Mimi Mondal, winner of the Locus Award, and finalist for the 2018 Hugo Awards, on why sci-fi and fantasy are important for the world around us
Mtimi Mondal (New York-based) is the first Indian writer to have won the Locus Award in the non-fiction category for Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia Butler. The book, co-edited by Mondal and Alexandra Pierce, was published to mark Butler’s 70th birth anniversary. Mondal’s win marks a huge win for science fiction and fantasy writing, a genre that hasn’t seen too much traction in the mainstream in India. If that wasn’t enough, Mondal has also been named a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Awards, one of science fiction’s most prestigious prizes, and been nominated for the British Fantasy Award. Over email, she discusses what she hopes the award does for the genre.
You have called the book “a labour of love”.
Science-fiction-related non-fiction isn’t exactly a profit-making genre, so Alexandra and I, as well as the rest of Twelfth Planet Press put a lot of extra effort into Luminescent Threads, because otherwise an open call for submissions gets flooded by non-minority writers who have a great deal of advantage over minority writers. Curating a book only with non-minority writers would not have been authentic of the legacy of Octavia Butler.
Science fiction has been dominated by white men, which makes Octavia Butler’s work revolutionary. What has been her impact on your life and work?
Living in India, I had only read a short story by her, Bloodchild, in an anthology. That anthology also included stories by Asimov, Clarke, Dick, etc. I didn’t even realise I read a story by the first major African American woman science fiction and fantasy (SFF) writer. This is what the dominance of white men in SFF means. The contributions of minority writers are slowly diminished until they become invisible, non-existent, while white male writers become the only canon. I only picked up Butler’s works again in 2015 and was stunned by their quality and power. The point about erasure never really got driven home to me before I started actually reading Butler’s work.
You’re a Dalit queer female writer. How does that intersect with your writing?
Indian readers largely read realism fiction, and realism is overall less dependent on dynamic plot progression than SFF. An active protagonist who moves the plot ahead needs to have power, and how can you give that kind of power to a character who is socially completely powerless? This is where radical worldbuilding comes in, which is something you can do in SFF but not in realism. That’s how social theories and identity politics come into SFF. The real world is still patriarchal, but can you imagine a different world where a woman character can significantly move the plot, even if she’s not young and beautiful?
In my story The Trees of My Youth Grew Tall, forthcoming in Strange Horizons this month, the protagonist is an illiterate Adivasi old woman from a village near an alternative Calcutta, during the colonial period. It took me almost four years to write that. How can that character be dynamic enough to move the plot? You need to revise your entire worldview, reconsider what you think of people who have no social power – do you only ever think of them as miserable, victimised, or at the best self-righteous but still boring? It’s much easier to write a handsome, young white man as a demigod, because handsome, young white men are treated like demigods anyway.
I recently published a very short story called So It Was Foretold in Fireside Magazine, which has a caste analogy. I have another story Peccavi, or If Thy Father forthcoming in an anthology called The True History of the Strange Brigade. It features a young Rajput princess in 1920s India. A casteist crime happens in the story, the kind that always happened in India at that time, and there are Dalit characters who are intelligent, loving and significant to the plot. So there are different ways of representing underprivileged characters in SFF stories that free them from harmful, defeatist stereotypes. I refuse to write miserable Dalits, because I’m not a miserable Dalit, and my existence is legitimate too.
As a minority writer, do you get burdened with the pressure to change the world?
Yes, we get reverse-stereotyped by being expected to always write about our community or to change the world. The ideal response to either of those pressures is the same: ignore them. I will write what feels morally and intellectually true to me, and also feels fun. Changing the world is way above my pay grade.
You have rebutted the idea that Indian speculative fiction focuses only on mythological tropes.
There’s a glut of medieval-themed fantasy featuring elves coming out of the West as well. Fantasy as a genre draws from mythology and history. If someone thinks Tolkien invented elves or medieval Europe is copyrighted to George RR Martin, I don’t know what to say to them. Mythology is not the problem, it’s the perspective, treatment, and quality of writing. I recently read a story called Balloon Man by Shiv Ramdas, which uses mainstream, recognisable Hindu mythology but is charmingly original. Shweta Taneja’s Anantya Tantrist series used Tantric cults, which is mythology too.
I use regional mythology and folklore myself.
You’ve won one award and have been nominated for two others. Do you think this will give the genre a fillip in India?
I really have no idea. What this has done is spread awareness. For instance, not many people in India know that both the Hugo and the Locus Awards are determined by online voting, worldwide. The Hugo ballot is still open for voting till July 31. I hope those who have voted this year will come back next year, and that will increase both the engagement of Indian readers in the international SFF conversation, and the possibility of Indian SFF writers to get nominated for awards.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers who want to write in these genres?
All major international SFF magazines are accessible in the digital format, most of them on free websites, and a couple as purchasable ebooks. There’s a high volume of very high-quality SFF on the Internet. Look up all the major award nomination lists for the past five or 10 years and read those stories. Then look up the authors and read other stories by them. I think reading and writing short stories is a very good exercise – the ideal length to try out new ideas, improve your craft, or discard a story idea that isn’t working. Most Indian publishers are really interested in publishing SFF, and most magazines and publishers in the West are looking out for fresh non-Western voices. This is a really, really good time to be an SFF writer from India. Source: https://bangaloremirror.indiatimes.com/opinion/sunday-read/indian-readers-largely-read-realism-fiction/articleshow/64900507.cms