Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler, edited by Mimi Mondal and Alexandra Pierce was recently nominated for the prestigious Hugo Award. The anthology of original essays and letters explore the legendary writer Octavia E. Butler’s depiction of power relationships, her complex treatment of race and identity, and her impact on feminism and women in Science Fiction. It is only fitting that this book made it to the list of nominations for Science Fiction’s greatest literary recognition. SheThePeople.Tv converses with Mimi Mondal Hugo Award nominee- in a two-part interview – about her viewpoint of the literary world. This article forms Part II of a two-part interview series. Here’s the first one
Why is Octavia E. Butler’s writing relevant in today’s political, social and cultural scenario, and how has your perception changed of her impact on people since Luminescent Threads?
I never read anything by Octavia Butler when I was young – apart from Bloodchild in a random anthology which absolutely did not mention anything about her impact. I didn’t even know that she was Black. While editing the essays for Luminescent Threads, I was stunned by the number of writers whose lives were impacted by her work, and especially even just her existence, because it made them believe they could be SFF (science fiction and fantasy) writers too. Science fiction, for a long time, has been a genre dominated by white men. Even now, there are certain groups of powerful and vicious white men who actively make all the other people feel very unwelcome and even unsafe in the genre (I am mentally preparing for some bullying when I go to Worldcon in August myself). In such a community, the work and existence of someone like Octavia Butler is nothing short of revolutionary. But in India, we did not even know about her, because back home we just don’t care about other minorities and their struggles. Which also means that we don’t learn any lessons about how they build community and raise themselves up. Indian speculative fiction has a very long tradition and many excellent works, but it’s not very visible internationally purely for this reason. We are waiting for white people to validate us, and for white people, we are only one of the several exotic options to pick from.
One of the reasons films like Get Out and Black Panther became such big hits recently is that the African American artistic community has been strengthening itself for decades, bringing in its own consumers as well as consumers from other racial communities. African American art is cool to enjoy for everybody now, and from being barely considered humans to cool has not just been gift-wrapped and handed to them. Octavia Butler was one of the earliest non-white writers to ever achieve entry and respectability in speculative fiction. She is the forerunner of us all. The fact that people like me exist in any capacity at all is because of people like Octavia.
Image Credit: Twelfth Planet Press
What does being nominated for the Hugo Award mean to you as a Dalit queer female writer and editor, especially as you were nominated for your first published book?
It means a great deal, and honestly, I haven’t yet completely absorbed the meaning of it. My daily life hasn’t changed a lot. One of the facts about living in New York is that you’re surrounded by some of the most accomplished people in whichever discipline you’re a part of. I am grateful for it because it’s so easy for one success to make you feel like you’ve achieved everything and that you don’t need to do anything more, especially for those of us from minorities for whom even one success is so hard to achieve. My friends and family in India are stunned and overjoyed. If I was home right now, I would probably be very spoilt. But here, in New York, I know a lot of writers and editors who are Hugo nominees, Hugo winners, winners of other awards, and who are humble and hardworking and keep doing their work. I am trying to do the same, and hoping it helps me not lose track of what’s really important – telling good stories and being as good a human being as I can be.
What was it like to be Poetry and Reprint Editor at Uncanny Magazine, and with your strong experience in the publishing world, do you see a difference in the kinds of poetry that magazines and publishing houses receive and print – which medium is truly explorative and representative of a writers’ creativity and why?
I have written poetry in the past and won the Poetry with Prakriti Award in 2011, but Uncanny is the only time I’ve specifically been a Poetry Editor. Speculative poetry, like speculative fiction, is usually a different circle from the mainstream kind. As far as what I know of the poetry scene, which isn’t a lot, everywhere it is fairly small and intimate. Poetry books aren’t published to be bestsellers – although I’m really excited about poets like Rupi Kaur who are changing that as well – so there isn’t much difference between magazines and publishing houses. The emphasis is entirely on the art itself and very little on what the “public” wants.
There are many very talented queer authors in SFF, and that’s specifically because the genre lets them be authors to their full capacity, instead of pigeonholing them as queer – Mimi Mondal Hugo Award Nominee
Science Fiction does act as a sort of predictor and keeper of the future, especially with its portrayal of gender, sexuality, humanity and technology. As a Queer woman, what significance does your story The Sea Sings at Night hold for you and what impact has science fiction had in creating safe spaces for queer narratives?
Queer is normative in a lot of SFF, and that has definitely made me feel more comfortable about writing more stories with queer characters. I see The Sea Sings at Night as a love story – a story about a crumbling relationship – not a queer story. It’s very difficult to breathe if every time there’s a queer character in a story, it gets labelled as a “queer story” and all other aspects of it are discarded. There are many very talented queer authors in SFF, and that’s specifically because the genre lets them be authors to their full capacity, instead of pigeonholing them as queer.
In an essay for Words Without Borders, you said that it’s sometimes difficult to translate an Indian experience using English words. Do you ever see yourself writing in Bengali in the future? Why or why not?
Possibly in the future. I did write in Bengali through my teens. One of the reasons I stopped was that the readership and range of literature in Bengali was very limited. The kind of stories I write would be even harder to write in Bengali; I would be struggling to “translate” those experiences in the terms of Bengali literature as well. This is unfortunate, since Bengali has one of the richest literary traditions in India, and I was definitely nurtured within it as a child. I feel the loss of outgrowing it all the time.
What would you like to say to writers, who come from marginalised backgrounds, about writing in the contemporary literary space?
I suppose I would like to acknowledge that it isn’t easy, but there are also more opportunities today than there have ever been before, so it’s worth persisting. I still remember, as a child, when I asked my mother about how to send my writing to a newspaper that published other school students (no one from my school), she told me sadly that newspapers don’t publish “people like us.” Art has historically been a space for the privileged – you needed to come from the right kind of family or know people to get in. I won’t say that those structures have been entirely dismantled yet, but there is more diversity and more community now than ever before. The divide was much bigger in the past – authors I remember from my younger days were far more elitist and unreachable, as if they belonged to a different galaxy, clearly distinct from us common people. There is a lot more interaction now. There are more open calls for submission, workshops, writing groups and people willing to help you along the way.
It’s still not easy, you will still find more hurdles along your way than a privileged person, but it is easier right now than any other time in history, and that’s something to feel hopeful for.
Missed how the conversation started? Head on to Part I where Mimi talks about her journey into writing! Click here
Feature Image Credit: Mini Mondal.