The OF Blog: Rabid Squirrel Interro-view: Aisha of Practically Marzipan

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Rabid Squirrel Interro-view: Aisha of Practically Marzipan

For the second online reviewer/blogger interro-view, I turned to one of my favorite people to chat with online, Aisha.  Aisha runs the blog Practically Marzipan and is also a columnist/reviewer for a leading Indian paper, The Sunday Guardian.   Time to see if the rabid squirrels who co-conducted this interview felt even a smidgen of pity or gave mercy to this intrepid interview subject:

You have a regular column, "Left of Cool," in India's The Sunday Guardian as well as maintaining a review(ish) blog, Practically Marzipan.  What are some of the differences you've noticed between writing for a newspaper compared to writing for a blog?

With my blog I can assume readers who read the same sorts of things as I do, or can take for granted that they already have certain sorts of information. And there's also the option of linking to lots of things as context and constructing whatever I'm trying to say on top of things other people have said--which changes the whole tone of the writing from (I suppose) statement to dialogue. Writing for newspapers or magazines has been great for discipline--most of the time I need deadlines and wordcounts to get anything done, and it's probably good for me not to be able to depend on other people's writing. But I feel like I sound more like myself when I'm writing for the blog. (But also I sound more myself when I'm writing for the regular column than I am when I'm writing a review).

All this seems to indicate that there's a definite separation between my writing for the blog and my writing for the column, and that would probably be true if I was less lazy. As things are, most things that get put up on the blog are versions of columns or reviews I've already written, so there are no clear lines and you can probably ignore most of that previous paragraph.

Seems like you have a hard time deciding which has helped you develop more as a reviewer/critic.  If you were pressed by a gang of rabid palm squirrels threatening to nibble your toes if you didn't respond definitively, which one, the newspaper columnist or the blogger, has given you the most satisfaction?

Nooo, not the squirrels! The blog certainly gives me more satisfaction.

What's wrong with having rabid squirrels giving you their undivided attention?

That you have to ask this is itself a matter of concern. Though, do I get a free pass if one of the only pieces of fiction I've ever had published has a squirrel in it? Also one of my favourite Indian short stories is about a squirrel. (I guess what I'm trying to say is please don't hurt me, squirrels)

[Furious, frustrated chittering is heard in the distance.  Aisha is spared…for the moment, with the understanding that she’ll consider reviewing the upcoming Squirrels movie.]

If I recall, you also used to work as an editor for a children's lit publisher.  What are some of the wonderful discoveries you've made in children's/YA literature, both professionally and during your personal life?

Professionally, not that much--because a lot of the editing I did involved textbooks and while it's possible to make brilliant textbooks (I'd like to think mine were pretty good) you can't really have very strong feelings about them.

But my job meant being in a place where children's books were accessible at all times, and I discovered I could really love books for much younger readers. I've written more about things like picture books and books for early readers in the last few years than I ever did before. Obviously I can't read them as a child would (or even as a parent would) but the best of them get down to the bare bones of language and story (and colour and line) in ways that are fascinating to me.

Well, I've been an uncle for nearly a year now and my niece already has shown a great interest in picture books or anything in the shape of a book (OK, she tries to munch on a few of them, but that is beside the point).  What books, picture books and on up through early readers would you suggest that I (or any reader that has an infant/toddler relative) consider buying for her?  I (we?) need names!

Well there's an Indian publishing company called Tara Books who do gorgeous things with traditional folk art, so I'd recommend pretty much anything by them (look how pretty! ). And I've fallen in love with Chris Haughton's books-- A Bit Lost has a baby owl in it so it's clearly superior, but Oh No George! looks great too. One of my favourite books from this past year was one called Virginia Wolf which is *sort* of about Virginia Woolf (there's an artist sister called Vanessa, for example) but is mostly about depression. Another I liked was something called The Bravest Goat in the World, about a goat that sticks to her sense of self and ... dies. It's more inspiring than depressing, I promise.

 I'll take your word on it for now.  So perhaps Indian children's/YA lit isn't as depressing as say Charlotte's Web?

Well quite a few of those titles aren't Indian. But I think most of the children's lit I like isn't entirely happy and uplifting--even when there's a happily ever after at the end there's often this sense of a huge and unknowable world. Think of something like Tove Jansson's Moomin books, for example.

What is the lit scene, whether it's literary fiction, speculative, or works not otherwise constrained by those two labels, in India today? 

It's (I'm restricting this to English language only because that is what I do almost all my reading in) growing faster than I would have believed it could a few years ago; it's changed out of all recognition since I started working here and that was only a few years ago. I think the most important development has been the beginnings of a genuinely "popular" literature--affordable books in English that the authors often claim is accessible to everyone. I think most of it is dreadful (but then there are writers like Anuja Chauhan, whose first book was very good and whose second and third I'm told are wonderful), but it has opened up a space for genre fiction and there's already quite a bit of it. It's mostly mythological fiction so far, but that's partly because the breakout success in the genre (Amish Tripathi's Immortals of Meluha) was in that genre.

But there's also a visible divide between the literary and the popular, with very few authors who seem to belong to both groups. I'm hoping that as Indian sff develops it'll straddle that divide so that we can have speculative writing that is also formally experimental; since we don't have a firmly entrenched English language genre tradition to fall back on (*all sorts of disclaimers here) we have a better chance at it than most places.

How "accessible" (a word that I do dread using here but am failing at recalling a more suitable synonym) would these English-language "popular" lit books be for a non-Indian population?  Are there elements that differ significantly from literary tropes that populate Anglo-American literary genres? 

It depends on the book, but I think most of them are pretty accessible, or not less so than the more literary (a word I dread using here!) sort of Indian fiction. There are a couple that even I found incomprehensible, but that's a problem with individual writers (and, I suspect, no editing) rather than an alien setting.

