In this special episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, reviews editors Aisha Subramanian and Dan Hartland introduce audio from a 2018 recording for Jonah Sutton-Morse’s podcast Cabbages and Kings which included Maureen Kincaid Speller discussing with Aisha and Jonah three books: Everfair by Nisi Shawl, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, and The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar.
Critical Friends Episode 3
Aisha Subramanian: Welcome to Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast.
Dan Hartland: I’m Dan Hartland.
Aisha Subramanian: I’m Aisha Subramanian.
Dan Hartland: And it’s been several months since the last episode of this podcast. Some of our listeners will know that Maureen Kincaid Speller, with whom we started this thing, passed away in September of last year. This episode is being released as part of a special memorial issue at Strange Horizons, where the two of us with Maureen have been reviews editors since 2015.
Aisha Subramanian: Back in 2018, Maureen and I took part in a long conversation with Jonah Sutton-Morse for his podcast Cabbages and Kings. That episode was never actually published, and Jonah was kind enough to dig out the recording for this special issue. We’re so glad that this means we get to include some of Maureen’s own critical work in this tribute to her. Here’s Jonah introducing the episode.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: I don’t remember exactly when I became aware of Maureen’s Speller, but I first met her in 2015. My name is Jonah Sutton Morrison. At the time, I hosted a podcast called Cabbages and Kings, and in my first episode I said that I had read The Buried Giant and not really known what to do with it or what to make of it.
And soon thereafter I had an email in my inbox from the senior Reviews Editor of Strange Horizons, which published the reviews and criticism that I most envied online and who I knew only as a person with a very intense-looking osprey as her virtual representation. And the email said, let’s talk about The Buried Giant.
And those who knew Maureen will know that saying there is this interesting book and I don’t quite know what to make of it, is kind of sending up a bat signal for her. But I didn’t realize it at the time, and so I was somewhat trepidatious. And we had an absolutely delightful conversation that spanned grief and memory and discussion of landscapes and Tolkien’s translation of Sir Gawain and how funny people still are about genre.
And during that conversation, she shared with me a version of her notion of what the critic’s job is.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I love books where you’re constantly arguing. I suppose there is a level on which I read novels kind of like a detective story. There’s always a sort of process of analysis and attempting to unpack the novel. I often feel quite uncomfortable about that. It’s the critical practice I’ve been taught, and at the end of it, I still need to be able to knit the novel back together and let you make it into a whole, because otherwise I feel like I failed a novel of myself.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: And it was splendid, and I published it, and we became more and more friends after that. And we chatted sometimes and had various zoom conversations and slack conversations and also sometimes recorded episodes for the podcast. We went over the Clark Award shortlist nominees at one point and later had a book club discussion that included both Watership Down and The Stone Boatmen. And it was wonderful because Maureen was wonderful and what she loved, as far as I could tell, above all else—other than maybe taking care of the cats and Mort’s escapades—was talking about books that were worth talking about with other people who wanted to talk about books, and I got to do that.
And a thing, I think it’s easy sometimes to think that critics are interested in criticism and therefore not interested in joy and celebration. And I hope that hearing this other brief excerpt from our discussion might persuade you that Maureen was always interested in joy and celebration.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I know what we need to talk about, Jonah. Yes, we need to talk about The Boatmen.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: We did talk about the boatmen that day and we talked about The Stone Boatmen, and much later we got together with Aisha and talked about three books: one epic fantasy, one steampunk alternate history, and one collection of contemporary short stories with a magical realism inflection. We talked about Everfair and The Winged Histories and Temporary People, and we did that in 2018, at which point my podcast was already mostly on hiatus. And by the time I got it edited into shape, the podcast was entirely on hiatus and life and work and family were happening. And then Maureen was sick. And then it was very clear that I was never going to be able to have another conversation like that again. And it was not really very clear that the conversation that we had would ever really have a home anywhere, but it does. And I’m very grateful to Strange Horizons for making the space to include this recording, which is a little over an hour of Maureen getting to talk about books that were worth talking about with other people who like talking about books, and I hope that it may bring you as much joy as it brought me. And so, without further ado, my conversation with Maureen Speller and Aisha about Temporary People, Everfair and The Winged Histories.
Aisha Subramanian: It’s 09:00 in the UK, which means it’s something like two in the morning in India.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Ah, 02:00 is about the time Mort will decide it’s time for another meal or something and come in and wake Paul up.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: [My daughter] has been having a very interesting sleep schedule recently and so, yeah, yesterday it was one in the morning.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Climbing into bed with you is kind of engaging when it’s a cat, not so much, possibly when you’re ....
Jonah Sutton-Morse: I mean, it’s cute every once in a while! But I was thinking maybe, Aisha, this feels like it’s sort of right up your alley. So I was thinking maybe we could start with just a little bit of musing on empire and violence and colonialism and whether you saw threads there that you found particularly interesting and maybe you could kick us off a little bit with what you saw between the three books.
Aisha Subramanian: When I picked Temporary People, I wasn’t expecting it to have exactly the same links to the other two books as it turned out to do. But with all three, I think the thing that really stood out for me was the sense of these quite polyphonic narratives in telling the story of a people. And obviously what a people means changes depending on which book you’re talking about. Sometimes it’s a subgroup within a nation, sometimes it’s a story of a nation and so forth. But it felt to me that all three books were really interested in multiple voices and in putting those things together into some sort of larger narrative in very different ways as it pans out. But those were some of the things that I found really important.
