Monday, September 3, 2018

Mimi Mondal

I was excited to have a chance to meet Locus Award winner and Hugo nominee Mimi Mondal at Worldcon this year, and thrilled when she agreed to come on the show. We talked about a world that she has been working in, in which features something called the Majestic Oriental Circus. Her use of the word Oriental is deliberate, and a hint of the early 20th-century semihistorical setting.

Mimi told us she has worked in this world on and off over a long time, starting when she lived in India. In India there was not a large market for science fiction and fantasy, she says, and at the beginning she was unsure whether to write a novel or whether to write a short story to "test the waters."

Mimi attended a college writing workshop in 2008. She told us that by that point she'd written the beginnings of several novels. The world of the Oriental Circus stayed with her. She started writing vignettes about characters in the world with no plan. In the first published story about this world, the circus was part of the backstory. The story took place in an underground jazz cabaret club in 1960's India. It was one of those murder mysteries where everyone looks like a suspect and no one knows anyone else's background, and the police haul them all together for questioning. Some of the characters in this story had been affiliated with the circus in their past.

In 2013, Mimi wrote a self-contained story in the circus. She calls it her "most accepted story," because it was published by Podcastle, and got her into Clarion West and into an MFA program.

I asked Mimi about the intersection between her stories and the science fiction/fantasy genre. The connection is actually quite fascinating. Mimi says she reads a lot of history and likes it. There was a big flourishing circus scene in India from the 1890's to the 1930's. Circus as a form was developing all over the world. In India, it took in many traditional performers. It has a Steampunk aesthetic to some degree, but is later than the Victorian period, because the values of the Victorians trickled into the colonies later. Mimi describes the circus as a very interesting social space, breaking traditional structures. There is space for mystery, and she uses it to explore Indian folklore. There are nonhumans here, pretending to be human. In the circus environment, you don't ask questions because no one else is normal either. If you worked in an office, you would need paperwork, but the circus is not even grounded in one place because it travels. She started writing a long sequence of events, "chunk by chunk." Her focus is on using parts of Indian mythology that are not well known. While she was writing these pieces, she was learning craft skills and working on her awareness of gaze.

The question of gaze is an interesting one. Mimi told us about how there are distinct differences in the expectations of Indian and Western readership.  A murder mystery relies on what audiences take for granted. If it doesn't, it's not a good mystery. Her murder mystery story got rejected by some US magazines who said "this mystery is not working out," but it sold in India, where people said, "this mystery is very cool." As she learns to control gaze, she says, she's considering rewriting the story so that it will work for US audiences.

Next, Mimi told us about her story, "The Sullied Earth, Our Home," which was recorded by Podcastle. She said it was a story that helped her realize how theoretical things can fall into place when you are not thinking about them. It features a person telling a story to two children. This format allows for a degree of explanation about the world etc. because the person is telling the story to two circus kids who are new and don't know the history of the place.

Mimi says she grew up reading Indian magical realism, including Salman Rushdie. In these works, a lot of the background history isn't on the page, and you are just expected to know it.

One of the hurdles Mimi faced was that of people in the US not understanding. In her MFA program, the others were all American. She discovered that they would read historical aspects of the story as if they were secondary world aspects of the story. Because they had no idea of the actual history, they would call it Steampunk. Mimi explains, "My world is quite close to the primary." But at this point she writes it with the awareness that it is a secondary world.

In the West, people are so familiar with fiction based on the Medieval history of Europe that a lot of the world has already been set up, which spares people a lot of work.

There are certain stereotypes of what a god would be like. A local god from India doesn't necessarily resemble either an American god or any of the Indian gods we are familiar with.

Mimi told us about some things she has noticed as an editor, while looking at the history of South Asian science fiction and fantasy. She looked up authors from Pakistan, India, and the UK and US, and discovered that many works don't translate from the home country to the UK and US audiences. Some authors, faced with this difficulty, choose a particular audience. Mimi says she always tries to reach both, explaining that "a large number of my old friends and contacts are back in India." She says she ends up looking at Salman Rushdie's technique, even though she doesn't like his perspective. She says he has a lot of mansplainers in his work, and infodumps. It's hard to separate the perspective from the craft, but it's worth trying.

