My colleague Felicity Hand is organizing yet another exciting conference, this time on India. Having learned much about Postcolonialism from previous similar events, I have submitted a proposal (see https://jornades.uab.cat/aeeii2017/en, also Felicity’s research group Ratnakara https://grupsderecerca.uab.cat/ratnakara/). I decided to focus my paper on science fiction, a genre with a very rich history in India in several languages. Narrowing down the field to just one name was, though, quite difficult. Fortunately, the recent monographic issue published by Science Fiction Studies (#130, or 43.3, November 2016) led me to a simply wonderful writer, and an indispensable name in the genre: Vandana Singh (https://vandana-writes.com/).
Singh, born and brought up in Delhi, describes herself as a writer of “speculative fiction, which includes science fiction and fantasy”. She has a PhD in Theoretical Physics and works currently as an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Physics and Earth Science at Framingham State University, Massachusetts. Although she started writing both in Hindi and English, her main focus is now the latter language. Singh is known not only for her sf but also for a couple of children’s books: Younguncle Comes to Town and Younguncle in the Himalayas. Her sf consists of short stories and novellas, some of which can be found online (see https://www.freesfonline.de/authors/Vandana_Singh.html). She has published her work in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and has collected some of her earlier stories a volume, now out of print, The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet (2008). Her second, forthcoming, volume is Ambiguity Machines and Other Tales (https://smallbeerpress.com/not-a-journal/2017/05/17/a-new-collection-from-vandana-singh/).
Singh is also co-editor with Anil Menon of the anthology Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana (https://zubaanbooks.com/shop/breaking-the-bow-speculative-fiction-inspired-by-the-ramayana/). Most Indian sf writers agree that a singularity of the genre they cultivate is how deep it sinks its roots in Indian myth. What readers enjoy in Singh’s fiction, as I do, is the excellent combination of her original cultural background with insights provided by her work as a scientist, now focused on climate change.
I chose initially to work on “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra”, one of Singh’s most obvious incursions into the mythical. This is what my conference proposal announced to the organizers. I read, however, many other stories by Singh, passing from the most often anthologized “Delhi” (classic Singh…) to the eccentrically romantic “Ruminations in an Alien Tongue”, a story about a dying old woman, a black hole and an eternally lost lover. Next I read “Entanglement”, the first truly global story I have ever come across. Eventually, a doctoral student explained to me that the title refers to a scientific concept, a point corroborated by the author. The more I read, the more I realized, then, that Vandana Singh cannot be pinned down under a single label, whether this is woman, Indian, speculative writer, or scientist. How, then, should we make sense of her work?
Trying to explain Singh’s work to my friend Mariano Martín I told him that she reminds me, above all, of fellow sf short fiction writer Ted Chiang (the recent film The Arrival adapts–poorly–one of his brilliant stories). I explained how academic analysis of Singh centres on her status as a postcolonial writer and Mariano complained that this is reductive… as absurd as studying Chiang as an Asian American writer, when everyone knows that he is, above all, the new Borges. Disappointingly, as I told Mariano, MLA offers only 6 entries on Chiang, half of which refer to his ethnic background. None mentions Borges.
As happens, Chang and Singh met at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (perhaps more than once?) and she interviewed him in 2012 (https://aaww.org/the-occasional-writer-an-interview-with-science-fiction-author-ted-chiang/). It comes as no surprise, in view of her own work, that she praises Chiang’s tales: “I love how so many of them posit and approach fantastical made-worlds in a wholly scientific way”. Pleased that she asks proper questions on science, he stresses how “the sense of wonder that science fiction offers is closely related to the feeling of awe that science itself offers”. Inevitably, racial issues come up… “Does your being Asian American inform your stories in any way?”, Singh asks. Chiang answers: “Race inevitably plays a role in my life, but to date it’s not a topic I’ve wanted to explore in fiction” because “the events of my own life are too dull to be the basis for fiction”. A bit annoyed, Chiang complains that “People have looked for a racial subtext in my work in a way I don’t think they would have if my family name were Davis or Miller”.
Academics, nonetheless, insist on using what Chiang defines as “extratextual information” to read fiction produced by non-white writers, while ignoring the whiteness of white writers (excuse the tongue-twister). At least, I have never come across an analysis of, say, Jonathan Franzen, emphasizing his race or his ethnic Swedish background. Either we stop asking Singh and Chiang about their background or, perhaps more to the point, we start asking the white writers about theirs. Jackie Kay once warned that she would accept seeing herself described as black, lesbian, Scottish, only when Martin Amis started being presented as white, heterosexual, English…. At the same time, the labels used to name non-white writers are absurdly loose: why should ‘Asian’ be a common label for writers from backgrounds as diverse as China and India? Nobody would label, for instance, a Portuguese and a Rumanian writer as ‘European’, so why use ‘Asian’, or ‘African’, in this comprehensive way?
Vandana Singh’s work has already attracted some quality academic work. I’ll refer here to two examples, before I turn to another interview, this time with Singh herself. The two examples highlight the problem I am dealing with: how are we supposed to read non-white authors in a context in which the category ‘white’ is both normative and non-existent?
