspect other people have spoken about this book in great detail, and I haven’t got much to add, but it is SO good.

Niveditha Subramaniam and Sowmya Rajendran, Nirmala and Normala: Will write about this at length soon. It is hilarious, but surely there has to be a happy medium between literally living a movie-star life and having to settle for a Chetan Bhagat-reading engineer?

Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake, Michael Rosen’s Sad Book: My grandfather died a couple of weeks ago, and this was one of the things I turned to (other things: poetry, though not complete books’ worth of it, some Terry Pratchett, which features heavily in my January reading). It’s quiet and truthful and I love it.

Judith McNaught, Almost Heaven: I was on a plane, it was okay.

Himanjali Sankar, Talking of Muskaan: I am not really in a position to review this, as Himanjali’s a friend and former colleague, but I did write a column about it and Payal Dhar’s Slightly Burnt, which I’ll be putting here on the blog soon.

Payal Dhar, Slightly Burnt: (see above)

Helen Oyeyemi, Boy, Snow, Bird: I love Oyeyemi’s work, but I did not love this. Of the three main characters Boy was the only one that really worked for me (the first part of the book, narrated only by her, is excellent); the climax is massively problematic (a character is revealed to be transgender; Boy does not react well, which might be understandable, but the real problem is in the book’s portrayal of this character–his transition is a response to rape, and his belief in his own masculinity becomes an enchantment that needs breaking.), but also structurally throws the book off balance to me. I’ll be discussing this at length elsewhere, but it was deeply disappointing.

Katherine Addison, The Goblin Emperor: Partly because of the column, partly because of other things, I rarely read genre fiction that isn’t doing something unusual or spectacular, but I’d heard good things of this particular book. I genuinely enjoyed it- towards the end I was worriedly checking how many pages were left because I was having a good time and didn’t want it to end.

Jai Undurti and Harsho Mohan Chattoraj, Hyderabad: A Graphic Novel: You know how when you’re a teenager and discover Foucault’s Pendulum and the world is full of all this cool stuff and you want to know all of it and talk about all of it? That is this book. It’s me at sixteen, it’s every quiz-attending, funda-loving boy I ever had a crush on, and I suspect what it would have benefited most by would be a cynical friend to occasionally ground it a bit. Some of the art is gorgeous, though.