A lot of it is along the same lines as the Anglo-American scene: there are romances, crime fiction, military novels, a bit of fantasy. One significant difference is that we've got an entire genre composed of semi-autobiographical stories about young men in college finding love (by young male authors, mostly). I read something about the college novel being dead recently, and I'm not sure what the people who wrote that would make of these.

Have you ever thought about reviewing any of these "college novels" for your global audience?

I've occasionally done some rather mean spoof reviews of them (tagged "(sic)" on my blog; see what I said about the editing above), but I'm not sure if a global audience would find them hilariously bad, as I often do, or incomprehensibly so.

It's complicated though-- English, and the ability to speak it fluently, can be intensely political issues in India, and it's easy to fall into a sort of classism when mocking a badly written book. And these books clearly do have an audience (a far bigger one than most mainstream literary writers), and class and language politics play a big role there too. So I'm trying to find a balance between righteous rage at books that are very bad and classist snobbery. Or something.

You are very active on Twitter.  How has Twitter shaped your reading and reviewing?

I suspect it has actively hindered them.

Twitter ought to be good for writers in that the 140 character limit should make us pare down out tweets for the minimum number of words and maximum clarity. I haven't managed to get it to train me out of using too many adverbs yet, so I don't know if that's true.

I follow a bunch of brilliant, incisive critics on twitter, so I am mostly really intimidated by them but also pushed to be better because you don't want to look silly in front of people you respect. But I think I'm also learning to think I might have something worth saying because there seem to be people who continue to be willing to read me and talk to me.

What's wrong with adverbs? 

Nothing, if they're used in moderation. But there's an adverb in my blog name and one in my twitter username, so I suspect I will never escape them.

Apparently not, considering you used one in your response!  Does this dismay you or make you more accepting of verb modifiers in fiction?

Absolutely not. (Um.)

As a reviewer, what do you consider to be your strengths and weaknesses? 

Lots and lots of weaknesses! A lack of intellectual rigour, a fear of making sweeping pronouncements that leads to my often not saying anything new for fear that I'll have to back it up. I'm not sure what my strengths are, other than that I usually sound like myself (which is only a good thing if you like what I sound like); I'm not sure why people are willing to read what I write, and I'm pathetically grateful when they are.

Hrmm….so a relative lack of confidence in your work, despite having accomplished more professionally than most of us will likely ever achieve, is your biggest weakness as a reviewer?  It sounds like you're a conscientious critic swimming in a sea of inflated self-opinions.  Would this be a fairer assessment of your strengths?

It would be a very flattering assessment of my strengths, if it was true. I've been able to read and write for a living for a few years, which is something most people don't get to do. But luck and circumstances have been a huge part of that, and I read people who are far better critics than I am every day. If I'm particularly conscientious it's natural timidity plus a tendency towards academia (plus, I suppose, the social effects of being a brown woman on an internet where the majority of voices are still white men-- there's an added sense of needing to protect oneself from attack by never saying anything that can't be incontrovertibly backed up).

I wish I could argue your last point, but I understand a small part of the reality there.  But have you ever been tempted to kick down those sexist/racist doors and fight vociferously?  Are there other bloggers that do this?

Are you trying to get me to talk about Requires Only That You Hate? I don't think I could do what she does even if I was also blogging anonymously, but I'm glad she exists. Or someone like Deepa D, whose style is very different but equally welcome-- she had a great post recently where she and some other bloggers picked apart and mocked a collection of short stories that were (judging by the extensive quotes they posted) pretty terrible on the race front in particular.

You keep getting people clutching their pearls over how horrible and mean this sort of thing is; no one seems to talk about how cathartic it can be. Things like casual sexism and racism in literature (in the books themselves, in how they are received, in how fans react to them) make the world worse in ways that affect me directly, casual classism, transphobia, casteism, all affect people I care about. My safe spaces are not places where everyone is required to be teeth-grittingly nice in the face of bigotry, they're places where we can mock and rage at things that can hurt us and know that the other people in that space have our backs.

(I'm still too "nice" to create that sort of space, though.)

Word association time:  When you see/hear the word "fandom," what thoughts/images immediately come to mind?


OR far too many things to name, many of them wonderful and many incredibly frustrating and/or upsetting.

C'mon!  There has to be something specific that really appeals to you and/or makes you want to unleash your fury upon the miscreant(s), right?

When I say fandom I mean about ten things, all of them connected but not necessarily the same. I love that literature and movies and music and tv can make communities, I love that fanfic can be art and politics and porn at the same time, I love enthusiasm, I love love. I'm less enthused by the sort of fandom that is not only uncritical itself (do that, if you want, I'm not going to judge how you read/watch) but that denies other fans the right to be. I hate the cult of nice. I hate that things like sexism and racism play out in fannish communities, and that fandom is still assumed to be the preserve of certain types of people in certain sorts of countries (queer women of colour who don't live in North America are not among them). I hate being pressured to feel grateful when a writer with a big fan following occasionally remembers that people like me exist.

So -- no, I don't have much to say about fandom. ;)

Do you see these reactionary elements of various fandoms changing anytime soon?

I don't know. It's a continuous process; it gets better in some areas, worse in others, people push back against change. I think things are improving, but there's so much left to do.

And finally, if you could have a totemic animal represent you and/or your blog, what animal would it be and would they be voracious readers and/or fierce attack creatures?

Owls! (everyone who reads my twitter groans on cue) They're appropriately literary, very good at killing things, they're wise in English and foolish in Hindi.

1 comment:

Andrea said...

Another excellent interview. although I'm suddenly nervous about buying "The Bravest Goat in the World" for my best friend to read to her kids.

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