literary awards

A book of love letters to writer Octavia Butler (co-edited by an Indian) could win a Hugo for sci-fi

Co-edited by the Indian speculative fiction writer Mimi Mondal, the book is ‘seamless experience of thanking, mourning and expressing indebtedness’.

For a book of love letters to an author – Luminiscent Threads: Connections to Octavia Butler – to be nominated for an award among bundles of academic compilations is a rare feat. A book dedicated to a beloved science fiction writer, Luminiscent Threads is not just as a Hugo Award-nominated book, edited by Alexandra Pierce and Mimi Mondal, it is also a seamless experience of thanking, mourning and expressing indebtedness to a writer who challenged and changed the face of science fiction writing.

A black, feminist science fiction writer, Octavia Butler has dismantled the idea of science fiction as a white boys’ club. Butler has breathed into her fiction a sense of struggle, anger, beauty and redemption in a genre that is popularly associated with vampires and monsters, also throwing in a complex treatment of race, feminism, power struggles, and hope.

As a woman who has spent her working hours in buses and transforming ordinary places into magical ones where black history, diversity and monsters coalesce, Butler had inspired millions of writers, readers and teachers to open their minds to worlds they had never known. The letters carry their own diversity. A dyslexic man, a struggling woman writer plagued with self doubt, a reader who has spent her toilet breaks sifting through Butler’s prose, and a woman angered and lost in her utopic fiction.

At the intersection

Many letters explore the questions around a reader’s subjective gaze of Butler’s fiction that often narrates the struggles of black people and other minorities. Is this black fiction, or is it science fiction, or both? Can the two co-exist? Discovering that many books assigned to students of creative fiction and high school students are predominantly white, male and privileged writers, they acknowledge that Butler’s work urged them to write real, flawed characters and seek out speculative fiction that affirmed their cultural experiences. Her work has a word of its own – Afro futurism – an amalgamation of black history, the neo-slave narrative and fantasy.

Some of the letters admit that the writers had discovered her late, regretted that they did, or searched endlessly for her name in libraries and bookstores, to rarely any avail. Some recount their awkward fumbling when they managed to meet Butler, their speechlessness and stuttering, and some discovered her work only after her demise. Butler also encouraged black and minority writers to join the Clarion workshop, a workshop for speculative fiction writing, opening up a new world for future enthusiasts, majorly black, to take the plunge.

It is important to talk about the political nature of the Hugo Awards. One writer recounts Sad Puppies – a campaign that influences the Hugo Awards to nominate specific novels. White men, mostly right-wing, often feel that critics favour women of colour, and toil to reinstate what science fiction writers across ethnicities have known to be the “status quo.”

Sad Puppies want good old nostalgic science fiction, fiction that takes them back to its roots – roots that exclude minorities – not fiction that celebrates social complexities, people of colour and diverse narratives that break the status quo. Unsurprisingly, Luminiscent Threads has irked and invoked wrath among Sad Puppies, and high drama is expected this year.

Strikingly, the book was released soon after Donald Trump became the US President, and is peppered with rage and hopelessness. Alluding to Butler’s fiction, such as “Kindred” and “Parable of Talents”, the letters are rife with political commentary and emotional responses to what writers consider a reality version of Butler’s predictions of a dystopic future. Her books, writers and readers believe, were warnings of what was to come. Imagining Butler’s responses and rage at the election of President Donald Trump, the writers of these letters read between the lines of what Butler’s literature was trying to tell them. Fight. Fight with the pen as a sword and paper as armour.

What Mimi Mondal wrote

Mondal’s essay wasn’t in the book, and was instead published in Uncanny Magazine, a magazine of science fiction. When the call for submissions for the book was out, Mondal hesitated and finally refused. She didn’t, in her words, feel comfortable sharing her story, concerned by the act of exposing herself to a horde of people who have witnessed the exclusionary, contrived and white-washed nature of science fiction for years.

