Your choice of narrative voice for “Tongue” is spectacular. It carries both the plot and the character along without becoming bogged down in stereotypes or disdain. When deciding on this narrative style and voice, how did you walk that fine line between stereotype and positive representation?
Thank you! I don’t favor using dialect or broken English, because of how systematically they’ve been used by Western writers and filmmakers to mock ethnic speech, but in this story, I felt it was essential to accurately portray the narrator’s personality.
The sad truth is that education, freedom of speech, and choice, among other things, are used as means to control girl children in India from birth. (Nutrition, social interaction, purchasing power, and even outright physical intimidation, emotional and physical violence are some of the other means.) Except in the most urbane upper income circles, Indian girls are discouraged from studying beyond a certain age, reading books, and even newspapers and magazines. Even today, many families prohibit the girls and women of their household from owning or accessing mobile phones and computers to control their access to the internet and widespread information.
This enables the male patriarchy to control the flow of information and, more importantly, misinformation. The saddest part is that this abusive, controlling, manipulative system utilises the female authority figures in the family to operate: They are often the ones who indoctrinate the next generation into toeing the patriarchal line. The result is generations of under-nourished, under-educated, ill-informed young women unaccustomed to thinking or pursuing knowledge. The only way to communicate this without an info-dump like this paragraph was to use a syntactical form that clearly conveys the narrator’s lack of education and awareness. The opposite of a “woke” woman.
Sadly, I’ve personally known and met many such individuals, and seen this tragic systemic abuse perpetuated over generations. I strove to capture that mindset and outlook through the narrator’s “voice” as naturalistically as possible.
As far as positive representation is concerned, that’s a tough one. Obviously, I’m fiercely critical of such a system which erases individual identity and suppresses basic human rights, but the attempt here was to emulate the “voice” and let the first-person account speak for itself, allowing the reader to view the person’s horrific situation and be as shocked as I myself was when I first encountered such cases.
This story packs quite a punch, both a terrific science fiction tale and a critical look at the institution of child marriage in India. Even the character’s name, Revathi, means someone who is generous and a peacemaker, someone searching for emotional and financial stability. You are often outspoken on the subjects of caste, religion, and child marriage, and many of your stories explore these matters in great detail. Why is that?
Because these are real issues that affect hundreds of millions in India and worldwide. Child marriage is not uniquely an Indian problem: It’s a major issue in the US, too. At least in India it’s illegal. Even though enforcement of the law is often difficult, if not impossible, it does deter a large number of potential abusers. But here in the USA, child marriage is very much legal and widely prevalent. As I write this, in mid-June 2017, the state of New York is still working toward banning child marriage permanently. If it’s taken New York this long, imagine the state of the rest of the country. It’s a horrible fact that girls not yet in double digit ages are married off to much older men, and that such unions are sanctified by church, state, and society.
In India, there’s millennia of systemic hierarchical abuse pressuring families into marrying off their girl children, condemning them to a lifetime of male abuse and dominance. India has the largest population of children in the world right now, hundreds of millions of young girls being forced into such unions without being given the time to mature, learn, educate, or decide for themselves. Every morsel they eat, every item of clothing they wear, every rupee they are permitted is controlled, withheld, denied, used as a bargaining tool to manipulate them into obeying the dictates of their elders, always with the men of the family dominating.
It’s no surprise that India is the largest provider of bodies for the global sex trafficking trade, the fastest-growing criminal activity in the world today. In many parts of the country, girl babies are killed at birth supposedly to avoid them facing such a fate—and co-incidentally to provide the male siblings with unchallenged control of the family’s assets. In other places, families “manufacture” girl babies to sell them to the sex trafficking trade, which is now corporatised and managed by bureaucrats, politicians, NGOs, and social workers, under various guises including the notorious “adoption” industry.
Even the Indians you mostly encounter in the US and the Western world are almost always upper caste, upper class majority community. It’s somewhat like assuming that rich WASP Republicans represent the whole of the USA. You’ll rarely encounter low caste, minority, or lower class Indians. Why is that? Because they’re invisible. The case of Devyani Khobragade, the Indian Deputy Consul General in New York City, is just one case that got national exposure. There are an unknown number of Asians in the US who have been trafficked illegally, or brought here under the legal pretext of employment as assistants, maids, drivers, cooks, nannies, or servants of one kind or other. It’s common in upper class, upper caste majority community families in India—read that simply as rich Hindus—to superficially “adopt” a child who is in fact nothing more than an indentured slave.
Anyway, to come back to the core issue: Child marriage is only one facet of the larger issue of child abuse in South Asia. “Tongue” is just my way of saying this happens, children are being subjected to this even as you read these words. And it’s done with the complicity of the very persons who ought to be protecting and nurturing them: their own parents. As in the case of this story’s narrator.
Revathi certainly sounds cheerful and upbeat, but the final paragraph speaks to a fear lurking at the edges of her existence. If the visitor tells Him how she prattles on, He might take one of the last valuables that allows Revathi to directly interact with her daughter, Devi. Peeking inside Revathi’s head, was she afraid or had she given herself over completely to her devotion to Him?
Again, this is my attempt to convey the completely brainwashed mindset of a staggering number of Hindu women. Using religion, culture, “sanskriti” (Indian tradition) to condition women from birth into doing the work of patriarchy, they’re forced into repeating patterns of behaviour. The fear of male members of the family is a real, visible stress for such women. Mothers fear their own sons, sisters are terrorised by their brothers, daughters are abused by their fathers and uncles and brothers. Obviously, not all Indian Hindu families are like this: Anyone who has the education and intelligence to even read this web page is likely not from such a family. But such families and systemic abuse exists in far greater numbers than you would believe. Often, it’s the family next door or the next building, and it is they, rather than the enlightened, educated, SF-reading Hindu that is the majority.
Write what you know. That’s what writers are told. You make a point of doing just that, and in doing so you create something magnificent. When reading, do you look for works that are equally immersive no matter the genre? Does setting matter to you as a reader?
Thank you! Magnificent? Or horrific? In the case of stories like “Tongue,” I hope to shock readers by presenting a real world issue that’s so common, so routine, and yet so horrific, that it hopefully makes supernatural horrors pale in comparison. At the same time, “Tongue” is a science fiction story, because the technology that exists to make Revathi possible (in the form she is when the story opens) doesn’t actually exist yet. It’s an attempt to write SF that’s about real world problems, as against “first world” problems like most SF seems to be historically.
Immersiveness is essential to me, as a reader as well as a writer. The whole point of reading or writing is to lose ourselves in a story. For better or worse. Setting makes that possible.
You are such a prolific writer, what do you do to wind down? How do you recharge the creative batteries and reconnect with the world?
By constantly reading, dreaming, letting the mind go where it will, by staying in touch with the world. There’s more inspiration and insight to be gained from a glance at Twitter or the online news media these days than in a dozen science texts. Sociology may not be regarded as a science, but to me the best SF is about society and, for me personally, social justice. As long as there is injustice, there will be a need for great stories. A story remains the most powerful means of highlighting a problem, or conveying a message, while also entertaining. I keep recharging by imbibing the work of other entertainers and by staying constantly connected to the real world and real problems. I’ve never attended an SF con, workshop, or social event, and probably never will, because to me the best SF comes from the interaction of an SF creative mind and the real world. The truth really is out there—in the real world—not in the bar of the convention hotel. That’s my way of adding that I don’t drink alcohol, or consume any beverages other than plain water and maybe an occasional lemonade. I’m too involved with the daily rush of reality and social issues. It keeps me alive, keeps me caring, keeps driving me to write stories like “Tongue.”
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