How did this story come about?
When you’re in America, trying to write fantasy in English, you’re so often referred to The Hero with a Thousand Faces as the source of everything good and perfect. But while reading it I, as a woman, felt almost deliberately pushed out into the cold. I wanted to write something that would illustrate just how dismissive it is of anyone who isn’t a straight cis man . . . and decided that I could do it as a 1000-word flash to make my life easier during week three of Clarion West. Uncountable months, four drafts, and a 150% increase in length later, I hear the universe laughing at me.
The first line of this story is so, so good. Did it come first or somewhere along the way?
Even “along the way” might be stretching it: The story’s current form is its fifth and none of the first four drafts contained this line. All the other opening lines were more ornate—and much less functional. In the end, I reached for a simple declarative sentence—and hey, looks like it might have worked.
I did not see that ending coming—did you? From the start of the story-writing?
No, definitely not. From the beginning, I wanted to write an ending where any choice Shai makes will result in her paying a large price. In most other versions of the story, she ends up continuing a life with Var, just with all illusions stripped away. While that’s certainly the more realistic ending, eventually it dawned on me that if heavy prices were to be paid both ways, I could have a more dramatic ending while underscoring Shai’s lose-lose situation.
Can you talk about the decisions you made around gender roles?
When I started thinking about how best to critique the Hero’s Journey in a story, I found so many distinct ways in which it elbows out anyone not straight cis male—“Woman as Temptress,” “Atonement with the Father”—that I found I couldn’t tackle all of them at once.
It got me searching for the root of this narrative, and eventually I found it: adventure itself. I started thinking about how so many fantasy stories were all about those who go off adventuring; and how when there are stories of those who stay behind, holding up society so there’s a home for the adventurer to return to, they’re still about work outside the house—buying, selling, growing, governing—still the work associated with men; and how there are never any stories about “women’s work,” i.e.: all the important, foundational tasks without which nothing would ever run. How we’ve collectively decided that “women’s work” has no value.
Even as we diversify our ideas of who can do what, they’re usually stories of people deviating from the straight cis male descriptor doing what was reserved for the straight cis male. Stories of people doing “women’s work” still remain inaccessible. But I’m holding out hope: Maybe in a decade or three, I can read (or write!) that epic fantasy doorstop about changing the future of a community/city/country by doing “women’s work.”
What else would you like readers to know about “A Conch-Shell’s Notes”?
I’d like to talk about the cultural markers in the piece, mostly because it’s kind of a departure for me to write anything that is not heavily steeped in Indian, largely Hindu, culture. And while there are markers of this—coconuts, a temple, the conch-shell itself—they are equally weighted with Western fantasy tropes—dragon, wizard, spells. This is because both these cultures I’ve lived in have the same, idiotic, attitude towards gender roles and I wanted to call them both out. Names are deliberately monosyllabic and belonging to neither, because (given that millions of Indians have Latin names) I thought using actual Latin/Sanskrit names would tip the setting—and thus the blame—over to Indianness.
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