On the one hand, Suparno Banerjee (Texas State University) claims in “An Alien Nation: Postcoloniality and the Alienated Subject in Vandana Singh’s Science Fiction” (Extrapolation, 53.3 (2012): 283-306) that one of the major topics of recent Indian sf is “the specter of an alienated postcolonial subject caught in the flux of historical eddies” (283). This is precisely, he argues, the kind of estranged character that Vandana Singh explores, calling attention “to the different types and levels of alienation that haunt the people who negotiate their surroundings and identities in this new world order” (283). Reading “Delhi”, “Infinities”, “The Tetrahedron” and the novellas Distances and Of Love and Other Monsters Banerjee argues that Singh “is a writer of the new postcolonial alienation: a form of alienation emerging out of the colonial discourse, yet different from it” (285). He grants that Singh’s style allows her “to speculate about different scientific and philosophical notions” but firmly insists that “alienation in the postcolonial subject becomes her most important concern” (286).
Banerjee’s Indian surname lends to his article an authority as a cultural insider that I cannot have as, well, an alien–a foreign Spanish/Catalan reader. Yet, I feel oppressed and constrained by his interpretation, mostly because he subordinates the essential scientific reading of Singh’s fiction to the ethnic, nationalist reading. Having recently edited a monographic issue for Science Fiction Studies on Spanish sf I believe that no Spanish writer would appreciate being defined by his or her belonging to a (white) postimperial nation: they would rather have academics discuss the specific themes of their writing. Singh does write about India but as we can see in her eagerness to ask Chiang, she is primarily concerned about how to turn science into narrative poetics, a point to which I will return.
The SFS issue on Indian sf offers an alternative to the exclusive postcolonial reading, offered by Eric D. Smith (University of Alabama in Huntsville), a white specialist in Postcolonial Studies. Yes, ‘white’ needs to be mentioned. In his article “Universal Love and Planetary Ontology in Vandana Singh’s Of Love and Other Monsters” (514-533), Smith proposes that we rise above “the limits of certain postcolonial theorizations in the postmillennial present”. More explicitly, by reading Singh’s novella through the critique of love proposed by French philosopher Alain Badiou, Smith argues “the insufficiency of postcolonial theory for capturing the event of postcolonial sf and the latter’s potential for the production of planetary being” (514). He cites Banerjee (the very words I have quoted) to oppose him and show that beyond the postcolonial, Singh’s fiction “insists on themes of infinity, interdimensionality, and, indeed, universality, frequently underpinned by a referential framework of theoretical mathematics (…)” (514). Half-way through his article, however, I found myself resisting Smith’s reading fiercely: who is this white guy to force Singh’s stories into the philosophical mould set by two other white guys, Alain Badiou, and, guess who?, Slavoj Žižek? How does this approach serve Singh better than Banerjee’s?
In the same issue, Malisa Kurtz (PhD from Brock University)–who looks Asian American as the category goes…–interviews Singh. She prioritizes in her questions the author’s “fascination with scientific speculation” (534) and with “the provisionality of scientific knowledge” (536); also the issue of whether her sf is ‘hard’ (it is, though not gadget-oriented). Kurtz gets Singh to explain how her sf connects with the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics, and also to disclose her relief at discovering Bengali writer Premendra Mitra (read in English) for “I didn’t want sf written by people from the West to be the only standard with which to compare and contrast my stories” (537).
Yet, Kurtz also gets from Singh the story of how US white female sf writers (above all Ursula Le Guin) saved her from alienation as a newly migrated PhD student. “What she showed me”, Singh enthuses, “was an array of alternate worlds, futures, histories, in which people like me existed” (537). Instead of the “white-maletechnofetishist(s)” Anglo-American sf authors she read as a teen, “Le Guin’s works restored sf to me, made it welcoming in a way I hadn’t experienced before” (537). Another source of enthusiasm, of course, is how Singh “cannot separate the aesthetic impulse that drives me to create worlds from the pleasure I get doing physics” (538). Her current work, “on the pedagogy of climate science”(538) is, thus, a direct inspiration for “Entanglement”.
The racial question pops up, again: how does Singh feel about the label ‘postcolonial science fiction’? Singh lets “the scholars worry about definitions”, noting that ‘postcolonial’ “has its uses” if it helps to dismantle what she calls “paradigm blindness”, that is to say, the “blinkers” imposed by the colonizers. But, and this is a very important ‘but’, “an implication of the term ‘postcolonial’ is that the unit of measure, the standard, is still the colonizer. That can be limiting. So while I acknowledge the importance of the term, I also want to transcend it, to go off and play in the much larger universe we inhabit” (543). In this sense, sf offers the “experience of playfully trying to decolonize my mind—shaking free of hitherto unexamined paradigms, trying to look at new vistas through new eyes” (544).
The question, ultimately, and the challenge, is whether Literary and Cultural Studies are ready to ‘transcend’ Postcolonialism and take as ‘the unit of measure’ something else. Not the white, male, European philosophical discourse that Smith summons from the past under the guise of modernity but, hopefully, a wholly new discourse that looks “at new vistas through new eyes” in a “much larger universe”. Transnationalism and cosmopolitanism have been often invoked as alternatives. Singh’s sf suggests, however, that just as her characters move across the many dimensions of the multiverse while being both deeply rooted in their places and alienated from them, we need to see how humanity functions in all backgrounds, including whiteness. Otherwise, we just contribute to prolonging normative racist ethnocentricity, forcing non-white writers to be spokespersons for just one segment of the human species, instead, as they are, of the whole species.
I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/