Transcending Boundaries: An Interview with Vandana Singh




VANDANA SINGH IS a writer who straddles the boundary between the sciences and the humanities. From August to May, she devotes her time and energy to teaching physics at Framingham State University in Massachusetts, but in the summer months her attention turns to the writing of what she calls imaginative fiction. Born and raised in New Delhi before moving to the United States to pursue a PhD in particle physics, Singh’s cultural and scientific understanding of the world is woven into her narratives, the minds of her characters, and the richness of her landscapes (whether earthly or extraterrestrial). This background makes her fiction at once startling, unique, complex, and beautiful. By employing features common to genres such as magic realism, science fiction, fantasy, folklore, and myth, Singh’s fiction defies boundaries and, in that defiance, captures a vision of the world that is both far-reaching and profoundly original. 

Singh uses her imaginative aesthetic to explore worlds where once dominant ideologies no longer prevail, where new mythological structures are emerging, and where seemingly settled categories such as race, gender, and even species cease to hold weight. As such, her work is about more than aliens and alternative universes: it exposes forms of alienation caused by social and political constraints. As she explains in her “Speculative Manifesto” (2009): “Reality is such a complex beast that in order to begin to comprehend it we need something larger than realistic fiction.” Singh’s fiction is indeed much larger.

Her works include the short story collection The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories (2009), along with several novellas: Of Love and Other Monsters (2007); Distances (2008), a Carl Brandon Parallax Award Winner; Infinities (2008); Sailing the Antarsa (2013); Entanglement (2014); and Of Wind and Fire (2016). Her essays and short stories, many of which are routinely featured in “Year’s Best SF” volumes, have appeared in Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction. Her second short story collection, Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories, will be published by Small Beer Press in February 2018. 

On April 8, 2016, at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, Singh presented a reading alongside fellow SF author Joe Haldeman at an event entitled “Imagining the Present: Science, Science Fiction, and Society.” Prior to this reading, Singh graciously agreed to sit down with me to discuss (among other things) speculative fiction, storytelling, physics, climate change, and her recent trip to the Arctic. Below is an abridged version of our conversation.

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KYLIE KORSNACK: In your “Speculative Manifesto,” you write: “[S]peculative fiction is about what cannot ever be or what cannot be as yet.” Can you talk a bit more about this statement? What do you mean by this particular definition of speculative fiction?

VANDANA SINGH: I have always thought of constraints as something to push against. There are constraints that are social and constraints that are physical — laws of nature, for instance. The only thing that at least theoretically can transcend constraints and boundaries is the imagination. So, to me, the literature of the imagination is speculative fiction and it is the freest literature. Despite the fact that a lot of science fiction does have constraints and can be very short-sighted — it can repeat and not challenge certain types of norms and customs — this literature still has the potential to soar above those constraints to another space, and that is why I love speculative fiction. And the revolutionary part of it is that you can imagine a different way to be.

Now, speculative fiction is not necessarily going to tell you how you can get there. But if you can imagine it, then, in a sense, you’ve already taken the first step. If it involves violating the laws of the universe, then you will never get there, but it is going to nevertheless change you-the-writer or you-the-reader in some fundamental way. So I think that the practice of writing and reading speculative fiction, at its best, is a very freeing thing. And so that is what I was referring to when I wrote that “Speculative Manifesto.”

I really like the way you emphasized just now that both reading and writing speculative fiction gives access to its revolutionary potential. Would you say that you’re not simply trying to challenge the reader to think in a different way, but that you are also challenging yourself? 

Yeah. But it is a challenge. When I write, and a lot of people probably write like this, I have a beginning or an idea or an image or a character, and it’s like I’m entering some new land and can’t really see very far into the distance. And so I follow this guide rope, and I leave the guide rope as I’m going along too, and I discover things. To me, that is the most exciting part about writing — that I don’t know what is going to happen, and I want to find out! And there is that pleasure at the end if it goes well. You have this sense of everything working out, not necessarily neatly, because real life is never neat and you want that aspect to be there — the messiness and the complexity. There is a certain satisfaction in doing that, but I do think that pretty much all of my stories are in some ways failures. Some more than others, but nevertheless, I hope they are valiant failures.

Failures? Why do you think they are failures?

Well, I’m not saying, “Oh, my work is bad.” What I’m saying is that there is such a gap between that wordless sense of where I want to be with the story and the actual story itself, you know? It used to bother me a lot, but now I just kind of know that that gap is going to be there to a greater or lesser extent. And I feel like it is better for me to try to do things and fall flat on my face or not get so far, or have this abyss between intention and reality, than to write something safe. So in that sense I think that it’s like I’m reaching for something and not quite grasping it. And maybe you never can, but I have this sense of the story as an amorphous thing in a space I cannot describe in words or pictures. But I have a sense of where the story should be and most of my stories don’t actually get to that place. So that is what I mean by my stories all being failures.

So, do you ever know how a story is going to end when you start writing?

