Monday, May 31, 2010


1. Mangoes. I claimed, in public, that I could take them or leave them. There was widespread consternation. Someone said (I think), "next you'll say you like karela." I replied, "I love karela." More shocked silence.

2. When you're pregnant and you know it clap your hands. Oh - that's not right, is it?

3. Interplanetary Shock Doctrine.

4. Which brings me to a round-up of latest haunts:

a) Where JP sets his stories free.

b) Where I check in at least once a day, despite the convenience of feed readers.

c) Across the Universe*. Anyone who uses Fukuoaka as a good luck charm has my devotion.


*Thanks, Amruta.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Poem in Mint

Disclaimer: I am not a Sahitya Akademi Award winner. I was just published by them three years ago.

Also, (and it's hard to say this without sounding ungracious, but I must say it) when you read the poem, please separate the lines into quatrains and a closing couplet.

I'm hoping it's all different in the paper itself.


There's another poem elsewhere, but I won't link to it at all because not only has the formatting been ruined, it's also been credited (on the main page) to someone else! Much annoyance.

Two Minutes Older: Games People Play

Many friends were in ecstasies when Viswanathan Anand recently won against Topalov to remain World Chess Champion and I suppose it was a famous victory. But I have to confess, I don’t get chess. It might have something to do with how badly I play it – my inclination is always to kill everything on the board off in the most bloodthirsty way so that the game can end as quickly as possible and I can return to reading.

Calling chess just another board game is, for the enthusiast or the fanatic, a sacrilege on par with calling the Mahabharata a family feud. As with that other epic battle, some might say of chess as a game, ‘What is not found here is found nowhere.’

I don’t know. As far as I can tell a board game – yes, even chess - is a piece of cardboard, cloth or plastic, a few pieces and several complicated rules. Sometimes, when my friendless, hobbled monarch is being chased all over the board and my mind is full of vengeful thoughts, I want to meet the creator of the game in some dark alley. All that this tells me about human nature is that it hates to be thwarted.

What kind of a perverse mind comes up with board games?

Recently I had the chance to find out. A friend, who has long wanted to quit his job as investment banker and do something creative, has always met with the sort of fragile, tentative encouragement that is reserved for people who are sitting on a narrow ledge outside a window on the 33rd floor of a building. At one time he claimed he wanted to design video games. I recalled the time I wanted to be a world-famous flamenco dancer and muttered a mental ‘yeah, right!’

It turns out that this friend, while he may not have designed the next Grant Theft Auto, had certainly acted upon his intentions. As he unpacked a box that once contained visiting cards, he told me about the board game he had created.

It was – what else? – a battle. Each player got a certain number of cards that gave her certain powers. The ‘board’ was a series of face-down l-shaped pieces that each player had to turn up before playing. There were up to four dies, and various ways in which to use them and the cards to play the game.

The rules were incredibly complex, but as with all board games, they became clearer as we began to play. ‘How long did it take you to do all this?’ I asked.

‘Oh, not long – a couple of weeks,’ my friend replied carelessly and I was speechless with admiration.

In a couple of weeks he had not only thought up the game and its levels of play and rules, but had also hand-made every piece of the game: the dies out of play-doh; the l-shaped, piece-meal board; the playing cards; the pieces (painted-over Scrabble tiles. Now that was sacrilege).

The rules were still being worked out as we played. We tried out different rules to see what would happen to the game. Would it make it too easy? Could the difficulty be split up into another level of play? I felt like the person who made sure there was a duster handy while Einstein was at work.

A few days after that, I happened to read about another bunch of people who spent their genius on inventing board games. Apparently, at an Anglo-Dutch board game conference, two days are reserved for a special event: odds and ends from other board games are all put into a kitty and randomly handed out to participants, who have to invent a new game with every bit of what they’ve been dealt, and make it work (or play) well.

When I told my friend about this, he was thrilled. I imagined his eyes glazing over with ambition and beautiful dreams, and left him to it. Geekiness is its own reward.

I may not have changed my mind entirely about playing board games, but I am beginning to see the adrenalising effects of inventing them. I’m even hoping my friend manages to market his game some day.

(An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.)

Monday, May 24, 2010

Weerasethakul and an interview with JLG

So glad Uncle Boonmee won the Palme d'Or.


A general interview.

An older one from Reverse Shot.

And some links.


Oh, and a fantastic interview with JLG here:

LALANNE: You don't claim any rights over the images that any artists might be lifting from your films?

GODARD: Of course not. Besides, people are doing it, putting them up on the Internet, and for the most part they don't look very good... But I don't have the feeling that they're taking something away from me. I don't have the Internet. Anne-Marie [Miéville, his partner, and a filmmaker —JML] uses it. But in my film, there are images that come from the Internet, like those images of the two cats together.

LALANNE: For you, there's no difference in status between those anonymous images of cats that circulate on the Internet, and the shot from John Ford's Cheyenne Autumn that you're also making use of in Film Socialisme?

