RETHINKING THE POSTCOLONIAL: VANDANA SINGH, INDIAN SF WRITER

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 http://jornades.uab.cat/aeeii2017/en, also Felicity’s research group Ratnakara http://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 (http://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 http://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 (http://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 (http://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 (http://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 http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

TRYING TO CATCH UP…: A BOOK ON RECENT (SCOTTISH) LITERATURE

I have given myself the task of checking my university library’s catalogue and select a variety of volumes for summer reading, in an attempt to catch up with the novelties in the areas I’m interested in. The function of journals used to be exactly that: keeping researchers informed about the latest advances in a given field. This seems to work better for the sciences but my impression is that in the Humanities we no longer read journal issues from beginning to end (if we ever did that). Rather, we read single articles and most likely only those that we cite in our own work, as there is no time to spare for reading around. In my personal case this lack of time also means that my visits to the library have diminished along the years. I feel that am slowly but steadily falling behind in my fields of research, and teaching, despite trying to frantically keep up.

This impression is, perhaps, not well grounded, however as I find that the enormous proliferation of academic writing in recent years has not resulted in deep changes in our methodological paradigm. I worked on my doctoral dissertation between 1993 and 1996, more than twenty years ago, and so I should expect new research to be radically different. I see, nonetheless, essentially the same names and the same bibliography established in the 1990s quoted again and again. I urge my students to not use anything published before 1995, except when it is fully justified, but I see that I’ll have to revise that rule for everything that matters today to us regarding theory in Literature and Culture seems to come from the early 1990s. The two most prominent big names of recent times, Zygmunt Bauman (who died in January) and Slavoj Žižek (born 1949), published their breakthrough work also in the 1990s. And I don’t see anyone under 40 making a big splash (yet?).

The dominion of 1990s academia over us connects with the prevalence of post-modernism as a label that has overstayed its welcome, an issue I discussed in my previous post. Perhaps the lack of progress in academic research has to do with this collective inability to move beyond labels but what worries me very much, besides this stagnation, is that the very few calls to action lean towards universalism and formalism, the two evils that the 1990s emphasis on identity tried to correct. I have come across much universalism in the dubious application to Literature and Culture of fashionable Affect Theory (see my conference presentation on the body here http://ddd.uab.cat/record/174232). And I have just come across a vindication of formalism in Marie-Odile Pittin-Hedon’s The Space of Fiction: Voices from Scotland in a Post-devolution Age (2015).

Let me stop here, for the issue is complex. Basically, there is widespread agreement that Scottish Literature bore the brunt of keeping the voice of the nation alive while politics progressed towards Devolution. Scotland used to be a separate kingdom but its devious aristocratic rulers signed a Treaty of Union (1707) with England, which resulted in the dissolution of its Parliament and the loss of its independence. The re-emergence of nationalism in the 20th century led to the ill-fated 1979 referendum for Devolution under Margaret Thatcher, which was lost, and, hence to an intense period of national self-doubt which only ended (relatively speaking) in 1997. A second referendum, this time under the aegis of Tony Blair’s Labour Government, resulted in a positive vote and, so, the Scottish Parliament was restored in 1999 (though not independence). In a recent referendum, in 2014, authorized by David Cameron’s Tory Government, independence was rejected by 55% of the voters. Another referendum, voted by all Britons in 2016, started Brexit by a narrow margin, 51.89%, and led Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (SNP) to declare that she would call yet another independence referendum; most Scots voted against Brexit (62%) and in favour of remaining in the European Union. This second referendum is still in the air, as I write.

In her conclusion, Pittin-Hedon quotes Gerry Hassan’s words warning that “Analysing trends is not enough, however good the data. Imagining the future is an empowering process that opens up the possibility of action” (186). To do so, Pittin-Hedon argues, we must follow Alex Thomson’s “lead” and “look for specific features” that are “stylistic, formal rather than systematically trying to connect” Scottish writing “to the political context” (186). She refers to Thomson’s 2007 article “‘You can’t get there from here’: Devolution and Scottish literary history”, which I have not read (yet). This is what worries me: the word ‘rather’, as it implies an either/or situation by which looking into stylistics is incompatible with looking into context.

