Thursday, August 18, 2016

INTERVIEW: Indra Das on his debut novel The Devourers

Indrapramit (Indra) Das is an author from Kolkata, India who writes in the fantasy/science fiction genres. I reviewed his debut novel The Devourers when it came out in India last year. Indra is now working as the Speculative Fiction editor for Juggernaut Books, a new publishing company focused on mobile content. I caught up with him after his publicity tour for the US version of The Devourers, published last month by Del Rey.

I know you just finished your US publicity tour for The Devourers. How did it go? 

It went very well indeed, thank you for asking! I went to New York City for the launch, and met my American editor, Mike Braff, along with the entire team behind the book’s publication, promotion, etc. at the Del Rey / Penguin Random House offices. I had a lovely time with them all, and they held a gathering for me at a bar with free copies of the book for the launch. Then I joined them at San Diego Comic-Con, where I was on a couple of panels, and had three signings, and generally promoted the book at the Del Rey booth on the Con floor along with other writers published under the imprint. From there, I went to Seattle for a couple of readings at the University Bookstore and the Two Hour Transport reading series at CafĂ© Racer. And finally, Vancouver for one night for a reading at my favourite bookstore there, Pulpfiction Books. It all went so well (thanks greatly to the heroic efforts of the Del Rey team, and the generosity of my friends in all three cities), Comic-Con was as marvelously brain-frazzling as reputed (we sold out all copies of The Devourers at the Del Rey booth), and the panels and signings went better than I could have hoped. None of which necessarily says anything about the future of the book’s long-term cultural impact or sales, but it was a lovely start.

Have you noticed any differences between the novel’s reception in India and the US? 

Absolutely. The book is doing decently for a debut in India, but it’s not had much of a cultural impact, with not many writers or publications talking about it or writing about it (I am of course eternally grateful to the writers and publications who did). It got good reviews, certainly, but I didn’t get the impression that cultural gatekeepers were very interested in looking past the pitch - ‘werewolves in India’— to talk about it as a cross-genre novel rather than declare ‘oh hey, another Indian fantasy novel, those are pretty rare, right?’ and leave it at that.

In North America, the book’s got a resoundingly positive reaction so far; excellent reviews and blurbs from writers. I’m honestly overwhelmed by the reception across the board. The difference is that there’s already a cultural infrastructure there to talk about cross-genre art, and science-fiction and fantasy has long since merged with mainstream culture in the West (for better and worse), so reviewers are less preoccupied with whether the book is ‘Indian fantasy’ and more willing to talk about its narrative and thematic content. Furthermore, the international genre fiction community online, despite its great divisions and internal turmoil, is in many ways very welcoming. Because I’ve published short stories in Western sci-fi and fantasy magazines and anthologies, I have a certain amount of people in countries other than India (mainly in the West, but other regions too, because of the internet) who are familiar with my work, and have been very gracious about spreading the word about this novel because they’ve liked my short fiction.

I think the conversation around diversity in publishing also had a lot of readers and critics eager to see unusual books from countries around the world, and in that respect, The Devourers is getting a warm welcome because the Western publishing industry hasn’t been very welcoming to novels from Indian authors that aren’t straight-up immigrant-story litfic. I can only hope the publication of The Devourers - a cross-genre literary fantasy set in contemporary India and the Mughal Empire, by a relatively unknown Indian debut novelist - by a mainstream commercial imprint like Del Rey, bodes well for diversity in the publishing industry. I get the impression that a lot of readers of the book are hoping that’s the case.

As for the commercial reception, it’s too early to tell, of course. It’s an odd book, and no amount of good press will necessarily translate to amazing sales for a first-time author’s odd literary ‘Indian werewolf’ novel (as always, I use ‘literary’ as a term to denote a certain kind of prose and narrative style, not merit—it’s a silly word to distinguish one form of literature over others, but the one we use, unfortunately).

Let’s talk about the novel itself. I know you’ve been working on it for a long time. When did you first start writing something that eventually became The Devourers? What did it look like originally? 

The novel started as a couple of short stories/novellas I wrote in Creative Writing classes during college, at Franklin and Marshall College. They looked fairly similar to what is now the first chapter and some of Fenrir’s section of the novel. I wrote those stories around 2005/2006. Much later, I wanted to interrogate the regressive tropes I used in those stories (male-centered stories that used rape and violence against ill-defined women characters to ostensibly discuss sexual violence) when I was doing my MFA at the University of British Columbia. That interrogation expanded the stories into my MFA thesis, which was the first draft of The Devourers.

