Anil Menon


Primarily India, but I appreciate many aspects of American culture. Earlier, we used to have three kinds of people, the marginals, the hybrids, and the establishment. These days there seems to be a new kind of human being: the transitional. These are people who are caught between an old world and a new one in the making. When the world didn't change much, there were few transitionals. Now it looks like the new world is always be in the making, so most of us are now transitionals.


Anglo-American fiction, yes; genre fiction, not so much. I love the idea of SF, but I'm not all that satisfied with what we have made of it. Of course, there are many great SF stories (the ones I'm familiar with are mostly Anglo-American) and even reaction against something probably counts as a kind of inspiration.


As a reader, I'm fluent only in English. I estimate about 60-70% of my reading is now focused on South-Asian authors working in English or translations of South-Asian writers. I try to read non-western writers every chance I get, but the main difficulty is access to material.


The wrong way is to insist that Americans should fix our problem. It's not the White Man's burden; he's approaching retirement, let him rest. The solution is for us to develop our home markets. It is not hard, but it does require a writer to set aside some time that's not connected directly with his/her writing. The American SF markets were built by American writers who understood they had to be more than just writers. They took the trouble to edit each other's stories, start one crappy magazine after another, launch awards, set up conventions, publish endless anthologies, huddle together for warmth... I think it is pointless to expect American magazines, i.e. American editors, to be responsible for developing Indian SF or Japanese SF or whatever SF. For example, if we want more people of color in SF stories, then our job is to start magazines that are willing to publish great stories with people of color. It is not hard, nor is it particularly expensive, but it does require time and effort. Look at Lavie's World SF initiative. He's single-handedly (well, double or triple-handedly) created a forum to publicize the works of SF writers all over the world. Why aren't there more Lavies?


There's nothing wrong in being influenced by other cultures. In fact, I'm for outright riffling and pillage. Modern European culture ‘borrowed’ heavily from Greek and Roman cultures; indeed, what would British culture be without its French, Greek or Latin heritage? What would ‘the’ American culture be without the cultures of its immigrant riff-raff. Speaking about my own world, there's no such thing as ‘Indian culture’. There's an alluring wet-sari version that's sold to the world; in this version, the culture is reduced to a few recognizable iconic tokens. But if there's one thing Indian culture is, it's not coherent. It is much more like a crazy quilt. For example, to my eye, Kerala art and architecture has a striking similarity with Japanese aesthetics. Many cultures have left their mark, so it's hard to tell now what's original, what's not. Now, if I were to add pieces I love to this crazy quilt that I love, how does it stop being a quilt?


It's great more people are working in English; it means more stories for me to read. But it's good for regional lit too. It needn't be a zero-sum game. Rita Kothari looked at the translation industry in India and came to the conclusion that English acts as a hub, enabling one regional language to connect with another. The logic is simple. There are very few translators working in, say, both Assamese and Malayalam, but there are many more Assamese-English and English-Malayalam translators. It's also good for a society to have a mediating language. As Piers Gray's essay “Stalin on Linguistics” showed, the dream of a proliferation of languages without a language to mediate is the comfort of many a tyrant's sleep.


A cosmopolitan reader, I think.


These days, I press Naiyar Masud's stories on my friends. He's an Urdu writer, living in the city of Lucknow in northern India and well known to those who well know it, as the mathematician Richard Guy put it in a different context. I have a feeling he's about to be discovered by the larger world in a big way. I'd place him in the same category as Borges or Kafka; that is, he is a writer's writer, the kind who makes a new kind of reader. Such comparisons are useful so long as we treat them only as compass directions. Masud doesn't travel much and I don't think he has much use for the internet. These negative attributes perhaps explain why his work is closely tied to Lucknow, that Muslim city with a Hindu heart. On the other hand, his stories rarely have place names, dates or other deictic information. I've read Urdu writers only in translation (despite Urdu's affinities with Hindustani). My sense is that Urdu writers――mostly but not exclusively Muslims――in the 30s through 70s evolved an interesting speculative form strongly imbued with a sense of place, inward-looking, devoid of the florid excesses of myth, and grounded in realism. Along with Masud's stories, I'd also recommend the works of Surendra Prakash and Khalida Asghar. A good starting point would be Mehr Farooqi's The Oxford India Anthology of Modern Urdu Literature: Fiction or the always readable Annual of Urdu Studies. I have a few story recommendations in my blog article on Masud.


Yes, recently I was greatly impressed with Mishima Yukio's The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. My forthcoming novel owes a delayed debt to this magnificent work. Delayed, because I'd thrashed along a similar trajectory of ideas before I discovered Mishima's novel. His protagonist Yoken had a loathing for beauty, whereas incorruptibility irritates me more. I read his work as a call for a happy dystopia. I think Yoken would've liked India.


I haven't got many chances to promote non-Indian works, but there are active literati circles in the major urban centers doing just that. As for my work, the way I look at it is that its best to worry about things you can control. So when it comes to markets, I don't worry too much about demand, I focus more on the supply-side of things. I believe the internet has shown us that there is no such thing as a minority interest. If I enjoy something, chances are there's at least a million people who'll feel exactly the same way. So the trick is to write stories I enjoy.