GODARD: Statutorily, I don't see why I'd be differentiating between the two. If I had to plead in a court of law against charges of filching images for my films, I'd hire two lawyers, with two different systems. The one would defend the right of quotation, which barely exists for the cinema. In literature, you can quote extensively. In the Miller [Genius and Lust: A Journey Through the Major Writings of Henry Miller, 1976 —JML] by Norman Mailer, there's 80% Henry Miller, and 20% Norman Mailer. In the sciences, no scientist pays a fee to use a formula established by a conference. That's quotation, and cinema doesn't allow it. I read Marie Darrieussecq's book, Rapport de police [Rapport de police, accusations de plagiat et autres modes de surveillance de la fiction / Police Report: Accusations of Plagiarism and Other Modes of Surveillance in Fiction, 2010], and I thought it was very good, because she went into a historical inquiry of this issue. The right of the author — it's really not possible. An author has no right. I have no right. I have only duties. And then in my film, there's another type of "loan" — not quotations, but just excerpts. Like a shot, when a blood-sample gets taken for analysis. That would be the defense of my second lawyer. He'd defend, for example, my use of the shots of the trapeze artists that come from Les Plages d'Agnès. This shot isn't a quotation — I'm not quoting Agnès Varda's film: I'm benefiting from her work. I'm taking an excerpt, which I'm incorporating somewhere else, where it takes on another meaning: in this case, symbolizing peace between Israel and Palestine. I didn't pay for that shot. But if Agnès asked me for money, I figure it would be for a reasonable price. Which is to say, a price in proportion with the economy of the film, the number of spectators that it reaches...


LALANNE: Is the idea of accomplishing a body of work, one which life granted you the time to complete, a matter that weighs upon you?

GODARD: No. I don't believe in the body of work. There are works, they might be produced in individual installments, but the body of work as a collection, the great oeuvre, I have no interest in it. I prefer to speak in terms of pathways. Along my course, there are highs and there are lows, there are attempts... I've towed the line a lot. You know, the most difficult thing is to tell a friend that what he's done isn't very good. I can't do it. Rohmer was brave enough to tell me at the time of the Cahiers that my critique of Strangers on a Train was bad. Rivette could say it too. And we paid a lot of attention to what Rivette thought. As for François Truffaut, he didn't forgive me for thinking his films were worthless. He also suffered from not ending up finding my films as worthless as I thought his own were.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

hands of raining water

The monsoon winds have begun. The leaves are mostly diagonal. The mornings are rain cool.

It's not an image but a smell: a cake of neem soap just opened and translucent, the drops of oil surfacing, then sitting in wait for second use. Neem flowers frozen then dried; fried an acrid brown and diluted with rice. A memory of heat without the experience of it. Bitterness transmuted on the tongue.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Hanging On

Or, Spaniard Turns IV

After almost closing this blog down, and once even saying goodbye, I've managed to stick it for four years!

Four is the adolescence of blogging. This is when one gets moody and misunderstood, where one wants all the attention of the first couple of years but, unaccountably, spurns it when it is given. There are long, sulky silences followed by acute resentment when no one turns up to ask what the matter is.

On the other hand, there's - not to put too fine a point on it - boredom.

This blog is, if you haven't already noticed, going through an identity crisis.

I've considered closing comments, because I'm usually too busy or too unmotivated to respond, but I can't bring myself to do it. I love comments! I wish there were more! Nobody loves me unless they comment and continue to comment even if I don't respond!

(It's not that I don't, it's that I don't feel like it most of the time).

There's a lot of intention. There's a whole potential of it. Every day I think of something that needs essay length posts.

But the thing is, I'm inclining toward the elliptical.

This is a good time to point you to Aditi's lovely post about mood boards. Why just for poets? I think it's a wonderful thing for everyone to have. A visual/verbal shorthand* for what's going on in one's head at any given time.

So that's what this blog might turn into from time to time. For one thing, I'm too lazy to start another dedicated blog. For another, I might one day want to do long explicatory posts just to break up the cryptic. I mean, there's room for all kinds of rubbish here, right, and even the occasional gem or two?


* I like how she also calls it a morgue. I like places like that. There's an apt quote but I'm saving it for elsewhere.

Monday, May 17, 2010


Not only do I not have enough shelf space any more for the books that crawl into my room for refuge, I suspect that if I give up my library membership this year, I will still have enough to sustain me for a good long while.

Is this a boast? Probably. It also feels like a sword hanging over my head.

What I've recently acquired includes (but doesn't entirely cover):

The Man Without Qualities, After Nature, The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, Cultural Amnesia, Magic Mountain, Elisabeth Costello, Selected Poems - Borges, City of Water, Columbus (Sabatini. Yay!), The Seducer's Diary, The Committed Men, the remaining Earthsea books I did not own, a Susan Cooper I have never seen and have left with my son (forgotten the name!), The Graveyard Book, Poverty and Plastic, a huge bunch of Agha Shahid Ali (but no, not The Veiled Suite).

Some of these books were gifts or exchanges of one kind or another.* I wish someone would now start gifting me bookshelves (this is not a complaint about the books I am given, though).

Dithering between the Musil and the Coetzee. Any opinions?


*Still waiting for my YBT. You listening?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Two Minutes Older: Oulipo for the Body

Almost every woman of my grandmother’s generation that I know fasts at least once a week. Until the doctor forbade her from ever skipping a meal, my grandmother was a dedicated faster (if there’s such a word). My mother used to fast once in a while but this was a long time ago.

