Shweta Narayan was born in India, and has lived in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, The Netherlands, California, and Scotland. You can find several of Shweta's poems and stories in our archives, as well as in Goblin Fruit, Expanded Horizons, Clockwork Phoenix and Realms of Fantasy; the novelette "Pishaach" was a 2011 Nebula Award nominee. Shweta edits the poetry magazine Stone Telling with Rose Lemberg. This interview, primarily about the poem "Tatakai," which is included in this week's special Indian/diaspora sf issue, was conducted by email in September 2013.
Strange Horizons: Each stanza of "Tatakai" includes a non-English (or not obviously English) phrase. Could you provide translations?
Shweta Narayan: "Sri Rama Rama Rameti" is the first line of a Sanskrit chant, a mantra. "Sri" is an honorific, and Rama Rama Rameti = repetitions of "Ram" with different declensions. The entire chant is basically about how awesome Ram's name is and how repeating it is spiritually good for you—as far as I know and can figure out. It's part of my culture, but I'm distant from it, and am not confident of my understanding.
The non-standard English in the second stanza is a phonetic transcription of the sort of mocking/bullying I would get as a child; its standard rendering would be "Paki Paki talks like this." ("Paki" is British people's favourite slur against South Asians.)
The parenthetical in the third stanza, "konjam konjam pesaren" means "I speak a (very) little (Tamil)." It's in brahmin Tamil, which is the only form I know; and that detail's important to this poem because I'm trying to be honest about intersecting axes of privilege and marginalization.
Let me say just one thing about Tamil, which is that it's extremely caste-stratified. "Proper" written/literary Tamil isn't even a spoken dialect at this point; it's brahmin Tamil from hundreds of years ago. And I can't even understand the Tamil of people who are significantly less caste-privileged than me. (I'm sure they can understand me, though. The oppressed always have to understand their oppressors, no?) And there are brahmins who'll try to tell you it's because brahmin Tamil is "pure," which is of course complete nonsense. In fact, brahmin Tamil has imported a ton of Sanskrit vocabulary.
I love Tamil; I wish I was more fluent, and I wish I could read Tamil literature. But my Tamil is a colonial language, just as Hindi is, just as English is. Where I am in the power balance depends on which power balance we're talking about.
SH: This is clearly a personal poem, but it references a figure from the Ramayana, one of the great Hindu epics. How would you describe that story to someone unfamiliar with Ram and Agastya? What made you identify with Tatakai, who starts the story as a fairy princess and ends up a cannibalistic demon (not to mention the grandmother of the Ramayana's main antagonist)?
SN: I'd start by saying that like most "great epics," the Ramayan glorifies power and violent enforcement of the status quo, and it's always a good idea to look at who gets stuck as the antagonist and why. Tatakai loses her father and husband to one of the "good guys," attempts vengeance, and gets cursed. She's also almost always portrayed as very dark-skinned, and in a dehumanizing way that I want to say is outright racist, not just colourist. And is definitely enforcing (current, ongoing) caste power dynamics. Ram is a light-skinned (granted, light blue) high-caste high-ranking man who is just awful across the board to everyone who's not a light-skinned high-caste high-ranking man.
So my solidarity/alliance is with Tatakai. Just because I'm not oppressed on this particular axis doesn't make that oppression okay; and Ram is no better than these other racist bullies, actually.
SH: You've written at least one other Ram, in the prose story "Falling into the Earth," which appeared in the anthology Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana last year. That time around he's a neglectful husband, and the story belongs to a version of Sita, a young woman who's moved from India to California after their arranged marriage. What appealed to you about modernising/transposing their relationship in that way?
SN: I've found the expectations imposed by cultural narratives to be crushing at times; and the narrative of Sita as a perfect woman (up till the point where she speaks out for herself anyway) is one that I've been angry about and fighting against since I was about seven. So for me, the story is about that weight of expectations and the harm it does.
Modernising the characters was the only way I could tell that story, because in one sense/reading, my modern Ram, Sita, and Lakshman aren't the divine mythic figures at all. They're humans who grew up with the mythic narrative. It's been imposed on them, and they're influenced by their ideas about how it's supposed to go. They're seeing themselves and their lives through the lens of the narrative, even though it doesn't fit.
But at the same time, they aren't unambiguously "just normal people." I mean to allow the reading where they are mythic figures transposed, suggesting that the story didn't work for them either. But I think whether you go with that possibility, or read the story as non-spec with coincidences, is up to the reader.
SH: What, for you, causes an idea to develop into poetry rather than prose (or vice versa)? Or does the form come first, with ideas accreting to fill it?
SN: Not the latter; form doesn't show up first for me, not even for formally structured poetry. And I don't feel I have ideas so much as a sea of things unsaid. Beyond that, though, it's complicated.
One major question is always how accessible I'm being, can be, and should be in a piece. With the stories I struggle to be understandable to as many people as I can manage while staying true to the specifics of the setting. With the poems I feel able to be more oblique. And that's freeing, it ironically allows me to be more directly honest, because I'm not trying so hard to write and translate simultaneously.
It's also not a binary. Certainly a lot of what I write gets categorized unambiguously as prose or poetry; but some is on the line between fiction and prose poetry, and some is "other," written work pretending to be oral storytelling, which counts as "story" or not depending on the reader. To me they're all ways to bridge that gap, and sometimes I don't figure out how to classify them until they're ready to submit somewhere.
But often, yes, I know what I'm going to end up with as I write. One part of that is who my narrator is and what they're doing. If the narrator is basically me, it's going to be poetry. If not, it depends. If they're talking to a "you," and any storytelling is implicit, it's probably going to be poetry. If they're recounting something, it's probably going to be prose or pseudo-oral narrative, however you classify that.
So there's "who's talking, who are they talking to, and how are they talking." But that leaves out a major aspect of process—some of what I write, I call "gifts." These are pieces where most of the work happens unconsciously, and I don't consciously know where it's heading till the first draft is down. Most of my poetry happens this way. Most of my prose doesn't. But there are exceptions in both cases (for example, "The Bone Harp Sings Nine Moods" is a non-gift poem, and "Nira and I" is a gift story).
I'm generally very conscious of what I'm doing while I edit, even in the gift pieces; but by the time I get to editing, it's already a story or a poem or an in-between. So the sort of piece I end up writing is a combination of "how/how much am I bridging the gap between self and readers," and "how much of it is actually under my conscious control on the first draft anyway."
SH: "Tatakai" mentions you "write speak / dream in" English, but you speak more than one language, and you not only write in multiple forms but are an accomplished visual artist and sometime illustrator. Do you feel as though you shapeshift as you move between forms and languages (and for that matter, countries)? How do you find the different forms, languages, and places influence the stories you choose to tell (or vice versa)?
SN: Honestly I feel like a failed shapeshifter. I'm always passing, some times better than others. My English accent shifts, mid-sentence even, depending on who I'm looking at and how they speak. My Tamil is littered with English words. I can no longer go back to India without risking hospitalization. The last time I went to The Netherlands, I spoke only English, because people clearly expected me to, and that froze what Dutch I remember on my tongue. And I wonder, if I can't even control my accent and my language against expectations, how can I hope to tell stories that don't pander to the dominant white gaze? Even my visual-art vocabulary is extremely Eurocentric, and I have to work, consciously, to think beyond that. So what, for me, is authentic?
But what happens is, when I write, I'm fighting. To figure that out. Because if I don't tell my stories, I'll never see them. And often enough I fall flat on my face, but sometimes, I think, it works.