Prayaag Akbar and Karen Lord with Afua Hirsch: Spectacular New Futures

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This discussion, chaired by journalist and author Afua Hirsch, was between two writers of speculative fiction focusing on exploring the kinds of societies that can be envisaged by the genre. Prayaag Akbar was born in Calcutta in 1982, and has degrees in Economics from Dartmouth College and Comparative Politics from the London School of Economics. Known for his commentary on marginalisation in India, he discussed his debut novel, Leila. Karen Lord, a speculative fiction writer with a multifaceted background as a physicist, diplomat and soldier, was born in Barbados in 1968. With a Science degree from Toronto, a Masters in Science and Technology Policy from Strathclyde, and PhD in Sociology of Religion from Bangor, Lord is the author of several books, including the award-winning Redemption in Indigo. She discussed her second novel, Best of All Possible Worlds, published in 2014.

Akbar read an excerpt from Leila in the voice of mother Shalini, reflecting on the moment when a sinister mob kidnapped their three year old daughter, and imagining what she might be like now, sixteen years later. As we shared in the poignant memory of her little girl, we could easily imagine her innocent face as ‘he pinched her cheek between his hairy knuckles’. His book is set in a fictional Indian city based on both Bombay and Delhi, exploring the many societal divisions within cities that result from caste, class and religion. Leila is set in a so-called dystopian ‘near future’, but many of the horrors foretold within it, as the author stressed, are already coming to pass. Best of all Possible Worlds takes place in the distant future on planet Cygnus Beta, filled with refugees from various disasters, and explores issues of what makes a successful multicultural society. The Sadiri people have been running from genocide and are now desperate to preserve their culture.  We were treated to tantalising glimpses of dialogue and metaphors from the book, such as “All Sadiri may be considered family”, and “all my knowledge of him was newly minted.”

Lord explained some of her complex process of invention, including the influences from experiences in the many places she’s visited and would still like to visit, such as the forests of Guyana, Australia’s Sydney, and the island of Malta. As the reader is taken on a ‘road-trip’ of the planet, New Zealand’s magical landscapes, known to her and many other outsiders from the Lord of the Rings movies, also make an appearance. She draws much from her own socio-economic research, so much so that one reviewer sniped that it was a story of ‘bureaucrats in love’. Many a sideways swipe at Barbadians from other Caribbean people are based on this ‘Little England’ stereotype, but seeing government through romantic eyes is a refreshing one, however you look at it. Hirsch wryly made the point that even the idea of government as competent and positive is unusual.

Hirsch heralded Best as an optimistic and positive book, with its celebration of successful multiculturalism and peace contrasting with the inverted message of Leila, which faces up squarely to the terrifying challenges currently presenting themselves on the Indian sub-continent. Akbar, as an Indian Muslim, has personally experienced an increasing level of discomfort when making everyday choices like choosing where to live. Protagonist Shalini is a Hindu married to a Muslim, a situation that reflects modern tensions and often fatal interventions in interfaith-unions. Lord laughed as she hoped that she wasn’t being overly optimistic, but explained that the present reality of the multi-cultural Caribbean is very much reflected in Cygnus Beta. Despite some difficulties, distinct groups of people can be absorbed as part of a larger community while simultaneously holding on to aspects from where they originated, with the idea that group identity is both natural and positive.

Hirsch was the perfect chair, as a journalist, author and TV personality who is currently at the heart of British debate around questions of identity and politics. The opportunity to draw in voices on this topic from outside the UK underscored the global and highly pressing nature of these issues. In his novel, Akbar takes square aim at the historical inequalities of India as expressed through the caste system, but also notes the class divisions, social exclusion and invisibility rampant within the U.K. The reality came as a shock to him when living in a poor area just outside Oxford, and only after his lack of middle-class, academic visitors, realised it was an area that no don would fear to tread. The walls in the city of his book are there to divide those from different castes from each other, which is a potent symbol for the hardening of social divisions worldwide.

The contrast between the pairing was useful, but also the parallels. Both authors agreed that embracing a multifaceted identity obfuscates those who, often including UK publishers, demand that people and things should fit into just one convenient category. Lord explained that the categorisation of genres for marketing purposes has thrown up a conundrum for Caribbean speculative fiction, and in a region where folklore is embedded into the culture, rigid categorisation can be both unrealistic and a limitation. Her own work has proved accessible to the mainstream, yet careful reading would uncover the multi-layered narrative that make it, as she said with a despairing sigh, “more than just a love story”.

Lisa Williams

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