And obviously with Everfair and The Winged Histories, the way that that is interpollated by empire is a lot more obvious, in that Everfair is written within a history that we recognize and understand. And The Winged Histories is about an empire that says it’s an empire and is very clearly thinking of itself in ways that we recognize as imperial. I don’t know that that’s necessarily true of Temporary People, but again, there’s still so much to be said about power and who wields it, and nationhood, and also citizenship.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I’d also like to pick up the point of the sort of polyphony of voices. The first time I read Everfair I had a certain amount of trouble getting to grips with it. Until Aisha raised it just now I hadn’t really thought about the way in which it occurs in Temporary People and also in The Winged Histories. I’m wondering now if the idea sort of polyphony of voices is a condition: can a novel actually successfully discuss topics such as empire and colonialism if it doesn’t actually use that polyphony of voices? So I shall leave that there for us to think about.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: The basic idea behind this book is that it’s effectively attempting to write an alternative version of the reign of King Leopold II over the Congo Free State. It’s really quite hard to describe exactly what King Leopold II and his people did to the Congo Free State. But if I quote from the beginning of the novel the historical note ”the exact number of casualties is unknown, but conservative estimates admit that at least half the populace disappeared in the period from 1895 to 1908. The area thus devastated was about a quarter of the size of the current continental United States. Millions of people died.“ I’ve been particularly interested in this having read [Adam] Hochschild’s book; it’s a pretty grim read, unsurprisingly but also intensely moving, the way he explores what went on and writes about it. I found it very powerful when I first read it.
But what I was also interested in—I have this kind of love hate relationship with steampunk. I’m still not quite sure what steampunk is for, but I was interested in the idea of actually tackling a historical issue like King Leopold’s reign of the Congo Free State and trying to write an alternative version of it in which King Leopold was defeated. In the end, I found that the steampunkiness of it was much more subtle than I’d expected it to be. And I think I’ve just read some of the steampunk I’ve read has been sort of lavishly fondling the machinery in a narrative in a narrative sense, it dwells so much upon the machinery it doesn’t actually think about the ways in which one might use technological developments. The first time I read it, I was not very sure what she was actually doing with the narrative structure. Having come back and read it again, my head is in a better place for dealing with this. One of the things she does is to actually go from somewhere in the mid, er, actually starts off in 1889, but goes all the way up to pretty much 1916, which, of course, in our world is part way into the First World War. And although there is something that’s analogous to the First World War in Everfair, it all turns out rather differently. But what I was very struck by was the way the narrative was structured as a series of almost snapshots dipping into developments and we sort of drop back in each year or over a period of months and see what’s going on. But it does not actually engage in lavish explanations. It’s left to the reader to put things together. There’s a series of glimpses which I actually found very, very interesting because it makes me work as a reader. But it also means that the novel is actually able to cover a fairly broad range of not only period of time, but also multiple viewpoints and a lot of different issues. And it’s sort of left for the reader to sort of actually think through and work it out for themselves.
It’s quite surprising, actually, in that I think it’s very quick-fire in one way, almost the same kind of technique you find in certain kinds of thriller writing. Kind of boom, boom, boom, moving on to the next thing, but spread over a period of time like that. You’re sort of dipping in and out. You’re able to see how people’s attitudes change or don’t change. But what I particularly liked was the ways in which she was exploring multiple approaches to, I suppose what we call issues of diversity now, but also micro racisms. The way that people regard themselves on the one hand, as I suppose, what we’d say now is woke. And on the other hand, they’ve got all their little prejudices that they can’t quite bring themselves to address. The more as I’ve read on the second time, the more excited I became with the whole thing, seeing how it fits together. It’s so beautifully done.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: Yes, I felt like this definitely rewarded a second reading, in part because I struggled with finding a sort of coherent shape to the second half of it the first time through. And I think the second time I was more conscious of sort of the project and what was being shown, but it wasn’t the story of Everfair, the nation state as I had initially imagined. But I’m going to put a pin in that for a minute and say: Aisha, what resonated from what Maureen said for you?
Aisha Subramanian: I think one of the things that you said, Maureen, about the number of things that it manages to touch on because of that format was really important to me when I was reading it. A couple of years ago, I reviewed a book by, bizarrely, Kevin Costner, which was that it was a sort of pastiche Boy’s Own, adventure novel thing set during World War I, so really quite close in time to this that had many issues, to put it mildly. But one of the things about it that I really enjoyed and that I kept coming back to and thinking about was the way that novels set in imperial context are able to be so big in terms of their geography, in part because they’ve got that sort of imperial superstructure that makes a really obvious link between what’s happening in this corner of the world and what’s happening in this corner of the world.
And I think that that aspect of its setting is something that Everfair really uses beautifully. You’ve got these wonderful shifts both in time and perspective and in geography. You’ve got things happening in Britain, you’ve got things happening in France, and they are directly relevant to what is happening in and around Everfair. And Everfair, in turn, affects what’s happening in those countries. It’s one of the things that I think we lose in the 20th century. And it is good that one of the reasons we lose it is decolonization, obviously! This is not a plea for Empire to come back! But I think that sense of the bigness of the world is something that a science fiction writer is in a really good position to exploit. It’s just that sense of how lots of things come together and fit together and bump up against each other. And just the amount of research in this is incredible.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Yes, it wears its research very lightly. I think in some ways.
Aisha Subramanian: It just feels like deep, vast knowledge.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I remember how when we all read Hild at some point, I think, didn’t we do that for a Strange Horizons Book Club? We were all sort of overwhelmed by the amount of research. And then I suddenly thought, yes, but this is a book that does not wear its research very lightly. Which is not to say it’s not a remarkable book, but I found I became quite tired because there was so much in it being pushed at me. Whereas in Everfair there was a really wonderful balance between the story sort of narrative pushing it on all these people. We kept encountering over and over again and everything around it. I think this is what I actually feared about the steampunk elements of it. I was going to be invited to admire the ingenuity of the ways in which the inventions have been sort of retrofitted with steam or something. And yet it’s been done much more carefully than that. I was striking you as sort of the Bar Songai, Their Mysterious Earth, and I’ve been reading this for a while and I said and I thought, oh, God, we’re talking about nuclear, aren’t we? Radioactivity.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: Yes, exactly!
