Writing, war, and Terrorist-ish: An interview with writer Shymala Dason

I’m going to be completely honest and say that I rarely read literary magazines. I have a hard time getting invested in short stories – in my experience, they’re either spectacular or…meh.

Shymala Dason’s “Terrorist-ish” definitely falls into the former category. Dason is an Indian-Malaysian American NASA consultant turned writer (we got one! woop!) and editor. “Terrorist-ish,” which was published by the Asian American Writer’s Workshop in 2015, is familiar in the sense that it covers those scary places where people of color are scrutinized, dug up and around and under. But it’s also completely different from anything I’ve ever read before – how many books have you read that have an Indian-Malaysian college dropout and accidental porn star as their main character.

Exactly.

I talked to Dason about how she found her way to writing, and what familiar-but-different stories she’s planning for the future:

1. You come from a heavily scientific background, and even worked for NASA! How did you make the transition into writing?

Courtesy of Shymala Dason

I’ve written for as long as I can remember, poetry, journal or memoir. The first more or less proper (though dreadfully bad) poem was when I was about eight. I began to play with fictionalizing with adolescent angst stuff in secondary school, and writing remained my sanity mechanism through math grad school and NASA. But always on the side. Then my father died, and I thought about all the dreams he had died without fulfilling. He was a young man during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya, and instead of going off to medical school he became an ambulance driver, and an Air Raid Warden, serving his family and community. Whereas all I was serving was my 401K, which isn’t all that noble. So I switched my focus. But I’m still not ‘transitioned’ in the sense that I’m not making my living from writing.

 

2. How does your scientific experience influence your writing, whether it’s subject matter or style?

There are two elements I think come from science. One is trying for a fuller picture rather than writing from my own particular perspective and idea. The other is in the method of writing, which is rather like putting together bits of code from a library to make a new program, or working in separate layers in PhotoShop and then merging them.

I always have random bits of text floating around – little bits of dialogue, descriptions of place or atmosphere or character, story sketches… And I put these together and shuffle them around until patterns emerge. That final process, though, is more poetry than science.

3. You’re a manuscript editor as well. How did you get into that, and how does it impact your own writing process?

I’ve been fortunate to have the bestselling historical novelist Beverly Swerling as a mentor for some years. Beverly is the literary half of Agent Research & Evaluation, and she also does critiques for selected clients. A few years into our relationship, I was able to make a useful suggestion for one of her books, “Bristol House” (I am mentioned in the acknowledgements!), and some time after that she got a request to critique a science fiction novel. She’s one of many literary people who don’t work with science fiction, but she remembered my science background and that my first couple of short story sales were to Marion Zimmer Bradley, so she referred that client to me. And then he referred another. It’s both exhilarating and frightening to put one’s hands into another person’s work. I’ve received good editorial advice, myself, and bad advice, so I’m very conscious of the responsibility to do it right. I don’t think editing impacts my own writing process. It’s more my writing process impacts the way I edit.

4. Your short story, “Terrorist-ish,” is about an undocumented immigrant with big dreams and a head for songs. What inspired the story?

I was running errands, driving in Columbia, MD one day not to long after 9/11, with the car radio on. First there was the news, which was full of arrests and alarms – wholesale detention of Arab students, and so on – and then when I surfed away from that I hit a Bollywood-Bhangra station which was reporting on the same news, but instead of NPR it was, “Yo, Badmash, be careful out there, yaar! They are simply rounding up people…” It was Hinglish, it was vulnerable, it was incredibly brave despite being afraid, upbeat in a Bhangra-rap sort of way, and the first sentences of “Terrorist-ish” popped into my head. The rhythm of that voice was irresistible. I pulled over in a DSW parking lot and jotted down the opening lines. I had to stretch pretty far back in memory to my high-school days to find people who spoke the way this character speaks to get the rest of the story, but if I’d used a normal voice, the story would just have been depressing.

The [main] character, like me, is Indian diaspora by way of Malaysia, from a community of people who’ve been in Malaysia for several generations. I’m Christian, I wrote the character as specifically Catholic (rather than Anglican/Episcopalian, as I am) so I could be more colorful in the Christian references, and not just joke about Mothers’ Unions but also about confession and penance and so on. All tongue-in-cheek, broad humor to balance the horror of an ordinary guy needing to worry that someone will decide he’s a terrorist.

