Dalit Roots and Diverse Verse: An interview with Mimi Mondal

Uncanny Magazine recently introduced their new poetry editor, Mimi Mondal. The president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association recently caught up with her for an interview.

Mimi Mondal was born and raised in Calcutta, India. She has been an editor with Penguin India, a Commonwealth Scholar at the University of Stirling, Scotland, and an Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholar at the Clarion West Writing Workshop 2015. Her stories, poetry and social commentary have appeared in The Book SmugglersDaily Science FictionPodcastleScroll.inMuse IndiaKindle Magazine, and elsewhere. She is the co-editor of Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia Butler, released in June 2017 from Twelfth Planet Press. Her first collection of stories is also forthcoming in India from Juggernaut Books

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Congratulations on your new position as the poetry editor of Uncanny Magazine. Can you tell us a little more about yourself? How did you get started with an interest in literature, particularly science fiction and fantasy?

I grew up in Calcutta, India, and by now am a bit of an overeducated hobo. (I went to grad school in India, the UK, and the US—all for literature-adjacent degrees. I was an editor at Penguin Random House India for a little more than a year.) I haven’t lived at home for more than half a decade, although I’m still actively an Indian citizen, and I haven’t lived anywhere long enough since to decisively say “I live here.” I am living in New York at the time of responding to this interview.

I think I specifically started writing science fiction and fantasy only when I came to the US in 2015 to attend the Clarion West Writers Workshop. As some of you probably know, in most countries outside the US, reading and writing speculative fiction isn’t very strictly separated from reading and writing mainstream fiction. Some of my earliest publications in India are poetry. The only national-level award I have in India is a poetry award. I have some short stories in India that have fantastical elements but were published alongside realism stories in magazines and anthologies. Of late, in the US, I mostly publish in SFF magazines, and now I’m an editor at one. I’m no expert at defining the boundaries of genre (trade secret: no one is!), but wherever you find like-minded people and appreciation for your work is probably the best place for you to be.

What do you remember most about your early education in literature?

I learned to read English as a child, but I had to teach myself—poring over storybooks with a well-thumbed, spine-broken copy of the Oxford English Dictionary by my side—to read English well enough to enjoy literature. English literacy among Indians varies according to class, and that is the precise indicator of the class I come from—my parents are literate in English, but not beyond the functional.

On the other hand, Bengali, my native language, happens to be very rich in speculative fiction. I grew up reading a lot of Bengali speculative fiction—fairy tales by Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar; detective adventures, science fiction and tall-tale adventures by Satyajit Ray (better known in the West for his filmmaking); tall-tale adventures by Narayan Gangopadhyay and Premendra Mitra; detective adventures by Sunil Gangopadhyay… I realize that many of these names may not be recognized internationally, but they formed the bedrock of my imagination. I grew up to study the formal British canon and postcolonial literatures at high school and university, so those educations were superimposed on that taste.

I didn’t really read much speculative fiction in English as a child. Coming from my background which wasn’t very Anglophile, I found white, male, First-World science fiction very alienating, and I wasn’t even making a political statement at that age. A part of my childhood took place before everyone in India had the Internet, and sometimes I just wouldn’t understand the meaning of a word or concept, even if I looked it up in a dictionary. Even the description of a word wouldn’t form any image in my mind.

The other thing that defined my childhood was that although I was a nerd, I didn’t really have any nerdy friends or participate in any nerdy group activity. Real-life nerd communities in India in the early 2000s were extremely, acerbically male—it was impossible to survive them as a girl with your dignity intact, leave alone have fun. Some girls did manage to wade through them and emerged from the experience angry but undefeated—like my comics writer friend Sreejita Biswas—but we were few and far between as teenagers, and did not really know each other. I remember many female nerds who got constantly discouraged, belittled, mansplained to, made fun of, unwillingly sexualized and so on, before they decided to “grow up” and move on. The reason why I didn’t give up is that I found LiveJournal and other online fan communities around the mid-2000s, and that pretty much saved me.

But fantastical narratives have always been my thing. I clamped upon Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie when I came across them as a teenager, and built up my “reading constellation,” as they say, with authors like Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Angela Carter, Umberto Eco, and so on. A very white constellation, I agree, but that should also give you an idea of the kind of international authors who are widely available in India.

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You have roots in the Dalit community. Who are some of your literary role models among the Dalit, and who are some of the emerging voices you’re keeping an eye on?

