Quarks, Colonialism, and Alternate Realities: A Conversation with Vandana Singh
Reading widely, strangely, and diversely rapidly pushes out the boundaries of what you thought possible within the confines of your own imagination. The more you read, the more your conscious and subconscious mind laps up new imagery and ideas. Frequently, your new favorite author is the one that has shown you whole new worlds.
From eleventh century poets to people connecting across time and universes, Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories highlights Singh’s deep interest in the way characters adapt and change as they try to make sense of their world.
Vandana Singh is an author and educator. She is the Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Physics and Earth Science at Framingham State University. Her stories have been performed on BBC Radio and have been nominated for numerous awards. Her first North American collection is Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories available from Small Beer Press.
What drew you to writing?
That heady feeling of being swept away by another reality—exercising the faculty of the imagination to upend our default assumptions about the world. The feeling of being a conduit for something larger than myself to express itself into being. I know that sounds a bit corny, but it’s literally how it feels sometimes. Not least, the thrill of intellectual exploration. Dissolving boundaries between disciplines is definitely part of it!
Where do you frequently draw your inspiration?
From my immediate surroundings to the universe at large. In adulthood I’ve had to relearn how to look at the world afresh, the way a child or a dog might, and I’m grateful to have those influences in my life. When I was a kid, my little sister would demand stories, and my brother and cousins and I would run wild, enacting imaginary and usually fantastical dramas. Decades later, when I was a lot more jaded, far from home, and suffering lack of intellectual stimulation, among other things, my small daughter taught me how to see that way again. The dogs in my life have helped too! So, something as humble as the fall of a leaf from a tree can become the point on which a story turns.
Having a background in science helps, because it reveals the extraordinary in the mundane. Additionally, I’d say that growing up in India through young adulthood, and looking back at that experience from these shores, along with my current entanglements with India—family, friends, movements, place—simultaneously seeing all the changes sweeping the US and therefore being a creature of two places—all this has fed my creativity.
How do you feel colonialism has influenced stories and books, both your own and the fiction landscape as a whole?
I had an experience when I was seventeen that probably took a decade or more to articulate, which was my first recognition of the power of colonialism. Although I was born in an India that had at the time been fifteen years free of British rule, and I’d been brought up on stories of resistance (my grandmother, for example, had taken part in the Salt Satyagraha), I’d never thought about the insidious aftereffects, the long shadow which is the colonialism of the mind. So, when I was seventeen and part of a unique environment-social-justice group still active today, we went up to the Himalayas to study the Chipko movement, one of the most successful environmental movements in the world, the backbone of which is village women. We’re talking about people in remote areas, without modern education, with no knowledge of the world outside the village and their forests, the kind of people that modern urbanites have been taught to look down on or to think of as needing our help.
One of the things that these women had accomplished, apart from protection for their forests from the government’s Forest Department (an enabler of industrial exploitation of forests), was a social transformation that challenged caste barriers and gender roles. So, there was this point in our trek through the mountains where we witnessed a gathering of multiple villages in a high valley. We were at the back of the crowd, and an elderly woman was giving a fiery speech, punching the air with her fists, and I felt something shift inside me. It was the beginning of a paradigm shift in my conception of the world. So later on, when I read the Western feminists, I was able to recognize that feminism was not exclusively a Western phenomenon, that it took different forms in different places, and you didn’t have to be well-read in feminism, or even well-read at all, to be part of a revolution.
It has taken decades to make sense of that experience and other paradigm-shifting experiences in my life, but it gradually became clear to me that colonialism of the mind was a very real thing.
The way it works is that the worldview of the colonizers becomes your default worldview, the standard by which you judge everything, and to which you aspire. We see this in the current model of development, which is a worldwide plague that has brought us the climate crisis, and yet many Indians I’ve talked to, including young people and old, would like India to be just like what they imagine the US to be. The colonialism of the mind can also manifest as a complete rejection of the colonizer’s external cultural manifestations and a reactionary yearning for a perfect, golden indigenous past that perhaps never existed, but the point is that the standard against which you are reacting is still the colonizer’s. You are not free of it. Shame is, I suspect, a natural side effect of colonization, and if it is not owned and explored and worked through, it can manifest in these sorts of ways.
So, what I want is to find the third alternative, which is the place where you are free (as much as possible) of both the default acceptance and the reactionary rejection, while maintaining the ethical stance of the utter wrongness of colonization. And I’ve found that science fiction is the best place to explore this, for me. In fact, in one sense we are all victims of a colonization of the mind, a paradigm blindness—consider the things we take for granted about how the world should be, that are in fact so destructive. The power of science fiction is to make our default assumptions visible, so that we might question them and imagine alternatives. So no matter what the story is that I’m writing, my attempt is always to experience a little of that freedom, and hopefully to illuminate it for my readers.
How has teaching physics influenced your writing?