This is even more puzzling because Pittin-Hedon never leaves context aside in her book; unless, that is, her extensive literary analysis of the works she presents is an attempt to downplay context. How, however, can any literary critic take politics for granted when Scottish academia has widely accepted ‘Post-Devolution’ as an apt label to discuss contemporary literature? In Catalonia, a nation mirroring Scotland in many ways beginning with the chronology of recent History (the Generalitat was ‘devolved’ back in 1980) nobody uses the label ‘post-autonomic’ (the equivalent of ‘post-Devolution’)–just ‘contemporary’. Even though nationalism is of immense importance, Catalan writers and critics are not restricted in this sense as the case seems to be in Scotland. Judging, that is, from Thomson’s call to formalist arms… echoed by Pittin-Hedon.

Actually, though, like Pittin-Hedon, I agree with Janice Galloway’s complaint that it is about time Scottish authors write ‘through’ the nation and not ‘about’ the nation, there is another kind of context that Pittin-Hedon ignores in her book. First, I need to explain that even though this volume has an obvious introductory inclination it is by no means didactic. She discusses the selected writing as if it were already very well known by her reader in the dense academic style typical of most contemporary Literary Studies. Struggling to make sense of her arguments, as I made notes about what I should read to catch up, I suddenly wondered who she was writing for–and why she wasn’t mentioning the elephant in the room: our collective fears that the very habit of reading fiction might soon die, for the younger generations are mostly non-readers. It turns out, and here’s a paradox, that this anxiety is central to Scottish fiction. At least, one of the writers that Pittin-Hedon praises, Ewan Morrison, asked the question none of his peers dared ask: “Are books dead, and can authors survive?”

This is the title of a talk Morrison gave back in 2011 at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and that he published in The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/aug/22/are-books-dead-ewan-morrison). His argument is transparent: books will disappear because, “within 25 years the digital revolution will bring about the end of paper books”. Also, said revolution “will not emancipate writers or open up a new era of creativity, it will mean that writers offer up their work for next to nothing or for free. Writing, as a profession, will cease to exist”. The readers’ comments, divided between half-empty glass defenders and half-full glass opponents are marvellous to read… And while it is true that Pittin-Hedon brings her readers’ attention to this crucial article, she writes about the selected books with no reference to the issues that Morrison raises. As if Literature were still a central aspect of Scottish society and not an endangered cultual species in the whole Western world.

Introductions and updates are very difficult books to write, since trying to make sense of the present is extremely complicated. At the same time the academic writer undergoing that kind of task has the wonderful chance to shape literary History and even the canon simply by choosing what to include. Interestingly, Pittin-Hedon devotes a chapter to Scottish women writers specializing in crime, and although I miss their sisters in science fiction and I’m not at all fond of gender separatism in literary analysis, this chapter is symptomatic of how genres are merging to challenge canonical visions. I wish, nonetheless, to sound less like a reviewer and more like a reader and so, I’ll note, that, somehow, I find the genre of the academic introduction or update stubbornly resistant to… digitalization.

The whole point of volumes of this kind is to put the reader in touch with books s/he might want to read and the middleman or middlewoman’s role should be to facilitate the encounter. I really think that this is best done through a hypertext: a website combining actual reviews and interviews with authorial comment that would allow readers to navigate among a constellation of unknown books. I just don’t know anymore how to read a few hundred pages of literary analysis about books I have not read. The analysis sounds very clever but it might be all wrong, and even if it is brilliant and spot-on, I will have forgotten it by the time I manage to read the book.

I understand that the most positive feature of introductions, updates (and companions) is that they are, ironically, limited. The Victorian Web, for instance, (http://www.victorianweb.org/) does a very good job of presenting this age to interested readers but it is a sprawling text that cannot be read with the same ease as a volume that can be underlined (whether paper or e-book). Perhaps we don’t understand well how to use the digital media. This morning I have also been browsing through the impressive collections of Cambridge and Routledge companions that my university subscribes and, well, the volumes are now digital but what this means is that each one is fragmented into the .pdf for each chapter, not that they are hypertexts with links to other resources. This is a necessary academic revolution, I think, if the didactic value of this type of introductory book is to be enhanced. And made attractive for post-baby boomer generations…

The lessons I’m learning, then, as I try to catch up with recent developments is that academic literary criticism seems anchored in the 1990s, with few recent developments. The proliferation of new writing is asking for a new way of presenting readers with introductions to particular periods that might work much better as online hypertexts than as (paper) books. This revolution is not happening because we, academics, don’t know very well how to maximize the use of digital media in our favour. The very media that, if Morrison is right, will kill Literature. Or, at least, deprive writers of a living.

How in the middle of this cultural (and political) turmoil we can make sense of stylistics is, for the time being, beyond me–though, ideally, text and context should be always studied together. If anyone cares for reading at all…

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 http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/