Why the title The Devourers? Who is doing the devouring, and who/what are they devouring, in your understanding? 

I’d love to leave that to the reader, honestly. There are many acts of devouring happening in the novel, literal and metaphorical, and the reader can pick and choose. But I will say that the title was inspired by William Blake’s dichotomy of ‘the devouring’ and ‘the prolific’ in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

I loved your depiction of Cyrah. It really seemed like you were able to convey the female perspective (and I mean both physically and mentally). Did you do any research to get it right? 

Thank you. I’m glad you thought so, and I’m very relieved that women readers seem to like Cyrah’s depiction. The best way for a man to write women is to listen to women, read women, and treat women characters like human beings. You might still get it wrong, but it’s a start. The important thing is to respect that there is a difference between men and women—not because of biology, but because of the different experiences of living in a patriarchal world as a man and a woman (not to mention as someone who’s transgender or genderqueer/nonbinary). Of course, Cyrah is a woman living hundreds of years in the past in a culture I’ve never lived in, so really, I only did the best I could. I can’t confidently say I came anywhere close to the real lived experience of a woman of her means in the Mughal Empire.

Something that I found interesting was that you explored rape from both perspectives – both Cyrah and Fenrir have their time to explain what they’re thinking. As a writer, what was this experience like? 

I don’t think I can even summarize what that was like—but it came about from listening to women. People love to trash social media, and hell, there’s so much wrong about how we engage with it, but it can be an absolutely wonderful, modern thing when it comes to learning about the experiences of others. Listening to people who aren’t men (and people who aren’t straight and cisgender men), reading about actual experiences of living with sexual violence, surviving sexual violence, has made such a difference in the way I try to live my life, and the way I interact with people.

Slipping into the mindset of a rapist is disturbingly easy, because our cultures support rapists, enable them at every turn. I mean, you see their voices every day, all over the internet, in comments sections, on social media, in terrible articles. Many of these voices aren’t of people who’ve raped anyone, but they represent rape culture as a whole; they openly and eagerly speak for toxic masculinity and the entitlement that comes with it. You’ll have pathetic, terrible men openly threatening to rape and kill women they don’t know because of something said women tweeted about feminism. Fenrir is a more literate and thoughtful version of those assholes.

This book has explicit descriptions of homosexuality, which is both taboo and illegal in India. Did you run into any problems, either while looking for a publisher or after it was published?

Penguin India was the only Indian publisher that looked at the book, so no. They were completely fine with the explicit sex and homosexuality, which is great. I think that taboo is less potent in the literary/publishing world in India because the gatekeeping is more diffuse. While TV and movies go through a Censor Board that cuts everything to ribbons in the name of keeping India pure and treating its citizens like children, books go through no such central censoring body. Of course, if someone is offended by the book and makes a case to get it banned, India remains a country whose government might happily comply with that request, despite being a so-called modern democracy. And, of course, homosexuality remains illegal, even if we manage to slip it into books.

Diverse genre writing is often shamefully neglected in publishing. Can you tell us a bit about the experience of finding a publisher in the US? 

It wasn’t easy, but then again, it was easier than the path to publication for a lot of writers. It took about a year, I think, and my agents got many rejections that were frustrating because (some, not all—some had some very nice rejections) publishers would like the book but turn it down because it was ‘too Indian.’ It wasn’t at all surprising to hear that, but it was depressing to see that kind of systemic bias confirmed in person, and so blatantly. But Del Rey were incredibly enthusiastic right from the start, and have been so generous and devoted to getting this book out and pushing it hard. I’m very grateful to them.

Who are some of your favorite Speculative Fiction writers from South Asia? Whose work should we look out for? 

Some established, some to look out for: Saad Z. Hossain, Vandana Singh, Anil Menon, Samit Basu, Vajra Chandrasekera, Monidipa Mondal, Salik Shah, Geetanjali Dighe, Kuzhali Manickavel, to name a few.

Biased here, but definitely someone to watch out for who currently isn’t on the scene, as it were: Tashan Mehta, whose debut novel The Liar’s Weave I’m currently editing. It will be out from Juggernaut Books, likely early next year. I can tell you that it’s a fantastic novel, and I can’t wait for genre fans (and fans of literature in general) in India to get a hold of it. I can only hope she keeps writing more stories after this one, because she could be a real rising star.

Thank you very much for agreeing to this interview. I look forward to seeing you again soon. 

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