In the same way that every quest—online or not—has a beginning, could you take us back to the inspiration for this story? In particular, what drew you to exploring these themes of identity through the technological filter of an older, slightly outdated video game?
The story has many inspirations! The most proximate one is that I got frustrated with all the stories in prominent SFF magazines that’re heavy on lyricism and sentiment but don’t have much new to say. I was like, god, this is so simple: I am just gonna tell a mildly fantastic story in a singing lilt, and I’ll make it be about something really sentimental. Of course, ultimately the story didn’t end up being particularly lyrical—it’s just not my writing style—and although it does verge on the sentimental, I hope it’s not cheap.
As for the inspirations that fed into the story. Well . . . I played Everquest—a first-generation MMORPG—for a few years when I was in middle school and high school. And over the course of that time the game declined and became virtually empty, so that it started to feel like the few remaining players were the survivors of some apocalypse. Needless to say, I always played female characters, and I always maintained the illusion rigorously, insisting to all my online friends that, unlike all those other woman characters that were played by dudes, I was an “actual” woman. Oftentimes they were like, “Oh, of course, we knew that. We could tell.” Which would give me some very warm and fuzzy feelings. Although this isn’t my usual sort of story, it definitely tapped into something, and I’m pleased that I wrote it.
One element that comes through in this story is the power of names. It seems to be not merely a question of male or female—Gopal or Gayatri—but the choice seems to have the potential to hold other connotations and resonances, even if the characters aren’t consciously aware of it. Can you talk a little about that?
I don’t know. I’m still sorting out the naming thing myself. In the trans community, names have a totemistic feel. Oftentimes your name is the first thing you change—the first overt affirmation of your gender. To be honest, the whole thing is a little anglocentric. My birth name, Rahul, is a highly gendered name: in India, it would immediately be recognized as a male name. But in America, it doesn’t convey the same connotations.
It took me a long time to find a new name—it didn’t seem worthwhile to choose one that wouldn’t immediately be recognized as female, but at the same time I felt conflicted about giving up my Indian-ness. For this reason, half the Indian girls in America are named Tara, Maya, Nikita, Rita, or one of the handful of other Indian names that are recognizable female to white peoples’ ears. Anyway, it’s not important, and it has nothing to do with the story, but that’s my answer to the question!
There’s an interesting parallel in the way that the stories Gayatri participates in creating online have an almost mythical feel to them. From a far enough remove, a story about “Tak’s midnight raid across the Heavens, when he aggro’ed the Sky-King” might seem as if it fits alongside “Amba, the princess who Bishma rejected, and who turned herself into a man so she could kill the man who’d humiliated her.” However, even then, the fluid boundaries of identity that are acceptable in one aren’t necessarily in the other. Do you see a similarity between the myths collectively created through shared experiences in games and those that are passed down through generations? What kind of divide do you see?
Sure. I think there’s myth-making in games. I mean people still remember that guy who joined the guild in EVE Online and worked his way into the highest echelons so he could get access to their vault and steal everything they had. Or the person in Ultima Online who killed the CEO’s avatar, Lord British. Or, in Everquest, the team of players who killed the Sleeper, who was designed to be an unkillable monster. These stories are very mythic in character, and they all share one characteristic: they transgress the rules of the game. They’re about doing things you’re not supposed to do. You cannot become a myth by simply playing the game and doing the quests and collecting your rewards. You need to challenge the Gods (i.e. the designer).
In the end, there’s a fissure and a split more than there is a transformation—Gayatri goes on and Gopal does not. The split is perhaps not perfect, and it’s clearly finite, but it lets some part of our main character go on, rather than entirely waste away. Do you see a point in Gopal’s path things could have turned out differently, or were circumstances such that this ending split was inevitable? Is the future reconciliation between Gayatri and Gopal’s mother the best that could have happened given the characters?
I just added the reconciliation to make the story pay off better! Originally it wasn’t in there, and I’m still not sure it’s necessary. I always thought it was enough that Gayatri simply got to exist, even if it was only in an abbreviated form.
Finally, what’s coming up next for you? In addition to your concrete plans or publications, are there any new and still uncharted areas of the map that you’re eager to explore?
Well, in addition to science fiction and fantasy, I write contemporary young adult novels. My second novel, We Are Totally Normal, just came out. It’s the story of a bro-y dude who hooks up with his nerdy male friend and starts to wonder if he might be gay. It’s provoked somewhat mixed reactions from the YA readership, which I think prefers its queer stories to be a little more straightforward. This has inspired me to look for a readership elsewhere. I have a contemporary literary novel (for adults) entitled The Lonely Years, that’s about a trans woman who’s always idealized female friendship but who wonders if maybe there’s something ineluctably creepy and male about herself that means she’s not a “real” woman, and I’m currently querying agents for it, so who knows? I’ve also written a contemporary thriller (tentatively entitled Death Trap) about a sexy trans woman assassin who runs foul of a league of woman assassins that’re mad at her for being just so darn sexy (they think she’s giving female assassins a bad name).
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