By Samira Nadkarni
Awards make me uncomfortable. I have multiple reasons for this – most reading experiences tend to be personal and someone else’s experience may not be your own; these are often used to create artificial distinctions of high and low art; it often invisibilises and doesn’t account for the complexity of colonial and globalising histories of what even makes it on to book lists and how much this plays into stereotypes and fetishizing of certain perceived “authenticities” (the Man Booker has been particularly bad in my experience of this); juries themselves are often very often part and parcel of this elitism and propounding it, whether intentional or not; and the basic economics of what promotion and publisher backing can do for better known authors versus lesser known authors, particularly when we’re already in a space where internal and external cultural, racial, and national hierarchies are really set in place. All of these factors trouble me, and I’m self-aware enough to know that my participation on a jury, even a Shadow Jury with no real bearing on the award itself, is inevitably complicity with that system.
While there’s no real way to fall outside of that system – it influences me even if I’m actively avoiding it because even avoidance is a form of reaction – my own way of trying to approach literature in general, and SFF more particularly, is to try to be part of a community that has different views and reactions to the same text. Yes, I’m aware that this is just a fancy way to say that I like reading books with friends, discussing our different perspectives, and then having a lot of loud emotions that inevitably spill onto twitter. It is and I stand by that. I have little to no belief in a pure, objective, distanced reader-critic, and don’t really see an emotional and/ or crowd-sourced response as lesser in any way, shape, or form. Community has value and feelings have value. Community and feelings are part of fiction. Communities are political. The personal is political. Fiction is political.
More than anything else, community as a space for discussion and critique forces an awareness of frameworks. A friend, Shabnam, once took a lot of time to point out to me that my excitement about a book that I believed destabilised gender and problematised caste in Indian contexts was, in fact, written to privilege the upper caste cis gaze. Her emphatic point at the time was that if someone mentions a gender and caste dystopia, I should look at whose interests are being played to, and that if the book couldn’t decenter the very idea of cis and caste-based constructs of gender, then this book was not innovative in its destabilisation at all. While this was applied to a specific book series, it was an excellent lesson to take away, learn from, and cross apply to future criticism: the fact that stepping away from standard representation itself is not enough until we think about who it privileges and what it says.
These are big questions for me, and I think also big questions more generally, about how inclusion can be kindness and violence all at once, and how navigating that critically can be fraught. For me in particular, I have strong feelings about postcolonial SFF writing in general (and this is primarily what I read in my spare time), and this also forces me to recognise how this is playing to a different set of privilege systems locally that can continue to foster violent hierarchies, or aren’t being dealt with or made visible enough yet. It’s complicated and I’m honestly not equipped to do it alone.
That’s largely what I’m hoping to get out of the Shadow Clarke myself, a chance to be a part of these collaborative discussions from a perspective that hopefully makes visible things that are otherwise invisible to me, and that I am able to offer the same in return. Science fiction, much as I enjoy it, has always been a fraught space for me. Imagining different futures is always in discussion with histories and the present, and I so rarely see people like myself represented in those futures, and know that this is inflected by history and does impact perceptions of my humanity in the present. So I plan to continue to discuss the books, long list or short, with pretty much anyone willing to have a polite, if emotion-filled, conversation with me about the narratives in question. Because, for me, the discussions that follow a book are usually the most valuable parts of the experience. I’ll be glad not to be alone in this.
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.