I have, for the most part, even less rigour and dedication than my mother though there was a one-year period in my life when I actually fasted and kept to it faithfully. I ate one meal a day, eliminating grain after mid-day and allowing myself only fruit or curd. At the time, I didn’t know that I had made myself an honorary American and if I had heard the name Atkins, it meant very little to me. For that one year, hunger sharpened my senses: I deeply enjoyed the little that I ate and I worked better than I ever had. I gave it up eventually, of course, and looking back, I see I must have been a little weird in those days.

People fast for different, often religious reasons. Denying the body certain kinds of food, sometimes between certain times of the day, on specified days of the week or month signify different things – it could be a simple act of prayer or remembrance; a penance of some kind, with the expectations of results; or simply a cleansing of the body.

Since I have very little of the kind of faith that demands any kind of sacrifice, I have recently been interested in fasting as an act of cleansing, while simultaneously being a little suspicious of it – not least because of the obsession with ‘purity’ that it seems to indicate. I am reminded of what a doctor said to me once, in total bewilderment when I went to him with an ENT infection after a jal neti gone wrong, “The body cleanses itself. Why do you need to do all this? Let your body be, no?”

Excellent advice, of course, but I know that if I let my body be, it would constantly demand to be fed chocolate and ice cream or even chocolate ice cream (with chocolate sauce). So I have decided to, only occasionally, put restraints on my body.

I take inspiration from the group of French writers, including Raymond Queneau, François Le Lionnais and Georges Perec among others, collectively called the Oulipo (short for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or workshop of potential literature). What these writers did was to set themselves random creative constraints – such as the replacing of every noun with the seventh word from it in a dictionary of the writer’s choice; or by writing in palindromes and so on. What this resulted in was a fascinating kind of writing that yet managed to escape being gimmicky. (In India, Charu Nivedita’s Zero Degree is an example of writing with severe and several constraints).

Adapted to my fast, which I see as Oulipo for the body, this opens the doors of constraint and I can choose between all kinds of temporary eating taboos. The ‘no salt’, ‘no grain’, ‘no dairy’ fasts are all old hat, as are the ‘only juices’ or ‘only single vegetables a day’ ones. What if I considered a green day fast (only green vegetables, moong dal, peas, etc. If someone could really produce green eggs and ham without artificial food colouring, I could consider that permissible) or one where I’m allowed to eat only what I have grown in my garden?

In fact, combined with Ayurvedic or other alternative medicines’ theories about food and the body, there are infinite variations that could make fasting as much an art as cooking and certainly a better one than salad-carving.

I see my Oulipo Fast as non-discriminatory in all matters except that of food, though if someone wanted to fast only, for instance, on major festival days, I would consider it an entirely reasonable constraint.

There is a caveat, though: a fast is not the same as a diet. It is effective precisely because it is short-lived, and has nothing to do with result-oriented motivations such as losing weight, gaining a spouse or attaining the lotus feet of one’s chosen god.

(An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Thin Cannes

There has to be something seriously wrong with a festival whose best work appears to be from directors over 60.

Cannes has increasing blipped off my radar; among the few things I'd like to see from this year is:

Manoel de Oliveira's The Strange Case of Angelica (aren't you in awe of a filmmaker who still makes films at a 101?)

Abbas Kiarostami's The Certified Copy (I've been hungering for a Kiarostami. He's not just palate-cleansing, he's pristine and joy-giving.)

Takeshi Kitano's Outrage (more yakuza = more, better gorgeousness).

and finally, finally (though it breaks my heart to see some think it will be his last), Godard's Film Socialisme.
In Cannes next week, Godard, now 79, will be presenting what many believe will be his final feature: Film Socialisme. In advance of the premiere, the arch-provocateur has made a subversive trailer, which lasts under two minutes and shows not just highlights but the entire film speeded up. In the frenetic digital age, Godard is telling us, audiences don't have the time or the patience to go to festivals to watch 35mm prints of art-house movies in cinemas. They want instant 90-second gratification on YouTube. 
I don't know that Godard is 'telling us' anything as straighforward as 'In the frenetic digital age, [...] audiences don't have the time or the patience to go to festivals to watch 35mm prints of art-house movies in cinemas',  but we'll let that pass. The whole trailer here.

God knows what horrors the Woody Allen holds, so I'm not even going there.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Knowing How The World Isn’t: A Conversation with China Miéville

But look at Marx's argument in Capital: 'What distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he constructs it in wax. At the end of every labour process a result emerges which had already been conceived by the worker at the beginning, hence already existed ideally.' In other words, human productive activity is predicated on a consciousness of the not-real. You have to know how the world isn't in order to transform it.

In the real world, the not-real separates into the possible, not yet possible and never possible, but you can't always be sure of those distinctions in your mind. You might set out to do a task without being certain whether it's possible or not--what you are sure of is that the desired effect is not-real when you start.
                                                                        China Miéville in The Socialist Review
[Issue 88 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Autumn 2000 Copyright © International Socialism.]

China Miéville has just won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for a record third time, for The City and the City, the previous two wins being for Perdido Street Station and Iron Council.

Not entirely for that reason, the first few questions are entirely about The City and the City. If you haven’t read it and intend to, you should skip to the later questions, after the End Spoiler alert.

Excerpts from this interview can be found in today’s New Indian Express.

