Negotiating Cartography by Samira Nadkarni

Negotiating Cartography by Samira Nadkarni

In a recent conversation with Maureen, we both noted that things have begun to feel far less like discrete categories and more like parts of a much larger, more coherent whole that, if we just read enough, saw enough, thought enough, we might eventually reach. Perhaps this is also the result of the way I’ve been reading recently, following a rabbit hole of interesting citations from one chapter to a completely different article to a whole new book, circling back to the next chapter of the first book only to devolve again ad infinitum. Other books that I’m reading alongside have gotten swept up in the tide of this larger reading, and it’s started to feel half-way between sinking and swimming at this point in time.

As a small cross-section: I started reading Sami Schalk’s Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)Ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction—whose introduction discusses Jasbir Puar whose work I’m following for another project on queerness and warfare— while waiting for Janelle Monàe’s Dirty Computer to drop. Monàe’s vehemently queer 44-minute emotion picture will locate itself around a technocratic society in which citizens are termed “computers,” a section of whom are now on the run from an authoritarian government. Based on what we’ve seen of the three tracks dropped so far, the project is also fiercely Black, and strongly rooted in the political. It’s impossible not to think back to Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures: The Story of the African American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race (followed by a film of the same name starring Monàe, Taraji P. Henson, and Octavia Spencer) which made evident the links between women (Black women in particular) and the history of computers. Knowing that early production units were called “kilo-girls” to denote the number of hours worked and that these women were called “computers,” Monàe’s choice of a return to “computers” as words for people in videos peopled almost exclusively by Black people, and heavily peopled by Black women in this futuristic melding of technology, activism, and talking back to an authoritarian regime feels poignant and part of an evolving expression of futurity located in historicity.

Schalk also mentions Donna Haraway, whose A Cyborg Manifesto was the inspiration for 2018’s GUCCI CYBORG runway show and collection. Following the show, Twitter was awash in images of these (primarily white) runway models carrying their own heads, as well as numerous introductory thinkpieces to Haraway’s work talking about feminist cyborg identity as one that ruptures the careful distinctions of race, gender, and class and therefore moves beyond them; post-humanism; and its combination with Foucault’s work on identity politics. It was no doubt baffling to many, but it felt somehow inevitable. Perhaps it’s just my small corner of the world and the Internet, but it does feel like there’s been a sharp uptick in the interest in marginalisation, post-humanism, and animalism recently and a consequent increase in interest in SFF as a space which holds the answers to these questions. As I re-read Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto (written in 1984), I’m struck by how right both Schalk and Puar are to note that her conception can only elide certain social constructions, such as race, because of whiteness and not because of any truly revolutionary potential; that post-racial ideology or “not seeing race” only works when one has the ability to not have race negatively impact lived experience. As in the case of much futuristic SFF, there is the urge to talk about futures that are evolved beyond marginalising social constructions to a more interconnected, if disparate reality, without considering how often we take these social constructions with us in their own evolving forms, and how everything we make, including technology, is always inflected by this. Or, in a more everyday example, the way the achievements of the marginalised are constantly positioned as the person “transcending” their marginalisation rather than society refusing their existence in many spaces because of it. Perhaps I’m putting too much on Monàe’s work, but I suspect Dirty Computer is also born of resistance to this idea of evolving “beyond race” in technocracy and may offer more about queer Black cyborg lives in the process of resistance.

Moving forward, Schalk’s first chapter mentions Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, a book I recently purchased so as to be ready to read the recently Hugo-nominated Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler, edited by Mimi Mondal and Alexandra Pierce. Mondal is a Dalit Indian writer in the SFF genre and recently published a piece about the likelihood of her reception in India, tying together India’s violent history of casteism, India’s oddly internalised idea that SFF can only be located in the Global North, and her own positionality within these frames. Mondal’s piece comes at a particularly charged political period in India where horrific caste violence and Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi (DBA) activism and resistance both seem to be at their peak, where the reality that India has exported caste and caste violence makes evident that this is a global concern. (And here there are echoes of Puar’s ‘I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess: Intersectionality, Assemblage, and Affective Politics’ because intersectionality’s root in Black American power structures still privileges the primacy of American global dominance, whether in academia’s lexicon or within ideas of the Woman of Colour (WOC), a concept that has far less heft in a country like India or with Indians abroad where racism and colourism is present but where the category of WOC as a central anchor to this concern fails to hold.) The claim to not see caste only works when one has the ability to not have caste negatively impact lived experience, and acknowledging racism without acknowledging casteism is only to seek a system of allyship in which we never examine the realities of our own violent privileges, how the turn to postcolonial reclaiming of national identities has itself been heavily predicated on a doubling down of casteism even as we frame ourselves as penalised globally by whiteness.

