“There for Each Other”: An Interview with Indrapramit Das
A graduate of the 2012 Clarion West Six-Week Summer Workshop, Indrapramit Das has made waves in the literary ocean with his rigorous yet humanist short fiction appearing in Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com, and his Lambda Award-winning debut novel The Devourers. In the interview below he answers questions from Nisi Shawl (CW ’92).
7W: Are you part of a movement?
ID: I see myself as part of multiple movements. Because I’m Indian, I’m part of a new generation of international writers breaking into non-realist literature centered in the West, a movement of writers fighting back against marginalization, appropriation, systemic bigotry, etc. by telling stories outside the narrative status quo. Similarly, I’m part of a movement within India of writers creating a body of Indian speculative fiction, working towards gaining an equal footing with Indian literary fiction, which is… well, an uphill battle. Because I’m writing stories that meld genres, I’m also part of a growing movement of fiction crossing genre lines that’s also tied into (for better and worse) the mainstreaming of “geek culture” into a kind of ur-mythology for these incredibly strange and turbulent times.
7W: How did attending Clarion West affect your work? Was the effect what you expected?
ID: It filled me with this life-changing confidence that came from being in the proximity of so many amazing writers, editors, readers, and people who love art, particularly art that imagines beyond the confines of accepted realities. It showed me that if I put my mind to it, I can put out a good story draft in the space of one night. It showed me a community I could feel a part of. It gave me a new group of lifelong friends who are also writers. We help each other, we support each other, and it’s invaluable.
I can’t say I went into Clarion West with any particular expectations other than that it would be a great workshop to produce work and develop my craft, which it was, but the way it seemed to split my life as a writer asunder and rebuild it was, indeed, unexpected.
7W: How did you prepare for the six weeks of the summer workshop? Any tips for those about to participate?
ID: I honestly don’t think I really prepared in any way, other than to skim through the materials Clarion West sent us prior to the workshop. I was fairly blasé (though excited and proud to have gotten in) about it all, just thinking of it like an intensive class instead of a life-changing experience packed into just under two months.
My advice is — take care of each other, and be open to making friends, because a close-quarters stay-in with eighteen people over six weeks can lead to both intense love and bonding as well as conflict and tension. This also means respecting the introverts among you; if someone indicates that they’re not so into hanging out in groups, take that hint and make them feel like they belong in other ways, like stopping by their room to ask if they need anything (some coffee or tea, perhaps?), or just checking in periodically without being intrusive. If the class feels like they’re there for each other, they’ll learn better, and work better.
Push your limits, go outside your creative comfort zone. Try to write new stories each week, and try to write stories you wouldn’t otherwise write, stories you’re afraid of writing because you think you’re not good enough, or they’re too weird or ambitious. Clarion West is the time to see what you’re capable of and expand your capabilities, because you’re in an environment where you can workshop these drafts without worrying about much else. The point is not to get everyone to love each draft you produce (or to sell it immediately), it’s to understand how to write better stories.
Finally — if you’re good with company and meeting new people, don’t miss the Friday parties. They’re a wonderful opportunity to meet all kinds of fascinating, interesting, and talented people in the genre fiction community within Seattle — and who knows, you might even meet some of your longtime faves (I did) and get to have a conversation with them. It’s a great way to unwind after the intensity of a workshop week.
7W: Your debut novel The Devourers is glorious and beautiful, harsh and tender, nasty and delicious. Is the world you live in also full of such heights and depths, such stark contrasts?
ID: The world I live in, Earth, is indeed full of such tremendous contrasts, but to narrow it down: I grew up in India, where such contrasts are even more jarring. We live with the disgraceful caste system, which makes itself known in the way we (the middle and upper classes in India) treat the people “below” our station — to this day it’s entirely the cultural norm to have separate utensils for them, and to not allow them to sit on “our” furniture.
You also have beggars and people in abject poverty living on pavements even in the most busy, commercial areas, right next to hotels and condos and malls and, yes, fucking Trump Towers. You’ve got people and stray dogs using the streets as toilets and garbage repositories all over Kolkata, which I suppose explains why I’m so comfortable writing about bodily fluids and excrement in relation to our fear of our own bodies (which has shocked many a reader more than the blood and gore). That “dirt” signifies the animal other, and I tried to reckon with that in The Devourers. In India, if you don’t know how lucky you are to have running water and a clean, flushing toilet to take a shit and a piss in, you’re living with your head in the sand.
7W: What is it you wish that the non-writers in your life knew about supporting you and other writers?
ID: That we need people to buy (or read) our work. I mean, if someone’s writing isn’t your thing, that’s fine, and if you can’t afford to buy all your friends’ creative work, that’s entirely understandable too. But it’s rather dispiriting (charitably put) when family members (or friends, but it’s usually family members in my experience) ask for free copies of your book for “when you get famous”–implying that they only want it for potential value, not to read it. The creative arts are seen as a punchline by the same kind of people who aren’t willing to pay for art from their artist friends/family.