Maureen Kincaid Speller: But it was there, but not there. And then at the same time, the sort of thing that struck me about that example in particular, the knowledge was exactly the same as the scientists of this world have sort of gathered, but it was just cast from a different perspective. They’d all reached the same conclusion that this stuff is really dangerous and you had to be really careful of it, but it wasn’t being heavily signalled. It’s like when you get alternative worlds and they’ve all got coffee in them and they all want to frantically signal to you that that’s the coffee analogue, because you need to know about the coffee analogue. And you just want to say: oh, no, please, not again.
Whereas this was never in your face and you could read the whole thing quite happily and maybe miss the cues, but you’d still get the same effect. You still sort of understand that this was another form of energy and there was something unusual about it. And I liked a little bit towards the end where one of the characters recognizes as this what sort of European scientists would call pitchblende, same thing. So the connection was actually made, but almost in passing. Two different societies, two different cultures, had found the same substances, had come to the same conclusions about them, chose to express their understanding of how they worked in slightly different ways, but the end result was the same. I really, really like that. You read those novels where we’re back in deep history and a person has suddenly figured out agriculture, or a person has suddenly figured out steam. And you know that it’s standing in for the fact that probably lots of people are coming to the same conclusion, but it always feels very yes, extremely artificial and contrived. Whereas this seemed to be, all the way through there was this natural exchange of ideas, different groups of people bringing ideas together. And you could see the anxieties at times as different cultures wondered what this would mean for them. But there was always this sort of consistent thread of people being interested in working together to improve what they’d got by utilizing other people’s ideas rather than dismissing them because they thought it came from somewhere else and therefore it’s inevitably going to be inimical to us. Of course, that was sort of set up against various people’s prejudices, like Martha Alban’s conviction that Bibles, we needed Bibles before anything else. I thought actually she was very interestingly presented all the way through in the way that she was struggling with—she wanted to keep bringing it back to the need for Christianity above all else, but she was constantly being ... not quite undermined, but confronted with alternatives that she really didn’t quite know how to process.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: And I think I’d like to jump off that a little bit because she was not the only character and in fact very many of the characters brought a strong ideology and sense of the world with them. I mean, not only is there the utopian socialist founding and then the hymn; I have to take a moment and just say that I, despite being a very bad singer, really enjoy communal singing. And so I was won over by Everfair, by the national anthem and the formation of the national anthem. But then, yes, Martha is bringing her religion and Christianity; the King has very strong ideas about how he’s supposed to be making decisions. So I felt like a lot of what was going on in Everfair was that it was very honest about the ways that diversity can be really hard because you can bring very strong convictions. And even if you are bringing both very strong convictions and a lot of goodwill, you can make mistakes on the micro level and you can make mistakes on the macro level in how you are treating other people, and how communities and societies can work together.
Because it turns out that if you spend your time working on socialist ideology and working class, then you miss the power of saying "let’s form a community together." And if you say "we are all going to be equal now," then you miss the fact that you have just displaced the King and all the people who used to live here, and they have strong ideas about the fact that they should really be in charge. And those conflicts, I feel, really played out on both the macro and micro level and I think that that was some of what I struggled with the first time I read it because I wanted the unified story of Everfair. And I think part of the point is you don’t get the unified story of anything because it is not.
Aisha Subramanian: Of anything!
Maureen Kincaid Speller: No, exactly. I love the way she was still pushing this right at the end, that point where you think, oh, everybody lives happily ever after is what you’re expecting after all their travails. No, it’s going to keep on—not disintegrating, but there will be dispersal. It felt true. I don’t normally go into fiction looking for truth in that way, but this felt true in a way that extended beyond the novel, if that makes sense.
Aisha Subramanian: I think as well that it’s quite rare to have characters in a lot of science fiction but also in a lot of literature in general who live in their worlds in ways that I recognize as being engaged. I mean, you can absolutely imagine these characters having these massively fraught arguments about the news, the causes of the war, et cetera, because that is the sort of people they are. They live in the world and they’re aware of what’s happening around them and they have thoughts about those happenings.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I think that what I had was the sense that in the gaps between our various sightings of them, you have the sense of that going on. They’ve had the discussions, we’ve been away as the reader, we’ve been away and we’ve come back to catch up with what they’re doing. Then we have to figure out what they have done while we’ve been away, because obviously, when you sort of meet somebody, you don’t have a massive info dump of what’s been going on in one another's lives, so you’re having to sort of constantly figure it out from things they say and what’s going on around them. As you said, they’re quite definitely having those arguments just around the corner. I found in the end, actually, I cared about them all very much.
Aisha Subramanian: I think I cared about them more than I would have in a more conventional narrative structure where I’d actually been walked through their relationships and their ideas and their experiences over that period of time.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: It’s interesting to actually be able to contemplate what they’re trying to do as individuals and they’re all sort of driven by the same sort of earnest conviction that they’re doing the right thing. There’s actually very few people you meet in the story who are outrightly bad. Possibly Thornhill the assassin. Very few of the other people are actually bad people. They’re all very focused and motivated, but they, in some instances, are so focused on the one thing, like Martha, that they don’t actually find it very easy to see anything from anyone else’s point of view.
