Monday, July 03, 2006

Jai Arjun Singh interview

Jai Arjun Singh is a writer, critic, journalist and blogger (Jabberwock)

Q:Is there a market for speculative fiction already, or is it a potential market? Why do you think so, either way?

A: Five years ago I would have said purely potential market. Now it's probably a mix of both. SFF has acquired a cult following here in the past few years - thanks, among other things, to the increasing availability of graphic novels and fantasy literature, greater media willingness to talk about them, and the publication of your books.

But it's still very much a cult following and there's large potential market still. [I was flipping through V for Vendetta in office the other day. No fewer than five people - all of whom are fairly avid readers and frequently review fiction for Business Standard - had reactions ranging from honest perplexedness to avuncular indulgence when they came up to me and saw that I was reading a comic.]


Q: What sort of fantasy/SF in books and comics would you like to see
coming out of India? And what do you think writers in the genre in
this country would do best to avoid?

A: I wouldn't mind seeing some alternative histories, there's so much scope for those. What if Gandhi had lived past 1948, been actively involved in the politics of the first few years of independent India - and gradually morphed from this benevolent father figure into a regression-fascist, taking the country away from Nehru's vision of modernity. What if we'd lost the 71 War? What if Sanjay Gandhi had lived, gotten into coalition politics and built up a large enough base to impose a second, more potent Emergency? Lots of other possibilities.

And this will probably remain a fantasy in itself, but I'd like to see a lot more really explicit sex in Indian comics - pornographic versions of Amar Chitra Katha and what-not (there's so much potential in Indian mythology, why not use it). Speculative, conspiracy-theory writing along the lines that the real reason the Mahabharata War occurred was that Krishna had been secretly bonking the Kaurava women on the side. Obviously, that sort of thing can never really be published in this country but you get the idea...


Q: Internationally, a lot of speculative fiction ends up being part of a
cross-media franchise – TV, books, merchandise, films, comics. Is
there any history of this in India as far as you know, or are the
worlds of TV/film and books in India too isolated for this to happen
unless something fundamental changes about the markets in question?

A: Can't say with any authority. (Wasn't there a Shaktimaan comic book at some point? And of course there were those Amitabh Bachchan-as-Supremo comics.) I think it's possible for cross-media franchises to develop but for it to be done well enough to make an impact, it needs to be done by the right people; people who have a real understanding of the possibilities of the genre, and people who can work across media (you and Sarnath can make a start). Otherwise you'll have a situation where the impact of a really good SFF book/comic will be spoilt by the associations with a really crappy TV serial/film, or vice versa.


Q: In fiction aimed at adults, SF/fantasy tend to be seen as low-caste,
but in the world of children's publishing and comics, the most popular
books - the mainstream in these categories - always seem to contain
speculative elements. Do you think this is because children and comic
book readers are seen to be more accepting of
non-identifiably-real-world situations, or because tthese markets are
now large enough for it to have its own rules – or is it something
different entirely?

A: Well, I think it goes without saying that children by their very nature are more open-minded and receptive to fantastical elements than adults are. But I think the real reason is more basic and depressing: parents tend to think it's alright for kids of a certain age to indulge themselves with what is perceived as "meaningless fun" - and then, as they grow older, to read Serious Literature. That perception runs very deep and is probably responsible for the step-sisterly treatment given to fantasy for adults, and the schism between Children's Literature and Adult Literature.

Q: We now have a fair number of Indian editors comfortable with editing
books that are aimed at Indian readers and not specifically at readers
abroad. But there are very few editors in India who are comfortable
reading SFF, let alone editing it. Do you think this will seriously
affect the quality of SFF novels coming out of India?

A: Of course it will. However talented an author might be, you need an editor with enough experience, comfort and interest in the genre. Much as I enjoyed Simoqin and Manticore, I think both books could have been even better if you had as an editor someone who really knew the genre.

And of course genre-snobbery has absolutely no place in editorship.

Q: Indians living abroad are beginning to make their mark felt in other
kinds of fiction than mainstream literary fiction today - chick-lit
being a prime example. Do you think diaspora has an important role -
as writers and readers - to play if Indian SFF is to become
widespread and popular?

A: I don't think so. I think, in the initial stages at least, Indian SFF will have to include some references from the country's mythology and history (like you did in Simoqin) - or, if the SFF is dystopic, there will have to be an understanding of the ground realities in India. (I'm not saying this is necessarily what I'd like to see myself, just that it's what's required for a market to develop.) This will probably be best done by writers/illustrators who have spent a significant part of their lives in India.

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