Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Vandana Singh's "The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet"

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.


Maria Zannini said...

Every time I find a book like this it's always a mad game to find out where book sellers will put it.

I think this is the reason I wander between the shelves of sf and literary. Sometimes the lines are so blurred, even the reader doesn't know for sure.

All I know is that it's the metaphysical that draws me in, regardless of 'genre'.

KeVin K. said...

I think the speculative part comes from the possibility she might really be a planet. This could be a mainstream story (or even literary story in New Yorker) about a woman's quirky delusion (or perhaps deeper madness) but for that 'what if?' element.

The 1951 movie "The Man in the White Suit" is usually identified as a comedy and not science fiction. Because the science fiction element -- the invention of an indestructable fiber -- is not the focus of the story.

It could be a case of genre being in the eye of the beholder; or rather the focus of the beholder. You see a literary story with delightfully crafted prose; Ms. Singh sees speculative fiction exploring a new idea in a different way.
I think you're both right.

Kaz Augustin said...

@ Maria: Man, it's a huge topic, isn't it? Where to put the book? Yes, I admit to wandering copious shelves as well. At least it gives me exercise! :)

@ KeVin: You're right, of course. Kamala really might be a planet. I suppose I was so caught up in Singh's evocative pose, and being in a place where everything described was so wonderfully FAMILIAR to me, that the conclusion was a mere sideline. Singh's fault for blinding me with her brilliant writing style, of course!

Kaz Augustin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Liane Spicer said...

I had similar questions by the time I got to the end of Life of Pi by Yann Martel, namely, WHAT is this exactly? The book was a mainstream bestseller, the writing is excellent and can be called 'literary', and there are all these speculative elements in there.

Intriguing stuff, and the questions of definition did not mar the reading experience for me. The writing was enough to carry me wherever Martel led.