In a way, actually, I find the same of Daisy Albin. She’s still, at the very end, fretting about the fact that Fwendi and Matty might actually marry. [Fake gasps.]This would be too terrible. Have you not learned anything during this? No, you haven’t really, have you? This is going to be your persistent prejudice. Whatever happens, you’re not actually going to be able to dig that one out, you’re not going to be able to deal with that. And fortunately, they appear to live happily ever after without her interfering. It’s like your gently racist mum or your gently racist aunty, isn’t it? What do I do?
Aisha Subramanian: There’s a really beautiful moment that is quite near the end where Daisy once again brings up her whole plan to have a day to commemorate Jackie. Once again and again, you get the feeling that this debate has been going on a lot more off the page as well. But once again, Lisette is not in favor, for obvious reasons. And then there’s a moment where Lisette is just feeling utterly defeated by the fact that Daisy is never actually going to get this.
Yeah, there’s this lovely bit about where Lisette "[sobs] inwardly with the fear that there would never be anything more between them than these meetings fraught with the sight and scent of love, but not its touch." And it’s just that thing where everyone means so well and everyone is trying so hard. But there are some ways in which these people are never going to be able to fully understand each other and fully come together and fully commit to each other. And it’s both completely understandable and deeply tragic.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I found it interesting, too, the number of these characters, like Daisy Albin, appears to be quite closely related to E. Nesbit in some respects, there seem to be some similarities of situation. I did wonder whether Matty was some kind of—I wasn’t quite sure who he might be, but I had a sense I was supposed to know who he was in another world.
Aisha Subramanian: The obvious one is Thomas, the Reverend, who is some form of George Washington Williams.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Yes.
Aisha Subramanian: But not—obviously alternate-universe.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Yes. And it’s quite fascinating the way those little resonances .. did you notice, too, all those odd little sly references to Peter Pan?
Aisha Subramanian: I noticed a couple. I don’t think not that many, though.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: There’s White Bird, that thing that JM Barry wrote, but it’s talking later about Wendi-La. And there were sort of other things I suspect are lurking in there—this interesting idea of also never and ever playing off against one another. And I may be going way too far now.
Aisha Subramanian: No, but I really like that as a possibility.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: It’s just quite intriguing, isn’t it? Was there ever a more problematic concept than Never Never Land? I mean, of course, Too, we’ve got all sort of the H. Rider Haggardy bit. Young George Albin wanting to prove himself, you think, oh, this could turn into a disaster. He’s going to try and be Allan Quartermain or whoever.
Aisha Subramanian: I thought about that bit in part because one of the things that you keep getting with the Haggardy sort of book is the concept of little bits of Africa that are unexplored and still claimable and the ways in which those books, that whole genre uses the geography of all of Africa to keep making more bits of it that can be imagined into new kingdoms. Because obviously, Everfair is partly writing back to that tradition, but also writing in that tradition.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: Well, shall we turn from Everfair towards a more realistic setting and one also grounded in real world history? Because I need help with Temporary People.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: I remember passages of it that I very much enjoyed and passages that I was very lost in. Aisha, can you introduce us to Temporary People? And some of the things that you particularly connected with?
Aisha Subramanian: Temporary People is a collection of short stories that may in some ways link to form a larger narrative, but in some ways also don’t, that are set in and around the experience of laborers from the south of India, so from Kerala, Malayali workers who go to the Persian Gulf. And it’s very hard to explain this to other people, really, because if you’re Indian, this is just a phenomenon that you know about, that there is this huge ongoing movement between Kerala and the Gulf states. So people move to these countries usually because the job prospects are better, but then also find themselves frequently abused underpaid, legally quite precarious. In one of the stories in this collection, a man literally transforms into a passport that allows another man to escape the country because sometimes you lose your passport, as in your employer will take it and then you’re stuck there. And one of the things that I found really interesting about this, apart from the polyphonic nature of it, again, was that it uses language in really complex and interesting ways. It uses reality in really interesting ways. When I started reading, I wasn’t entirely sure how the stories were linked together. Obviously, they are about a similar experience being retold in different ways. But do they exist in the same universe? Are they subject to the same natural laws? They’re not, as far as I can tell.
So you do have these common threads and these common themes that just that keep recurring through the stories. I just thought it was a really fascinating collection in the use of not quite genre, but just the freedom to do whatever with those stories, the ways they go between quite science fictional, quite magical realist. I don’t want to say Kafkaesque because the Internet will hate me.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: That’s only because there’s a cockroach in there somewhere!
Jonah Sutton-Morse: There is, there are a few different stories that center around the cockroaches.
Aisha Subramanian: Yeah, cockroaches are very important to this text/ collection of texts.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: One of my favorite American novels is John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer. It’s that sort of idea of you’re kind of walking down the street and each story is handing on to another piece of story. And it’s not quite the same as that, but there’s a sort of sense of it’s like you’re standing in the middle of a group of people and sort of turning around gradually, and everything they’re thinking or experiencing is being broadcast at you, and you’re having to try and disentangle it as you go. It’s almost like you’re not meant to, or you can’t make complete sense of it. I think I read it more like a novel than a series of short stories. Sort of taking that Dos Passos pass idea of the story being handed off from one person to another as you move through a place.
I like the idea that it comes at me in so many different ways that I can choose to interpret through genre perceptions. I mean, like the story with the lift. Well, that’s a great out-and-out horror story. It’s really quite astonishing. It’s formally so exciting, too, the way in which it’s constructed and playing with language and then basically the end of it. This is this lift that’s eating kiddies and doing things to them. It’s really quite extraordinary. Wonderful thing. And then you saw something like chapter three, "Pravasis," that list of things that people might be visa keeps coming into it. Non resident worker, non citizens workers. Workers, visas, people visas, workers, worker. I love the way that it’s—there's something very reductive about it, what people are.