7W: You received the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship when you attended Clarion West. Talk a bit about your encounters with Butler’s work and what her life and writing mean to you.
ID: My first encounter with Octavia E. Butler’s work was, perhaps aptly, at Clarion West, where we all read her famous short story “Bloodchild.” Indian libraries and bookstores didn’t have a wide variety of sci-fi and fantasy books when I was growing up, and definitely no Butler. I’d only heard of her through my reading on the history of genre fiction. I decided the workshop was time to change that, since she was responsible for my being there.
“Bloodchild” deals with themes I tend to return to: the consequences of symbiosis (or parasitic bonding) or communication with alien species, what those imagined consequences might say about us as a species and how we’ve interacted with other life on our own world, and even more acutely, with our fellow humans in the world on the basis of perceived difference and othering, as well as explorations of sexuality, power, and fear through imagined paradigms. I loved the story. It inspired me to write “muo-ka’s Child” in one night, right before my deadline for submitting a story (I believe, in our second week). My story sold to Clarkesworld on first submission. The euphoria I felt that night, writing that story in what felt like the wake of a legendary writer who fought all manner of oppressive systems to become one of the most acclaimed and respected storytellers in her field, may not be easily matched, but it lingers and inspires me still.
You can read more about my relationship with Octavia E. Butler and her work in the essay collection Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler, edited by Alexandra Pierce and Mimi Mondal. Many of the essays are by Clarion and Clarion West alumni who benefitted from the Butler Scholarship, like me.
7W: Are there living authors whose work excites and inspires you?
ID: So many! I can’t imagine a world where I’m not excited by the artists in it. To prevent rattling off names forever, I’ll point out a few recent reads that have left me crackling with transferred creative energy: Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body And Other Parties, JY Yang’s Tensorate novellas, Saad Z. Hossain’s Djinn City (there are issues I have with this book, but I also love it, and think Hossain is doing fabulously heady, entertaining, distinctly South Asian SFF), Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, Hari Kunzru’s White Tears, Stephen Graham Jones’ Mongrels, Tashan Mehta’s The Liar’s Weave (which, full disclosure, I edited), Vikram Paralkar’s The Wounds of the Dead, and Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People. Really looking forward to reading Victor LaValle’s The Changeling (I adore his writing), which is on my Kindle. And there are so many books I don’t yet have but am dying to read — Sam J. Miller’s Blackfish City, Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning, Nina Allan’s The Rift, Joshua Whitehead’s Johnny Appleseed, Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka. Fellow Calcuttan Mimi Mondal has some stories coming out on Tor.com this year, I believe, which is delightful; I’ve been waiting to see more fiction from her. I recently read P. Djeli Clark’s brilliant “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” in Fireside Fiction, which makes me very eager to read his upcoming booklength work. Cassandra Khaw is one of the finest prose stylists and imaginations currently working, and I still haven’t read any books by her, only beautiful short stories. I mean, I could literally go on forever. We’re in a time of unprecedented literary fecundity despite the turmoil and flux in the publishing industry — so many writers from so many places and cultural backgrounds, so many genres bleeding into each other. I love it.
7W: Have you run into any prejudice against you and your work?
ID: I’ve been relatively lucky in that regard, but you can’t be a nonwhite writer operating in Western publishing without facing bigotry, because it’s baked into the system. When my agent was submitting The Devourers, we did get replies that said that the novel was great, but too Indian to sell, that it required too much background knowledge of Indian myth and history (it requires no more or less knowledge of India than A Game of Thrones requires prior knowledge of the myth and history of Westeros), and so on. I don’t think those editors were consciously white supremacist, but they were expressing deeply entrenched biases.
When I was doing my MFA, I had a thesis adviser who held a contest for my classmates to mimic my unfamiliar (to him) accent, and I laughed along because that’s how abuse of power works. Who wants to be the killjoy, right? He was, after all, our professor, and the bestselling author buying us beers and promising us favors. I should mention this man was fired, and I do have confidence that the Creative Writing program at that institution is moving forward, and I respect the present faculty there greatly. But the old boys’ club needs to burn, everywhere.
This answer wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the acceptance and help of so many editors, agents, publishers, fellow writers, fellow artists, and friends in the “West” who have actively fought against systemic prejudices to bring my work to readers, to make me feel welcome, to help me and other marginalized creators. I will forever be grateful for that.
I respond to prejudice by writing the stories a cisnormative, heteropatriarchal world doesn’t want to recognize. By boosting others who are marginalized and creating art. By calling out prejudice whenever I can. Nothing will change if we don’t speak up.