From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Author Spotlight: Shweta Narayan

Your story appears to be a retelling of an old story. There is a line that goes something like: there are no new stories; it’s all in the telling. I love retellings, because they give me another perspective into a story that seemed set in stone, and remind me there are many ways to view a story. What appeals to you about retellings and how did it influence this particular story?

Retellings appeal to me for the same reason multi-threaded stories appeal; I don’t know what it’s like to have only one perspective on anything. I have lived between cultures all my life, and I’m not entirely part of any one. I’m always super-aware of which part of my world is accessible to the people I’m with; even my accent shifts, mid-sentence, depending on who I’m addressing.

So perspective—who’s telling a story, to whom, and for what purpose—is always a central issue for me, and when I play multiple narratives off one another, either within one story or (by retelling a known tale) between stories, I’m writing how I see the world.

In this story I’m playing fast and loose with real history, and with the mythologized history I grew up with. Perspective is just as central to history as to fiction—who decides what’s real, what matters, and what it means? And which versions of history do we repeat to one another? It’s almost never this one: bit.ly/women-in-love—and I wanted to change that a bit.

What does it mean to you to destroy fantasy? What do you think still needs destroying in fantasy?

To me it means destroying the defaults, the assumptions, the worn-out tropes, that limit our ideas about fantasy. If it’s way less strange and complex and wondrous than reality, then it’s not for me.

The most insidious default I think we need to destroy is gaze. Even when the subject matter is nominally diverse, the implied gaze is still so often white, straight, cis, male, able-bodied, neurotypical, middle-class, and anglophone. It’s a constant, jarring Othering that shows up everywhere—even in stories meant to be for people like me. And even in my own stories! We learn to write to that gaze, to make our characters and events “relatable” (to whom?) even when our settings are “exotic”(to whom?).

I’m still working to unlearn that. If I were writing this story today, I would at least call the first nested setting a “women’s quarters” instead of a “harem.” And I’d leave off italicizing words that were perfectly normal to the person using them.

How does your queer identity and experience inform your storytelling?

I’m bisexual and genderfluid/agender, and ID as queer. But I actually didn’t at the time I wrote this story. I’d been pushed into worrying that I “wasn’t bi enough to count,” and I didn’t know that being nonbinary was even a thing. I thought I just sucked at being a woman. Now that I’m less confused, my identity is more overtly present in my stories.

I recently finished a story with a genderfluid protagonist; it’s currently in the dread land of Submissions. But even before I figured stuff out, I was still being affected by heteronormative and cisnormative microaggressions, still feeling like I didn’t belong, wasn’t safe, needed to work to fit in (pass). I’m pretty sure that sense of alienation has always influenced my writing, overtly queer or not, just as my cultural otherness is in everything, even when I write white characters.

And Madeleine is totally inspired by women I’ve had crushes on.

What was the hardest thing about writing this story?

Making it understandable! Four levels of nesting in a novelette, in an unfamiliar setting, is asking a lot of my readers. To make it worse, I started out entirely unwilling to add dates, because Christian-centric dates would undermine Jahanara’s perspective. But of course, with nothing to anchor readers in which story was happening when, I ended up with a confusing mess.

The wonderful Delia Sherman got me to realize that I could add dates in in two formats, with the Hijri calendar (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_calendar) first to prioritize Jahanara’s point of view, then the Gregorian calendar to give the western reader a bit of help. Delia always gets my stories to work better.

What surprised you in the writing of this story?

Several of the characters. Himangi especially! Her plot relevance is just the reveal that Jahanara loves women, but once we got to her part of the story she just . . . cheerfully took over my brain.

Was there anything you wanted to say in this story that didn’t fit?

If there was, I don’t remember. I wrote this five years ago, and it’s one of six I’ve written in this setting so far, and I have three more thought out and air dreams of a fourth. So what doesn’t go in one story becomes the seed for another.

I’m also never really sure what my stories are saying exactly (and to whom). The characters all have strong opinions, but who do we believe?

What advice do you have for other queer folks wanting to write in genre?

You are enough. Your perspective matters. Your writing matters.

Not every crit/support group will work for you, and that’s not your fault; it happens to every marginalized person, and the more axes you’re marginalized on the more it will happen. The best crit groups or partners believe in us, encourage us, and refuse to accept less than our best.

Nobody’s opinion is objective. If advice seems dead wrong, even from an Important Writer or Editor, it probably is wrong for you. It may be useful, though, to think about why it seems right from their perspective. You will encounter people who ask you why your characters “need” to be [marginalization]. Run away. If they need an explanation for why we need to exist, they’re just going to drain the energy you could be putting into your writing. Which matters.

Is there anything you wish I had asked you but I didn’t?

Something about Jahanara! I have so much to say about her. So I’m going to just tell you some things.

  • The historical Jahanara really did nearly die in a fire; the perfumes in her hair were set alight. In my world she actually dies (sorry, princess) and her father in his grief commissions a mechanical replacement.
  • The historical Jahanara was a poet, and I deemed that my mechanical one is too. She’d write in Urdu, but I’ve written “the English translation” of a poem of hers (available here: bit.ly/narayan-poem). Amal El-Mohtar’s father translated it into Arabic for me (!) and I wrote it into this alternate-Mughal-style drawing of her: bit.ly/alternate-Mughal-style.
  • My Jahanara’s not a reliable narrator. I’m not sure I even believe in reliable narrators. If they’re talking, they want to convince you of something.

I knew even when I was writing the story that she was taking every opportunity to undermine the ambassador’s assumptions/certainty, because she was trying to challenge his homophobia, and that some of what she said wasn’t strictly accurate. I realized much later that her phrasing is rather cisnormative at times, which doesn’t fit my sense of the character. Mechanicals experience gender differently from humans, and Jahanara’s not cis. However, I decided to leave that as it was in this story, because it is how she’d speak to cis humans unless she had a compelling reason not to.

I have a novel outlined about her; it’s not entirely consistent with this story, and I’m putting all differences down to her exercising poetic license.