Ashok Banker, Indian Science Fiction Writer: "
*This guy’s quite a character.
What made you decide to write in English? Are there any nuances with that particular language that you’re not quite able to accomplish in Hindi?
Not-Lol. I’ve met this particular cultural bogey before and it remains as unfunny as ever! My mother tongue was English, not Hindi, and in fact, there are more English-speaking people in India than in the US – it’s one of our two official national languages in fact. And of course, you probably know that India has the fastest growing publishing industry and English-literate readership population in the world – I believe our publishing business is No. 3 right now and on track to be No. 1 at this rate in the next two decades or less. I grew up speaking only English, learned Hindi only later in school because it was a compulsory subject (as were either Marathi or French – I took French), and English remains the only language I’m completely fluent in even today. So I have no idea what cultural stereotype you have of me, and am not responsible for it but it’s as offensive as my asking someone named Johnson why he chose to write in English instead of Swedish! Still, I guess you didn’t mean anything by it, so let’s chuckle and move on. :~)
In your opinion, what is the power of writing? Do you think fiction needs to be able to affect change in the world in order to be “good”?
I think writing, like people, either matters, or doesn’t. Sure, it’s possible to simply live, or even to just exist. Just as it’s possible to write without aiming to do anything more than just provide readability. But that’s like the difference between an IV drip and a gourmet meal. The difference between a sharecropper genre whore (like the writers churning out Halo or Star Wars novels, and so on) or a commercial novelist who makes a living while creating work that attempts to do more than simply extend a franchise and delivery mass-consumption product may not seem very vast, but it’s a significant line. Every writer can choose to cross that line, stand and deliver, or sit down and cash the check and shut up. If some don’t feel they have that choice, they’re not just wrong, they’re self-delusional. We all can, and we do, everyday. I’ve made the wrong choices more often than the right ones, I’ve written a whole bunch of crap that probably does nobody any more good than landfills do for the environment. But I ask myself one question now everytime I write if possible, and certainly everytime I finish writing something and consider sending it out for publication: Is this something that only I could write and which says something, however tiny and seemingly insignificant in the larger scheme, that might make a difference to somebody out there? If the answer is no, I caress it fondly and put it away regretfully. Only the ayes go forth boldly into the brave cold world to do battle.
What made you decide to write your Ramayana series? Since it’s not just an epic for Hindus but also a true story, did you receive any criticisms from the literature scene there or the Hindutva movement?
Here’s the interesting thing: I’m not Hindu. Even my birth certificate, which has a slot for Religion/Caste as was mandatory in those days (1964 to be precise) simply says “Indian”. I’m of Dutch-Scots-Irish-Goan-Gujarati-SriLankan parentage, grew up in a Catholic household, in a Christian-Jewish-Muslim neighbourhood, with Parsi and Iranian friends, and never thought of myself as “Hindu” by any stretch of the imagination….
(((It gets even better:)))
The only challenges I faced then, and face now, and will always face I suppose – as will every other writer who isn’t white, Judeo-Christian and/or American – is of getting read and getting published in the UK and USA. Writing is what I do, it’s what I love to do. It’s like breathing. I write. The real challenge is in getting American or British agents and editors to even look at any work by a non-white, non-Judeo/Christian, non-American author, regardless of how good that work may be.
To be honest, I’ve all but given up on getting published anywhere outside India and have stopped trying. The system itself is designed in such a way that it’s become all about pleasing agents and editors, not about writers talking to readers directly. At least in India, the onus of success or failure is still left to the author: If you have something to say here, at least you get a chance to say it and then publishers will see whether enough readers want to read what you have to say or not before deciding to continue publishing you. In the US and UK publishing industries, particularly in the genre of Science Fiction and Fantasy, it’s like a coloured man trying to exercise his right to vote in an all-white Southern town in the 1950s. Sure, we have the right. But try getting past those guys in the white sheets and hoods holding the burning cross up high.
I won’t mince words here: SFF publishing in the US today is the Klu Klux Klan of the publishing world. It’s anachronistically misrepresentational in its racial mix, religious mix, cultural mix. The few exceptions to the rule only prove the endemic, systemic and deeply bred bias in the field. There are even editors who claim to champion ‘coloured’ writing, by publishing anthologies that segregate non-white non-Judeo/Christian non-American authors of speculative fiction from their ‘mainstream’ genre counterparts.
There are editors who take non-white editorial assistants or even sponsor non-white writers in the name of progressiveness, and at panels in conventions, the non-white writers are often herded together conveniently. But where are the non-white Editorial Directors, Publishers, big-name literary agents, etc? For that matter, where are the non-white authors? In the ghetto, that’s where. And this ghetto is the size of the planet! SFF publishing in the US today is 50 years behind the rest of the world.
And that’s the reason why the genre itself is being increasingly sidelined, losing sales and readers, and being overtaken by ‘mainstream’ fiction with every passing year. Because like the Klu Klux Klan, nobody respects a closed group of inbred rednecks and crackers. It’s about time the entire genre was dismantled, outed, exposed and shut down. SFF as a rigid, white-dominated, Judeo-Christian-pushing, American nationalistic genre has jumped the shark. The old guard is dead and gone and the young (and old) turks running the show are fighting a losing battle against the very progressiveness and futurism that the genre is supposed to espouse! Besides, SFF has permeated mainstream literature and popular culture. We don’t need to label a book SF or F to cater to the dwindling handful of snobs who think that the term SFF on a book means it’s superior in some way to other books.
For decades SFF has been accusing mainstream literary critics, readers and authors of being snobbish and denying them their due. In fact, it’s the other way around: SFF’s pathetic cries of outrage and refusal to change with the times are proof of SFF’s own snobbishness and bias. SFF is dead and rotting. Long may it stay dead! We who love the elements that make great SFF don’t need the label so Klansmen can recognize work by other Klansmen. We don’t care if our milk was drawn by brown hands, black, or white. We just want our milk!