This story, which I might describe as fables woven into a wondrous tapestry, is as much about tribe and solidarity in the face of the dangers of a world that is different from one’s own, as it is about heartbreak, betrayal, and loss. Its parts are expertly formed into a whole. Where did it come from? What were its inspirations?
Thank you! But, confession: I winged it, with only a vague sense of the structure, aiming for half the length I got and flailing about side characters turning into Characters on me.
In terms of the form and explicit content, I stole some Northern subcontinental story guts and stuck them in the “World of the Three” described in ancient Tamil literature, as closely as I could manage with my English internet-only research. (I’m two miles from some of the best Tamil Studies folks in the world, but have been too sick to contact them.) The bird’s been nesting in my brain since 2009, and this is the seventh story she’s in, but before this, humans were always part of the intended audience. So this is me exploring what mechanicals might say when we’re not around—which is a deliberate mirror on marginalized human experiences, but it’s the only thematic aspect that was deliberate. My conscious brain isn’t in charge of that stuff. I was just writing in December 2016-February 2017, as a chronically ill non-citizen US resident with many friends in scary situations, and my feelings got into the story. So your question made me go “sounds legit, those are my themes, yes,” but you probably see them more clearly than I can.
Not surprisingly, given who authored this story, much of the language is poetic and beautiful. While there are various social ideas on discussion in this piece, what I really admire is the sense of humor with which the topics are framed. One of the themes explored is the shifting or changing of the body but retaining, more or less, the mind and personality. I really love the line, “Go find someone you love for more than her jewellery, for that is all a body is to us.” Are concepts of body, identity, and gender personally important to you?
Very much so. The mechanicals’ normalization of fluidity is part wish fulfillment and part trying to teach myself their confidence. I’m agender/genderfluid, diasporic, and chronically ill in ways that mess with my sense of identity and my relation to my body. But around other people I push myself to pass as cis, able, and whatever cultural identity is easiest for them, to the point of changing accents mid-sentence when I look from one person to another. I even used to draw cartoons of myself uncolored, as though I was white, and only realized it in my mid-twenties. I could learn a lot from mechanicals!
I’d never written humor before, but luckily Nakkiran and the monkey set the tone for me, and the stories I’m riffing off are full of puns, tricks, physical slapstick, and snarky social commentary. I even used a traditional motif for Meenatchi’s part, though I added a little . . . local color.
I feel like there are notes in here about traditional ideas of beauty. For example, I loved this description: “Nor were they lying; the elderly queen was splendid. Her face was cracked with wrinkles like land awaiting the rains, her hair flew above like the clouds they wait for, and her expressions shifted quick as lightning.” For me, in reading this, she is definitely aged, definitely majestic, and definitely beautiful; importantly, the wrinkles are an asset to this image. Am I just reading into things? Or is the idea of beauty something you are deliberately addressing?
One hundred percent deliberate; so was describing Meenatchi’s assistant as “large, dark, and lovely,” and I’m glad it’s noticeable! Ramaa’s humanoid form isn’t intended to be skinny either, but I suspect I didn’t do enough with that, or with a few other attempts.
As fun as they are, a lot of the traditional stories I was researching have Problems when it comes to describing “beautiful women.” Taken individually, they can be funny (legs like lotus stems? Someone get this poor girl to a doctor) but the misogyny (and colorism, ageism, sizeism, cisnormativity, ableism) builds up. So my descriptions are a NOPE at my own cultural traditions, as well as at contemporary versions of these issues.
This piece is strongly grounded in Indian cultures, and, I might even guess (being somewhat naïve), specific Indian cultures. What sorts of challenges, if any, does writing from this perspective present in terms of genre markets and readers?
It turns out that “megalithic-era Tamil Kingdoms with steel, complex trade networks, poets of all classes and genders, and probably indoor plumbing” sounds like speculative fiction to almost everyone, my family included—though that part’s all real! So much of the information has only become generally available in the last couple of years, and the first excavation of a city from this period only started in 2013. So my first challenge was to stop reading all the cool brain-changing stuff and get words down, and the most recent challenge seems to be not infodumping at anyone who’ll listen. The other main one was making it accessible at all. I don’t expect any reader to come in knowing anything about the setting. But in some ways that simplifies my job, because we’re all clueless cultural outsiders together, and the mechanicals stand in pretty well for our perspective.
Is there anything else in particular you would like readers to know about this story?
In my head, this story is a fragment from a document of dubious provenance, translated by a skeptical scholar. I’d even intended to scatter snarky footnotes throughout. But the story felt complete without them, so while I’d love to do more with the idea, I’m not quite sure what yet. There’s written Sanskrit, Prakrit, and Tamil literature going back a couple thousand years plus. Tamil in the south, the others in the north. Vikramaditya’s first attested appearances are in medieval Sanskrit literature. The stories were doubtless around far earlier in oral traditions, but not in Tamil-speaking areas. I made that up. But being turned into a parrot is canon.
Three of my characters—Vik/ramaa/diti, Usha, and the jeweller—would face transmisogyny if we stuck them in the current world. I do not. I had awesome sensitivity readers who do, and they helped me to avoid oppressive tropes: Alyssa while I was still brainstorming, and Ziva and Dee once I had a clean draft to share. Anything I still got wrong is my bad (and I’d like to know so I can avoid repeating the error, and fix it if I can). There’s a database of sensitivity readers and their rates online, so to anyone who’s writing outside their experience, I encourage you to talk to folks who have the experience, and to listen to them, especially when it’s uncomfortable.
Shweta, thank you for the lovely tale. I was delighted and surprised and entertained. Moreover, I laughed! What are you working on now that we can look forward to?
Sadly, I’m overdue on another really boring chapter of the saga, “chronic illness: trial and error with meds” because migraines are knocking me flat, so right now I don’t know when I’ll next be in possession of a brain.
No definite idea what I’ll work on after that, but it’ll probably be set in the same world. I’ve got two and a half short-ish stories and two novels yelling to be written. Plus I kind of want to know the rest of Nakkiran’s story!
Spread the word!