Both physics and teaching physics have influenced my writing. When I was a researcher in particle physics I examined the mysteries of quarks (sub-subatomic particles), in particular why we never find quarks by themselves. It’s as though Mama Nature has declared that quarks can’t be lonely—but why? What’s the mechanism? There are some ideas, some schemes, but the trouble is that the usual mathematical tools desert you in this realm, so you have to rely on supercomputers. My work explored one possible scheme and came up with some interesting results that are still being cited today, although I have been out of the field for over two decades.
After a postdoctoral fellowship, I had a ten-year exile from academia, during which, as I mentioned, I found wonder again in the world through the gaze of a child. I had the time and distance to think about physics, and the enterprise of science and industry and some of the issues with it. But also, in that interim I got to interview a great physicist, E. C. George Sudarshan, who helped me see that being a physicist was a way of looking at the world, no matter if you were doing research or not. When I returned to academia after over a decade, it was to teaching, which was my second love after research. But since then what I’ve experienced is an extraordinary positive feedback between teaching and thinking physics, and writing.
My current interest is in the climate crisis, and my research is about how it exists at the intersection of science, sociology, economics, history—it is a boundary-crossing phenomenon, which is one of the reasons it is very hard to teach. It demands a transdisciplinarity that most people haven’t had training in—educators tend to live in silos. Because of my unorthodox upbringing, including reading and writing science fiction—I feel at home in this liminal space.
There is currently no transdisciplinary pedagogy of climate change, and so I am working on it, starting from the scientific basis and reaching outward beyond the disciplinary walls. What’s fascinating is that my attempts to teach the stuff have helped me conceptualize it in ways that have fed my scientific understanding as well as story. So, the boundaries between the teaching, the science and my science fiction are being continually transgressed. A kind of illegal immigration of the intellect!
You once said that “Reality is such a complex beast that in order to begin to comprehend it we need something larger than realistic fiction.” This is a sentiment that I’ve believed wholeheartedly for years. Would you mind unpacking and expounding on what you mean?
The odd thing about so-called reality is that it is so context-dependent. I don’t mean it in a postmodern sense, that all reality is a social construct, which is ridiculous to a physicist—but that our conceptions arise from how we entangle with our socio-cultural-natural matrix. Matter speaks: you can’t wish away the fact that if you walk off a cliff, you’ll fall. But where gravity figures in your construction of the world might differ—even if you confine yourself to physics—is it a force, in the Newtonian sense? Is it a result of the warping of space-time by matter?
Einstein’s relativity is a much better description of gravity than is Newton’s theory, but Newton’s theory is perfectly valid on our scale of things. I’ve come to think of our interactions—or intra-actions, to use the term coined by philosopher Karen Barad—with the world as a constantly shifting conversation with matter, with humans and nonhumans, where reality and identity emerge from how we co-conceptualize.
The simplest but not the best example of what I am trying to say (I apologize for the lack of clarity, as the words don’t yet exist for some of what I’m trying to say, and I’m ignorant of the rest) is cultural difference. We see or unsee things differently as a result of our culturally imbibed attitudes. So yes, reality is weird. But mainstream literature in the dominant English Western mode, in its stereotypical sense—individualist, usually middle class white people in urban or suburban settings and their sexual misadventures—leaves out not only the rest of humanity but also other species, and the very happening world of inanimate matter. Mainstream literature does a staggeringly inadequate job of embracing all this. Which is why it mostly tastes like cardboard to me, with a few exceptions. Speculative fiction at its best reintroduces us, makes us at home in the larger universe. As Ursula K. Le Guin famously described speculative fiction writers, we are “realists of a larger reality.”
I’ve read that you like to discover your story as you write. What was the most surprising character, idea, or setting that you’ve discovered while writing the stories in this collection?
No one thing comes to mind at the moment, but perhaps one of the more surprising experiences was writing the story “Oblivion: A Journey,” which was first published in Mike Allen’s anthology Clockwork Phoenix. I started originally with a line translated from a poem by Pablo Neruda (something like “Perhaps, perhaps oblivion”), and then I had this image of a woman who was on a quest to find a man who had wronged her.
Later, I looked at those three or four lines I’d written, and in the second attempt they gave way to the current beginning of the story. As I wrote the next sentence and then the next and the next, I found my characters on a galactic stage, and the ancient epic, the Ramayana, appeared unexpectedly. The most surprising thing was that oblivion became the planet Oblivion, and it had to do with the erasure of memory and history, which is one of the ways colonialism disappears a people.
There’s also a new story I wrote this winter break for an Indian anthology in which the main character turned out to be the protagonist from one of the stories in my collection, Indra’s Web. It’s Mahua’s story as an old woman, looking back from the vantage point of a climate-changed world, at her life and work. The setting was originally the city of Ashapur near Delhi, the future city that she pioneers, but unexpectedly for this story we find her living in a locality of a future Mumbai. In that future one of the things we can’t avoid anymore, sea level rise, has become a reality and the coastal city of Mumbai, which was mostly built on land reclaimed from the sea, is an archipelago again. I wasn’t expecting that setting for my story, but it became so real once it was inscribed in electrons on my computer screen, that I can close my eyes and see every detail of what Mahua sees from her window.