There have a been a few stories where I have known, from the get-go, as I am writing the first paragraph, how it’s going to end and I have some idea of the middle as well. It’s almost as though the whole story has come together in a rush, and I just need to type it out. That happens rarely, but it has happened. Other than those rare instances, I generally don’t know the ending.

I came across another version of your “Speculative Manifesto,” in the introduction to your collection Breaking the Bow. In that one, you say: “Speculative fiction comes naturally to us Indians since we have a tendency to embroider, to propagate, to let the imagination run wild, and to argue incessantly.” I was curious, thinking about what you have said about speculative fiction, if you could talk more specifically about Indian speculative fiction and/or what you meant by this idea that “imaginative literature comes naturally to Indians”? 

Well, you know, I can’t back it up with data, but it’s what I feel from having grown up in India and being Indian. You know, even going to the market — well, now there are more supermarkets, but you still have the neighborhood vegetable market where farmers bring produce from the fields outside the city and sell them — is such an interesting thing. I remember going with my mother to get vegetables and the witticisms that would pass back and forth. My mother would challenge the quality of the vegetables and the seller would take umbrage and it was like a drama — a script, but a very inventive one. And they would — each side — make up stories about the vegetables — something about the “beautiful conditions under which these pumpkins ripened” or other tall tales. The place is so thick with stories! It was something I didn’t realize until I lived in the United States for a long time and then went back … that you can almost pluck the stories from the air!

Even in my mother’s rendering of the Ramayana when I was a kid (I heard it from her and my paternal grandmother as I was growing up), she would interpolate, add her own descriptions, things like that. Only later I discovered from my grandfather that there were actually multiple Ramayanas, so it seemed like not just my mother but a whole bunch of other people had been doing this stuff and even going much further with it. (Breaking the Bow, which I co-edited with Anil Menon, is a volume of Ramayana tales that keeps that tradition alive in the 21st century!) A lot of Indians seem to be comfortable living in parallel with realities that are metaphoric or imaginative as well as in the so-called factual world. For instance, my mother is a very educated person but she grew up near a small village, and because of this she relates to the world through story. She would weave interrelations between people through story. Later on, though reflection, I came to realize this, and that is why I wrote what I did. It just seems to come naturally and I don’t know if I can explain it any better than that.

Do you feel that you are the same way? Do you understand the world through story?

Well, I would have said no to that question for probably many years of my life. But reflecting on that statement now, I think I have to say yes. But I didn’t know it for a long time. Being a scientist, you think, well, I’m going to look at data, I’m going to look at what it’s telling me, what nature is telling me through these numbers. Though I was never the kind of scientist who went into the field for the sole pleasure of working with data — as Einstein once loftily said, “I want to know God’s thoughts, the rest are details.” (Of course, the devil is also in the details.) For me, I wanted to know what the great patterns of the universe are, which is an aesthetic longing. But at the same time, I was bound by restraints — that this is what you can say because this is what nature is telling you, but other things outside of this are speculation. But being out of academia for 10 years gave me a chance to think about things critically and to reflect on science and its role in society — science, which I love very much and yet which is so flawed in the sense that it is so easily appropriated by powerful forces, such as colonialism. There is a link between science and colonialism that cannot be denied.

My area of study was particle physics — I studied the physics of quarks, but I have always been interested in language and in the nonhuman too. And so, later on, I realized that what I sought, even in the sciences, was stories. But it was stories of neutrons and protons or planets or whatever. And the stories had constraints because they were being translated through human mechanisms, and because of physical laws. Nevertheless, they were stories, and they weren’t any less interesting than stories about human beings. Later on, I realized why, even though I love a lot of mainstream literature, it doesn’t fully engage me and why I can never write it — because it is so divorced from the nonhuman. So, I got a sense of science as stories we are trying to interpret, stories that matter is telling us, filtered through our particular human/cultural lenses.

I think that, in the act of reading, one creates a kind of world that is neither the writer’s world nor the reader’s world, but a hybrid. And similarly, I think that when we interpret what nature is telling us, it is kind of a hybrid world that we make between humans and matter or humans and other species. That is when I realized that it has been all about stories after all. Which was a bit of a pleasant shock. Now, my thing is: “Hey, all stories are important! Not just human stories!”

Did this realization that science too is made up of stories change the way you teach your science classes at all?

Yeah, totally. It was a very delightful thing to think about — that we are trying to interpret nature’s stories. Particularly for the non-science majors in my physics classes, I think this is a way that engages them, but also other students as well. Now, every couple of weeks or so, they have to tell me physics stories. I’ll ask them: “So, what did the world tell you that has to do with physics?” And we will talk about it in class for a bit. It is a lot of fun.

That is really neat. And it feeds into another question I had. I’m really interested in the relationship between your scientific work and your literary work. In a past interview, you stated that, “Physics and literature are to me are like breathing and eating. I need them both to be alive, and in a sense they give me a sort of binocular vision of the world.” I can see from your last answer that part of this has to do with your interest in stories that thread through them both, but is there anything else that you see connecting these two domains — physics and literature — for you?