Mimi used to work at Penguin India, and explains that they did so many books, all in English. The numbers don't look large because the books are half the US price, but the number of books is huge.

Mimi told us she doesn't write her fiction in Bengali or Hindi.

Paul asked Mimi if her editing had influenced her writing. She told us that it has made her writing slower. "I write a line and then I look at it for five days." She has done comparative analysis on her own stories, going back to a story of hers that was accepted and comparing it to the rejected stories, asking what it was doing structurally that the rejected stories weren't doing. She says she has definitely improved as an editor, but that it's hard to say if it has changed her writing.

When choosing details to include in worldbuilding so the reader isn't confused, it's important to ask what to explain, and what not to explain.

In her Circus world, nearly everybody is the Other in one way or another. There are lots of people meeting for the first time.

In each of her stories in this world, Mimi writes from a single first-person perspective. The point of view character has a sense of what is normal from the inside of their head, but when you run into them in another story told from another point of view, it turns out they are weird as well. She says this is like hidden mirrors, and talks about bringing out the parameters of an unreliable narrator. Flipping the narrators provides a different perspective, even though the stories themselves stand alone and they are not parallel narratives of the same event.

We also spoke about her story, "The Trees of My Youth Grew Tall." In this story the narrator comes from a group of people who used to live in the trees. This character sees city-dwelling humans as "ground humans." City people are weird to her. In the story, her son alienates everyone in their tribe and then disappears. She is not the kind of person who has ever been alone in the world. Her son is not very nice for abandoning her. Mimi explains, though, that she has a novelette forthcoming at Tor.com, which is from the son's perspective. The son left and joined the circus. Mimi says "clearly he forgot to say bye so he's a jerk," but he does learn a lesson. He loves people and hurts them for toxic masculine reasons. He holds on to old-school masculine codes of honor which don't work very well. He doesn't think of himself as a bad person.

Most of us are good human beings, she says, until there's someone in our lives we don't care about.

We asked Mimi if she was planning to collect these stories into a book. This is indeed the plan! One of her plans was initially to start with short stories and then stitch them together into a novel. However, when she was at her MFA program she tried to write them into an overarching narrative, and found lots of elements didn't match up. She says that Hinduism is such a large religion that it has a great many diverse practices that somehow stick together, but are not necessarily internally consistent. She has struggled with that question of consistency. These characters, who are struggling and trying to survive, don't really have a common goal. Many people expect a consistent magic system, and get thrown off if the framework gets violated.

She says the feedback she gets from a lot of fantasy readers is vague. They will say something doesn't feel believable, but it's hard to tell what that means.

She says many science fiction readers believe that anything outside a very narrow norm must have a purpose in the story.

I told Mimi that the way she describes her magic system reminded me of the magic systems of Nnedi Okorafor and Laura Anne Gilman, which are not highly regulated and internally consistent, and work wonderfully without needing to.

She told us that her point of view characters don't have to know the logic of the magic they are using. She says, "I borrowed a lot of lessons from Nnedi Okorafor and Nalo Hopkinson." A lot of SFF from non-western cultures, she says, is very close to magical realism. Gabriel García Marquez doesn't have a magic system. The historical events in these stories are things you can look up if you want.

Mimi theorizes that the further you get toward secondariness in a world, the more it will become important structurally to have a consistent system.

Mimi told us a story about a plan she had for a new novella. She did a chapter by chapter outline so the world was consistent and narrative tension was spread out. She intended to do a free write thereafter, but it worked badly for her, because she lost the feeling of joy. That lack of joy will show in the text. She said, "It turned into homework for me. The story does not have any spontaneity left."

The Circus stories didn't work out as a single narrative at her MFA, but they did work as a story collection.

Thank you so much, Mimi, for coming on the show! This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Thursday, September 6 at 4pm Pacific, and we'll talk about Attraction, Affection, and Love, and how we talk about them. I hope you can join us!




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