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Indian science fiction writers are better known to White readers than Indian ones: Mimi Mondal

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Had you heard of me or my book before the Hugo Award nomination, asks Mimi Mondal.

ThePrint is publishing articles on Dalit issues as part of Dalit History Month.

I am possibly the most soft-spoken person you’ll ever meet in real life. (A large part of it has to do with growing up a Dalit woman within the bhadrolok culture of Kolkata where the strongest weapon anyone uses is polite sarcasm, but that discussion is for another day.)

But increasingly, I find myself labelled ‘fierce’, even ‘argumentative’, especially on social media. Ideas that I would consider basic and universally acceptable meet with unexpected resistance from people—ideas like women have to struggle harder for acknowledgement at the workplace, or that Dalits receive systemic discrimination.

One more idea like this is that there are science fiction and fantasy writers from India right now who are writing fresh, innovative stories. Not recycled mythology. Not rip-offs of famous White writers from over fifty years ago. Great, contemporary, socially relevant stories that are worth our readers’ acknowledgement and love. (You want names? I wrote an entire article just over a month ago.)

But many of them—including me—are better known to Western readers than readers in India. In fact, should I even call them “our readers” if they’re not, in fact, reading us? J.R.R. Tolkien and Isaac Asimov are very grateful, I’m sure.

These questions have eaten a large part of my life because I am a writer, editor and publishing scholar. (I have an MLitt in Publishing Studies from the University of Stirling, UK. I am the first Commonwealth Scholar for the subject since these labels matter more than the intrinsic value of my words.) In 2016, I had two stories published online by Juggernaut Books. They were my first major publications in India. I was excited and nervous about what Indian readers would think of them.

I received… nothing. No negative feedback; no feedback at all. People weren’t reading them. They weren’t even giving a chance to an Indian name they hadn’t heard before. Reviewers weren’t picking them up. While ‘experts’ on pop media kept saying that nobody from India wrote any original science fiction and fantasy.

What can we do to change this? Publishing is a double-edged sword—nudge people too much to read your book and they think even less of you. Writers in India are expected to be sober, dignified; if nobody reads your book, you politely accept it as the epitome of elegance you are. If you’re not a bhadralok in the first place, how are you even respectable enough to be a writer?

A few months ago, I did a polite social experiment among some friends—all interested science fiction readers in India who love to discover new writers. I’ve been recommending different Indian writers to these friends for years. I always receive a lukewarm response—’okay, sure, will check them out’—and then they never do. This time, I recommended a White male writer to them. (A great book and a very talented writer, but also a new name to them.) Immediately, all of them went and bought his book.

Now I’ve received a Hugo Award nomination. It’s endlessly embarrassing for me to be the first Hugo-nominated writer from India because I work among these Indian writers and call them friends, and nearly all of them have published more and better stories than me that readers in India did not celebrate.

Don’t worry—they don’t celebrate me either. Unlike other major literary awards, the Hugos are decided by popular vote and not a jury. My nomination is for a non-fiction book. Luminescent Threads is about Octavia E. Butler—the first major African American woman writer of science fiction and fantasy. It was co-edited with Alexandra Pierce, an Australian editor who has worked in the field longer than I have; and published by Twelfth Planet Press, a science-fiction-and-fantasy publisher from Australia, who have published other acclaimed books before. The people who voted for Luminescent Threads were fans of Butler, readers who enjoyed the book, admirers of the works of Alexandra and Twelfth Planet Press, fans from Australia.

No one from India.

Before anyone contests that point, I’m going to have to ask them: Did you vote for the Hugo Award nominations? Did you even consider voting? Had you heard of me or this book before this nomination was announced? Have you heard of any of us contemporary Indian writers of science fiction and fantasy? Is that because we’re not good enough? Did you read our works and decide that yourself? Now that you know of my nomination, are you going to consider voting for the final round of the Hugos? If you answer ‘no’ to most of these questions, feel free to not interrupt me.

It has been historically difficult for foreign writers to win the Hugos, because the voters are largely American. While some Indian writers do get appreciated in the West, out there we’re not the only ones.

The Hugo voters include an active bloc of conservatives called Sad Puppies who are allied with White supremacists (*cough* Milo Yiannopoulos *cough*), alongside more progressive voters who still have works from all over the world to choose from. We rarely get any support from India. I’m half-afraid most Indian science fiction and fantasy readers would turn out to be Sad Puppies even if they don’t know the term since they only read White authors and decline to acknowledge anyone else.

What can I do to change this? I write the best stories I can—readers in India don’t read them. I offer recommendations for other writers—readers in India gently brush them off. I got frustrated and yelled at a reviewer on Twitter once; I really shouldn’t be doing that again.

But a name like Mimi Mondal isn’t taken seriously in India unless there’s a Hugo nomination attached. (And would you look at those names in the articles with reference to the Hugo Awards? Clarke, Asimov, Rowling all over again. N.K. Jemisin won two Hugos back-to-back in recent years.) How long do we have to rely on the validation of the West—White people specifically, let’s not kid ourselves—to be considered worthy in our own country?

If you wish to express your appreciation, please read a copy of Luminescent Threads. Click the article linked above and read any of the other authors. Read a story or two on Mithila Review.

Write a review. Cast a vote. Cast a vote, after registering here.

The Awards will be announced at the Worldcon in San Jose, California on 19 August, 2018.