**SPOILER ALERT**               **SPOILER ALERT**                 **SPOILER ALERT**
Sridala Swami:  In The City and the City Besźel and Ul Qoma occupy the same space. They remind me of an imperfectly silvered mirror, with degrees of visibility and totality – you use the words ‘crosshatching’, ‘totality’ and ‘alterity’ – but what was most intriguing was that these boundaries between the cities seem unchanging and stable, though each city within its own boundaries appears to change shape over time. Could you talk about how you imagined the cities along their borders?

China Miéville:  OK, well, this is tricky because we're somewhat into spoiler territory, so I'll preface this by saying that in my ideal world no one would know anything about any books, especially this one, before starting to read them/it. That warning said, the book is, deliberately of course, somewhat vague about the details, because it's not the kind of thing that Borlu would, on the whole, be interested in mentioning. And any book in which there is an ambiguity is - whatever anyone including the author thinks - structured by that ambiguity.

That is to say that questions along the lines of 'Were there really ghosts in Turn of the Screw?' or some similar attempt to collapse super-positional uncertainties within a text which is structured by those certainties strikes me as a very odd thing to ask. There is no 'real' truth - it's a text. All of which said, I have a very clear idea myself of how the world of Ul Qoma and Beszel work. In my head, the best way to imagine it is to draw a city on a piece of tracing paper, then draw another city of similar dimensions on another piece of tracing paper, then put them both down on top of each other on a map. Where there's only one city visible, that's a total area (alter to the other). Where they overlap, these are crosshatches. And these are juridical, social, ideological, cultural, conceptual categories. No less real for that, but not fuzzy physics or magic.

SS:  In the book the past is allowed no purchase on the present. But the book has two kinds of pasts: the kind that, in crime fiction, leads to explanations at the end; and the other – of the archaeological dig in Ul Qoma and the artefacts found there – that might or might not explain the schism between the cities. This past explicates nothing in the present of the story. We’re left with no neat reasons for why the cities are the way they are. How did this evolve while you were writing the book?

China Miéville:  Because I wanted something that was very defining of the situation in the background - without the odd archaeology, there would be no digs, and therefore no setting and no story - but concretely doesn't impinge on the events at the level of 'meaning', any more than the theft of some Crown Jewels from the Tower of London would necessarily involve an exposition of the history of the Koh-i-Noor in a thriller about that theft. It might, of course, but the narrative doesn't have to go there explicitly, even though that history is shading the setup. It's also because I wanted the idea of a very obvious logic, but a logic that one can't decode, as underlying the cities. Hence the sense, I hope, isn't that it's chaos or random, but that it's impenetrable.

Again I'm always a little taken aback when people ask me 'Why are the cities like they are?' My answers go 
between: 'There are no cities,' to 'I'm not telling you,' to 'Who cares?' 

'There are no cities' in the sense of 'ceci n'est pas un pipe' - it's a story.

SS:  The book is primarily crime fiction; and like all crime fiction it asks: what is the crime and what would justice looks like. Unlike most crime novels,* though, here it’s a question that is still largely unresolved at the end of the book.

China Miéville:  I'm not sure, though I'd love to take credit for staggering originality, that it is 'unlike most crime novels', to be honest. I think these days it's not uncommon to ask whether the 'solution' to the crime and the assertion of justice are, in fact, co-terminous. Lots of 'gritty' crime (stupid adjective, but you know what I mean), from Noir onwards at least, if not before, make quite a lot of play of the still-extant forces that structure the background. Or someone like Patricia Highsmith questioning the whole paradigm from within. There's often a rather hollow feeling to the 'triumph'. I'm very open to being persuaded I'm wrong about that, but I think the idea that at the solution of the crime, 'justice' is asserted only describes one particular, and particularly conservative, iteration of crime fiction.

However! One thing I like a lot about your question is that it distinguishes between what I might think and what Tyador might think. Tyador is a career policeman. I am not. He lives in Beszel. I do not. He is 
 non-existent. I am not etc.

SS: I ask because there is a very formal structure to the end - the confession elicited etc. that seems to imply a tying up of the knots.

China Miéville:  Yes, it's a highly, highly formalistic book. I know some readers have complained that the crime aspect is 'formulaic' or pedestrian or whatever. And I think few things are less edifying than writers trying to argue back against critics: it may be that I just didn't do a good enough job. I accept that. All I can do is offer up the thinking behind it - which was that I wanted to write an extremely traditional crime novel, a police procedural with complete fidelity to all the tropes and protocols of the procedural, that 'obeyed the rules' and 'didn't cheat' – in the lovely vernacular of crime readers – but that was also part of another literary tradition (weird, spec, sf, whatever).

By 'I accept that' I mean 'I hate and lament that if it's the case' - I just mean I'm not going to say to people 'you haven't understood me'. Even when they don't understand me.

SS:  Some of the most intriguing people I was hoping to see more of in the book but who only got a passing mention were the ‘insiles’. Could you talk about them, about the use and origin of the word?

China Miéville: The origin of the word was simple: it's an inversion of 'exile'. Someone who leaves their country. In the novel these are people who leave their country without leaving the physical space it inhabits, but entering a new space. They get out by going in. Insile. Simple. A new juridical/social space, I mean.

SS:  It's been used in the context of South Africa during apartheid.

China Miéville:  Insile? Has it? I didn't know.

SS:  Yes. Those of the ANC who didn't leave as exiles, but resisted from within.

