Every image in this tale seems to shimmer with the loveliness it describes, and yet it’s a scathing commentary on how we commodify—use—beauty. What inspired this story?
Thank you! It’s a retelling of a story I read as a child*—though I changed rather a lot, including the ending. It’s one of the few I’d seen where beauty wasn’t the most important characteristic a female character could have; so as an awkward unbeautiful child, I latched onto it.
In my early twenties, I was hugely influenced by the Windling/Datlow fairy tale anthologies. They’re what got me to try writing short fiction, so it was natural to try a fairy tale retelling of my own. And it had to be this one. But I realized while writing that this story I’d loved so much actually emphasizes (girls) being sweet and gentle and kind no matter what—and in the situation the protagonist is in, that’s romanticizing the idea that girls should accept abuse.
My version of the story came together once I realized how the original story’s bird character related to that narrative.
To answer the first part of the question, commodify is the perfect word, thank you. I’d moved from a childhood where I was mocked for everything Indian to college life where it seemed like everyone wanted me to provide lovely-exotic-India on demand. So I juxtaposed that content with questions about whose unseen labor went into making beauty and who got to consume it.
* The version I read was called “The Rainbow Prince,” and I’m pretty sure it was in an Amar Chitra Katha comic book.
The use of the dupatta to hide, to unveil, and to capture the bird was an interesting choice. Both Daya and the Rajkumani wear them. Is there a relationship between agency and the dupatta? What is the symbolism of this garment in the story?
The dupatta is a piece of often-translucent fabric that’s worn in ways that signal your cultural/religious group. It doesn’t necessarily serve a practical function for high-caste Hindu women; rather, it’s primarily seen as a marker of modesty / chastity / decency / respectability. (I can’t speak to how it’s used by other groups.)
I only mentioned it where relevant to the story, but all female characters not in saris would be wearing one (the trailing edge of a sari serves the same function). They’d be seen as half-dressed otherwise—and it’s not like a bonnet, which a Regency heroine might need but isn’t really used now. We still wear them. When I was a kid/teen, ditching your dupatta sent a social message analogous to bra-burning in the West, and while it may not cause quite that level of moral panic these days, it’s still not neutral.
So my uses of the dupatta are pretty standard storytelling for my culture. If there isn’t a thesis somewhere about how the dupatta is used to mediate wearer and viewer gaze and levels of intimacy in the subcontinent’s media, I think there should be!
The story turned on the interpretation of the word fair as beauty, rather than fair as justice. Daya constantly describes herself as plain, and refuses to speak ill of others. Can mercy be unlovely? Why is it important to show it as such?
This usage of “fair,” which means both beautiful and light-skinned, exists at the intersection of colorism and misogyny. (If you don’t know about Fair & Lovely skin-lightening cream, well, prepare to be horrified. The awesome Unfair & Lovely campaign didn’t exist when I was writing this story. I’m so glad it does now.)
Daya has completely internalized that colorism and misogyny, and I hope that’s clear to readers! She’s not light-skinned, so from her point of view she must be plain. How she actually looks is beside the point. Similarly, the mercy she represents is coerced—if you don’t question the underlying assumptions, Feminine Virtue (TM) is a girl’s only acceptable alternative to being light-skinned, and virtue is defined by the people with social capital.
The concept of mercy does also imply a power imbalance, and I think it’s quite different from compassion grounded in self-love. Not a good combination with internalized oppression.
Daya’s journey is as rugged as she is kind. What did you most want to convey to the reader through this story?
I’m talking about it academically now, but I was so, so angry when I wrote this story. I thought I was a failure of an Indian woman instead of a pretty okay mostly-agender person, and Daya is the person I was told I ought to be. Was failing to be. This story was my middle finger raised in response.
I wanted readers to feel and understand that anger.
But more importantly, I wanted to validate the anger and sense of injustice that young darker-skinned girls and women were (and are) still living with. I didn’t have those words as a child, or the sense that anyone understood. I had to write them myself as an adult. I was, and am, hoping that they’re helpful to any readers dealing with similar pain.
What are you working on next?
A story with zero talking birds! Don’t trust talking birds, they’re trouble.
I have a talking mechanical wildcat instead. And a young disabled biracial man who’s finding his feet within the Mughal court, while being annoyed by a talking wildcat.
He won’t be annoyed for much longer, though. If he’s not hitting red fury soon I’m doing it wrong.
The new story’s in the same universe as several others of mine, including the ones reprinted in Queers Destroy Fantasy! and POC Destroy Fantasy!. Those two do contain a talking bird, though. You have been warned.
Spread the word!