As I note this, I’ve also been reading Not So Stories, a postcolonial response to Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories edited by David Thomas Moore for a review. Caught somewhere between the problems of colonialism, the violences of post/colonialism, trapped in between all of the complications of post-human ontology where seeking to negate the human/animal/machine distinctions has both been violently mobilised during and after (traditional) colonialism, and then reclaimed in complicated systems of postcolonial negotiation with national cultures, I’m unsure where to start or what to say. Negotiating reclamations is fraught, more so when we refuse to sift through the things we’ve reclaimed because we’re so afraid that admitting this might mean we lose more of our identities / that we admit we might be as bad (if not worse) than colonisers/ that our postmodern hybrid identities still have fairly clear demarcations intended to penalise others/ that there are no easy answers, only the work of surviving and doing better. At some point I will have to stop reading and hear what this book is trying to say to me; at some point I have to find a way to say something about this book.

All of this was with me when I sat down to make this shortlist. I’m hoping the explanation helps contextualise my interest in books that not only talk about power, but also may talk about the complications of power that may come even with resistance and reclamation.

A longstanding fascination with the questions of heroism, warfare, and marginalisation mean that I’m keen to read Manuel Gonzales’ The Regional Office is Under Attack and Keith Yatsuhashi’s Kokoro.

Barely ten pages in, Gonzales’ shadowy underground regional office has stencilled on one wall the statement:

The Regional Office: uniquely positioned to Empower and Strengthen otherwise troubled or at-risk Young Women to act as a Barrier of last resort between the survival of the Planet and the amassing Forces of Darkness that Threaten, at nearly every turn, to Destroy It. (Kindle edition)

Given the recent trend towards “empowering” or recruiting at-risk young women, or often even children, in YA fantasy novels or more recently in Pacific Rim: Uprising, I’m both intrigued by and leery of these ideas, specifically when it comes to questions of recruitment and constructs of duty within the grand narratives of global survival. The question of how heroism is rarely a question of survival instead of sacrifice (though it should be, it should always be) in times of last resort, the realities of how coercive these situations can be, and the way in which this just skips over glocal power hierarchies (the term “glocal” used here as per Roland Robertson (1997) where global and local effects are viewed as simultaneous, intermingled, and interdependent; i.e. “the simultaneity or co-presence of universalising and particularising tendencies in play”) suggests that there’s an interesting amount to work with, particularly given mass media’s massive turn towards war propaganda and superheroes. The Regional Office is Under Attack has both metaphorical and literal feminist cyborgs, and I’m interested in seeing how these are nationalised, raced, and gendered.

Yatsuhashi’s Kokoro (the sequel to Kojiki) has been billed as a blend of Japanese folklore and SFF. Also about saving the Earth, the narrative concerns the now-exiled Higo prince Baiyren Tallaenaq stealing a giant sentient armoured suit and opening a portal to Earth. The familiar premise of numerous mecha animes, I’m more interested in the stories that take place around the sentient armoured suit than the giant robot itself; mostly because creation and use of technology shows us what society privileges and what it fears, and I’m interested in how this will be negotiated between the differing cultural ethos of Higo and Earth. That said, I grew up with Giant Robo (or Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot) playing every weekday on Doordarshan and I owned a much-loved copy of Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man: A Children’s Story in Five Nights as one of my bedtime books so I can’t deny that childhood nostalgia is driving at least a part of this.

It’s no doubt old hat to point out how gendered this media is, how robots and their human counterparts (already cyborgs, as Haraway would point out) who save the world are male, but it’s enough to see a pattern of tying together masculinity and warfare, masculinity and resistance, masculinity and heroism. It’s an ethos we see increasingly relaxing to allow in those previously excluded, but this doesn’t erase those historical linkages. Puar notes in Terrorist Assemblages the manner in which this inclusion of those historically marginalised (she is talking about queerness, but this easily extends to race and gender) is seen as a victory, yet this victory is predicated upon a system in which otherness is paramount, and a larger other remains vilified. As a result, the underlying societal issues that led to the original exclusion aren’t addressed, but militarism flourishes. Maybe this system of militarism and othering is why I’m so drawn to the promise of non-institutional/ national/structural resistance in Dirty Computer, maybe this is why Schalk’s reading of the film The Girl With All The Gifts as a shifting terrain of who is positioned as “normal” and who isn’t feels so relevant. I’m hoping Gonzales and Yatsuhashi give me something similar.

N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky feels like it will straddle the line between this subset of ideas and a concern with preservation of life, climate change, and what this will make of those of us that remain—ideas that link across Jemisin’s work to Paul McAuley’s Austral and Abi Curtis’ Water & Glass. Concluding Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, the last book promises two distinct perspectives on the events: Essun hopeful for the future and hoping to forge a new world, and Nassun’s realisation that perhaps the world not only cannot, but perhaps should not be saved. At this point in time when resistance and forging spaces for inclusion feels so fraught, this is the book I’m most looking forward to and dreading at about the same time. The importance of working towards change cannot be understated, but I can’t help but think what an impossible and heavy task Essun has set herself. Not that it isn’t important and not that it won’t be flawed (as Nassun seems to already know), but just how impossibly heavy.

