Interview with Ahimaz Rajessh
We are particularly interested in influences and inspirations that do not come out of the orthodox speculative fiction canon. Might you say a few words on such influences in “versus / and” and in your work in general?
I named Micmeg after Micromégas because the character, although not at first but later upon reflection, seemed to be an inversion of Voltaire’s character. Apart from that, the parenthetical theorizing portion was inspired by one of Tamil writer Lakshmi Manivannan’s stories from his collection called Vellai Palli Vivagaram (White-Lizard Incident) where it’s a psychoanalytical/feminist critique of sorts of the very story that’s being told. Also the planet-devouring being idea came from a conversation I had years ago with an Austrian comic-book nerd friend where he mentioned something of that sort from a comic book that I never read.
I’d like to believe I’m someone who avoids influences but some things leave a lasting impression upon the mind, especially the concepts encountered in books read at an young age, that later pop up in your work unnoticed. C. S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet, which I hope isn’t in the orthodox speculative fiction canon, comes to mind. Then of course there’s Voltaire and some Vertigo comic-book titles by the British Invasion writers. Also there’s the literary influences ranging from Kafka to Borges, and lately Eduardo Galeano and the Tamil poets Atmanam and Yavanika Sriram, but I try not to allow approaches and techniques of modernist literature seep into my speculative fiction; those that I deem to be too done-to-death or self-defeating, while at the same time not being entirely dismissive of them.
Your writing is exuberant. It rather exceeds one’s expectation of what is possible with the English language. How would you characterize your relationship with English? Do you write in other languages as well?
Once I received a rejection stating that my “command of written English is insufficient for publication”. It was one of those favorite stories of mine, sort of personal, which was anyway eventually published by another zine and nominated for an anthology, too. Thinking about it now, I think that editor was spot-on in that I do not command or lord over the language; I just allow it go wherever it wants to, not to the extent that it’s total chaos and out of hand but to the point where it’s kind of a Sonic Youthesque organized chaos, which I understand some might find off-putting. The jouissance I derived out of reading The Man Who Was Thursday nearly two decades ago is still somehow deeply embedded in me, I think, and that was the book that made me want to write in the first place. Then there was Candide. Maybe I sort of want to replicate that feeling of joy if not in the story, through its telling at least. Then there’s the self-imposed insistence on trying to be original, unconscious influences aside, not giving in to imitations of any sort. It’s okay, as it were, to write ‘badly’ but it isn’t okay to write unoriginally.
I’ve also written poems and done some translation in my mother tongue, Tamil, but that’s a recent activity since only lately have I been reading Tamil literature. I was educated in Tamil medium until high school so when I wanted to learn written English, far away from home, and this was five years after I began conversing almost fluently in English in a city, I sat down every day with a King James Bible accompanied by a Tamil Bible, a dictionary and a thesaurus for over a year. It then went from Blake and Chesterton to Voltaire and His Dark Materials, then Vertigo comics, Ubik, Neuromancer, Wild Seed and so on, just to mention some, not to mention the movies and music from the West that precede my years of reading. There’s also the literature ‘proper’ that I wanted to ‘unlearn’ in order to remain non-orthodox and it took quite a lot of struggle to step out of the monomythical narrative zone. I should as well mention the severe corporal punishments that I underwent at home learning English as a second language. It’s considered vital to be proficient in English. But I would learn it only while being on my own, on my own terms, outside home because I do not come from a Anglophone family or community and in the town and at home we speak only in Tamil. On the other hand, during college years, instead of learning the subjects, I learned to speak English because Mangalore city had many LD theaters that played a Hollywood movie a day and we were frequenting them almost every day, and my college mates being non-Tamils from the neighboring states and I choosing to strictly converse with them only in English. From Mangalore (my years of watching movies) I moved to Delhi for a Masters degree (years of reading theist literature) and then to Hyderabad for work (years of atheist, transgressive literature and dissent), now I’m back in hometown (years of reading and writing in Tamil and English). Somewhere in there, during and after the atheist years, there’s also my trying-to-be-Hindu years. By the way, I was trained to be a physical therapist but ended up working in the field of medical transcription. While in Hyderabad, I got a desktop because torrents were a thing, which meant having access to vast amounts of music, movies, comics and other reading and multimedia material. That’s also where I started a blog to cut my teeth on creative writing in English. So, it’s been quite a ride. At the same time, being away from home and becoming a self-made individual meant being rootless. Some might say being rootless is transcendence but transcendence is claptrap and yet another illusory category if being rootless doesn’t immediately lead to immanent permanence, and becoming by itself cannot mean much when being is taken out of equation or always held in suspension. I’m neither a global individual nor a local individual as that’s something I can never be because those are illusory categories; I’m rather a local and global person at once who just happens to think bilingually. If English made me rootless then, now in a world where the land-grabbing, Anthropocene-causing corporations are self-appointed environmentalists, Tamil makes me rootless, too, because the oppressors are both without and within, a rather tight spot for anyone to be in, and language, be it any language, is a tool for both the oppressor and the oppressed.