5. Why did you choose the title “Terrorist-ish”?

It’s a spectacular title, isn’t it? I can say that without being immodest because I had several truly horrible ideas for the title – “Boy-type Illegal with Dark-Dark Skin” was one, so you can see titles are not my strong point – and Anelise Chen, who accepted the story for publication in “The Margins” (and was a spectacular editor), suggested this title, which was perfect since the story is about the post-9/11 paranoia where, suddenly, all Brown people, particular young Brown men, were suspected of being terrorists.

6. You have two upcoming novels, one on the Malaysian global diaspora and one about the Japanese occupation of Malaysia during World War II. What are the inspirations for these novels, and what issues will they touch on?

It all comes somehow from the Malaysian community. Probably half of the people I grew up with are now scattered around the world. So that’s the inspiration for the global diaspora story, as well as my short story collection. What drives the expats, what it’s like being strangers in a strange land and having no ground under your feet at all except the ground you create, and even then – as the present times are making clear – we are only welcome on sufferance that may change at any moment. And then there’s the strain in family bonds, the chasms between people who once ate out of the same dish and now, values shifting with time and movement and location, we look at each other, stay-at-homes at expats and vice versa, or from one generation to another, and everything is simultaneously as familiar as one’s own face, and yet totally strange.

The Japanese invasion of Kuala Lampur, 1942

As for the WWII novel, I wanted to tell the story of Malayans in WWII Malaya. Not British, not Japanese, but the local people. It’s their story. My father’s story, the story of that entire generation. One out of 25 Malayans died of the war. That’s a lot of dead. And for the rest, from 101 recipes for tapioca and water spinach so they didn’t starve, to a resistance as heroic as anything in France and against an Occupying force that decorated the streets with decapitated heads to maintain ‘discipline’, it seemed a story worth celebrating. I want to tell the survivors’ tale before time washes it away.

6. What do you hope to achieve with your writing?

I’ve never thought, “This is what I want to achieve.” It’s always, “These are the stories I have to tell, how do I tell them?”

I suppose all my writing is about disagreement and reconciliation, or hardship and reconciliation, even if it is reconciliation as the wartime generation had to do it, reconciling themselves to irreversible loss. I would like my work to contribute somewhat to reconciliation – between peoples, between generations, between expats and stay-at-homes.

Connected with that is the impulse that is making me write the WWII book. True reconciliation means nobody gets written out of the story. So, telling forgotten or overlooked stories is important to me.

You can find out more about Shymala Dason at her website, and read “Terrorist-ish” here.

“Uncanny Magazine” staff talk representation and “Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction”

A few weeks ago I came across a Kickstarter campaign called Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction. It was all over my Twitter feed because it was around this time that the American House of Representatives was trying once again to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and this time they came dangerously close to managing it.

It seemed like the campaign had dropped out of the sky to send me a message: science fiction is finally doing something about representation! Also: check this thing out.

Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction is part of the Destroy series (previous: Women Destroy and People of Colo(u)r Destroy, among others) by “Uncanny Magazine,” an online science fiction and fantasy magazine that publishes fiction, nonfiction, and some killer artwork.

Issue 17 cover art, courtesy Lynne M. Thomas

I reached out to the editors of “Uncanny,” Lynne M. Thomas and husband Michael Damian Thomas, who along with Managing Editor Michi Trota and Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction Guest Editors-in-Chief Dominik Parisien and Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, discussed the upcoming issue and its place in the current sci-fi scene:

1. What have you noticed with representation in sci-fi over the years? A lot of people would argue that sci-fi has a representation problem – what’s your take?

Michi: If you’d asked me several years ago, I’d have said that there wasn’t much representation beyond primarily white people, particularly white men, writing SF/F. But I think that’s because I didn’t know where to look, as well as the fact that SF/F writers, editors, artists, and other creators who aren’t able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual white men are just not made very visible by the industry. Because the truth is that marginalized creators have been a part of the genre since the beginning, and there are so many creating amazing stories and art. But we’re continually pushed to the side and erased so that it seems like it must be “a new thing” whenever waves of visibility for us come back around. Which can be really discouraging for marginalized creators who want to be part of SF/F;  – it’s hard to imagine yourself as part of something if you don’t see people like you included from the get-go. It’s a long-standing problem because there’s still the entrenched idea that women, POC, queer people, disabled people, etc., aren’t “appealing” to a general audience, as if, say, white able-bodied characters will appeal to everyone, but stories featuring disabled POC are “niche” and therefore not worth the marketing effort.

