We’re celebrating the launch of Issue 19 by talking to our authors about what makes “Voyages” — and stories.
Lackington’s: The lives of the families in “A Cream-Broker’s Courtship” revolve around their herds of celestial cows. One element that sets these cows apart is that their milk is so rich and sweet that it changes the palates of those who drink it or cook with it. Where did the idea for these strange animals come from? Have you ever eaten something that changed your tastes?
NH: I wrote this story as a companion to “Butter-Daughters.” In that story, butter literally consumes you from the inside, so a lot of the ontological transformation caused by dairy products in related stories is a result of that first story with celestial goats.
However, the second impulse for this story came from the sacred, or celestial, cow in Hindu mythologies and as represented in the Rig Veda and the Atharva Veda. So you could say it was something I grew up with as someone who is half-Tamil/Dravidian. There is also the myth of the churning of the Ocean of Milk that was in my mind. The boiling and ingesting of milk exists in more than one religious ritual and function in the South Asian diaspora. The boiling of milk when you’ve moved into a new house, the consuming of milk rice for the New Year.
As for the adaptation of one’s tastebuds, as a scholar and as a diasporic individual who has lived in three countries, this interests me deeply. Therefore it is hard for me to answer the question of whether I’ve eaten something that changed my tastes as it happens all of the time. I am conscious that after a time your tastebuds can become accustomed to and even dependent on certain tastes and flavours, so I’m always working to desensitize and de-acclimatize myself! For the people of Rahji, their tastebuds were transformed because they ate products made from celestial milk. A lot of this came from an earlier series of short stories I wrote as a teenager about a very Eurocentric town called Sweetonshire, whose people only ate desserts and loved sweet things so much. I conjectured that if you were used to sweet things you couldn’t imagine not having that in your meals.
Lackington’s: As the title suggests, this story is concerned with both food preparation and marriage. Just as in the real world, these activities are not merely of domestic importance, but have deep economic, political, and even religious implications for the people in the story. Why did you choose to foreground food and marriage? Is there a connection between the two in your mind?
NH: I set out to write a culinary story that was grounded in epicurean philosophies. I also wanted to capture a kind of tension between desire and duty. An earlier version of this story actually had epicurean debates between Chatur and Varna! The economical and political ramifications of the institution of marriage have always interested me from an academic standpoint (on a personal standpoint it’s only inspired a policy of avoidance!). But mostly, I wanted to write a romantic Bollywood romp and this was a love story of all the things that matter to me about my Tamil heritage so obviously, food is a part of that! I don’t think I’ll ever write a romantic story without there being some discourse on power relationships and politics. My MA dissertation was about iterations of the Ritual Love-Death in Angela Carter’s revised fairytales, so that’s always at the back of my mind.
Lackington’s: This story is set in a world that you have visited repeatedly in your writing before. Do linked stories have a special interest for you? Are there examples from literature that you especially enjoy?
NH: I don’t know if I’d say it’s a “special interest” so much as something I’ve been doing organically since teenhood! I’ve been writing my Sesen stories since teenhood, along with other sets of stories. My Sweetonshire fairytales/romances were moderately popular in my high school class as I’d write them (longhand!) and that book was passed around class for people to read, and then they wanted more!
I like the principles of building a world but then writing very idiosyncratic, personal narratives set in that world so that you can’t really see the big picture from one story because it’s always a series of enjambed mosaic tiles. It’s something I fell into as a teen but which evolved as I grew older. As for examples, when I was around 20 years of age, I read Ursula K. LeGuin’s Orsinian Tales. I had an immediate thrill when I read it of, “Oh yes, this is what I really want to do.”
Also, I adore Charles de Lint’s Newford tales, and his short stories were my gateway drug into the Newford novels! Borges is also a definite influence on me as is Angela Carter. Working on her short stories for my MA dissertation actually got me started on writing short stories as a twentysomething after jettisoning the form for a few years. I was also older at the time and deeply influenced by the writings of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. I wanted to write short fiction that was more subtle, more surreal, but at the same time has that effect that when you looked at a collection of those stories as a whole they just flow into each other. Took me another fifteen years to actually sit down and do it! I wrote “Cream-Broker’s Courtship” as part of a set of Sesen stories to complement “Tower of the Rosewater Goblet.” They were all written together and I was in a kind of a dreamlike state for an entire month flowing from story to story trying to rediscover a world I’d created as a teenager but then abandoned for more than a decade. It became a different world, richer and alien to me. I was also influenced by the writings of Italo Calvino, in particular, Cosmicomics. A lot of my more surreal tales in this milieu are therefore influenced by them. And Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s brand of magic realism.
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?
NH: It’s not that I find them especially compelling, it is more that I don’t know what people see as “unconventional” except that everything that doesn’t fall into templated expectations of narratives seems to be unconventional these days. I consider this a sad state of affairs as it makes for readers who are not open for the myriad possibilities of the written form.
I’m a mixed-race person who has read literature in two (sometimes more) languages and I belong to more than one culture and country. Each of these has not just singular bodies of literature but multiple bodies of literature. And yet when people talk about diversity in publishing, they speak of diversity of culture but almost never about diversity of narrative. I think in so doing they not just let down authors, but readers.
My story of a Rahji who gets used to only sweet dishes could be read as a parable of culture. If you feed readers only one kind of narrative configuration they will eventually fall out of the ability to expand their minds by reading a plethora of different narratives. I’ve often wondered if Tiptree would be as easily published today, given the idiosyncratic nature of her own narratives. However, there are enough editors within the genre willing to push the envelope and make a room for difference that I’ve hope that things can change.
Nin Harris is an author, poet, and tenured postcolonial Gothic scholar who exists in a perpetual state of unheimlich. Nin writes Gothic fiction, cyberpunk, nerdcore post-apocalyptic fiction, planetary romance, and various other forms of hyphenated weird fiction. Nin’s publishing credits include Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and The Dark.