Aisha Subramanian: One of the reasons I find it so difficult to talk about is because the experiences it’s getting at are of people who—it’s in the title. They are temporary people. Their personhood is sort of in this constant state of negotiation. They’re not citizens. They are temporary workers. In some cases, they don’t have ways of proving their own identities or their identities are stolen from them. Sometimes they’re not real people at all. Sometimes they are literally manufactured to be labor.
I think particularly in the context of the other two books that we’re talking about, which are very specifically about nation and nationhood in quite direct ways, this one sits really uncomfortably because they can’t be members of a nation. They’re not real people in the way that the nation understands people.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: It’s like it’s constantly you know, identity is constantly dissolving. Whereas in Everfair, and I think, too, in The Winged Histories, there’s a constant movement towards consolidating identity.
Aisha Subramanian: Yeah, I think, so in Everfair, a lot of the time, people’s identities are consolidated partly by bouncing off each other.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Yes.
Aisha Subramanian: And in Temporary People, people sort of dissolve into each other.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Yes. I mean, actually, one of the things that strikes me in various places is the informal support systems that exist. Like the story “Birds,” the one where Anna Varghese worked in Abu Dhabi, she taped people specifically, she taped construction workers who fell from incomplete buildings. And there’s that sort of idea that she’s been doing this for a long time and she’s developed a kind of little community about her around herself, and she’s involved. People know that she’s the person to go to, the person who will sort of bring some help in some ways.
Aisha Subramanian: And even there the solutions and those support networks are very much about patching things up. Again, they’re temporary.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Something really quite amazing about that story. I really, really like it.
Aisha Subramanian: That is an incredible story. And having that right at the beginning is great for the book. But also … it’s just a really good short story on its own, as well as the way it stands in relation to the others.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Yeah, I think it’s actually … some of these I think if you took the collection apart, they don’t stand on their own and they cannot stand on their own. And I suspect they’re probably not intended to stand on their own. But there’s various stories, and that is one of them, that do have a life apart from it. It’s like when you’re the only child and you marry into a massive family and this is great. And then suddenly you go, who are all these people? How do they all fit together? It becomes overwhelming. You spend ages trying to figure out everybody’s stories and how everybody is related to everybody else, and you probably never quite figure it out.
Aisha Subramanian: And if you’re at, like, a wedding reception or something, they’re all talking at once anyway. So again, you’re just getting bits and pieces of what’s going on around you.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Yes. Actually, that idea of a babble of voices, I think is quite important for this one. The reader is actually put in a position where everybody contained within this collection has a chance to tell their story, and they all want to tell their story at once because they don’t actually get that chance very often. So the reader becomes a kind of captive audience and everybody’s vying for the reader’s attention. Does that work?
Aisha Subramanian: That does sort of work
Jonah Sutton-Morse: Very much, yeah.
Aisha Subramanian: One of the things it reminded me of was a book that I read and evangelized about that was both unavailable in most of the world and completely impenetrable. So almost no one actually took me up on this. But there was a book by a, I think, Bangladeshi-Canadian writer called Ghalib Islam called Fire in the Unnameable Country, and it’s in some ways very different to Temporary People, in that it’s mostly one person’s narrative, though with many caveats. But it’s got the same sense of being about a particular experience and trying to tell that experience in ways that are quite slanted, quite metaphorical, quite unreal, and also in the sense of the languages it plays with and the ways that knowing the languages in question enriches your reading of the text.
Because I know that there’s definitely I’m probably missing some of the Malayalam stuff because I don’t actually speak Malayalam, but I have family members who do. So there were definitely little bits and pieces that I picked up on and saw what he was doing, but there’s also some Hindi in there. Somewhere he’s introduced his book by talking about it as "Malayalam slang finessed in an Indian school on Emirati soil, jazzed up thanks to American Arabic and British television," which makes sense, obviously it makes sense for him as an author, but also you can see echoes of all of those things in there.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I’m very mindful of the fact that there’s a lot of this I’m not getting, because no familiarity with any of the languages that aren’t English, because, of course, not as monolingual as some, but I’m definitely quite monolingual. But I’m very conscious of the fact that there’s areas of this book that I cannot access. It can only ever be hinted at. Some awareness of the fact that groups of workers are coming from other parts of the world to work in the Gulf States, particularly the controversy about the conditions at the moment of workers building the stadiums for the World Cup.
Aisha Subramanian: Yeah, that was one of the things that really did make it to international news.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Again, that drops away, doesn’t it? It’s there for a little bit and then we think, what’s happening to these people? What’s going on now the news isn’t focused on them anymore? I’m very struck where he talks about the United Arab Emirates, "where foreign nationals constitute over 80% of the population. It is a nation built by people who are eventually required to leave."
Jonah Sutton-Morse: One of the stories is specifically about requiring people to leave. Right?
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Yeah.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: There’s one where the idea is everyone is going to have to.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: It reminded me terribly, in a way, it was almost like it was a riposte to the Ray Bradbury story, the title of which is I’m now blanking on. But in The Martian Chronicles, where all the African Americans take a ship and they all go to Mars, I think they go to Mars and there are people trying to stop them. And there’s a sort of glorious moment where it doesn’t matter because they are all going to go together and everybody’s leaving. And it’s almost like it’s kind of riffing off that. But at the same time, they’re not leaving because they want to leave.
I’m sort of struck by this thought, what is the end effect, the net effect of that departure, the effect it has on those left behind? Or so suddenly they’ve got to do the things themselves. There is nobody there to do it for them. I find something quite interesting about that idea of mass departure and what it actually says to those who are left behind and having to sort of face the effects of the choices and decisions they’ve made about how the country is going to be organized and put together. I mean, literally put together.