China Miéville:  Wow. Well, I'm pleased to hear it.

SS:  Returning briefly to Breach: To commit breach knowingly is to commit a profoundly radical act of seeing/awakening that is both political and philosophical. How do you reconcile this with it also being fundamentally an exercise of power?

China Miéville:  I don't think any reconciliation is required, is it? I mean, that's the case with all sorts of acts of seeing etc in the real world. Plus which I think that 'fundamentally' there, while I don't think it's wrong, risks being as obfuscatory as clarificatory without a little more unpacking. I mean, it's an exercise of power - but also a mistake, also a risk. And also, and this was important to me, something that happens all the time

One of the things that I think sometimes isn't talked about enough, in the context of taboos, is how they are often broken in the day-to-day all the time. All the bloody time, in various ways. One of the (many) problems with the traditional anthropological method is that it relies so much on 'informants' ,that cultures are often reduced, or simplified, to their most discursively explicit levels. Rules etc. Those are real and very important - but so is the fact that they are often not honoured, and those transgressions aren't just pathologies, they're constitutive of society, just as much as the rules.

One of my favourite anthropological anecdotes was in a book where the 'informant' (god that's an imperial term, isn't it?) explained to the anthropologist that it was taboo to have sex with a menstruating woman. 'So you'd never do it?' says the anth. 'No,' says informant. 'Never?' 'Absolutely not.' Pause. Long pause. 'I mean,' informant continues in a  more relaxed voice, 'I mean, you can, I mean you sort of shouldn't but it's not the end of the world, I mean, you know, you're only human', etc.

So one thing with TC&TC is that the rules of breach are both absolutely constitutive and defining and so on - and are also (as the text makes clear) broken in little ways all the time. All the time.

SS:  The characters in the book, but most especially Tyador Borlú, negotiate several languages with differing degrees of success. There’s a very strong sense that conversations have been ‘translated’. What strategies did you use to give each language a unique voice and what blocks did you run into?

China Miéville:  I'm very pleased you think so. One of the things I did was read a lot of Eastern European fiction in translation, and I wanted to give the book the slightly odd, not-exactly-stilted but somewhat dissonant linguistic sense that even very good translations have - I wanted it to read like a text translated into English from Besz. Bruno Schulz. Kafka. Alfred Kubin. Jellinek. (Not just 'Eastern' European, obviously).

And for the languages, I just thought about clumps of phonemes that would be common in each language, and gave the grammar a little thought - just enough to make the tenor of the conversations reasonably systematic - in that the mistakes people make will often be shared across different speakers of the same language.

SS:  [Stanislaw] Lem also?

China Miéville:  Hmmm, Lem - interesting. I hadn't thought about it - I don't recall being particularly aware of that quality of the translations in the ones I read - it was particularly the Schulz/Kafka/Kubin axis I was aware of. Having said which I think you may well be onto something, because I realised very late, much after I'd finished, that one of the subterranean influences, that I'd forgotten at a conscious level but I'm sure was there, was my favourite Lem book, 'The Investigation', which is, of course, a police procedural. If of a highly odd kind. I know he wasn't sure about it, thought it didn't quite work, but I think it's absolutely amazing.

SS:  He wasn't sure about the success of the book or its translation?

China Miéville:  As I recall (I'm no expert), he didn't think the book was successful in his own terms. He didn't regard it as one of his best. I read it years ago, and wasn't thinking about it at a conscious level as I wrote - but wtf does one's consciousness know?



SS:  Moving away from TC &TC now: One story that I return to often in Looking for Jake and Other Stories is ‘Familiar’. It starts out as a creation story, as a sort-of performance of magic, but it’s really a story of evolution. There’s sentience, then a gradual accumulation of what is useful and the discarding of what is not (it’s also a fantastic idea to have a creature that is made of trash also generate it). How do you create your monsters? And can there be monsters without humans?

China Miéville:  I'm glad you like that story. It's one of my absolute favourites, and it doesn't get as much attention as some of the others. (I don't mean that to sound whining! I'm just glad you noticed it.) 

How do I create my monsters? At its basic, super-simple level, I think the Ur-Monster is the chimera, in the sense that it is a composite creature. The head of X, the body of Y (plus or minus the tail of Z). That's why the game Exquisite Corpse is so important for me (though I always think of it with its cheerfully vulgar English name, Heads Bodies & Legs). So at its simplest, my monsters, like most, are shoved-together composites. But - as with the Familiar - there are others. Teratogenesis is the easiest thing in the world, really - extend, change, tweak, add, subtract, exaggerate some detail or other of an existing thing, and you have a 

And can they exist without humans? I'm not sure I understand the epistemological base of the question! Do you mean, at a conceptual level, is the concept 'monster' indelibly linked to that 'human' (often elided with insider/citizen/goodie, etc)? Absolutely. But one of the joys of the monster is that, at the level of pop culture in particular, they also, with a kind of winning pulp prometheanism, demand a kind of naive literalism, as well as their inevitable (and delightful) metaphoric resonances.

I have no clue if that answers your question, sorry.

SS:  I did mean conceptually. It used to be my big problem reading SFF when I was a kid - the inability to conceive of anything truly inhuman. I guess I made my peace with that.

