Big Echo

Critical SF

Interview with Vajra Chandrasekera

Read “Ruin’s Cure”

So. Time. How do you think about time? Or rather, how do you find yourself writing about it? I’m particularly interested in its political or ideological valence in speculative fiction. Any thoughts?

The science fictional idea of time travel, at least in its most common forms, presupposes homogenous, empty time as a navigable landscape in which events occur, and in which one can move around and construct elaborate set pieces of paradox out of Heinleinian bootstraps. The device distinguishes firmly between time and history: the former is a landscape, objective and real, and the latter is a record, subjective and fallible, and the gaps between the two generate space for drama.

I find it more interesting, and more useful, to think of time as a fiction rather than a place. The past is imaginary, continually being produced in the now; always being composed and edited. The past-as-fiction has authors and is therefore always multiple—not in the sense of alternate realities separated by a veil (where the deviations from our norm might be helpfully marked by Orientalist tropes like Evil Beards) but as overlapping, competing arguments shouting over each other. Pasts and futures as a host of contradictory assertions of injury and claims for recompense. If time doesn’t exist except as history, then we exist simultaneously in every timeline, with a multitude of ghostly, mutually contradictory causal chains dragging behind us.

The story of the battle between the cruel young prince and the wise old king is traditionally dated to 161 BCE. It has assumed so much prominence in contemporary Lankan discourse because of particular curatorial/propagandistic decisions made in the fifth and twentieth centuries. It’s funny: you might think of history as a record that gradually fades into murk and fable as one moves backward, but my favourite thing about the fabulism of the saint-king who cuts off his own head is that this story is centuries closer to us than the hyperrealist foundational myth of the cruel young prince and his house, thus placing it firmly in historical time. Score one for the Long-Ears!

If time is a fiction, then history is a machine for projecting contemporary selfhoods into the past and causing paradoxes and changes in the timeline. In “Ruin’s Cure,” I make that more literal: the historian’s role isn’t to document history but to discipline it. To require it to conform. In my review of Aliya Whiteley’s “The Arrival of Missives,” I talked about the difference between the preservative time travel narrative (the comfortable present attempting to preserve the horrific past so as to preserve its own causal chain) and the preventative one (the horrific future attempting to change the comfortable present to prevent its causal chain.) “Ruin’s Cure” is also an attempt to do both: I allow the historian to move from preservation to prevention, because that movement—that moment of treachery—is so interesting to me.

Language. Writing in English. How would a story like “Ruin’s Cure” be different in your mother tongue? You always play with language, so it seems to me, and as usual you are having quite a bit of fun here. The caste/nation exchanges were especially funny and had me thinking about 19th century Orientalists trying to make sense of South Asia through ancient texts, but the difference here is that both the prince and the historian are aware of their mutual incomprehensibility. It is like a third dialect is emerging from their conversations. Anyway, any thoughts on translation? And especially translation in SF?

Translation, in the context of books and stories, is familiar as as a distinct and separate act performed on a finished text, regulated by language-specific publication rights. This is a useful concept when we’re talking about systemic attempts to bridge literatures across languages. Speculative fiction is starting to work with this in a more systematic way, which is wonderful—I’ve had the pleasure of editing issues of Strange Horizons featuring speculative fiction translated from Spanish and Arabic, as well as having been around for the very exciting launch of our sister magazine Samovar, focused specifically on speculative short fiction in translation. (Rachel Cordasco’s excellent SF in Translation site is an invaluable hub for further information on both longform and shortform translated work.)

But apart from this bigger and more organized sense of translation, I wonder sometimes: what does it even mean to be multilingual and composing a sentence? I think of this as a kind of translation too, just in a different and more informal magisterium, perhaps. I’ve written about the motherness of tongues before: when I say I write in English, this is also a little more complicated than it sounds. When you speak several languages, they inevitably infect each other, first on the tongue and then on the page. Languages mix in public, too, when millions of multilingual people occupy space together.

When I say “several languages,” I mean that I speak Sinhala and English (and some French, though that’s neither here nor there) but also that Sri Lankan English is distinct from American/British English, and for that matter that Sinhala is diglossic, having high and low registers with different grammatical rules, and so on. So even among “two” languages there are at least four distinct forms which might have something to contribute to grammar or vocabulary during the composition of a sentence.