This Hugo nomination is nothing if it ends up as another obscure question in a Bournvita quiz book. Please help me make this a win for all of us, not just this one writer. Thank you.

Mimi Mondal is a Dalit speculative fiction writer and editor, originally from Kolkata. Along with Alexandra Pierce, she is the editor of Luminescent Threads: Letters to Octavia Butler, which is currently a finalist for the Hugo Awards 2018.

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  1. Have you heard of any of us contemporary Indian writers of science fiction and fantasy? Is that because we’re not good enough? Did you read our works and decide that yourself?

    Long answer short: yes.

  2. Did…did you just compare yourself with Tolkein & Asimov? Dude, no.

    I came across your article on Tor earlier, too. I’ve read more than a few books you had listed. Tell me though – can you name one Indian author who has penned a book with the sublime sense of humour one finds in an Asimov? I fell head over heels in love with the man when I stumbled across his Black Widowers series. Or with the delightful skill to be creative within scientifically logical confines, like James White’s Hospital Station?

    All this to say – I don’t think readers choose books on the basis of race, as you claim to be done hard by. They either enjoy a story or they don’t. They either come back for more or they don’t.

    Your Juggernaut experience – I feel you. But truly, you’re not the only one going through this. The lack of acknowledgement isn’t a reflection on your identity, your genre or a refusal to give you a platform. Its just the way it is. The publishing industry is still working out how to actually reach readers with different interests – and right now, everything from marketing to infrastructure is aimed at servicing mass authors – the Chetan Bhagat-Amish slice. Just to assure you that I play fair – I don’t enjoy their books or pick them up either. A lot of other people do, though.

    I congratulate you very much on your Hugo nomination. I probably won’t read your book because I’m not too much of a non-fiction person. But please don’t react to this wonderful nomination by relieving perceived slights from readers in your home country. Don’t make things more complex than they are. The SFF reader base in India is such a tiny cult and they don’t strike me as the kind of people who would politicise choosing a book to read – that’s ridiculous.

  3. I agree with the writer that most of the Indian readers do not prefer science fiction to other genres. We both start and end our day with technology. Yet, people are sceptical of science fiction as they find them too utopian , or are unable to relate to the content. Science fiction does deal with reality. The readers have to be matured enough to unmask the subtext that deals with social reality…As far as her reference to being a Dalit is concerned, I find it as her political choice to draw attention to her marginalisation. She might have faced humiliation, but in the context of this article, she could have skipped that part.

  4. My main gripe with her article is that she is accusing the nonexistent Indian SF readership of not supporting her and portraying herself as a victim of class discrimination. This is completely unethical, shameful and giving the wrong message to outsiders about Indian SF readership and community! And as a member of this community, I am feeling insulted and betrayed!

  5. 1. I didn’t like the way every sentence works its way back to the perceiving and expressing (not using ‘glorifying’, she has earned her glory alright) self. This is too subjective, not to say overly self-obsessed.

    2. The book she has edited is a nonfiction. It is, hence, natural that ‘average’ reader won’t read it. It’s a compendium of academic essays on one particular SF writer, and hence more suited for discussions in an academic seminar of similar purpose.

    3. That said, what I REALLY don’t get is her constant self-identification as a dalit. How can someone located in WB, in Calcutta no less (now abroad), be a ‘dalit’ in the proper sense of the term? Being a ‘dalit’, or a forcefully peripheralized subset of the demographic is a socio-culturally determined process with sinister outcomes in certain areas of the Northern and Southern India. How has the surname ‘Mondal’ been so harmful in WB so as to seriously jeopardize someone’s aspirations? I’ve got a number of Mondal-s whom I know personally, and they have NEVER had to scream ‘dalit I am’ and ‘look how cruel others have been to me’ to be Doctors or Univ. Professors. What I intend to convey is that she emphatically, even vehemently recognizes herself as a cultural-social subaltern, whereas I find absolutely NO traction whatsoever in what she expects this claim to entail. She may belong to the SC section for all we know and that is probably what she meant; but wherever in WB has someone’s upward passage been thwarted simply because s/he is an SC candidate?

    If anything…but that’s a topic more suited for other forums and I’d better keep my fingers shut. I just contested her self-ascertained ethnographic location. Nothing more, nothing less.

    • Just a note: the book isn’t a compendium of academic essays. It’s mostly made up of letters written by people who are fans of Butler’s work. There are a few essays in there but we worked really hard to choose ones that were accessible to the casual reader. While the book may be more immediately of interest to people who are already know of Butler’s work, many of the letters reflect on Butler’s life, or the intersection of Butler with an individual – those are relatable for anyone.
      Alex Pierce, senior editor of Luminescent Threads.

  6. I wouldn’t read a book based on whether you are Brahman or dalit whether you got your degree form India or abroad ( Now a day s they a re also selling degrees but to the rich like children of ambanis, cinema actors, cricket players, politicians. IF you have the millions you can get a degree from Havard(rahul) ,stanford (Lokesh),carnegie,yale,princeton,oxford,cambridge you name it). I will read it and vote for if like the content and only if i find the book interesting enough. Thank god that Indians are not voting , bcuz once they start voting the so called Hugo award will become a sham as every Indian has this strong urge to vote 1000 times with different Ids.

  7. Nobody in India is going to take you seriously even after a Hugo nomination as:
    1) The topic you have chosen is to alien for Indian audience. May be relevant for USA bot not India.
    2) You sounding absolutely pretentious and wannabe in what you have written above.

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