“Documentary” is vivid and intense. What was the inspiration behind the story?
This story was of course inspired by the events of May 2009 and the controversial 2011 documentary concerning those events. I prefer not to speak of those things directly, which is why this story is the way it is; it’s all avoidance and misdirection and looking away; a finger pointing at the moon. Part of this is that I don’t know how to think about these things outside fiction. History isn’t fixed; there’s no such thing as “what really happened.” There is only the science fictional project of writing and rewriting history, forever.
You have managed to make an important statement about cultural differences and the media. What are your thoughts on the importance of how fiction relates to real world events?
The problem is that the dichotomy is false; “real world events” are themselves fictions. I don’t mean that in either the solipsist or conspiracy-theorist senses; I just mean that the true reality of events is always too big to be known and ends up getting folded into simplified cartoon narratives. I do think it’s good for writers to try and complicate that when they can. Writers, unlike gen pop, have the advantage of already knowing themselves to be liars.
You approach many of your stories with an eye towards reaching beyond the limits of Western views, and this only helps to enrich the reading experience. What advice do you have for writers hoping to do the same?
I don’t construct it that way. I don’t think in terms of what’s Western or not-Western (or neither Western nor not-Western) at all. Rather than seeing the self as a unitary, frictionless object that can be inside or outside any particular box, I feel it’s more useful for a writer to just get neck-deep in their own innards and have a good rummage about. The idea being, I suppose, that it’s people that contain the categories, rather than the other way around.
This isn’t advice, though. I don’t have any actual advice. I don’t think I’ve been around long enough to be giving other writers advice; I should wait until my beard is mostly grey before I risk inventing any aphorisms. Besides, writing advice is almost always fancy-sounding bullshit, yes? Like what I just said in the earlier paragraph. Sturgeon’s revelation holds.
The only writing advice that I’ve ever cared for is just “read more,” which I do think is good advice that works in nearly all contexts, including this one: The easiest way to break out of any box is just to read widely.
“Documentary” also addresses issues of women in the military, the toll of PTSD on the family, and the learned ignorance to the casualties of war. While military science fiction is making a slow comeback, many writers consider such subjects verboten. What subjects, if any, do you consider off limits in your writing?
I love the idea that “Documentary” could be considered military science fiction! Hadn’t occurred to me. I’m terrible at knowing what genres I’m wandering into on any given day. My reading of it is probably a little too uneven for me to opine on what it’s doing or not doing lately, though.
As for limits, I don’t think I consider anything off limits as such, though as I said there are some subjects I prefer to be obscure about. But then I suppose I also don’t plan my stories very much, but for the most part discover the subjects and themes during the writing itself. One can get away with this sort of irresponsible behaviour in short fiction.
Your stories have appeared far and wide, from Lightspeed to Clarkesworld to Betwixt. What is it about short stories in particular that appeals to you?
I find writing short fiction intrinsically enjoyable, even exhilarating. Or to put it another way, I’m mildly addicted to the heady buzz from a completed arc. And as I said in the previous question, there’s a great freedom in the short story.
It also has to do, I think, with me reading a lot of old SF anthologies and collections as a kid and imprinting really hard on this romantic notion of the SF magazine tradition. It was a shiny desirable alien universe, very far away, completely untouchable. I never actually thought I could be a part of it in a small way, even if twenty-five years later. Sure, a lot of things have changed, but there’s also a lot of continuity. It’s quite surreal. I feel like I tripped over a portal back in ’12 and am having strange adventures in a secondary world. Exacerbating this, the whole short fiction scene is actually set up like a quest! Every magazine is a new adventure.
What’s next for Vajra Chandrasekera? When can eager readers expect the next story?
I have a new story, “Rhizomatic Diplomacy,” coming out soon in the anthology An Alphabet of Embers. I’m also experimentally trying out some slightly longer work — a novella, perhaps — though that will probably take a little longer to complete itself to my satisfaction! (I’ve already written and thrown away several novellas.) In the meantime, I mean to keep writing new short stories, and I maintain an up-to-date bibliography here: vajra.me/publications.
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