So, inevitably, some sentences (especially dialogue, I find) must be translated as they are written, having been originally composed in something else. This is an “originally” that exists in the gap between mind and hand, sure, but brief and often mysterious as that gap is, this is still an act of translation.

This feels necessary partly because I’m conscious of writing for a readership that mostly does not share this language context. But even before I was even writing for a heavily-Western readership, I’ve always done it as a matter of course, because it’s a class marker and a social weapon. As I mentioned in that essay linked above, the sword is the Sinhala phrase for the ability to speak English. Where swordplay was concerned, we weren’t taught to respect our Englishes equally. What I was taught—and what multilingual people here and everywhere have been taught for generations—is that there is the good English, to which we must aspire and whose mastery opens up the world, and there is the bad, broken English, which is risible at best.

This idea persists (both at large and in my head) despite attempts to legitimize World Englishes, because the gulf between the sharp sword and the broken sword comes from power dynamics rooted generations-deep in class and empire. When I find myself holding the broken sword, I still translate myself out of it—most of the time. One of the reasons I love Kuzhali Manickavel’s prose so much is that she taught me I didn’t have to. 

The historian in “Ruin’s Cure” is speaking the temporally-local Sinhala for the most part (which would be mostly unintelligible to a modern speaker), but can’t help using words from the future (in both Sinhala and English) to talk about things that haven’t been invented yet, like clocks and nations. On the other hand, some things must translate anyway. A slogan of the late twencen Lankan nationalist movement is රට, ජාතිය, අාගම, and every one of those words is complicated to translate because they have meant some very different things across history. Rata is now usually translated as country, but it used to mean something more like kingdom or realm, because territory was bounded by allegiances rather than geographical demarcations. Jathiya is usually given as nation or perhaps race depending on context, but before nationhood and race were invented, it meant a social category and community you were born into, probably linked to some particular occupation, role, or function, at least sometimes with violently policed boundaries—how exactly all this translates to caste in the modern sense is itself complicated further by the intervening imperialist gaze, which had a great deal of interest in the rigid stratification of society. And agama is now generally faith, the belief in and practice of religion, where it once referred specifically to traditions of transmission of canonical texts. The slogan is a catalogue of, as it were, coordinate systems for putting humans into hierarchical, bordered groups: at least in this sense, these words haven’t really changed at all. The cruel young prince would have understood it very well. The wise old king too, for that matter.

Is it fair to say this story is in some ways about how the West has colonized even the Sri Lankan past via the agency of Sri Lankan intellectuals? Is the historian’s act a revolutionary act?

Much of Lankan nationalist thought is structurally or symptomatically Western despite its self-image to the contrary. This includes both direct and indirect consequences of Western occupations. For example, British sodomy laws, long since repealed in the metropole, still uphold institutionalized homophobia in the former occupied territories. In much the same way, contemporary Buddhism is something that was effectively (re)invented in the late 19th century as an already proto-fascist anticolonial movement, because it relied heavily on a base of British racecraft to construct identity—I’m borrowing Barbara and Karen Fields’ very helpful word here to describe the way that the Lankan triad of Sinhala/Tamil/Muslim identities were reified, legitimized, and reinforced by the British imperial government during the same period, through everything from census categories to quotas for political representation. These are conversations that have not yet been had here, or at least not loudly enough to be heard. It’s been commonplace for over a century now, this talking about the Sinhala jathiya and meaning something other than just language-speakers, something racial, something in the blood. There is nothing in the blood, of course, but people keep pouring it out anyway, as if to make sure.

As for the historian’s act, I called it treachery earlier; I do read it as more treasonous than revolutionary. I find the idea of traitorousness more interesting and closer to hand, as it were, since we’re all living deep in the neoliberal ascendancy. The traitor is the unreliable cog, the biter of the hand that feeds. The historian acts on his own, at the last moment, after having spent his whole life working on the other side. He has no movement and no programme. So it’s hard to see him as a revolutionary figure. But he is a traitor, at least, which seems like the least he could do. He throws his body on the gears and the wheels of the machine that he himself had upheld and enforced until that very moment. He is also probably a failure, since this is a time travel story, and any denouement can be edited away.