My parents are Dalit, as am I. Our last name proclaims it, so we don’t really “pass.” But I’m also ashamed to admit that I wasn’t really brought up within the Dalit community, didn’t have a sense of its history or even know any other Dalit person closely apart from my own family until a few years ago. So I also didn’t have role models among Dalit writers, who are… it’s incorrect to say there aren’t many of them, and very amazing ones, but usually they don’t write within the literary traditions that I’m part of. A lot of their works are in local Indian languages and not yet translated, so I don’t have the resources to read them. The people I do like are Namdeo Dhasal, the first specifically Dalit poet I read (in English translation); and Meena Kandasamy, who’s a mind-blowing poet, whom I had published once in a forgotten little-magazine anthology that I edited in 2011, and would be honored to be publish again.

There is also a small but powerful Dalit diaspora in the US, which I am still getting to know. I am very excited about the transmedia work of Thenmozhi Soundararajan. I am looking forward to reading Ants Among Elephants by Sujatha Gidla, which is receiving rave reviews everywhere just right now. I have found clarity and understanding in the scholarly writing of Toral Gajarawala.

You probably get the sense that I’m stretching myself a little thin here, and as a Lao-American poet, Bryan, I assume that the feeling won’t be unfamiliar to you! There is no other Dalit writer of speculative fiction that I know of. (My knowledge may be incomplete, of course; and I am always ready to amend it.) There are Dalit writers of other forms and genres, and there are speculative fiction writers from other disenfranchised minorities, and I exist in a halfway space between the two. The Dalit writers whom I mentioned above are probably not going to write speculative fiction or poetry any time soon, or submit to me. I am not part of the same professional networks as them, so they’re not quite my colleagues. When I keep an eye on their works, it is solely as a reader.

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How do you envision your upcoming approach to editing poetry for Uncanny

My first submission window will open in October, so I don’t yet have an idea of the kind or volume of submissions I will get. Overall, Uncanny already has a pretty firm aesthetic and political taste, and the last poetry editor Julia Rios did a great job of embodying it. I am hoping all I have to do is follow in her footsteps and keep up the good work.

What do I personally like? At the craft level, I enjoy sparseness and an ear for the musicality of words. (Basically, choose fewer words and choose them well.) I enjoy a certain lightness to the line, an unexpected turn of phrase, especially a phrase that sounds refreshing (but not shallow) in English because it is resonant of another language. I appreciate an awareness of the etymology and culture of the word you picked—of all the other ways it has been used in other places and times—and a deliberate reflecting of them in your work.

I also really enjoy cleverly rhymed, playful poetry! Few things are of such pure delight to me as a perfectly executed limerick, sonnet or villanelle, its meter and feet just right, but also un-stereotypical it its choice of words. I am almost wary of mentioning this because it immediately unleashes a barrage of forced, ill-humored or otherwise cringeworthy rhyme on me. Rhymed poetry has a high chance of acceptance, but also a high chance of rejection. Surprise me.

I despise footnotes, but I will take the evil of footnoting a poem upon myself, if necessary, so that the poet who submits to me may be free of explaining their context to a potentially unfamiliar readership. Don’t avoid submitting to Uncanny because you think the readership won’t “get” you, and don’t worry about explaining anything to the readership in the body of your poem either. Let the poem be as light and free as possible. If I love it but don’t get the context, I will get in touch with you for an explanation, and discuss with you what footnote it may need. Often, it may not need any.

What would you recommend for editors and publishers who want to encourage more submissions from Dalit writers?

If someone specifically needed this training, I would advise them to get acquainted with S. Anand, who has been running the Dalit publishing house Navayana in New Delhi since 2003. He has more hands-on experience than anyone else of finding Dalit writers and narratives, commissioning and editing them, and turning them into award-winning books.

Closer home in the US, let’s see. Most people outside the South Asian Hindu community don’t even know what Dalit means, and Hindus are generally not viewed as an oppressive community (“model minority” and so on). Many Hindus in the US are liberal when it comes to US politics and conservative when it comes to India—they complain about facing discrimination from white people in the same breath as they say that Dalits are a nuisance, they get all the reservations and benefits in India, all the reports of crimes against them are exaggerated and fake… you get the drift. I have often started talking about being Dalit to a white person, when they interjected to tell me that their other Indian friend (inevitably an upper-caste Hindu), who’s absolutely progressive and non-judgmental, has told them that caste discrimination no longer exists in India, and I have bit my tongue at that point and said, “Oh.” I can’t be fighting each of those little battles every day. No one can.