It seems to me that very little in your writing is static or fixed; things are constantly moving about, changing form, inflating and deflating, perspectives shift, words unravel. Could you venture a word or two on why this might be the case?
The story “versus / and” as it is now stemmed out of a drabble that I wrote which then over time became a nano, a micro and so on, and at each juncture I thought it to be complete from one submission to next. I’d even sent out the 1,000-word version a few times as a flash after it had become 1,200 words. This story itself, thus, in the process of its being created has been, strangely enough, inflating and deflating all along.
Things can be in flux even amid all the dismay. There’s the external motion, and in the absence of external motion, there’s again the internal motion. To be in constant motion is to be alive and to thrive. Joanna Newsom sings a song like a siren, hitting upon all sorts of vocal ranges, yet the song is full of life. The story (the content) can be tragedic yet the telling (the form) can sing. Even when the body is at rest, the mind thinks, and if the mind isn’t thinking, it is dreaming. Even in the absence of dreams, beside other internal motions, the lungs breathe and the hearts beat. I’m of the opinion that not just music but art in general and writing in particular tries to imitate beating hearts and breathing motions. Then there’s the process of aging, information overload, irony as therapy, acquiring of knowledge, shifting of perspectives, seeking truths, honesty, resistance, the process of all sorts of dying and above all there’s the celebration of life. To put it in a nutshell, writing is an expression of a living self. I think I sing the body terrorized. I may be singing the body that’s shocked and awed.
Voltaire, Blake, Lewis, Chesterton, all writers deeply concerned with religion, albeit from very different perspectives. Plus the King James and Tamil Bibles, and you briefly mention your own religious trajectory. Very intriguing. Where does religion sit in your work?
We aren’t the center of the universe, and the good news is that our Gods aren’t either. I view organized religions, and especially the state-approved religions, as fictions, that is, grand narratives. Lately, I’ve realized how important it is not to parade religious ideas or symbols of a once colonized region when contesting a colonizer narrative particularly if the formerly colonized state itself is now an oppressor locally, elsewhere or both, even if that particular state is a so-called secular state, clinging to that religion. All sorts of oppressor narratives, whether they are historical or religious, deserve to be contested within and without literature. The existence of God isn’t something to be disproved or he/she isn’t someone to be searched for either. There’s too much at stake as it is. Hence, I can take no prisoners when it comes to religion. So, if religion or a religious symbol shows up in my work, it will either be in a twisted form, and if that isn’t the case, it’s likely because it’s a symbol of the oppressed with whom I must take a stance. What appears at first to be a Pushpak Vimana soon turns out to be a Fata morgana, it emerges suddenly that Jesus isn’t everyone’s savior, Indra’s net happens to be in the control of the corporate-government nexus and so on.
In other interviews for this issue both Vajra Chandrasekera and Benjanun Sriduangkaew framed their answers to my questions of language and translation and style in more overtly political terms while you have emphasized jouissance. Could you say a few words about the relation of the political to the pleasurable in your work?
Since I’ve otherwise been getting myself overly politicized lately I was trying to be implicit here about the political was all. What’s creative writing if not the unbinding of the chains and traps of the oppressors’ orthodox, avant-garde or whatever narratives. I do not have to, and no one should, borrow a perspective or buy a narrative just because the text has been merely pleasurable or, as they say, simply divine. At the same time, what’s pleasurable can be cathartic, provocative, radically political and so on. In ancient Tamil literature we have agam literature (interior or personal) and puram literature (exterior and political), both well marked and anthologized as such. Likewise, in modern Tamil literature we happen to have these two schools of thought, the personal literature and the political literature, between which only the personal literature is claimed to be literary because it supposedly takes aesthetics and in turn jouissance seriously. The political literature is by and large claimed to supposedly lack literary aesthetics. At the same time, what is considered literary is accused, though just by a few, of lacking in the political (while it may contain the personal-political, it isn’t political enough, that is, it’s trapped in the interior, helplessly navel-gazing). The texts that connect with me more are the ones that tend to blend both the interior and the exterior, not because I’ve been schooled regarding these distinctions, their merits or the lack thereof but because that’s what I perceived literature must be from the get-go, spontaneously. Thus, I guess, that sensibility of blending the personal and the political bleeds into my writing naturally, not having to choose one sensibility over the other or lean toward what’s considered as literary or high art. Provided it isn’t just about dying, death or mere dystopian doomsaying, what is political can be radically pleasurable.