I think what we’re seeing reflected in projects like Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction, and the previous Destroy projects, is a push for those with power and influence in the industry to be more aware in their choices of work and creators to publish. There’s more of a desire to actively combat biases and normalized systems of discrimination instead of just waiting for these problems to fix themselves, or relying on marginalized people to do all the work of addressing our own oppression. And the more visible marginalized creators are in all aspects of SF/F— – as characters, writers, artists, editors— – the more it encourages other marginalized people to imagine the possibility that there’s also room for us to be an active, welcome part of the genre.

2. The Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction issue is coming at a time when the Affordable Care Act is on the brink of repeal. Was this part of the impetus to develop this issue?

Elsa: No, but it’s certainly a driving force behind how I look at the issue. As a disabled person, and certainly as an editor, right now my perspective is shaped by what’s happening to disabled Americans, and this legislation and repeal are a huge part of that. But it’s also about the legislation that already exists: The ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] turned 27 this July, and yet there’ve been no improvements to the law in that time, nor have there been better laws put in place. Civil rights for disabled people are a long ways from equal, and that shapes how I look at disability representation as a whole, too.

When we’re not equal in real life, in our governance as citizens, it’s hard to envision futures where we’re equal. I hope this issue challenges that, and creates better futures for us.

3. How would you describe the representation of disabled people in the sci-fi and fantasy genres generally?

Elsa: Well, there’s not as much representation as I’d like. And by that I mean, there isn’t enough variety. There was a hashtag by Netflix recently: #FirstTimeISawMe, and I saw a lot of disabled people posting that they’ve never seen themselves in literature or film. Myself included. I’m partially deaf-blind. I’ve certainly never seen myself in science fiction, though occasionally I’ve seen pieces or parts of my experience.

Often, disability is erased, especially in settings in the future where medical science could theoretically cure all disabilities and illnesses. Same goes for fantasy settings where magic can do the same. The good representations are few and far between. Of course there’s the beloved Miles Vorkosigan series [“Vorkosigan Saga”], and there’s Inquisitor Glokta [“The Blade Itself”]. But it’s not enough, and there’s very few film representations that involve disabled actors (count: None as far as I know.)

Cover art for “Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction”. Courtesy Lynne M. Thomas

4. What are you hoping to achieve with this special issue? Is there any particular goal or conversation you’re trying to induce?

Dominik: For my part, I want to give disabled writers an opportunity to tell their stories. It can be difficult to want to write about a character like yourself if you’ve never encountered one in media. It’s easy to internalize the conception that you don’t belong, that people don’t want to read about others like you. I want to help disabled authors who might be reluctant to write themselves or people like them into their stories to have the confidence to do so, not just for this special issue but in general. Something like Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction is important, but it’s an opportunity and not a solution. You can’t have these stories appear only in this environment, otherwise their value becomes limited, sanctioned in a way. I want editors, writers, and readers to see people’s enthusiasm for the project and demand to see more material like it elsewhere.

And for able-bodied writers who want to write disabled characters into their books, I want them to read the material — the fiction and poetry, but especially the nonfiction and personal essays — and to consider how they’re writing those characters, and why. Are they actually writing a character, a person, or just a trope or a plot device? Are they perpetuating harmful representation? These are important things to consider, especially because it’s too easy to dismiss criticism later by hiding behind good intentions of “‘ just wanting to include those characters.”’ Stories have an impact, and our nonfiction in particular is a powerful way of showcasing that.

Elsa:  Dominik hits the nail on the head here: having disabled authors tell their stories is the most important part of this issue, and that includes nonfiction. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to share a wide variety of experiences from disabled authors, about genre, about their writing processes, about themselves.

5. Let’s talk about the “Destroy” series more generally. What was the goal of the series originally? Has that transformed over the years?