And there are so few of us that we’re easy to ignore. (Not as a global population, let me add; there are more than 200 million Dalits just in India. For perspective, that’s close to the population of Brazil, the fifth most populous country in the world, and larger than the population of every individual country in Europe. The fact that you can’t find ten of them to fill a speculative fiction anthology in the US should give you an idea of the extent of the abjectness of the community.) Sometimes we are necessary to ignore, because if you only want to talk to Indians who are pro-Dalit rights, it’s likely that you won’t be talking to any of the Indians you know. If I was a full-time Dalit rights activist or scholar, my social circles may not have coincided with anyone who is against them, or even indifferent to them, but I’m a speculative fiction and poetry editor—that’s a small enough field, I’m a new enough member of it, I’m an immigrant, in this particular intersection of my minorities, I am the only one. So sometimes I have to swallow a slight or even direct insult, and get on with my work. (How does it make me feel? Unsurprisingly, like shit.)

So what can a non-Dalit, non-South-Asian editor do to improve the situation? Firstly, as a person, don’t disbelieve a Dalit person when they talk about the discrimination they have faced, even if your upper-caste Hindu friends deny it. You don’t have to make Dalit rights the agenda of your life, but we’re all social adults; we’ve all at different points chosen to stay friends with people who were sexist, racist, homophobic etc. but otherwise nice, at the cost of that niggling pinprick to our conscience. Allow that pinprick into your brain. Acknowledge that your Dalit friend is facing—if nothing worse—denial and erasure from your “progressive” upper-caste Hindu friend who confirms that caste discrimination doesn’t exist, even as you appreciate your upper-caste friend’s other qualities and continue to stay friends with them. If you refuse to even begin to see us, you’re not going to find us coming to you.

About calls for submissions, much has been said about specifically mentioning that you’re seeking submissions from minorities. (Rose Lemberg’s essay in Strange Horizons is a good overview, for the unfamiliar.) For communities that have centuries of grooming in being overlooked and told to shut up when they open their mouth, it’s the first step to put yourself out as someone who specifically wants to hear from them, even if you don’t get an immediate response.

Especially for minorities-within-minorities, it’s important to spell out their name. Just as many trans people know from experience that all queer-friendly spaces aren’t safe for them, we Dalits know that the worst discrimination to us usually occur in other South Asian-friendly spaces. Even without being overtly involved in the politics, as an editor you can change the “South Asian” in your diversity statement to say “South Asian (including Dalit, Bahujan and other minorities),” and accept that you will lose any submitter who openly objects to that, while probably not finding a Dalit submitter who immediately replaces them. Keep beaming out that signal until your intention rings genuine, and your call has finally reached someone who can rise to it.

You won’t get an immediate response. The largest number of those 200 million people are struggling to access basic education, stay in school, have enough to eat, not get beaten up, raped or murdered—they’re not writing speculative fiction or poetry. Is it still worth it to beam out a signal for them, at the cost of more prepared, polished but casteist Hindu writers? Isn’t the upper-caste Hindu writer in the US “minority enough”? There are no absolute answers to these questions. Several intersecting forces come to play in a minority-vs-minority conflict, and for someone who doesn’t belong to either group, picking sides is fraught at best. As a Dalit writer and editor my choice is less complicated, since I don’t get an opt-out button from my Dalitness, or an opt-in button for the many South Asian spaces in the US that refuse to include me. For anyone who isn’t either Dalit or upper-caste Hindu, I suppose the worth of any affirmative action and its consequences can only be a personal decision.

What are you working on for your current literary projects? 

I am very slowly writing an arc of connected stories that take place within a circus troupe traveling through a somewhat anachronistic version of South Asian in the early 20th century. Some sections of it are standalone—one was published in Podcastle in 2015; two were published by Juggernaut Books in India as ebook singles in 2016; another one has been languishing with a very busy (but also very cool) editor in New York whom I cannot name since it’s not yet a confirmed acceptance. This has been my primary project since 2014, but it takes so long to finish because I didn’t plan to start it, and my life, beliefs and circumstances have constantly changed between then and now. I revise those stories a lot. I discard old drafts that no longer feel adequate. I study new things and want to incorporate them within my stories. I cannot advise this is the best way to go about writing a book. Perhaps you just finish that first book, inadequate or not, and aspire to do better for the next book, then the next. But I haven’t written a whole book yet, so I wouldn’t know.

Occasionally I get distracted from the main project and write a completely unrelated short story. Sometimes I write a nonfiction article. I often write SFF articles for Indian readers for the books section of the Indian news website Scroll.in. But these are not projects, and I usually cannot predict when the next one will be. You’ll just have to follow me on Twitter or something.

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What are some of the arts and cultural events we might meet you at in 2018?

This is a little tricky, because I don’t have an events calendar filled up that far into the future. I know I am doing a reading and discussion for Banned Books Week at the New York Public Library on September 29, 2017 in collaboration with the New York Foundation for the Arts. 2018 seems too far to plan for. I will definitely be showing up for some of the science fiction and fantasy conventions in the US, but I cannot predict which. I may even go and spend some time in India during the year. What can I say? I live dangerously.

