speculative prose

An Interview with Rekha Valliappan

We’re celebrating the launch of Issue 18 by talking about all sorts of “magics” (bold or subtle) with our authors, and what inspired their stories.

467px-Phalacrocorax_nigrogularisLackington’s: There is a great deal of bird imagery in “Collar for Captain Cormorant,” and not just cormorants. Among others, there are references to petrels, albatrosses, ducks, starlings… What attracted you to this recurring theme? Out of all these birds, why did you choose cormorants as the central image?

RV: Yes! Unashamedly, I so love birds, big, small or multi-shaded. While the idea may have germinated innocuously enough from the many passerine species, ducks, swan and geese that I see almost daily, it was a combination of several, mostly those in books I’d read long ago, that strongly contributed to the growth of my central character imagery.

There was the awestruck fascination with Tolkien’s eagle king guardian of animal life, as much as Hopkins’ windhover straddling the heavens in ecstatic flight. Equally demanding was Jonathan Livingston the stubborn seagull, unwilling to conform, charting his own route. The list is not exhaustive. I believe real Venetian pigeons I had the opportunity to feed at Basilica di San Marco, and a big brown kite that found me, then a child–one afternoon swooping out of a blue Bombay sky–and even Stevenson’s Captain Flint, played a contributory part.

Birds combine for me that mix of mysticism and spirituality in rare combination to render them a mystery. They symbolize freedom because they can fly. They can also be constrained. They are admired for their beauty and plumage. They can also be much maligned. Imagining the life of a crow or raven, Hardy’s darkling thrush or Tartt’s goldfinch tied to a post, or even Coleridge’s dead albatross was not beyond my attempt to weave. In framing my tale I sought a bird of mixed reputation, vulnerable yet pre-destined, an anthropomorphic bird somewhat like the divine Garuda of Indian mythology, with giant wings, who has a proclivity for shape-shifting in his wanderings between worlds.

Cormorants I believe inhabit a kind of Orwellian universe, contradictory as much as it is complementary, un-birding the bird, simply because they are reviled for eating up the fish in waterways. And yet these web-footed big black water-fowls are as ancient as time itself. In the interests of being reflective, and coming closest to my bird of choice, a symphony to the misunderstood cormorant picked up, reconciling the dialectics.

Lackington’s: Another theme in the story is bridges. In this world, they are described as “portals.” Were you thinking of any particular real-world or fictional bridges as you made this connection and made it somewhat more “magical”?

Baudelaire’s albatross “magicked” me to mystical gateways, as much as Plath’s black rook filled me with delicious dread. The lesson to be learnt was that animals and birds also disappeared into “portals” to a place, the same as anyone else. They crossed a bridge, streaking into nowhere, taking them void-ward. The bridge they crossed may have been fictional, mysterious or extant. It was still a bridge, inherently similar to the real architectural and engineering old stone beauties, blending mythical landscapes with the bygone era of elves and fairies. They ascended vertically through space. They stood forever. They were teeming with Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” legendary trolls and fairy folk. Stone to me represented the finality of strength, the entrance to the fantasy world, and the endurance of love.

It has been variously said that a writer oftentimes writes from a position of technique and philosophy. The logical structure of my writing process had me reinforcing the idea of a “magical crossing” of sorts, which was inevitable, created to scale for my wanderer birdman-Captain, travelling outwards, to complete his quest. I wanted to tell a heartwarming story of true love, of a cormorant transformed at the crossing of a small stone span, where the elves troll. Bridges are demanding that way, in the way they strike magical bargains, as my cormorant’s story reveals. So yes, the real and fictional bridges are both magical for me. Those old stone structures that once upon a time were found in woods of folklore and fantasy and fairytales, do exist…but may not be found today.

Lackington’s: Captain Cormorant views himself as something like the hero of a fairy tale, though no specific fairy tales are mentioned. What do you think Captain Cormorant’s fairy tale would be about, and how would it end?

Storytelling is a writer’s greatest duty. The capacity to entertain, educate and ennoble has been one of the main tenets of literature. I can’t imagine a childhood without a prescription of a heavy dose of fairy tales and fables. The ancient orphic tradition of oral storytelling spontaneously shared, as myths were back in the good old days, inevitably had a broken-hearted poet or lover, the wanderer-hero to other worlds, and also beyond death to the world of gods and ghosts.

I think my birdman Captain Cormorant crosses multiple worlds to re-enter the human gateway. Propelled by his own destiny he must find true love. There are obstacles to cross and a long journey to secure, single-handedly. He is fleeing the terror of the sorcerer and the Prince of the old order of darkness, a Goethesque Erl King-like creature like the one from the spooky German ballad, with the crown on his head and a demonic tale. His quest could fail. His thoughts spiral, giving rise to anxiety. Doubt doubles and redoubles, paralyzing action. He almost stalls lost in thought, when a family of ducks reinforce the emotion of death at the hands of a wily intruder.

In my story, the same as any fairy tale, there is a hero, there is conflict, there is water to cross, there is an old stone bridge, interrelationships to dream of, the guardsman at the gates, a journey to undertake, grandparents and father with their paradoxical advice, which is a habit of mind, a beautiful seal-mother with her magical star talisman, a dark-feathered hero restored to human form, and a fairy-tale princess in the end. It is said mallards and ducks fall in love with whomever they first clap their eyes on. How could my tale not end “happily ever after”?

Lackington’s: Is there something about unconventional modes of storytelling that you find especially compelling? Why do we need to make space for stories that don’t always work the way that readers have come to expect?

Hans Anderson and the Brothers Grimm encapsulated for the adult and child what is accepted as the gold standard. Their fairy tales lasted generations, rich in imaginative fodder. As a writer I am always intuitively looking to stretch the limits of what I can narrate just that much further. In that sense we cross bridges to the hybrid and experimental. Readers’ tastes ultimately determine how stories evolve. I loved Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea with a dark-skinned hero, for a change, as much as I loved G.M. Hopkins’ inventive splitting of words, alliterative sound and sprung rhythm. They broke conventions. Hopkins was known to have even invented words hitherto unknown in the English language. There is a great deal of science fiction and fantasy and speculative literature that could come out of different unconventional material if only writers from different regions are able to put it out there. “Now here’s my plan,” as Renaissance man Shel Silverstein would say. Just like a bird which has the ability to fly beyond its own horizons, seeing new sociological and anthropological perspectives in a different sort of way. If writers do not feel free to break the mould again and again, where will the stories of tomorrow be?


Rekha Valliappan writes short fiction and poetry. She has won awards for her writing, been short-listed, long-listed, and published in magazines and anthologies, including Green Hills Literary Lantern, Thrice Fiction Magazine, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Theme of Absence, Liquid Imagination, Boston Accent Lit, Coffin Bell Journal, Rabid Oak, and elsewhere. A former college lecturer, she was born in Bombay, lived in different countries, and can be found on Twitter @silicasun.



This entry was posted on November 20, 2018 by in Interview.
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