Paul McAuley’s Austral situates itself around the failure of addressing climate change and the colonisation of Antarctica. In the central character of Austral Morales Ferrado, an “edited person” who is despised by the locals and a descendant of these colonisers, the themes of colonisation, survival, assemblages, cyborgs, and nation-building all come together. Ferrado kidnaps a young girl and goes on the run, and it is her perspective and history that unfolds the narrative. Just in the space of the blurb itself, Austral asks its reader to begin to negotiate the manner in which they define humanity through the use of “edited person.” Sami Schalk notes Puar and Julie Livingston’s work on the term “interspecies” or Mel Y. Chen’s use of “transspecies” wherein human/animal/plant distinctions are unstable and variable across geopolitical time and space. Schalk uses this to think more broadly about fantastical constructs like werewolves or demons, but it opens out a broader consideration the shifting normalisations of what is seen to be “human” to consider what these seeming transgressions indicate. Ferrado’s role as “edited person” is a husky, apparently created for easier adjustment to cold temperatures, which creates her as outsider alongside of her role as the descendant of colonisers. With this we enter yet another complex set of power relations about the privileges of that alongside of her position as the descendant of settler-colonists and their location and their space in the creation of nationhood. As different countries renegotiate colonial migration (a recent example is Robert Mugabe’s attempt to reclaim land in Zimbabwe from descendants of white settlers), and the local/non-local labelling of children of unions of these colonisers with locals, or even a nation’s own internal rejection of cultures and people seen as outside of the way those in power define nationality, we’re seeing increasing complications of addressing redressal. That said, I’m unsure how the kidnapping itself will fit into Austral’s larger narrative about climate change but I’m interested in seeing how it plays out.

Abi Curtis’ Water & Glass sounds a little like Noah’s Ark with shades of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi all wrapped up together. There’s an interesting theme of claustrophobia and its effect on the human psyche that seems to be running through the Clarke Award list this year (I think both Jaroslav Kalfer’s The Spaceman of Bohemia and Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers have a similar central concern) and it is usually an effective way of paring a character down to their core very quickly. I’m particularly interested in whether the blurb’s apparent link between the pregnant elephant and protagonist Nerissa Crane’s repressed trauma about her husband’s likely death in the apocalyptic floods is intentional, and whether this heralds an already present anxiety about intimacy, trauma, and reproductive concerns in this postapocalyptic scenario on an enclosed ship. SFF’s treatment of pregnancy has been sadly lacking for the most part (though the list this year has Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time and Helen Sedgwick’s The Growing Season) but arguably, any Noah’s Ark tale would eventually concern itself with precariousness and interdependent survival, resettling, and the possibility of repopulation or extinction. What I fear is that this is also a situation in which anthropomorphic queerphobia and eugenics are set centre stage, whether this is about animal or human populations.

I’m amused to see the “good doggos of the dystopia” genre going strong this year as well, and am interested in what I suspect will be a deft negotiation of posthumanism in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Dogs of War and Wendy K Wagner’s An Oath of Dogs. Aside from Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto, she also wrote a smaller associated work called The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness in which she used human-dog relationships to discuss an ethics and politics of significant otherness (based around an inability to ever fully communicate with dogs but still build rapport and understanding) as well as the manner in which these dog-human worlds then create interconnected “naturecultures” wherein nature and culture are intermingled rather than seen as disparate categories. Haraway’s work here seems particularly pertinent as both Dogs of War and An Oath of Dogs have frightening alien or cyborg dogs that are representative of their naturecultures, that are interacting with different forms of consciousness, and that all of these spaces are inevitably relational. To have a companion is always to exist in a system of two at least, and this suggests a being-with that, with dogs, is about being domesticated and a tool. Given that both books appear to position their dogs as cyborg assemblages created as symbols for the spaces and locations they occupy (their role in these naturecultures), I’m interested in seeing how Tchaikovsky negotiates the turn away from militaristic tool in Dogs of War to a differently located or understood otherness; though from my reading so far, there seems to be a more anthropomorphised consciousness than an exploration of otherness. With the Wagner, there’s a strong undercurrent from the blurb itself about colonisation and encroachment of space – I can’t help but think about animals attacking as cities expand into areas that were originally their territory, the colonisation of nature and its rapid advancement with industrialisation and company profit margins. With the turn to posthumanism concerned with the interrelations of a whole environment rather than man’s primacy or the primacy of anthropomorphism, I’m fascinated by how many of these books speak to shared effects across traditionally understood animal/human/plant/machine boundaries.

Circling back to where I started and my conversation with Maureen, the idea of letting the tide carry me as best as I can is how I’ve eventually narrowed down my choices. Perhaps these will be less connected than I plan, but for now they feel increasingly like a lattice web of ideas – as we shift into talking about the preservation of worlds/ the death of old worlds/ the creation of new worlds and our roles in it, the question that we increasingly seem to be negotiating over and over appears to be not only about survival but about the larger, complex systems we exist within: their effects on us and – more recently – ours on them. It’s the latter and its consequent responsibilities that I’m drawn to at this time.

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An academic and freelance journalist by day, Samira Nadkarni spends far too much of her time having feelings and yelling on the internet. Although she sometimes writes reviews for the SFF magazine, Strange Horizons, the majority of her free time is spent reading, binge-watching terrible TV, and being stared down by cats.

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  1. […] I originally added Water & Glass to my short list, I suspected that the plot’s concern with a group of (largely European-coded) survivors onboard a submarine, […]

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