How do you feel your ability to think and write both in English and Hindi has influenced your writing?
Well, if each language is a different way of conceptualizing and experiencing the world, then being able to think double or triple gives you that extra depth, the way binocular vision works, I suppose. I have to be very conscious of not losing my Hindi, since that is a risk living in the US—I’ve not lost basic fluency but I have lost vocabulary. I have the books of my favorite Hindi writer, the great master Premchand, among others, on my bookshelf to read whenever I feel panicked that I am losing my mother tongue. Plus, there are connections through music and family and trips. In general, I love languages, and I have picked up, at various points in my life, spoken Farsi and Tamil, and a bit of German as well. If I ever have more time in my frantic life, I would love to learn multiple languages with the depth that they deserve.
One of the things that being bilingual has taught me is that there are concepts that are untranslatable between languages. Translation is crucially important for us to better understand each other, but it is equally important to acknowledge that translation is never perfect or authentic because you are missing experiences that the native speaker knows intimately. So sometimes I acknowledge that failure by using Hindi words in the story without explanation so that the non-native reader can have the experience of being outside something, of being alien to something. But it’s also the reason why I am never satisfied with my writing, in part because of language itself having limitations—I never bridge the gap between imagination and words.
Caste and religion factor into a few stories in your new collection. How have these aspects of Indian culture influenced your storytelling?
I’ve lived with them! My parents had an inter-caste marriage for which my mother had to run away from home, although her part of the family later accepted what she had done. I grew up in a clan of uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents and other elders in a microculture that regarded caste as something that needed to be uprooted from Indian society. But it took a very long time for me to recognize caste privilege. The fact is that my parents are from castes that are still quite respectable, so I have never personally suffered as a result of that. Therefore, to recognize the blindness of structural privilege has been a painful and incredible journey, an enlargement of the soul that is always ongoing. Most recently the Black Lives Matter movement and a BLM teach-in on my campus in which I participated was crucial and humbling in illuminating my understanding of privilege and power.
Caste is an aspect of Hinduism, so that’s one way religion comes into my storytelling, but what most people don’t know, here in the West anyway, is that Hinduism isn’t really a religion in the Western sense. There is no clear historical origin, no one book or deity, and no single set of scriptures. It’s an umbrella word for a vast and multifarious collection of belief systems that have a few common features and multiple contradictions. There are hundreds of scriptures and literally millions of deities, although a fairly unifying principle is the idea of multiple manifestations of the divine. There is no one church, and practices differ with region and social group and even with family. You can be a hard-core casteist and be Hindu, and you can reject caste and believe in the sacredness of everyone and everything, and also be Hindu. Of course, reactionary elements have been trying since the murder of Gandhi to congregationalize Hinduism and dictate and police its margins—how much easier to wield power over people in that case.
I am less interested in religion per se than in cultural constructs in general, and how they intersect with materiality, with politics. I have been trying to experiment, in my fiction, with building alternate cultures on other worlds and alternate worlds. It’s a fascinating exercise to wonder how culture shapes and is shaped by the psyche of the people who live in it, and how different people accept and reject and engage with aspects of it.
To extrapolate from my experience of it to otherworldly possibilities is a lot of fun. I think that cultural stories (“mythology”), whether religious or secular, are crucial as representations and reminders of what is important to the culture. When I invent a culture on another world, I try to start by imagining its stories. For example, in a story called “Of Wind and Fire,” which is not in this collection but part of Athena Andreadis’ anthology To Shape the Dark, the protagonist’s story is both informed by and foreshadowed by the mythos of her people. In that world people spend lives falling through the air in what they call villages, each with its own subculture, and the protagonist is a kind of proto-scientist trying to figure out how falling works—Newtonian physics, but in a completely different cultural context.
What other projects do you have in the works?
I have a very busy day job, so I have to wait until the summer to write, and that too, between research projects and other responsibilities. This summer I hope to return to a long novella that I’d started maybe 6 or 7 years ago, plus write more short fiction that I hope will continue to surprise me, because I don’t have any idea right now what it might be about.
You’re passionate about science education. What is one scientific fact that you believe everyone should know?
I don’t think there’s just one! As Poincaré once said (I quote from memory) “we build science with facts, as a house with stones, but a collection of facts is no more science than a pile of stones is a house.” Science is an attempt (within a sociohistorical context) to understand patterns in Nature, so a fact in isolation means very little. It is true, however, that science is often taught as though it was a pile of stones! Plus, a lot of STEM education is about getting more people, including minorities and women, into science-as-we-know-it, which enterprise is often wielded by the powers-that-be to maintain their structures of power. I am far more interested in how science and the culture of science might be different, serve the public interest in a way that is truly informed by egalitarian principles, by the diversity of the people of the world.
So instead of a fact all by itself, I’ll give you a unifying idea. The world is less a collection of things than a continually shifting set of intra-actions. This means we are connected, to a lesser or greater degree, to everything that is happening, from our immediate environs to a remote corner of the globe, to the universe itself. That’s a startling and wonderful thing, and scary too, because it also implies responsibility.