Aisha Subramanian: I’ve just opened that story, chapter nine, “Akbar Exodus.” But I’ve just opened it and opened it at the page:
"A reporter from the BBC puts the spokesman on the spot. Our understanding is that many of these men came here in the '70s. Will the government acknowledge their contributions before they leave?"
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Oh, my God.
Aisha Subramanian: Yeah, exactly.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: This is Windrush, right?
Aisha Subramanian: Yeah, it feels that way. It wouldn’t have occurred to me when I was reading it, but this week it’s very hard to think of anything else.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Yes, very much so. I’m old enough to remember some of the groups of West Indians coming to Oxford. I was quite little, but I remember how a lot of them in Oxford were bus drivers. And we still had conductors in those days, so we had bus conductors, so we had all these guys with different accents collecting the bus tickets and selling the bus tickets and things like that. They’re very vivid in my childhood, so I’m sure they were in lots of other places as well, but they were there. And I just cannot believe now. But, yeah, that really, really does resonate.
Aisha Subramanian: It really does. Again, I think one of the things that drew me to this was specifically questions of citizenship and precariousness and immigrants and their precarious positions legally and in every other way. At the point when I suggested that we read this, I wasn’t entirely sure whether, when we talked about it, I would be in the UK or in India. I’m not entirely sure where I’ll be six months from now. It all feels a little close to the bone in some ways. And obviously I am extremely privileged compared to the majority of the people in this book in the kind of legal and generally what does one call paperwork apart from legal?
Jonah Sutton-Morse: I think it is an ideologically freighted term, no matter what one ends up choosing.
Aisha Subramanian: Exactly.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Well, I’m actually going back to Everfair. That’s one of the interesting things there the ideological freighting of the whole thing, and even more so here because in many ways in Temporary People, it’s less articulated, but actually more vividly expressed in experience, if that makes sense.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: Yes, I think that experience is a very key piece of this. I am remembering advice that I got on reading Annihilation, which was to read carefully … “careful attention without mastery” was the phrase, because the points where I had difficulty with it were the points where I started saying, okay, how do I stack all of these stories up? And the parts that I think I was most successful with were: first of all, some of the stories are just amazing and the images are amazing. But also, I think, maybe rather than trying to stack the book into a structure, seeing it as jumbled together and enjoying the ways that all those jumbles can fit together each time.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Yes. Having sort of read it once and then sort of come back to try and read it again the second time I read it, actually thinking, I have just got to let this wash over me. I have to let it sweep me away and sort of carry me on the tide of the words and images and see what I have with me by the time I get to the shore. And then if I do it again, I’ll bring different things with me. And those are the things that are going to be most important to me at that particular moment.
Aisha Subramanian: I want to mention—though not necessarily talk about it because I don’t know that I have much to say about it—the moment in one of the stories, sort of midway through the first part, I think, where we discover the attempted creation of this sort of subaltern nation state; that we discover that they have an anthem and everything. Partly because the other two books that we’re talking about do think about nation states, and also because in this case the nation state gets shut down quite quickly. But it was just very pleasing to me when I was reading it to have that sudden thread pop out.
Oh, and I also want to mention the story where the tongue runs away. Because I’ve talked about the use of language and playing around with multiple languages and so on. And I think that particular story literalizes so much of what’s happening in the other stories and is just completely brilliant to read.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: But also, actually, it sort of really brings out that idea of the people involved as bodies that it’s okay to sort of break them apart. You don’t actually see them as people. It’s like at the beginning of Anna Varghese’s taping people back together, when the tongue runs away it’s this sort of vivid expression of the fact that these people are just a series of parts.
Aisha Subramanian: But also that early story where the three men run away and they turn into a man, a passport and a suitcase. There’s just a lot in it, and some of it is honestly quite brilliant.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Yeah, I mean, I don’t think it’s an easy read, but I think it’s a very rewarding read. And again, it’s much more overtly even than Everfair inviting you to look at the structure of narrative as well. Test your expectations of a narrative, what a narrative should be. And I’m always up for that. I also love the idea—I’m going back to the horror lift one—the idea of a child bearers being called manufacturists. “Normally, manufacturists comprise two parents!” But it’s interesting, that, because it’s a very vivid glimpse into how a world is defined by construction, this is not a natural process. It’s become even something like conception, gestation, birth of a child has become a kind of mechanistic thing. It’s got no existence as something natural. They’re manufacturists, you know, they make things.
Aisha Subramanian: That also feeds into what you said earlier about the thingness of bodies in this world and also to that story where new labor is literally being manufactured rather than born.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: Yes. Imagine how well, not even imagine how convenient that would be in so very many ways for some of the group of people.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: All right, I think I’m going to turn us to The Winged Histories, which is Sofia Samatar’s second book in the world of Olondria. And it is a story of four women during a war. And I think it’s the same war that we saw in Stranger in Olondria.
Aisha Subramanian: I think so.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Yes.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: There’s Tavis, the swordswoman who is very closely related to the emperor and runs away to go be a soldier. There is then Tialon, who is the daughter of the priest of the stone and grew up in the palace, but very, very isolated. There’s Seren, the singer and the poet, who is in love with Tavis for a while. And then there is Siski, Tavis’s sister, who went off to fall in love, and then it didn’t work out as she had planned. And I have to admit that the first time I read this, I have a very vivid memory early on of reading The Winged Histories, sort of in, Trump had been president for almost a year, and yet it still felt like in the wake of him coming to power and Tav is coming to grips with the fact that she has lived a very privileged life in an empire that she has come to not want to be part of and in fact, lead a rebellion against. And that’s complicated. She lived this life of privilege, she has lots of nice memories and also the whole thing is sort of crumbling and coming apart and that is very difficult for her.
