Monday, July 03, 2006

Mary Anne Mohanraj interview

Mary Anne Mohanraj is a writer born in Sri Lanka. She's actively involved in running SFF magazine Strange Horizons, DesiLit and the Speculative Literature Foundation.

Q: A South Asian running a Speculative Literature Foundation. Fabulous.
What's the experience been like, and where is it going?

A: Interesting, though we're learning as we go, since spec fic has never
had its own arts foundation before. We've had some tremendously
successful programs, such as the travel grant and our new mentorship
program. We're always in need of new volunteers to help us initiate
more innovative projects. We have lots of ideas; we just need the
volunteers and the donations to make them happen.

Q: Do you think a wave of South Asian speculative fiction looks possible? And if so, is it going to come from South Asia or from the diaspora?

A: When you say 'South Asian speculative fiction,' do you mean spec fic
by S. Asians? (As opposed to spec fic with a S. Asian setting,
possibly written by non-desis?) Assuming that you do mean spec fic
by S. Asians, I'm not sure we're really at the point of seeing a
wave. So far, I've encountered isolated authors (some quite
excellent), and there doesn't seem to be sufficient critical mass yet
that they've even started talking to each other much.

Most S. Asian/diaspora authors I encounter seem more concerned with
writing mainstream 'literary' fiction. In part this is simply where
their interests lie -- in part, I wonder whether some of the leanings
in that directions come out of a desire for respectability. Making
your living as a writer is generally not one of the acceptable career
tracks for an ambitious S. Asian, and it may be that many authors are
afraid to venture into sf/f for fear of even more mockery from the
relatives. But that's pure speculation on my part -- it may be just
that most S. Asian/diaspora authors didn't grow up reading and loving
spec fic, and so it doesn't occur to them to try writing it.

So far, there are just a few authors who do write spec fic (such as
Vandana Singh, Anil Menon, Ashok Banker, Amitav Ghosh (and myself, of
course)). Of course, a decade ago, there were far fewer, so the
numbers do seem to be increasing. If this trend continues, then
maybe, sure, in a few years, we may see a wave of spec fic authors,
both from South Asia and from the diaspora. I'd like that, but we'll
have to see what happens.

Q: What themes/characters would you like to see explored in speculative
fiction from South Asia? Are there any themes, ancient or
contemporary, that you feel really should have been explored by now?
What do you think South Asian SFF writers should avoid?

A: Again, you seem to be conflating fiction drawing on S. Asia and
fiction by S. Asian writers, and I want to keep pulling those apart.
I hope that S. Asian writers explore all the themes that any writer
would explore, and that they feel free to do so in any setting.

As for fiction drawing on S. Asia, I'm personally always interested
in literature that reflects (and reflects on) the cultural situation
(past, present, and future). I'd be fascinated to read stories that
explore gender, ethnicty, and class issues in a S. Asian (or S. Asia-
derived) setting. (And, not incidentally, those stories would also
be eligible for some of the spec fic awards for that type of
material: the Tiptree, the Carl Brandon, and the new Plunkett Award).

Q: The SF publishing market is hugely different from the mainstream
literary one, with a wholly separate set of publishers and agents -
which means that if there's any glamour left to the whole South Asian
Writing in English' phenomenon, it doesn't apply in these markets.

A: I'm not sure that's entirely true; spec fic magazine and anthology
editors are always looking for fresh settings and material, and I
know that Strange Horizons in particular has an active commitment to
seeking out non-mainstream authors and their work.

Q: Besides, most SFF writers currently breaking through abroad go through
the short stories in magazines/meeting people at conferences routine
before they managed to get signed up.
Given that people living in the subcontinent don't have access to
conferences abroad, do you think that these inequalities in access
are just things that South Asian SFF writers looking to get published
internationally will just have to take in their stride, or is there
anything that they can do to help their work get seen?How important is
location as a factor in the future of South Asian SFF?

A: Well, assuming your English skills are strong, there's no real bar to
submitting material to magazines that accept online submissions (such
as Strange Horizons). It's true that if the magazine requires print
submissions, there's some additional mailing costs, and if the
magazine isn't available online, there'll be additional purchase
costs to familiarize yourself with the work. That's unfortunate,
especially given the difference in exchange rate. But aside from
that financial barrier, a S. Asian's chances of being published in an
American or British spec fic magazine are, I believe, just as good as
a local's, if not better (by virtue of being different, new, perhaps
even strange).

Conventions can be tremendously valuable for learning about the field
and finding a supportive community, but they don't actually make it
much more likely that you'll sell a story. It's much more important
to work on your writing skills than worry about the people you aren't
meeting at conventions. If you live in an isolated area, but have
net access, you can gather much of the same information in online
communities (such as the old newsgroup rec.arts.sf.composition), and
can participate in online workshops (such as Critters).

Q: South Asians 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, albeit in slightly unfortunate
circumstances. Is there a significantly large number of spec-fic
writers among the diaspora?

A: Not yet.

Q: How have publishers and agents responded to the concept of a South
Asian writing SFF? Is there an increased interest in non-Western SFF
in a saturated Western market, and is it beginning to show? Are
anthologies like So Long Been Dreaming the first of many?

A: I don't think publishers and agents are particularly interested in S.
Asians writing spec fic (except perhaps in the case of Banker's
_Prince of Ayodhya_ series, which recasts a famous epic story as a
fantasy series). But I do think that there's a more general
increased interest in non-Western spec fic, although as always, the
prime criterion is simply whether readers are interested, and whether
they're buying it.

Cecilia Tan and I tried to pitch an Asian companion volume to _Dark
Matter_ (an anthology of speculative fiction from the African
diaspora) some years ago, and were told that the publisher didn't
think there was a sufficient market for it. Maybe in a few years...

Q: Do you feel that practically speaking, writers from countries not
normally associated with spec-fic markets need to emphasize on their
own countries' myths/folklore in order to provide some kind of
diversity and succeed in the international marketplace? How important
is this constraint, if so?

A: Write what obsesses you. If you're fascinated by your country's
myths and folklore, by its history and politics and culture, and want
to draw on that in your work, terrific. It may give you a slight
edge in the market, just because it's a nice change. But far more
important is that you write the stories that you love, that you feel
compelled to tell. If that happens to be an Arthurian romance, so be
it -- maybe you, Ms. Mehta, will be the next T.H. White.

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