Michael: When “Lightspeed Magazine” started the series with Women Destroy Science Fiction, they began their mission statement with: “Women aren’t writing ‘real’ science fiction, the fallacy goes. ‘Real’ science fiction is… . . . whatever science fiction certain men like. Some days this makes us sad. Some days it makes us angry. And some days it just seems hilarious… . . .and a quip on Twitter turns into a special issue of LIGHTSPEED in the space of roughly half an hour.”

This was expanded for their Queers Destroy Science Fiction and People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction special issues. The goal for the series is to challenge the idea that science fiction literature’s default is cis, heterosexual, able-bodied, white, American male creators and characters who shared those creators’ points of view. These special issues quite successfully countered that these stories should be privileged over everybody else’s.

Editors of “Uncanny Magazine.” From left to right: Michael, Michi, and Lynne. Courtesy Lynne M. Thomas

The Destroy series has transformed over time by finding many different marginalized voices from a variety of backgrounds with each subsequent special issue. The series has also more and more embraced intersectionality and understood that there is an axes of oppression and discrimination.

Of course, the biggest transformation has been passing the series to “Uncanny Magazine”. Since “Uncanny” already shared these values with the series, it was really a perfect fit for us.

6. What’s next for “Uncanny Magazine”?

Michael: Year Four for “Uncanny Magazine” promises to be extremely exciting. Thanks to the amazing response to the Kickstarter, we know we will be doing both the Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction issue and a shared-world dinosaur issue along with our four regular issues. The Hugo Awards are in a week (“Uncanny Magazine,” the Thomases for editing, and “Uncanny” stories by Alyssa Wong and Brooke Bolander are all finalists) and the the World Fantasy Awards are in early November (the Thomases and Bolander’s story are also finalists for that award). We will also have a new poetry and reprint editor (Mimi Mondal) and interviewer (Shana DuBois) for Year Four.

We are so grateful for all of the community support of the magazine. We think we are doing something important, and it’s only possible thanks to our contributors, staff, and readers.

Science fiction digs deep in Haris Durrani’s “Technologies of the Self”

I have a complex relationship with science fiction. On the one hand, few genres are as exciting or have as much potential; on the other hand, the tendency for novels to devolve into “let me explain my theories on particle physics in excruciating detail” is, in my experience, high. So when Haris Durrani told me about his debut novel, “Technologies of the Self,” I was intrigued. When I read the blurb, I was relieved.

Courtesy Haris Durani

Durrani’s novel is really an exploration of law and the state via the medium of time-travel and other futuristic weirdness. It’s already won an award – the Driftless Novella Prize – and (interview spoilers!) may just be the first in a series. Durrani gave me the scoop on how this all came about.

 

You’re an engineer. How did you get into writing?

I cannot remember a time when I was not a writer. My interest in science and robotics arrived hand-in-hand with stories I read about them, and I was immediately drawn to producing those kinds of stories myself. I fell in love with writing after my cousin gave me “I, Robot” and “Ender’s Game” in fifth grade, and the rest is history.

I’m now in law school, a path I probably would not have foreseen as a young reader and LEGO tinkerer. But in retrospect it is a natural progression, since my interest in technology and its stories has always revolved around social and political issues, to which law is fundamental. I like to think my obsession with Isaac Asimov’s “Laws of Robotics” had a lot to do with it too.

Is there an intersection between engineering (or technology) and writing? How is that reflected in “Technologies of the Self”?

Writing is itself a technology…I often think of a provocative passage from “Phaedrus,” in which Socrates tells Plato of the myth of the Egyptian god of writing, Theuth…There are interesting stories about Islamic scholars’ reticence to write down the Qur’an and of scholars who did wudu’u [Islamic ritual ablution] before writing down Hadith, because they viewed the written word as an inferior form of communication. All of this goes to say, the written word is a technology, a result of or catalyst for change. I tend to be a Luddite about these things, but I reluctantly succumb to the necessity of putting words to paper.