And I was feeling like I have lived a privileged life in something that I am increasingly becoming aware is a very dangerous and harmful empire and many things are coming apart and that’s very hard for me. And I was reading The Winged Histories and seeing myself in the swordswoman and I fell in love with the book and I enjoyed many other parts of it. And that is by far my strongest memory and reaction, even having read it twice now. So I’m curious for either of you, what clicked and connected for you?
Aisha Subramanian: For me, there’s little sort of incidents within all four narratives that suddenly just jump out and feel intensely familiar and real. So, for example, as you say, Tav is, on the one hand, one of the people who benefits most by the empire as it stands. But her breaking away from it also involves a huge amount of privilege. Her relationship with the other people who are breaking away from or who are trying to break away from the empire involves a huge disparity in power. And I just thought that that was really interestingly and complexly dealt with; the ways in which in which she does understand, to a great extent, the destructiveness of Olondria, but doesn’t always fully understand herself within that, her own position within that. That part of her narrative felt very important to me.
And then, of course, you get to Seren’s narrative where she calls out Tav a lot.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: Yes!
Aisha Subramanian: Which is brilliant and again, very upsetting because once again, you’ve got, as with Everfair, you’ve got a romance that is disrupted or shattered or somethinged by that inability for the characters to get past the power relations which they can’t get past, they exist within them. I also, as much as I love that this is a story told by four women I both do and don’t want Dasia’s story. That’s a really good narrative. That’s a really, really good arc. I want to see what that’s like from the inside. And I’m both quite glad that we don’t because I really like how in both of these books, the actual reality of war and rebellion is dealt with, but it’s dealt with at a remove in some ways, even though with Tavis you’ve got a literal instigator of the current political situation, it still feels like we’re at a remove from the action.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: Yeah. I mean, most of her action that you see is the leading up to it and the aftermath. And I think even the aftermath is not it’s from Seren’s perspective.
Aisha Subramanian: Yeah. And Seren’s position in this is, again, quite different and less immediate.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: Yeah, I like that in some ways, it is saying that sort of the least interesting part of the civil war that crumbles the Empire is …
Aisha Subramanian: … the civil war that crumbles the empire.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: That crumbles the empire. It is instead the people that it happens to and the ways that it happens. And of course, there are all of those beautiful passages in Seren’s section where she is rethinking how you tell heroic stories. That’s just wonderful.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I think the story that actually I find most interesting is—I mean, they’re all great—but I’m very intrigued by the story of Tialon, Ivrom’s daughter. Her story is so terrible in so many ways. Her father is a monster, driven by his beliefs, which in the end, his entire life seems to be a disappointment to him. And she, meanwhile, has lost the only person she’s ever actually loved. And now, at the end of it all, she’s sort of sitting there as the war rages around her, trying to figure out what she’s actually supposed to do. She’s literally got nothing except what she’s got from her father, who’s spent his entire life pretty much oppressing her and trying to strip her life of any kind of pleasure in the name of his religion. I think what fascinates me so much is she’s so static. She’s just sitting in a room waiting, and yet there’s all this going on inside her head.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: And I think it’s interesting your comment that her father is kind of a monster is, of course, true. And also, it didn’t occur to me very much at first because it doesn’t occur to her, that it would be very easy to describe this life from outside of her experience and see it as horrible. And yet it is what she has known.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Yes, I’m trying to think of a way of encompassing that. It’s actually not easy because when you look at it, it actually seems quite straightforward. She’s never really had much of a life because of her father, and yet when you start looking at it in more detail, there’s a level on which she knows what has happened to her is wrong, but it’s at the same time all she’s got. And she knows that it’s all she’s got. She said, if only he would come back and stand over me again in the way I hated so much when I was a girl. The man is gone, but she’s mourning him because, of course, he’s her father. And there’s that attachment, however one sided it might be, because he did not behave like a father, yet he’s all she’s ever had as a father. That sort of contradiction, the tension between her desire to be normal and yet she can’t let go of her father. Then you turn the page and see, “When he had shed his name, left the capital, cut off relations with nearly all of his family and friends. When he had become this harsh young man, Ivrom, the mirror of the stone, he still remembered the pink peppercorn tree in his aunt’s garden in Bain.” And you think, oh, there's that terrible little moment of beauty locked inside him.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: Yes. Aisha, is there another section, another direction that struck you?
Aisha Subramanian: So one of the things I think that really worked for me was, first of all, the stone itself and the ways that so much of our attention is on that question of text and text being overwritten with other text and what is significant and what isn’t, and is this an important religious message, or is it just something someone wrote, the equivalent of a shopping list? So that sense of meaning just piled up and interpretable and the way that that bounces off the other uses of text throughout the book.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: There is a passage, I think, relatively early on about the various noble families that have come to be in the empire and at least one of them being descended from the sort of vampire monsters and the notion of that sort of coming back to haunt them later. And I’m going to give a spoiler here, so readers beware. But of course the monsters come back. And yes, there are so many parts of this book in which the texts and the stories and the ways in which they are significant. There are many ways in which they are significant in much the same way that you can read the stone and wonder how much significance to attribute. What does it mean that there is the founding myth of this empire and that the truth of the founding myth is related to the different ways that various families have connected and also the founding myth turns out to be literally true and a real problem.
Aisha Subramanian: There’s a wonderful moment where Seren, I think, points out that the myth of the noble ancestors who rode giant birds and the myth of the scary vampire people are in her language, they use the same words because death coming from the sky is pretty much the same if you’re on the ground. Here we are:
You came out of the sky. A legend. They have begun to call you Shastuen now. "The Winged." And in Kestenyi, the word for "vampire" is shasladhi. It means "the flying Lath." You draw a distinction between the Drevedi, whom you call monsters, and the ancient Laths riding on great birds. We do not. All of them come from the sky and all of them kill. I do not want to remember this, winged predators from the Valley, and at the same time, I don’t want to forget.