Mondal is a Dalit, queer, feminist writer, and touches upon her identity as a minority writer who is plagued with the fear of not being good enough, of the history of those before her, and as a non-native speaker of English, of the seething discrimination she has faced both outside and from within herself, a harsher critic.

But the part of her letter than will haunt and linger for years to come is her experience with self-rejection that pulls in and comforts every minority writer who has ever picked up the pen. It has often been an unspoken rule that when Dalit and other minority writers write, they write carefully for fears and anxieties over what will be their tomorrow. Will their families be safe? Will their work remain as unhinged as before? Mondal explains this internal debate in one sentence – “Backspace happens to be the most worn down key on my computer.”

Luminiscent Threads can be, and chooses to be, many things. It is, in Mondal’s words, a social justice book, a triumph over the backspace key. Among the ethnic majority of science fiction writers, it is assumed to be a bunch of letters you write to your teachers when you graduate. In academia, it is a wildcard entry into the Hugo nominations. What it chooses to be is a literary equivalent of a slab littered with thousands of candles as an ode to Butler’s legacy and compassion. In bold letters, the second chapter best sums up the book – “Your work is a river I come home to.”

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Decoding the symbolic threads and badges of one of India’s oldest cavalry units

The untold story of The President’s Bodyguard.

The national emblem of India; an open parachute and crossed lances – this triad of symbols representing the nation, excellence in training and valor respectively are held together by an elite title in the Indian army – The President’s Bodyguard (PBG).

The PBG badge is worn by one of the oldest cavalry units in the India army. In 1773, Governor Warren Hastings, former Governor General of India, handpicked 50 troopers. Before independence, this unit was referred to by many titles including Troops of Horse Guards and Governor General’s Body Guards (GGBG). In 1950, the unit was named The President’s Bodyguard and can be seen embroidered in the curved maroon shoulder titles on their current uniforms.

The President’s Bodyguard’s uniform adorns itself with proud colours and symbols of its 245 year-old-legacy. Dating back to 1980, the ceremonial uniform consists of a bright red long coat with gold girdles and white breeches, a blue and gold ceremonial turban with a distinctive fan and Napoleon Boots with spurs. Each member of the mounted unit carries a special 3-meter-long bamboo cavalry lance, decorated by a red and white pennant. A sheathed cavalry sabre is carried in in the side of the saddle of each trooper.

While common perception is that the PBG mainly have ceremonial duties such as that of being the President’s escort during Republic Day parade, the fact is that the members of the PBG are highly trained. Handpicked by the President’s Secretariat from mainstream armored regiments, the unit assigns a task force regularly for Siachen and UN peace keeping operations. Moreover, the cavalry members are trained combat parachutists – thus decorating the PBG uniform with a scarlet Para Wings badge that signifies that these troopers are a part of the airborne battalion of the India Army.

Since their foundation, the President’s Guard has won many battle honors. In 1811, they won their first battle honor ‘Java’. In 1824, they sailed over Kalla Pani for the first Burmese War and earned the second battle honour ‘Ava’. The battle of Maharajapore in 1843 won them their third battle honor. Consequently, the PBG fought in the main battles of the First Sikh War and earned four battle honours. Post-independence, the PBG served the country in the 1962 Indo-China war and the 1965 Indo-Pak war.

The PBG, one of the senior most regiments of the Indian Army, is a unique unit. While the uniform is befitting of its traditional and ceremonial role, the badges that augment those threads, tell the story of its impressive history and victories.

How have they managed to maintain their customs for more than 2 centuries? A National Geographic exclusive captures the PBG’s untold story. The documentary series showcases the discipline that goes into making the ceremonial protectors of the supreme commander of the Indian Armed Forces.

Play

The National Geographic exclusive is a landmark in television and is being celebrated by the #untoldstory contest. The contest will give 5 lucky winners an exclusive pass to the pre-screening of the documentary with the Hon’ble President of India at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. You can also nominate someone you think deserves to be a part of the screening. Follow #UntoldStory on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to participate.

This article was produced by Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic and not by the Scroll editorial team.