The name of Mimi Mondal, a speculative fiction writer and ‘punk Dalit girl’ — as she calls herself — has sprung up after she was nominated for the 2018 Hugo Awards, the first Indian to be nominated for the award, for her work as co-editor on an anthology that reminisces on the late Octavia Butler, the pioneering African-American science fiction and fantasy (SFF) writer. Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia Butler is a moving curation of essays and letters, and one finds that Mimi is quite a similar firebrand determined to take the SFF pen to the throat of power, identity, and social ills.
When you were roped into the Luminescent Threads project, did you see it as an assignment or as an opportunity, or a calling?
When I was approached to work on Luminescent Threads along with Alexandra Pierce, I was in the middle of a hectic semester at university. It was a mix of “Wow, this is amazing!” and also, “Wait, can I really do this? Am I the right person?”
And then, there’s the Impostor Syndrome. There are no fixed criteria to be a “legitimate” artist, so it’s easy to wonder if you’re just an impostor fooling other people and yourself. At every level of success our mind tells us that only by dumb luck have we made it so far. This is a hindrance particularly for artists, because our professions entirely depend on confidence.
There’s no measurement of whether you’re the best person to write a book. The world doesn’t even need a particular book. You make your book come to life purely because you believe it should exist. If you let your Impostor Syndrome shut you down, it’s absolutely no one’s loss.
While sifting through the entries for Luminescent Threads, did you struggle with having to dwell on other people’s interpretations of an author you have imbibed on a personal level?
As soon as someone starts studying English at college, they start dealing with other people’s perspectives “ruining” their favourite books. Besides, any book is a group project. It’s just that one person does a large amount of work first and gets their name on the cover.
As Roland Barthes’ “death of the author” theory goes — the creator’s intention is far less significant in a work of art than the impressions of the people who experience it. So I look forward to other people’s perspectives on my favourite books, really. They always help me discover new depths I may have missed before.
Science Fiction seeks to inspire and heal the individual’s mind; Social Activism wants to repair society’s. Where do SA and SF meet?
When SFF takes effect, the world will change, power structures and power relationships too. The author who’s writing a scene has a mental estimation of what those changes will be. All SFF is political. Whether the reader sees this or not, they are indoctrinated by that story’s ideology; that’s what stories do. They change your notions of right and wrong.
What does SFF mean, for you? ‘Science Fiction’ can be construed as a contradiction in terms (add ‘Fantasy’, and it comes off as even less rooted in reality). Where can a youngster find the healthy line between the solace and delusion that SFF entails alike?
As fiction that provides solace and escapism, SFF is no different from Romance or realism. The only reason SF, as well as Fantasy, stands separately from mainstream literature is that the two developed as separate industries; but the genres flow into each other. It has always puzzled me why Rushdie wasn’t a Fantasy author and Neil Gaiman was — both explore history and mythology through modern-day stories.
The reason I chose SFF is its communal and democratic roots. SFF takes the opinions of its fans very seriously. ‘Sad Puppies’ [a right-wing lobby that tries to influence the Hugo nominations to fit its ideological bent] shames the genre for its social justice inclinations, but science has never been SFF’s point. SFF has always tried to imagine a different world where social systems and injustices can be examined, whether in the future or in a different version of reality.
Speaking of ‘Sad Puppies’, SFF is a genre that stands for free thinking but seems to have been infected by stratified elitism in practice. How can it be successfully brought into the mainstream?
I don’t think it needs to be. SFF, with its footprints in comics, games and movies interacts more directly with lots of people and ideas than any mainstream novel that gets adapted into a big film. The thing is, Indian fans watch the latest Hollywood SFF movies but generally aren’t aware who is writing those stories. Nnedi Okorafor writes for the Black Panther comics. Ted Chiang’s novella Story of Your Life became the movie Arrival. Even George R.R. Martin wasn’t a familiar name in India until Game of Thrones became a phenomenon. SFF is already everywhere. All Indian fans need to do is catch up with more than the tips of icebergs.
Like you, Octavia Butler was all about blending sociocultural themes with SFF. She has spoken of starting her day at ungodly hours to juggle her livelihood with her literary pursuit. What’s your work-writing routine like, as you work on your own collection of short stories?
Butler was a working-class Black woman who had to work during the day and take college classes at night. As a middle-class Indian with a masters’ degree from home and two from abroad, my social status is not quite a parallel. That said, I could not even have travelled abroad had I not been a scholarship student at foreign universities.
I’m a freelancer, but I do have to maintain a steady stream of work so I can pay my bills, living in New York. Any research I need for my writing has to be rationed. So, every time I hear a writer say they took a couple of years out of their life to “passionately finish that novel,” I’m hearing an unspoken privilege. Butler and I are not those writers. But she succeeded. That’s what gives me hope.