Yeah, there is one other thing: in science, traditionally (and we have to remember that science is still evolving, so what we call science now is not necessarily going to be what science is later on), if you think about its origins with Newton and Descartes, the reductionist idea of a clockwork universe, we are still deeply influenced by that vision today. It gave birth to the industrial revolution and all the “-isms,” political and economic, that we know now. But then we also have the great revolutions in physics — relativity and quantum mechanics and so on — which are telling us that things aren’t quite that way. The universe is actually not a clockwork machine; in fact, it is non-Newtonian. So, who knows what science is going to become in the future?

In that regard, one of things that has always bothered me is how scientists keep talking about objectivity. I get that you don’t want your own biases to affect your experiments or your conclusions, but how can you be objective when you are studying the universe and you are part of the universe? There is a limit to what we can mean by objectivity. It can only be temporary and contextual. In fact, this fetish for objectivity is almost becoming an excuse not to talk about the ethical implications of scientific developments. It is as though, when you are doing science, you cannot participate in the universe. You have to artificially remove yourself and say, “Hey! I am here, and this thing I am studying is over there.” Which makes it easier to think of it as separate from you, a thing you can study in a disinterested way.

Instead, I think the scientist should say, “Hey! I am part of the universe and this is part of the universe!” And we are just going to inquire into it, befriend it, and see what happens. There is still a humility involved — you don’t want to let your feelings or desires or biases distort your perception or throw you off track — but I believe scientific inquiry is more like a dance than a distancing. For me, I feel that the place where you can really be a participant observer in the universe is in science fiction or speculative fiction. Here, you are dancing with the ideas of science, but you are also engaged with what it means to be human and alive. So that is another aspect of my life in science, which has taken some strange turns.

I don’t do particle physics research anymore and haven’t for a long time because I took 10 years off from academia. You can’t easily go back to research in that field because it is growing so fast. But what I do now is a lot of research on the pedagogy of science — creative and critical pedagogy — and I’m also shifting toward talking about climate change, studying the science and pedagogy of climate change through an interdisciplinary lens. This is one of the things where the interlocking of various systems is so important that you can’t look at it from a reductionist perspective. So I’m hoping to go into that area more and more.

Speaking of your emerging interest in climate change, you took a trip to the Arctic not too long ago. Did that trip change your perspective in any way? Did it impact your desire to continue teaching yourself about climate change or your interest in climate fiction?

Yes, very much so. I went to the Arctic in 2014 when I was on sabbatical. I received a program award from the American Association of Colleges and Universities to create a case-study-based project for undergraduate education, so I picked climate change. I wanted to situate the study in a place where change is occurring most dramatically, and so the Arctic seemed a logical choice. I went to Alaska. I visited two or three places there. The most dramatic place I visited was Barrow, right at the edge of the Arctic Ocean. Firstly, it changed me just seeing a place that is so different from where I grew up and so different from anywhere else that I’d been. I think place changes us if we let it. It speaks to us. And the experience was so incredible that I’m still processing it now.

But also, the people who live there are the Iñupiaq Eskimos; they’ve lived there for thousands of years; they’ve adapted to modern lifestyles while retaining some of their traditions, such as whaling. They are actually among the more well-off Native peoples in Alaska because they are able to get money from oil leases. Thinking about their experiences, I realized how complicated the whole climate situation is — not just the physics of it, but how human beings interact with the climate and with the economic system. And I realized how important visions and voices of indigenous peoples are to us. I’m not trying to revive some noble-savage stereotype here because obviously there are many indigenous cultures and even within indigenous cultures there are many different ways of thinking. For example, I found that in some communities people were divided about offshore oil drilling. But still, I think that the alternate paradigms indigenous peoples give us, especially at a time when it seems literally true that we are looking at our own potential extinction, are very important. Some of the papers I read when I was at the University of Alaska Fairbanks were scientific papers, published in peer-reviewed journals, co-authored by Native elders who had not received a formal education. They were the result of decades of scientists and elders working together, of scientists realizing these people have something really important to give.

One of the things I’m really interested in now is looking at India and how traditional knowledge systems — the knowledge of the so-called tribal or indigenous peoples — might inform our own worldviews as we face the climate issue. This sort of engagement has been a big and very exciting new thing for me. I’ve always been curious about indigenous cultures, but my Arctic trip made me really, really interested. I’m following right now the fortunes of a tribe in northeast India. I just talked to a journalist-activist who has been working with them, and he emphasized how the development policies that are occurring in India are basically colonialist in nature even though it’s the Indian government that’s doing it. He said it is driving the people to ruination. This particular tribe just won a Supreme Court case against a mining company after a long and bitter fight. They didn’t want to have development the way it is generally defined. They said, “We know what it is like in the cities. We’ve gone there. We see how you live. We don’t want to live like that.” But, you know, if you look at how modern culture has crushed our imaginations, people can’t even think of an alternative. They’d rather think of the collapse of humanity than imagine an alternative. Which is why I like imaginative fiction so much, because it is about alternatives.

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Kylie Korsnack is a PhD candidate in English at Vanderbilt University. She studies contemporary literature, speculative fiction, and digital pedagogy.


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