I was delighted to receive a small shipment of books from Small Beer Press recently. And doubly delighted to discover that one of the stories in the "trampoline" anthology was by Vandana Singh. I was intensely curious, you see. What is one Indian's take on speculative fiction, especially when that Indian is female?
Well, firstly, I'll be looking for more work from Singh. There's such a delightful aura of sly playfulness about her prose that it had me smiling through the entire tale. And the description of the marriage between Kamala and her husband, Ramnath, was portrayed so well and so succinctly, I could almost smell and see their living room in my mind.
But, here's the thing. Is the tale of a middle-aged, Establishment mother and woman who actually believes herself to be a planet, speculative fiction? I ask the same question of Iain Banks' work from time to time as well. Is using a metaphysical or otherworldly element in a work of literature enough to catapult it to the realm of sf? After all, we know nothing of the aliens that infest Kamala to the extent that she believes herself to be a planet. We don't know their purpose or motivations, and Kamala's own motivations, beyond a sense of cheerful wonder, are as filmy as the layers of her sari. And the ending is decidedly mythic, if anything.
I sit and wonder if Singh could have used another strategy to say what she wanted to say in the story. (Probably not, I decide.) I sit and wonder what exactly Singh is trying to say in her story? Is it an exposition of a (hopefully) disappearing, chauvinistic way of life in middle-class India? A masterfully illustrated battle between face and feeling? An examination of the gulf between a man and woman, with the roles of their respective lives laid out with such rigidity that, for Ramnath at least, even the bending of his role is quite beyond him? Am I to glean the fact that, perhaps, where the personality has less power, there is actually greater freedom to break free of societal bonds?
It's clear that Singh considers herself a speculative fiction writer (there's a wonderful interview with her at Bookslut, but to what end? I'm quite open to the suggestion that my questions are a reflection of my own upbringing, and it could well be that I'm taking a much too mechano-centric view of the speculative fiction field. Singh references Ursula K le Guin, so I'm willing to cop to an accusation of having too narrow a view of a vast and wonderfully diverse vista.
And that is why speculative fiction is such a wonderful area to get lost in. I've been reading sf for decades now, and it still never loses its ability to shake me up, to show me another facet of itself, and demand that I attempt to understand. I may not always succeed in seeing through to the core truth, but the tangents themselves are more than worth the journey. Thank you, Ms Singh.