The Hugo Awards nomination list in 2018 contains two names from India – Mimi Mondal from Kolkata for the nonfiction anthology Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E Butler in the Best Related Work category, and Gautam Bhatia from Delhi for the magazine Strange Horizons in the Best Semiprozine category. The award ceremony (which will be aired live online at 8:30 am IST on Monday, August 20) will take place on August 19 at the World Science Fiction Convention in San Jose, California. Mondal and Bhatia conducted an online conversation over several days on the subject for Scroll.in. Excerpts:
Mimi Mondal (MM): I’ve realised that the “active” science fiction and fantasy scene in India is pretty small. A common friend many years ago told me about her friend Gautam Bhatia who wrote very intelligent things on SFF. Can you tell me a bit about the path that took you to Strange Horizons?
Gautam Bhatia (GB): I’ve been a reader of SFF ever since my parents bought me a copy of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation when I was ten years old. I’ve also wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember – my teenage years were spent writing at least ten (awful) fantasy novels, all of which remained unfinished. Because of my daily job as a lawyer, though, I realised that I probably wasn’t going to spend my twenties becoming a writer through the compose-submit-reject-submit-reject-submit cycle – there just wasn’t enough time.
Nonetheless, my passion for SFF was as strong as ever, and I wanted to find some way to be involved with both SFF and with writing. So I hunted up a list of magazines online, and began to submit reviews. The first to accept was Strange Horizons (it was a review of Howard Jacobson’s J). They then put me on their regular reviewers’ list, and for the next two years, I did multiple reviews for them. In early 2016, they sent out a call for editors. I applied, and was selected. So for the last two years, I’ve been an articles editor with Strange Horizons, and been involved with the SFF world much more closely and intimately than I ever imagined I would be. I’ve also branched out my reviews, working with Indian online portals such as Scroll and The Wire.
What about you, Mimi? What was your entry-point into SFF writing and editing? Can you trace the path that brought you to becoming the editor of an award-winning anthology, and are having your stories published in magazines like Strange Horizons,Tor.com and others?
MM: Like a lot of SFF readers from India, I always thought SFF would remain a hobby while professionally I did something else, even though as a student of English literature and an editor, my professional field was fairly adjacent. Rather than a single entry point I think I had several subsequent ones, but they all started from reading a lot of new international SFF on the Internet. Almost all of these were short stories.
Then I tentatively sent a story to one of those magazines, and luckily for me, my first story got accepted. (This was “This Sullied Earth, Our Home” in Podcastle.) Several subsequent stories got rejected, but I call myself lucky because if the first story was rejected I might have never tried again. Then it kept building up from that.
Tell me a bit about the work you do. What new things has working with Strange Horizons taught you?
GB: As Articles Editor, my task is to solicit pieces that fit with Strange Horizons’ philosophy (which is broadly inclusive and pluralistic), edit them when they come in, and then publish them. We run various formats – interviews, academic pieces, round-tables, conversations. So I’ve got to work on a truly diverse variety of stuff. Examples include an academic article on SFF and the Arab Spring, a round-table on Indian SFF, and a conversation on cities in SFF. But my absolute favourite has to be 100 African Writers of SFF, a series we are running in collaboration with the noted SFF writer, Geoff Ryman. Geoff traveled through Africa and interviewed more than a hundred young SFF writers and editors, and we’re publishing this series on a monthly basis, centred around different locations (from Malawi to Cape Town, Nairobi to Abuja).
Strange Horizons has taught me a lot. I grew up reading Asimov, Clarke, Zelazny and the like, and my canon was limited (I now know) to a bunch of dead white men. Literally within a month of joining Strange Horizons, I was hearing names like Nalo Hopkinson, Nnedi Okrafor, and my own personal favourite now, the Cuban punk-rocker SFF-author Yoss. Strange Horizons not only broadened my horizons about the genre, it exploded them, and exposed me to just how rich, varied, and beautifully diverse it all is.
How would you place your own writing in the broader context of the genre – its past and present?
MM: This is something professors tell students looking for new thesis subject: If it looks like your idea is completely original and no one has done any work in that area before, you haven’t been looking hard enough. When I started writing again in 2014, I felt like that – groundbreaking, but also lonely and strange. I read Indian SFF in Bengali but I was writing in English; I read Western SFF in English but those weren’t stories about India; I read authors like Salman Rushdie who wrote about India in English but I wasn’t quite writing magic realism.
Over the years, I have met many emerging SFF writers from India who felt the same way. A genre can only be contextualised if everyone more or less knows the same works, and for a long time Indian SFF didn’t have that. With the Internet and finally some media coverage that has begun to come together again, so maybe in the future my writing will be placed against a larger backdrop. Today, I have no idea what that place will be.
If you had to pick, what would be your favourite piece to have edited so far?
GB: This is impossibly difficult to pick, but I’d go with the 100 African Writers series (it’s a collaborative effort, involving our entire articles department, working on different issues). Editing the 100 African Writers series not only taught me about African SFF, but also about literary and writing culture in various African countries more broadly. For example, I learnt about FEMRITE, a group in Uganda that focuses exclusively on mentoring women writers. I learnt about the Ake Festival, an annual arts festival that seems joyous, free, and refreshingly uncorporatised. I learnt about initiatives such as Jalada and Writivism, that are working to establish a sustained writing culture under different circumstances.
It’s all so fascinating, because it’s not just about literature, but about the broader context that literature is embedded – political, cultural, social, and of course, linguistic. It’s like a window into a wonderfully intriguing world, which you can receive on its own terms. And I learnt about books and writers that don’t even belong to the SFF genre, but who have, nonetheless, shaped writing across genre boundaries (the most recent example is a book called Season of Crimson Blossoms, set in Nigeria, that I came across while editing an issue, and promptly ordered).
In a similar vein, which is your favourite among your own writings?
MM: For many years I have been writing a series of stories surrounding a circus called Majestic Oriental Circus, which travels through an alternative 20th century India. It’s a fractured series because originally I had no idea what to do with it, whether to make it a novel or a collection of stories, whether anyone would publish it. In 2016 Juggernaut Books published “Other People” and “This Sullied Earth, Our Home.” Recently Strange Horizons published “The Trees of My Youth Grew Tall,” and in January Tor.com will publish “His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light.”
Tell me about the new works of SFF you are looking forward to.
GB: I’m looking forward to the forthcoming translation if Ibrahim Nasrallah’s The Second War of the Dog. Nasrallah is a writer I discovered during a phase when I was obsessed with Palestinian literature. I read his A Time of White Horses, which was both gorgeous and moving – it charts the fortunes of a Palestinian family write up until the moment of the Nakba. The Second War of the Dog is his first foray into SFF, so I’m really excited to read it when it comes out in English.
What works are you looking forward to?
MM: I am very excited to finally be getting SFF-related commissions from India, because I never thought that would happen! I am currently working on an SFF anthology to be published by Aleph Book Company, and also a new SFF magazine from India. Another anthology from Hachette India is publishing a story of mine. Overall, this is a very exciting time to be in Indian SFF.
Finally, what SFF books have you recently read?
GB: The last SFF book I read was Taduno’s Song, by Odafe Atogun (yet another book I picked up courtesy the 100 African Writers series). It is based on the life of Fela Kuti, and is set in an fictional, authoritarian African State, with the protagonist being a legendary musician, whose services the regime wants to co-opt. I’d recommend it.
Tell me about the SFF books you have recently read as well.
MM: I recently really enjoyed The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang, a grim, dark fantasy set in an alternative 20th century China, and The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley, a brutal but intensely beautiful modern retelling of Beowulf.