What was the inspiration behind “Malotibala Printing Press”?
Two of my favourite things went into the writing of “Malotibala Printing Press”—I grew up reading lots of horror stories in Bengali, of which there is a tradition of over 200 years; and I am trained as a Publishing Studies scholar. Calcutta, the city in India where I’m from, has the oldest tradition of printing in South Asia. I didn’t use the name of Calcutta in the story, but every other detail in it is historical, including the name of Chitpur Road where the printing-press neighbourhood came up around the early nineteenth century. I wrote the earliest draft of the story three years ago, and shared it with the professor who had introduced me to book history and the mechanism of old letterpresses (perfect murder weapon, don’t you think?), Dr. Abhijit Gupta of Jadavpur University in Calcutta. My joke was that this story was all I had to show for my master’s degree in Publishing Studies, since I didn’t stay in the academic field.
There’s also a third inspiration: The myth of Bon Bibi and Dakshin Ray is a syncretic local myth from the coastal forests of the Sundarbans, very close to where my father’s family originated. That’s a myth I heard often as a child. It’s funny that I never read a story that brought together all three, since they are fairly recognizable local themes from Bengal, and I have read a lot of Bengali popular fiction.
“Malotibala Printing Press” is also the fifth standalone story to be published from a world that I had been building for over a decade. It wasn’t a planned project, so the world kept expanding as I wrote. Naiwrit Roy aka Noru was a character in the first published story, “Other People,” which occurs later in the overall chronology. I had made up his origin story when I started writing that story in 2008, but in it he was a mysterious character whose history the POV character never gets to learn, so I couldn’t include it. Udayan Dhar had a very minor appearance in the third story, “The Trees of My Youth Grew Tall.” Since I never planned out these stories as a whole, it was a surprise to me as well that they would meet and have an adventure together. There are other characters with brief appearances in these stories who may grow out in other interesting directions later, but I have no idea right now.
I appreciate that the setting of this story is a non-Western one. In this story, and in others you have written, is this a conscious choice, or is this simply natural to your storytelling?
Most of my fiction publications in recent years were in the Majestic Oriental Circus world, which itself is just a convenient way of calling them, since the series never had a planned name. I went to Clarion West in 2015, which was my first visit to the US and introduction to the larger American SFF culture. I started writing this world long before that, back when I had never been anywhere outside India.
I think what I consciously try to do, at least in my original fiction, is to not really write characters or situations completely outside my personal experience. This is less of an agenda and more of a hesitation, I suppose. My background for a long time didn’t include many interactions with people from other countries, so every time I tried to write white people, they would read like generic white people rather than nuanced individuals, and writing them from a first-person POV was always a disaster. Don’t even get me started on characters or situations from non-white, non-South Asian cultures.
On the other hand, I’m a university pedant, so it really bothered me not to get the minutest details of a character as correct as possible. (This is only true of my own style of writing. I do enjoy other fiction that’s very heavily speculative.) One of the stories I published two years after moving to the US has a POV character who was a grad student from India in the US, which was as far as I could trust my understanding to stretch at that time. Now that I’ve lived here for a while and actually met a wider range of people, maybe I’ll try to expand my range in later stories.
You co-edited “Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler” which won a Locus award and a Hugo nomination in 2018. Congratulations. This anthology sounds like one of such inspiration. Tell us more about the anthology. What was the inspiration?
Luminescent Threads, to be honest, was an opportunity I was given, rather than a project of my own conception. I had worked at Penguin India and as a freelance editor before, but back in 2016, I was still too new to international SFF to start compiling my own anthology from scratch. Alexandra Pierce, senior editor for Luminescent Threads, already had the call for submission in circulation when her second editor became unavailable, and she asked around for a replacement editor from the community of Octavia E. Butler Scholars. (The scholarship annually funds one student each to the Clarion and Clarion West writing workshops.) It was pretty amazing for me to get on board.
I learned a lot about editing from Luminescent Threads, especially about how to ethically work with marginalized creators, why it’s not simply enough to put out a call for submissions, when and how to identify and disrupt superstructures—even in our own editorial training—that bias the system to keep out disempowered perspectives. These are all the theories I had learned at university, but it’s a whole different training to put them into implementation. Luminescent Threads made me a better editor.
I know you for your SFF, but I understand that you write in other genres as well. Tell us what else you write. And, do you have a favorite genre or form? Why?
I’ve had a publishing career of over fifteen years writing different kinds of things, because I came from a family that didn’t know anything about writing at all. I started out with journalism in high school, did a little part-time content writing at college, was a poet for a few years around the same time, wrote some truly horrendous advertising copy (one of which actually got made!), a few half-hearted realism stories and a bunch of academic papers, before I decided to come back to writing SFF in my late twenties.
I think my favourite form of all of these is SFF, but fiction takes me a long time to write. The other kind of writing I enjoy is what I like to call high-concept nonfiction, usually published in magazines and news venues. It’s mostly opinion pieces. The distinction might sound pretentious, so please let me explain the context. Journalism was my first love, but in India it’s nearly impossible for a young woman with no pedigree to have an intellectually satisfying journalism career rising directly from the bottom. I got into journalism very young and left disappointed a few years later, because my most passionate ideas always got shot down, and I was only made to do unimaginative reportage, often not even given a byline.
I moved on to academic writing, which was more intellectually satisfying, but the usually highly elitist scope of academic writing began to catch up with me after a few years. I always wanted my writing to be read by the kind of people who came from my background, and not many of them understand university jargon, which does not mean they cannot appreciate high-concept ideas, or shouldn’t be allowed to engage with them. It prickles my conscience that academic discourses on marginalization, even from an own-voices perspective, are only accessible to a small section of the marginalized community which is its most educated. I understand why it’s inevitable—we cannot possibly overturn all structures at the same time; and we marginalized intellectuals face our own challenges within the system. If we cannot play to the system even better than the people who made the system, we’re not even given a place in the room. If we choose not to use a polysyllabic word, it’s assumed that we don’t know that polysyllabic word. There’s a reason why so many of us often come across as self-important and pretentious. If we don’t remind people of what we’re worth, we’re usually presumed to have none.
So that’s why I said I write high-concept nonfiction instead of saying journalism. I’m really proud (and relieved) to have finally outgrown the only kind of “journalism” I was allowed to do a decade ago. But that’s also the reason I did return to journalism. I’ve always wanted to write high-concept ideas for a non-university readership, but I had to come through this long, circuitous route to be allowed to write it.
That’s the same impulse which drives both my nonfiction and my fiction. For fiction, I try to aim somewhere halfway between high literary (or even high SFF, which is its own club of elitism, as we all know) and popular commercial. Basically, if my very intelligent, sensitive, diversity-supportive but non-university-educated, only-functionally-English-literate mom can’t understand it, it’s possibly not something I would write. That’s a small, subjective, achievable goal, and I hope it keeps my compass directed toward the person I want to be in the world.
Do you have any upcoming projects you would like to share?
I’m trying to write a little outside my range in a few collaborative projects, all of which are not mine to announce. Besides that, I am really excited for a monthly column called Other Indias that I started writing for my Patreon (patreon.com/mimimondal) since February. It’s mostly an infodump of a lot of obscure South Asian historical and mythological research that I do for my fiction, not all of which end up in the stories, since I write so few. They’re mostly narrative, worldbuilding-style articles, which may be of interest to readers who want to hear some of the less-often-highlighted stories from South Asia, and also I hope writers who are looking for fresh settings for writing fiction.
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