China Miéville:  Well, to be fair, that's a genuine and I think completely insoluble dilemma. I would say that pretty much if you can think something up, ipso facto its thinkable and therefore not really alien. The best you can do is play games with that, fail and fail better. In the Bas-Lag books the Weaver(s) is/are the only monsters that are in any way 'really' alien - and of course even that's a hedge. You can only imply real alienness - the closer you get to it, the more you're thinking it, the less alien, etc.

SS:  Bas-Lag now. The Remades are tragic and horrifying examples of the abuse of power. I couldn’t help thinking of Serafini’s drawings in the Codex Serafinianus in this context which is a kind of prosthetic aesthetic: it’s violent but fascinating. You’ve said you’re very conflicted about Serafini. How?

China Miéville:  Well there's a couple of things there. First of all, there are, I think, some assumptions bound up in the phrase 'abuse of power' which I'm not sure I'd agree with. Certainly to do that would be a terrible use of certain types of power - but it is also grotesquely apposite for other types of power. What about the power of the slaveholder? I'm sure you've read descriptions of the punishments for slaves in the plantations and in the Caribbean? I don't mean 'just' whipping or death - I mean the utterly incredible breathtaking baroque sadisms of enforced coprophagy, sexual degradation, bestial interventions of an incredible inventiveness. Now, was that 'abuse' of power? It was abuse, certainly, but abuse of people, not of power, which, in that context, depended precisely on such barbarities. 

In other words, I don't really believe in some abstract thing called 'power' - it seems to me unhelpful to think that a four-year-old hitting a three-year-old in a nursery is exercising something meaningfully related, even if mediatedly, to the exploitation of women, or slaves, or whatever.

(sorry, I got carried away)...

SS:  Yes. You're right. I meant just 'abuse'.

China Miéville:  So it seems to me that much social power is predicated precisely on cruelties at least as unspeakable as remaking. My point is that the phrase 'abuse of power' often exonerates power.

Ya, sorry, I'm making a bit of a meal of this.

SS:  No no, it was a badly thought-out phrase.

China Miéville:  Well it's very common, and it pressed a button, because at its most vulgar level that conception underlies much of the talk about 'human nature' and 'natural human cruelty' as 'explaining' specifics of social oppression etc. At its more theoretically trendy level, you could see it in much Foucauldian conceptions of 'power'. WTF is 'power'??

Anyway. Serafini...I guess for me my hesitation is put very well by the writer Shelley Jackson, who said, “I've always been a bit suspicious of it. I guess because I love what it’s based on—the old alchemical etchings—and though I understand them no better than I understand this, I admire their earnestness. I love how a thing that looks so fantastical and poetic arises out of quotidian impulses. The Codex just seems so much more self-conscious, and artsy and illustratory. There’s something coy about it.”

When I read it I think I gasped, because she'd expressed perfectly something that had been evading my language, a hesitation in my own reaction.

SS: Buñuel said to Jean-Claude Carrière once: ‘the imagination is a muscle that needs to be exercised.’ In this context, could you talk about the use, reuse/recasting and discarding of ideas? (You use – or re-use – ideas in different ways in your books: the Familiar from Jake is seen in both the binjas and the unbrellas of Un Lun Dun. The moving streets of ‘Reports of Certain Events in London’ might be found in The City and The City.)

China Miéville:  You're quite right. This is a hard question to answer. Give me 30 seconds to compose my thoughts.

Well, here's the thing. Certain of my ideas and predilections change over time - others are remarkably consistent. (I mean utterly. I have pictures I drew when I was 4, and they are of exactly what I draw now.) The problem is as a writer, you can't just keep saying the same thing, or investigating the same things, but at the same time you have to talk about the stuff that genuinely moves and intrigues you, and you can't manufacture false fascinations. That creates a bind. I will never, ever tire of: octopuses; underwater monsters; monsters in general; rubbish/garbage/rejectamenta; people on roofs; people under cities; cities; etc etc. 

Now, what do you do with that? Well, one thing you can and should do, I think, is try to tweak them and investigate them differently in different books. But another thing you can - and, to my chagrin, should - do is retire certain fascinations (also words, linguistic tics, etc), because they can with incredible ease become kitsch. Our own fascinations teeter on the edge of kitsch - or, if you just don't care and keep indulging them despite knowing you're becoming a parody of yourself, camp. I don't want that to happen. The title 'The City & The City' was almost camp - so I'm a 'city writer', am I? Try this. But it's a risky joke and I wouldn't want to do it too often.

So you have to know when to shut up about things, even if you want not to. I guess it's the same as knowing when to shut up about your stamp collection or early LP fascination or whatever in real life, even if you still love it.

My partner helps with this. There is a category of Things You Can't Have Any More. Some are obvious - moonlight, stars - or in a genre iteration, vampires, steampunk, zombies. It doesn't mean you don't like them - quite the opposite! Because you like them you need to know when to rein it in. And sometimes we'll chat and she might say, 'you can't have X any more' about one of my preferred Things. Or I might. Or both.
Maybe in a few years one might be able to have it again. When the dust has cleared. I don't know. 

I think we all teeter on the edge of being parodies of ourselves all the time.

SS:  In your Marxism 07 talk on ‘Marxism and Rubbish’, you ended by saying, “It is precisely because we so abhor the reality of the world as a rubbish tip that socialists should import the insurgent rubbish of art. And that is my Rejectamentalist Manifesto.”  It's been three years since then. Has anything changed in your formulation?

