The interiority of this piece was so beautifully woven throughout this story. She occupies this perpetually shifting liminal space, from her romantic decisions to her capacity to remember the past and the future. How do you define “witch” in the context of these events?
“Witch” can mean so many different things. For me, in this story, it embodies a woman who has defied the patriarchal order, and escaped the social and religious strictures that she was born into, to become a person of power and knowledge. She sees the hypocrisy of her family, and the cruelty of the religious right, and disowns them. There is always a price to pay for such things. Not everyone can be saved. And sometimes, the only way to save yourself is letting go of everything else.
In some of your other stories, like “Hatyasin” and “The Family Ghost,” magic has its core in family and lineage. Is that a focal point while you’re writing, or incidental?
I don’t believe I do this consciously. But family is important to me. Family shapes us for good and ill, and the feelings between family members are some of the strongest in the world. The love of a mother for her child, the bond between sisters, the wisdom of a grandmother, the enmity between exes—such relationships make (or break) our lives. Magic, in this sense, is one way of exploring familial bonds or traits. It can also be a symbol of transgression, a breaking away from family, and defiance of the established order.
This reminded me of particular stories about power, in which the antagonistic trope I expect is a lack of self-control. Instead of journeying outward, this felt more like a returning, and the antagonistic force is everyone outside of her and her traditions. What were you exploring in this piece?
I wanted to explore the difficulty of interfaith unions in certain countries, like India. It is not easy for ordinary people of different religions to get married in India, particularly if one is a Muslim and the other Hindu. Unions between Muslim men and Hindu women are the most fiercely opposed. No priest will marry them. Fundamentalists will target them. They can still get married via a civil ceremony conducted by a registrar, but there are all sorts of procedural hurdles to this. The notice of the proposed marriage has to be publicly posted for thirty days and anyone can make objections to it. They can be harassed by both family members and officials, as well as complete strangers. Sometimes, violence is the end result.
The only possible way for me to tell such a story was obliquely, through the lens of fantasy. And what better place to situate such a story than Varanasi, a city that is fascinating in its contradictions? I walked the city through the eyes of my protagonist and felt like a ghost myself.
There were certain lines that seemed contemptuous on the first read and then compassionate (if a bit resigned) on the second, as though the text itself helped her hide in plain sight. How would the ideal reader see her? What would you like the reader to take away from this story?
I’d like the reader to feel empathy for her without pitying her. Yes, something terrible happened, but it did not break her. It freed her. Most of all, I’d like the reader to come away with a sense of hope, as I did when I wrote the final line. I believe they found a way to be together, away from the world that drove them apart.
Inter-religious marriages do manage to take place all over the world, even in India. Such couples have transcended the “Us-Them” rhetoric dinned into them since childhood, and taken a brave step toward the future. It is a triumph of love and humanity over religious fundamentalism.
What can we look forward to next from you?
I work on multiple projects at any time, both short and long, only some of which will see the light of day. I have a story about a sentient ship upcoming in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. And I just finished writing a story about a rather special cat. We’ll see where that one goes. I’m working on a middle grade fantasy novel. I also have an idea simmering for an adult novel. Basically, I need to clone myself.
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