In late 2016, when Kolkata-born-New York-based Indian writer Mimi Mondal was invited by fellow SFF writer and editor Alexandra Pierce to edit an anthology — Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia Butler (Twelfth Planet Press) — she did not hesitate to come on board. She had begun reading Butler, the first major African American woman writer in science fiction and fantasy (SFF), about four years ago, after moving out of India, but her readiness to work on the anthology came from a place more personal.
“Some of the stories in Luminescent Threads were strikingly similar to mine: People doubting themselves and their talents, people who were explicitly or implicitly told that they did not belong in science fiction, and that their stories were irrelevant. People who grew up reading only white male authors until they came across Butler, and her work gave them courage and hope. As a young Dalit girl in India, that was how I often felt, too. It had been a revelation to discover Indian mainstream writers, as opposed to only foreign writers, but I had soon noticed that nearly all those Indian writers came from more privileged backgrounds than me, were often foreign-educated, lived abroad, and moved in the circles of other highly educated and literary people. Nearly none of them came from discriminated minorities, working their way up from families that were completely unliterary. Even after I discovered other Indian writers, I did not believe I could become one of them,” says Mondal, 30, who, along with senior editor Pierce, is in the list of finalists for this year’s Hugo Awards in the ‘Best Related Work’ category. The Hugo Awards are often considered to be the most important award in SFF.
While the anthology was intended as a commemoration of the writer on her 70th birthday last year, Butler was an obvious choice for such a volume. “She had to work incredibly hard just to find time to write, and she was battling the idea that writing — especially science fiction — was something that African-Americans just didn’t ‘do’… A lot of writers in our anthology credit her as the reason why they believed they could themselves become writers. Her work itself — only a dozen novels and a handful of short stories — continues to challenge and intrigue,” says Melbourne-based Pierce, 38, who has also been nominated in the Best Fancast category for a podcast called Galactic Suburbia with women talking about SFF.
Delhi-based lawyer Gautam Bhatia and Aishwarya Subramanian are the other Indian nominees for the award named after Hugo Gernsback, who launched Amazing Stories, the first major American science fiction magazine. Along with their fellow editors, Bhatia and Subramanian have been nominated under the ‘Best Semiprozine’ category (non-professional magazine dedicated to SFF) for Strange Horizons, a weekly magazine for speculative fiction.
“I’ve been interested in fantasy ever since my parents gifted me a copy of The Hobbit (by JRR Tolkien) when I was 10 years old, and I’ve been hooked to science fiction when they followed it up by gifting me a copy of (Isaac) Asimov’s Foundation the year after. My initial foray into SFF was very mainstream. I read Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, and then branched out into Roger Zelazny, James Blish, Robert Heinlein, Gene Wolfe… the very recognisable canon that, apart from Ursula Le Guin, is dominated by white, male Anglo-American writers. But, in recent years, especially after being involved with Strange Horizons, I’ve discovered that there’s a world of SFF beyond that — SFF that, in particular, critiques political, economic, and social structures, and does so with brilliance and eloquence,” says Bhatia, 29, who has been on the editorial board of Strange Horizons since 2016.
The possibility of SFF is not lost on Mondal either. The writer, who has three MA degrees to her name, says that while she read both SFF and mainstream literature, “science and circumstance” led her to SFF. She had been “reasonably good” at science and math in school, but enjoyed the humanities subjects more. “History and politics are my primary interests, and I find science fiction and fantasy deeply steeped in both. Worldbuilding is essentially a political act. All fiction is a tiny exercise in world-building… How can stories about kings, governments, wars, coexisting species, unnaturally powerful people and creatures, the future of humanity, narratives spanning centuries or more, be anything but steeped in history and politics? It excites me so much to be allowed to speculate on these topics,” she says. The awards, instituted in 1953, will be presented this year at Worldcon 76, to be held in San Jose, California, between August 16 and August 20.