At heart, for me, this piece is as much about the nature of human violence as it is about family. It challenges the ways we define violence, and asks whether or not we can exist without it. How does the concept of non-violence factor into your own life, and how is that represented in your stories?
The seed of this story actually came from watching my young son navigate kindergarten. Anand was having a really difficult time for much of the year; his instinctive response to frustration was often to lash out, and while he rarely actually hurt anyone (he’s quite small), that kind of behavior is obviously challenging in a public classroom setting, when you don’t have enough adults to easily manage the number of kids they’re being asked to supervise. The challenge of trying to help him moderate his natural impulses towards physical violence intersected with my ongoing obsession with the civil war in Sri Lanka (starting most directly with the ’83 Black July riots that caused many of my Tamil relatives to flee the country after thousands of Tamils were killed in the capital). Many of my relatives gave money and support to the Tamil Tigers—people who some considered freedom fighters, and whom others (especially after 9/11 and the U.S. government’s restructuring of its categories) considered terrorists. I’m generally a peaceful person, but I couldn’t call myself a pure pacifist—if it came down to defending myself, my family, my community—I think I’d pick up a weapon if necessary. So it’s those questions of when violence is justified, when it’s appropriate, when it’s unavoidable or even desirable—those questions fascinate and disturb me.
I really enjoyed the ideas and visuals around amphibious colonization, and the resulting modifications. Where did the inspirations for these elements come from?
Facebook! Seriously, all of my research seems to start on Facebook these days—I throw out a question, and my clever friends (and total strangers) give me a host of ideas and information to consider. They gave me many possibilities for the genetic modifications in this story, and I narrowed it down to the ones I wanted to work with.
At the end, as Rose and Gwen are separated physically, they are also (possibly) separated philosophically, perhaps even ideologically, as Gwen is about to (potentially) enter into a life of violence—suggested by the line “others stayed and fought”—and Rose is about to enter into a life of total pacifism. Despite the circumstances, the ending has a hopeful, positive tone. Does this suggest that happiness can be achieved despite being thrust into violent circumstances? Or do you see this more as Gwen’s courage in the face of adversity, not to mention a determination to raise her child a certain way?
I’m not sure I’d read the ending as hopeful, exactly—that might be more bravado, and a determination not to frighten the child, to make the best of a terrible, heartbreaking situation. Though that said, I do think Gwen was, perhaps, always a little ambivalent about this flight to a pacifist refuge. She would have done it, for her children’s sake, but when circumstances force her to stay, there’s at least a small part of her that wants to stay and fight for her home. Is she right to want that? I don’t know.
The concepts of nonviolence, pacifism, justified violence, and so on, are important parts of the discourse of SF. Who are some of the authors, or what are some of the pieces you’ve discovered, that really resonate with you along these lines?
To be honest, most of my thinking on this was formed not by SF authors, but by South Asian writers. Nonfiction books like Stanley Tambiah’s Buddhism Betrayed?, which interrogate the question of how Buddhists who are supposedly committed to a philosophy of non-violence can nonetheless become ardent, violent nationalists. Fiction like Bapsi Sidhwa’s beautiful novel, Cracking India, which examines the Partition of India and Pakistan through the eyes of a small child. Films that examine the legacy of the Tamil Tigers, and the war’s effect on my country, such as Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist. An essential book arguing for the need for revolutionary violence against colonial oppression is Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. I’ve been tremendously moved by soldier’s stories, such as Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and as a parent now, I am particularly disturbed by the fact that so often we send youngsters barely out of childhood to fight our wars.
There are certainly some in-genre works that have affected me as well. Delany and Le Guin both have work that considers these issues, and I’m sure they’ve influenced my thinking deeply. There’s a slew of ’70s feminist SF writers who worked in this area, and I’ve read a fair bit of military SF from authors like Elizabeth Moon and Lois McMaster Bujold, which often touch on these issues, though they’re more likely to take the periodic need for violent military intervention as a given.
Thanks so much for your story. Do you have any forthcoming projects you’re excited about?
This story is part of a series that started with a short story, “Jump Space,” was followed by my novella, The Stars Change, and then the stories “Communion” (Clarkesworld, 2014) and “Webs,” (Asimov’s, July 2016). I’ve been working on a war novel in that same universe, so my main hope is to finish that soon and send it out into the world; I think it has the potential to become a series.
There are a host of other projects, including a nonfiction memoir titled Arbitrary Passions, exploring the connections between love and nationalism. I’m also currently writing for Tremontaine (through Serial Box), in Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint universe, and for George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards series—I have stories in the anthologies Fort Freak and Lowball, and another coming soon in Low Chicago. Both of those are lots of fun, though perhaps unsurprisingly, war and violence end up in my stories for those universes as well.
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