China Miéville: Well, the 'rejectamentalist manifesto' is several things - it was, as you say, the conclusion to a talk I gave at Marxism 07, it's the name of my online scrapbook (I pusillanimously abjure the name 'blog', not out of despite, but because the rm isn't really worthy of it), and it's a project taking shape in my head that may or may not - I hope will - be born one day. 

So - that formulation stands, not because that's my final word on rejectamenta or rubbish or anything else, but because in and of itself it's a formulation I'm perfectly happy with. 

SS:  Ursula le Guin once said that she returned to Earthsea after a long time and found the place changed, so she had to write Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind. Does that happen with you? If you returned to Bas-Lag now, would you find it different?

China Miéville:  Well I have to be honest - I am not a writer who likes the formulation like 'finds it changed', or 'discovered that my characters were this or that' - I don't like, and don't identify with, that 'shamanic' conception of the writer that underpins it, that you are a mere channel or conduit for something outside your control. I'm not casting aspersions on those who experience it that way - but that's not at all how it is for me (I have certain issues with it that would take a long time to expand on).

So it's not a question of 'finding' things different - but it is perfectly true that I notice things about the stuff I've done before, the settings, the world, the books, that look different in a different light, and sometimes that means coming back and answering yourself. (Le Guin did it to extraordinary effect and with amazing and impressive politics and rigour with Earthsea, of course).

That's already happened, and I'm sure it'll happen again. I like Perdido Street Station very much - but I realised that though Remaking was obviously 'bad' in that book, and that though my sympathy was clearly 'with' the Remade, I hadn't given any of them any voice. So the following book involved going into the head of one Remade in particular, and Iron Council tried to talk about a collectivity, a politics, of those voices and subjectivities. It's not in any way a repudiation of what goes before, but it's an argument with, a development of, oneself. And at the level of the depiction of culture it was always important to me that Bas-Lag wasn't a static world. 25-30 years have passed between PSS and IC, and the city of New Crobuzon is very different. For specific reasons. Its politics have shifted.

If/when I go back, both its politics, and my own relation to that setting, will have developed again.

SS: You wrote Between Equal Rights several years ago. Will you return, at some point, to non-fiction - theoretical and book-length?

China Miéville: I sincerely hope so. It's something I intend to do, and I'm working on two ideas now. The problem is finding time. I'm dreadful, dreadful, at doing more than one thing at once. To my everlasting, growing regret. But yes. The spirit is willing and eager. 

SS:  About your forthcoming book**, Kraken: It isn’t in any way a response to Margaret Atwood’s accusation that all sci-fi is about ‘talking squids in outer space’, is it?

China Miéville:  It predates my awareness of the remark! Plus there's no space. Plus it's already been done. By many writers. Ken Macleod et al. Plus I was already rude about that in The Nation. Having said all of which - yeah, why not?

SS:  What did you enjoy most about writing Kraken?

China Miéville:  What I most enjoyed writing in the novel - from various candidates - was the section describing the afterworld life and radicalisation of a magic servant. For various reasons, some of this book was very hard to write - that chapter was a delight, and came very easily.

Kraken  wasn't my original title, but it ties in unexpectedly and humorously with the release of Clash of the Titans - which is, btw, an astoundingly terrible, incoherent and misogynist film, which also apropos of bugger all imports what appears to be a Sadhu and his followers largely so as to riff off the racist visual cliché of jabbering & threatening 'natives'. But anyway, I hope you enjoy the book. If you like giant squid and eschatological cults it might be to your taste. It also, for anyone hunting out specific India references, has some mentions of Kerala in it and to kalaripayattu, and the Urumi, the world's most amazing weapon. Which FTW, and for which thank you.'
*I see how this could be confusing. To my mind, there’s a very clear distinction between the whodunit/procedural, noir and spy stories that come under the broad rubric of ‘crime fiction’. TC&TC is a procedural, no matter how noir-ish and atmospheric it seems. To the extent that it’s faithful to the genre – and it is, right up to the dénouement – the finding of the criminal is synonymous with justice being done. But the story doesn’t end with the dénouement and to say why I think there is no resolution, much ambiguity and many, many unanswered questions would be a spoiler of at least a 7.8 magnitude. Either that, or I have only read very, very conservative crime fiction.*** Go read the book and decide.

**At the time of the conversation. Right now, of course, the book's out in the UK

***This also reminds me that I owe (some of) you guys a post on P.D. James and John le Carré.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Book release: Anindita Sengupta's City of Water, Friday, 7 May

Toto Funds the Arts
is pleased to invite you
to the launch of Anindita Sengupta’s
first volume of poetry, City of Water, where she will be
in conversation with poet/writer Sridala Swami 

Venue: Crossword Bookstore, ACR Towers, Ground Floor, 32 Residency Road, Bangalore – 1
Date and time: Friday, 7 May 2010 at 6.30 pm

Anindita Sengupta’s poetry has been published in several journals including Eclectica, Nth Position, Yellow Medicine Review, Origami Condom, Pratilipi, Cha: An Asian Journal, Kritya, and Muse India. It has also appeared in the anthologies Mosaic (Unisun, 2008), Not A Muse (Haven Books, 2009), and Poetry with Prakriti (Prakriti Foundation, 2010). In 2008, she received the Toto Funds the Arts Award for Creative Writing, annually given to two writers under thirty in India. In 2010, she was the Charles Wallace writer-in-residence at University of Kent in England. Sengupta, who lives in Bangalore, is also a freelance writer and journalist and has contributed articles to The Guardian (UK), The Hindu, Outlook Traveler and Bangalore Mirror

2. Michael Scharf's review of the Bloodaxe Anthology (ed. Jeet Thayil) in the Boston Review. Vivek says there's a companion piece. When it turns up, I will post the link.