“Technologies of the Self” cover, courtesy Haris Durani

Law is also technological. This is at the heart of “Technologies.” The title is a reference to a line from Wael Hallaq’s “The Impossible State,” in which…[he] compares Foucault’s concept of “technologies of the self” – the social and legal mechanisms that regulate the inner self as a means of maintaining order in the modern state, from schools to hospitals to prisons – to Al-Ghazali’s “techniques” – the practice of Islam, from dhikr to prayer to other socio-legal obligations. The story in “Technologies” is an attempt to grapple with the tension between these two kinds of technologies: the external regulation of the self by the state and the internal regulation by practices of faith.

Also, engineering, writing, and law all require creative processes. They operate from and produce innovation and new ways of thinking about the world.

The protagonist of “Technologies of the Self” is an engineer with the same background as yourself. To what extent would you say the character is a self-insert or a way of exploring your own identity?

Yes, the narrator, like me, has a Dominican mother and a Pakistani father and is also a Muslim. But this story is a fictionalization of the experiences of myself and my friends and family. I’m wary of calling it a memoir or a self-insert as much as I am of calling it fiction. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the story is about the nature of reality, as much as it may be an attempt to capture it. Junot Díaz once said in an interview that his recurring narrator, Yunior, is not the same person that he is but is “drawn from the same cloth” (I’m paraphrasing), and I feel similarly about my relationship with the narrator of “Technologies.”

Still, it is true that “Technologies” is a way of exploring my identities as well as the lives of my family and friends. In part, I wrote the book because I had never encountered their experiences on any screen, page, or stage. On the other hand, everything I write is an exploration of my identity, regardless of whether I’m conscious of the fact, because I am the writer; who I am inherently shapes the narratives and assumptions that underlie my characters and stories.

You write a lot about science fiction. How do you think the genre can best encapsulate issues of identity for PoC?

I’ve never set out to write so much about the genre but, somehow, that’s what’s transpired…Although science fiction, as much as mainstream literature, has problems with representation, the genre as a whole has mostly fallen outside the mainstream, rejected or neglected by the literary elite. Growing up amidst Western-centric curricula and as one of the few Muslims and students of color in class, this quality attracted me. The average science fiction novel often felt more attuned to social and political issues than the average literary novel. The genre gave birth to authors with radical ideas about race, colonialism, politics, and technology, like Octavia Butler, Frank Herbert, and Kurt Vonnegut.

I think there is sometimes a concern from PoC readers and writers that science fiction is escapist, that it deviates from “real problems in the world” and retreats into “allegory.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. The genre has the remarkable ability to reveal what is most true – and perhaps most horrifying – about our society and to force readers to confront these truths, no matter how brutal, unnerving, or uncomfortable.

What’s your take on the rising trend of novels around Muslim identity? Is that something that comes naturally because the 9/11 generation is now at adulthood, or is there something else going on?

Your observation about the 9/11 generation is probably true. I think there is also an increasing thirst within the literary community for these narratives. I’m not always sure that this is a good thing. While there are several great novels about the Muslim identity, most of the successful ones hardly ever relate the experiences of practicing Muslims. There are either “secular Muslims” (Muslim in name and perhaps in belief, but not practicing Al-Ghazali’s “techniques”) that appeal to the liberal idea of what a “moderate Muslim” ought to be, or irrational, militant fundamentalists, which also appeal to the liberal notion of what “religious” ought to be. There is nothing inherently wrong with either of those kinds of characters, because they do exist in the world, but…I am hard pressed to think of more than a few widely-known, popular novels that truly dive into the experiences of a practicing Muslim. This is the group that suffers the brunt of Islamophobia today.

Rather than critique from the sidelines, producing my own work is the best response. I also co-founded The Muslim Protagonist, an annual literary symposium at Columbia University that seeks to give a platform, mic, and audience for Muslim and allied writers. The symposium is now entering its sixth year.

What’s next for you?

I just came out with a novelette, “Champollion’s Foot,” in Mithila Review. It’s about a crew of failed rebels, from a colonized planet of Dominican Muslims, who discover alien detritus in deep space – with jinn. I have a short piece on space law and global economic inequality forthcoming from the exciting new journal Poet’s Country. And I’m Guest Editor for the upcoming Special Space Opera Issue of The Fantasist, an important new journal for long-form fantasy, broadly defined.

And, “Technologies” is only one chapter in a much longer saga…

You can purchase “Technologies of the Self” from Amazon.

This interview has been edited for length.