I love the idea of even within spoken language, at the level of the words itself, there’s this sense of contested meaning, depending on who’s doing the speaking.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: So what about Siski? I was prepared to be very angry with her before we got her story, which is probably the point.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Yeah, I think you may be right, yes.
Aisha Subramanian: Yeah. I think we’re definitely invited to read her in certain ways that are again informed by a lot of our reading of genre that get undermined as we actually encounter her.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Siski is the one who ends up sort of marrying in order to help save the family, isn’t she?
Jonah Sutton-Morse: Her family has planned for her to marry the prince.
Aisha Subramanian: And something happens.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: And for Tav, that something means sort of the end of the idyllic childhood. And for Tav, when she returns, Siski is being very determinedly, the society sister, without any real morals or kindness or understanding, just sort of flitting among her privilege.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: When I was reading, I kept thinking of sort of late nineteenth-century Russian novels when I came to the bits of Siski in them. Not necessarily Anna Karenina, I think maybe more sort of bits of War and Peace. There was a kind of distinct flavor of people stuck with, I suppose, with a sort of unsustainable lifestyle. But their position demands that they keep on doing this. They can’t actually walk away and do something else, even though they are supposed almost literally bankrupting themselves because that’s what they’ve been trained to do. That’s the way they’ve been taught to live in a way that Tav hasn’t been. Tav has been able to walk away from it and go and do what she wants to do and be a warrior, whereas Siski is somehow I don’t know. I find it interesting, actually, that Siski makes me think of the bird Siskin, that fluttery quality of being trapped somehow in this beautiful cage.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: She is constrained almost as much and in many of the same ways as Tialon. Yes. I can’t imagine what it would be to be outside of that.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: It’s quite hard to engage with her. And then as time goes on and you sort of see her caught in this, you feel a kind of sympathy, or you cannot help but feel a kind of sympathy. It’s just trying to do what she can, but at the same time, there is no way out of it.
Aisha Subramanian: I think that when you see her from outside so when you see her from Tavis’s perspective, it’s easy to think of her as being oblivious to what’s going on around her. And the minute you realize that she isn’t that she’s well aware of what’s happening but isn’t necessarily in a position to do very much about it, she suddenly becomes a much more sympathetic character. And also, there is obviously a period in between where she is quite a mess. But you also start seeing her using the rules of the world that she is trapped in ways that are conscious and deliberate.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Yes, that’s the point when she becomes Anna Karenina. I find it quite interesting when a novel is working quite determinedly in one area and then you see these kind of these resonances with things you’ve read elsewhere. It reminds you that things resonate across genres and how artificial those ideas can be. When I read this, it did speak very strongly to me of bits of War and Peace and indeed bits of Anna Karenina and that sort of same sense of being caught in a system that is long past, its long since ceased to have a useful purpose and to actually be viable. But people are sort of desperately continuing to perform it because that’s all they know how to do. And there’s a sense of inevitability that this set of structures must pass. And do you keep going right to the end hoping you can maintain what you’re used to because it is all you’re used to? Or do you have the strength and are you forward looking enough to be able to let go of it? Of course, the truth is, whatever we’re in, we very frequently tend to cling to that with which we are familiar, even if it’s no longer working, because it’s what we know.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: It’s funny, Maureen, I remember in one of the early book clubs that we did and of course, those also had fairly obvious resonances and yet there was a certain amount of exercise of sort of how do we see if these books talk to each other? And I think that these three talk very directly to each other. And I think it is interesting the point about the polyphony of voices and I think also the ways in which they talk around power structures in much the way that The Winged Histories is not actually talking about the war when it tells the story of the war or not actually telling the story of the war when talking about the war, because it’s very much talking about the war. But I think that it’s interesting to see those very similar techniques.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: And I think interesting too, to see how they can be taken in such different directions as well, how many different ways there are of talking about these kinds of issues, which I always appreciate.
Aisha Subramanian: From a purely genre perspective, if you said you were going to read an epic fantasy, a nineteenth-century alternate history, and a collection of modern-day, magical-realist-y short stories, you wouldn’t necessarily be expecting them to be thematically coherent in quite this way.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: And yet I think they turn out as a group to actually have a great deal to say to one another, which I think is really awesome. It’s actually been very satisfying to read the three of them.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: Yes, I do wonder how I’m going to feel the next time I read an essay or I’m talking to someone who says, “Oh yes, genre does this. Fantasy is well equipped to do this. Science fiction manages that so well. Because I think that one thing about these is that they do sort of explode the myth that genre determines …
Maureen Kincaid Speller: More and more, the more I read, the older I get, I really don’t think that I think it’s a useful way of exploring practically any subject. It’s a lens through which to examine a subject. But I do not believe any more that genre does determine.
Aisha Subramanian: I still think there are specific things and specific effects that particular genres can do that nothing else quite can. But, yeah, I think in terms of actual subject matter, no.
Jonah Sutton-Morse: Well, thank you both very much. I have really enjoyed this.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: No, it’s been an absolute pleasure. I’ve really, really enjoyed this. I’ve been looking forward to this for ages. I’m so glad we’ve been able to sit down and do it. It’s great. I always enjoy a book club discussion.
Dan Hartland: Thanks for listening to this special episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast. Our theme music is dialup by Lost Cosmonauts. You can hear more of their music at grandevalise.bandcamp.com. Thanks again to Jonah Suttun-Morse for allowing us to use this audio, and again to you for listening to it. And most of all? Thanks, Maureen. We miss you.
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