What are some of your personal rules for yourself when it comes to writing? When it comes to editing?

I don’t have any writing rules at all. I am a very undisciplined writer. Rules and good advice bounce off my brain. I do not advise it, but it is what it is.

When it comes to editing, the only rule I follow is that the editor’s contribution should be invisible. You may love it or hate it, but it’s someone else’s work. Your vision should never overpower theirs. It’s very frustrating if someone’s work is nearly what you want it to be but not quite, and they’re adamant about not letting it take the direction you want, but you have to either let it be or let it go.

Also—and I cannot emphasize this enough—don’t overwrite. Definitely don’t overwrite someone’s writing without their consent, “forget” to take their permission, and publish it the way you want, even if you think you’re really important and they’re really not. That’s very, very uncool. Creative writers are not “resources” or “content creators.” I hope some editors who have published me in the past are listening.

What is one of your favorite pieces to recommend for readers who want to get an introduction to your writing?

This Sullied Earth, Our Home” on PodCastle. There’s also a podcast version at the bottom of the page. It’s part of the longer project I mentioned above, so you’ll get an idea of what I really do when I’m not editing.

If you could have any animal, fantastic or mundane for a companion, what would it be?

I don’t think I can answer this. I think of animals as individuals more than as species, and as such, I have no fascination for fantastic animals because I wouldn’t know if I’d be friends with a particular dragon until we have hung out. I do miss Pepper, one of the cats at my parents’ house in Calcutta. I miss a few dogs I’ve lived with at different times. But that’s not what you’re asking, are you?

Where would you most like to spend time writing, if money were no object?

Honestly? In my room at home in Calcutta. That’s where I have done some of my best and most grounded writing, not only for the comfort of home but because it contains my original book collection, which I have never been able to afford to transport or completely replace anywhere else I’ve lived. Every now and then while writing I have to look for a reference and remember that it’s in a book back home, and that book isn’t available wherever I am at that moment, or I cannot afford to buy a second copy.

But I also don’t want to live in Calcutta full-time, so moving back (which is cheap and easy) is not an option. Most of my friends are no longer in the city, and all of us have grown in ways that the city’s culture no longer accommodates all of our needs as people. I like my life in New York. If money (and magic) were no object, I would probably transport my entire room from Calcutta, occasional interjections by my mother included, to wherever I am at any given moment.

What words of advice do you have for aspiring writers?

I suppose all I can say is write because you like it, and if you stop liking it at some point, that’s okay too. None of us has to become a writer, and even if you “became a writer,” nothing will magnanimously change about your life. There’s no benchmark for “becoming a writer” anyway. When do you become a writer? When you publish your first story? When you publish your first book? When you win your first Hugo Award? The cashier at your local supermarket or your grumpy uncle who doesn’t read will still treat you the way they did the day before.

And in the process of building your writing career, your social circle will also evolve, so you’ll always be somewhere middle-of-the-range. Sure, your school friends right now will be massively impressed if you won the Hugo Award, but by the time you win that Hugo Award you won’t be hanging out with your school friends, you’ll be hanging out with other writers who’ve also won the Hugo Awards—some of them before you, some of them multiple times, some of them younger than you—so you’ll still be just one of the others. Your friendships and relationships will follow the same patterns, the price of groceries or clothes won’t alter for you, you’ll still be subject to the same laws, your body will catch the same illnesses, your country will still elect leaders you disapprove of, there will always be some parties you won’t get invited to. If you’re a jealous or insecure person, there will always be something to be jealous or insecure about, and they won’t go away unless you work specifically at those issues. If you suffer from depression, please seek medical help and emotional support. Being a writer will not change any of these things for you.

This is not to discourage you from writing—it’s to encourage you to really examine why you write, and learn to separate the wheat from the chaff. You should write because there are stories you are excited to tell, not for a particular award, publisher, social recognition or anything beyond your control. Once you have some recognition it’s wise to stick to the community that recognizes you and build upon it, of course; but don’t pick the community or goal before you have even thought up the story. Your stories will decide what kind of a writer you are, who reads you or gives you awards; and if you don’t have a story to tell, then there are so many other fun things to do in the world, including reading. It’s easy to forget—and equally important to remember—as an aspiring writer that you should love and be kind to yourself, take care of your mental health, nurture and enjoy the friendships you make along the way. That is all that makes the whole writer gig enjoyable, even bearable at times. The rest is just parallax.

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2 thoughts on “Dalit Roots and Diverse Verse: An interview with Mimi Mondal

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