3. Not very related, but have been wanting to slip this in somewhere. In response to Anindita's post here, Swar Thounaojam says:

“How can one not bear witness to terrible things? Isn’t that self-indulgent?”

When you say ‘witness to terrible things’, what is your focus? empathy for victims? authenticity of the terrible things? for me, these are very dangerous territories for artists especially writers. In the age we live in, multiple and various narratives of violence are beamed straight to our screens – we are too familiar with home as well as foreign violence – the brutal obscenities of our age. The weight of authentic representations/recounts/narratives very easily close down responses because it doesn’t lead to thought; it is just an impotent (though earnest) addition to what we already know and see and hear. Yes, empathy has to be there but that is not enough. That familiar ‘terrible things’ have to be made strange so that we can go beyond uncomplicated empathy and make ourselves think actively. For me, it is not about bearing witness to terrible things; it is about imagining terrible things on my own terms. It is not self-indulgent; it is necessary investigation. Like Howard Barker said – ‘I trust my imagination, I don’t value my opinions.’ He was not being glib when he said that. He was expressing a deeply philosophical stance of an uncompromising writer. Our age needs imagination; opinions are a dime a dozen.

4. Looking forward to catching up with a bunch of you in Bangalore! See you (definitely, I hope) on Friday, or else over the weekend.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Two Minutes Older: 01 May

Help me with a title here!

Back in the early 90s our college union was a bit of a joke. Many of my friends were a part of it so I didn’t laugh but the fact was our college union wasn’t really a union; they didn’t organise strikes or make strong demands. They didn’t set themselves up against any establishment. Half the students didn’t even know there was a union. Those that did didn’t really know what it was there for.

My college’s union was apolitical and took great pride in it – indeed, owed its existence to this fact. It existed in a cosy relationship with a nearly-maternal establishment and concerned itself with things like better food in the canteen and more parking space for students’ cars.

I was reminded of this when a friend recently said on Facebook that there ought to be a union for book reviewers. (I’m still not sure how serious she was.) Do I agree? You bet I do! Just as film technicians have associations that negotiate with producers on their behalf, I’m in favour of freelance writers organising themselves to ensure there’s some kind of accountability regarding payments and schedules.

As you may have guessed, I think unions are a pretty red hot idea.

Recently, though, I’ve been amused at the middle class’s enthusiastic adoption of tactics they’ve traditionally complained about. Remember the pilots’ strike last year for better wages? I wonder how many of those same airlines staff were annoyed about hartals by, say, the Narmada Bachao Andolan back in the day, and how it was creating traffic jams and making them late for work.

Or consider Resident Welfare Associations. I’m glad that they exist, and are recognised, and have the ability to negotiate with the government and the municipality about water, sewage, garbage disposal etc. But I wonder if they’d also associate themselves equally enthusiastically with the Domestic Workers’ Trade Unions in their cities.

What are the odds? They’re more likely to crib about how it’s so hard to get ‘affordable help’ and how they’re all – if they can read but even if they can’t – moving into supermarket jobs where they get paid a lot for doing very little.
And – taking a little detour here – don’t you just love the words we use to describe domestic workers? ‘Help’? A woman who gets up at some unearthly hour to cook her family’s meal and send her kids off to school so she can come in to work at 8 am, is ‘helping’ out?  That other word, ‘maid’, to describe domestic workers is surely wistful: it turns them into discreet, genteel, almost feudal creatures, instead of the harassed, often resentful and certainly more vocal women they really are. The ugliest, most blunt appellation is, needless to say, ‘servant’ – it’s both politically incorrect and unapologetic about it.

Unorganised labourers, such as domestic workers, are some of the most exploited people today. It’s a well-known litany: hard physical work, no food or stale food, cut wages for one reason or another, abrupt dismissals, and loans leading into debts. One illness could destabilise the domestic worker’s life for many years.
The minimum wages for a domestic worker in Andhra Pradesh as of December 2007 is a laughable Rs. 12.50 and hour and Rs. 2,600 per month. We’re not even talking about medical benefits or paid leave here. Under the circumstances, I’m amazed at how unblushingly we complain about our domestic troubles.

Last year, the morning after Diwali, there were several empty shells lying around, the remains of those large crackers that splash across the sky in bursts of red and gold. Curious, I picked one up to see if there was a price tag. There was: it said MRP. Rs.1,200. Two of those more or less make one domestic worker’s monthly pay. That’s irony carrying a bludgeon.

So while I’m happy that the word ‘union’ is no longer entirely a dirty word for the middle class, I wish we could find a way to be equally supportive of those who might not have even considered unionising but will benefit enormously if they do. There’s another word people used to use that we could re-learn: it’s called ‘solidarity’. 


Extra! From Infochange!

(An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.)