To the stars and beyond: A conversation with Hugo Award nominee Mimi Mondal

Mimi Mondal Hugo Award SheThePeople

 Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler, edited by Mimi Mondal and Alexandra Pierce is 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. In an exclusive conversation SheThePeople.TV converses with the Hugo Award nominated and Locus Award longlisted Dalit writer and editor Mimi Mondal – in a two-part interview – about her journey into the literary world. This article forms Part I of a two-part interview series.

Which is your earliest memory of literature and when did you first begin to write?

I come from a family of Sanskrit education, and the first storybook my parents ever bought me was Thakumar Jhuli by Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar for my sixth birthday, partly with the intention that the archaic Bengali would ease me into Sanskrit. (It didn’t. My Sanskrit is still atrocious.) Thakumar Jhuli is an iconic collection of Bengali folk and fairy tales. I immediately started filling my notebooks and after-school hours with scribbling my own versions of the fairy tales.

How different and difficult is it for a Dalit queer female writer to write in the academia and mainstream, and how have these experiences shaped how you write?

I have spent over 11 years at universities. So, for a long time, I believed I was going to become a scholar. I have 3 masters’ degrees from India, Scotland and the US; no PhD. One of the reasons I don’t is that every time it came to making applications, I couldn’t decide what exactly I wanted to spend years of my life working on. I have several areas of interest but didn’t feel that I belonged entirely to any of them. This is one of the burdens of being intersectional on several planes – you have to often prioritise one of your affiliations over the others. Writing in the mainstream, as you call it, helps me bring together all of my complexities without concentrating on one of them and not really engaging with the others. It resonates with people because people are complex. You don’t have to be a scholar or know big words to appreciate the complexity of life.

Writing in the mainstream, as you call it, helps me bring together all of my complexities without concentrating on one of them and not really engaging with the others.

Mimi Mondal Hugo Award SheThePeople

Mimi Mondal Hugo Award SheThePeople

Why do you say that you write social-justice non-fiction and why is such a distinction important?

This is mostly because non-fiction is such an umbrella term. A book of long-form journalism, a scholarly dissertation, a memoir, a cookbook, a self-help book — all get listed as nonfiction. I only write a specific kind, which is cultural commentary from a social-justice perspective.

How were you introduced to Speculative Fiction and what made you choose this genre of writing? Also, who is your favourite South Asian speculative fiction writer?

As a child, I mostly read in Bengali, and nearly all Bengali authors have written speculative fiction. Even Rabindranath Tagore, who isn’t the first name you think of when thinking of a speculative fiction writer, has some stellar horror stories that are familiar to all schoolchildren in Bengal. It’s slightly hard for me to name favourites, because this is my area of academic interest as well, so I’ve probably read more South Asian speculative fiction writers than anyone else in the world. I recently wrote a history of South Asian speculative fiction for Tor.com, if you’re looking for recommendations. Here are Part I and Part II of it.

What is your writing process like – from idea or inspiration to paper?

When I write an article, I usually have an idea and write it out in one shot, then let it sit for a few days, and edit it after that. That’s how I mostly write short stories as well. I have not yet finished a longer work of fiction, but I have recently started charting outlines. This is when I write out the entire story in a short synopsis and divide it into chapters before I start writing the actual words. It helps me keep track of the structure. I also have a number of writer and reader friends who read my pieces and give me feedback before I finally submit it for publication – I do the same for them. This really helps bring out the weaknesses that I, myself, may have overlooked.

Writing Tip: When I write an article, I usually have an idea and write it out in one shot, then let it sit for a few days, and edit it after that.

How important is diversity, inclusivity and representation in writing and how is South Asian Speculative Fiction bridging these gaps?

I don’t know if this is an exact answer to the question, but I see a lot of unwillingness among Indians – not even specifically writers – to embrace the idea of diversity. The only “diversity” that Indians are absolutely happy to embrace is that of white people. A few months ago, Priyanka Chopra declined to identify as a woman of colour. As much as Indians refuse to “see race” internationally just like they refuse to “see caste” back home, in this case, Indians are the minority. Most white people see Indians as a wholesale ethnic stereotype and cast us in the same parodying roles (remember Raj from Big Bang Theory?), expecting the same kinds of stories from us. If we don’t embrace the diversity of other racial groups, why would they embrace our diversity? If we don’t include Chinese authors, Nigerian authors, African American authors and so on in our worldview of literature, why would they care for us? In a non-diverse, non-inclusive, non-representative world, everyone reads white authors and white people are the only ones who get to have stories – in that world we Indians don’t exist either. We’re snake charmers and elephant riders and curry eaters and arranged-marriage doers with the weird accent. Is that really the world we want to live in?

As much as Indians refuse to “see race” internationally just like they refuse to “see caste” back home, in this case, Indians are the minority.

Your short story Learning to Swim deals with various themes – displacement, space, the future, colonisation, aliens, karma, depression, suicide, love. How was this story inspired and why did you depict the Sylphians as insect-like aliens? Also, is this story connected to another story written by you – And the Final Frontier is Heaven?

These stories do take place in the same world – thanks for noticing! That was totally unplanned. I wrote the first draft of And the Final Frontier is Heaven back in college around the year of 2008. It went through many rejections and many revisions over the years before Kindle Magazine wanted to publish it. When I was trying to write Learning to Swim in 2017, I was reminded of the world from Final Frontier and how I could use it for this story as well.
As for why the aliens are not more humanoid, that’s really not original to me. Hollywood movies make their aliens humanoid because that’s easier to pull off with human actors and CGI. But if there is life anywhere in the whole wide universe, why would it in any way resemble humans or their values resemble human values? As you’ve already noticed, both these stories are very little about hard science and completely about reflecting on human values and the things we take for granted by inserting the “outsider” into the narrative. Aliens have been used as that metaphor by science fiction writers for ever. One of the most accomplished stories of that kind is Bloodchild by Octavia E. Butler. That was the first story by her I read. I re-read it at least once every year, and each time it blows my mind. I won’t be surprised if both of my stories are, in part, highly inadequate attempts at ripping off Bloodchild.

Image Credit: Twelfth Planet Press

Your book Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler was recently nominated for the Hugo Award and is also on the longlist for the Locus Awards. As the Co-editor of the book, could you tell us about how the anthology came to be? And did the book have anything to do with you being an Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholar?

The book had absolutely everything to do with my being an Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholar from Clarion West! Luminescent Threads is created by the Australian publisher Twelfth Planet Press, which is a small, women-only team based almost entirely in Australia. Back in 2016, Senior Editor Alexandra Pierce was looking for someone to co-edit this anthology with her. Clarion West, which is an SFF (science fiction and fantasy) writing workshop that takes place in Seattle every summer, is very well regarded in the international SFF community and has a strong alumni network, and within it, the Octavia Butler Scholars have a network of their own. Alexandra approached this network for a potential Co-editor and I was suggested to her since I had formerly been an Editor at Penguin India. We put together the book, working exclusively online. I am yet to meet anyone from Twelfth Planet Press in person since they haven’t travelled to the US and I haven’t had the opportunity to travel to Australia. This was truly an international collaboration – facilitated completely by the legacy of Octavia Butler.

The conversation doesn’t end here. Look out for Part II tomorrow – where Mimi shares her viewpoint on the Literary world and more on the Hugo Award!

Feature Image Credit: Mini Mondal and Twelfth Planet Press.