In Conversation With Tarun K. Saint & Francesco Verso— Bishnupriya Chowdhuri

Sep 22, 2022 | Colloquy | 0 comments

This week, The Antonym published the book review of Kalicalypse: Subcontinental Science Fiction a collection of short stories by science fiction writers from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India. To read the review, click here!

It is a dual language edition that has been published in English and Italian. The English edition was edited by Tarun K. Saint and Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay while the Italian edition was edited by  Francesco Verso . The magazine reached out to the editors to inquire about their journeys. Bishnupriya Chowdhuri, the editor-in-chief of The Antonym, had extensive conversations with Tarun K. Saint and Francesco Verso, the editors of the Indian and the Italian editions respectively! 


Francesco Verso

Francesco Verso (Bologna, 1973) is a multiple-award Science Fiction writer and editor (3 Europa Awards for Best Author, Best Editor and Best Work of Fiction, 2 Urania Awards for Best Novel, 1 Golden Dragon Award for the promotion of International SF, 2 Italy Awards for Best Editor and Best Novel).

He has published: Antidoti umani , e-Doll , Nexhuman , Bloodbusters and I camminatori (made of The Pulldogs and No/Mad/Land). Nexhuman and Bloodbusters—translated in English by Sally McCorry and in Chinese by Zhang Fan and Hu Shaoyan—have been published in the US by Apex Books , in the UK by Luna press , and in China by Bofeng Culture. He also works as editor and publisher of Future Fiction , a multicultural project dedicated to scouting and publishing the best World Science Fiction in translation from more than 35 countries and 13 languages with authors like Liu Cixin , Ian McDonald , Ken Liu , Han Song , Vandana Singh , Chen Qiufan , Xia Jia and others. Since 2019, he has been the Honorary Director of the Fishing Fortress Science Fiction Academy of Chongqing and a literary agent of Future Wave, an agency based in Beijing, specializing in the import/export of Science Fiction copyright from/to China. He may be found at www.futurefiction.org .

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Bishnupriya: The stories in Kalicalypse: Subcontinental Science Fiction are loaded with references to myths, legends, and histories of the land they come from. For a global reader, does it risk a disconnect or a thrilling wonder?

Francesco: Well, what or who is a global reader? Is it a sum of many past cultures or the product of the global contemporary culture? I believe genre fiction (and literature in general) is an excellent tool to explore without having to move or to know without having to study, meaning that through the ‘fictional worlds’ introduced to us by Science Fiction (or Art), we’re able to make a giant leap into the unknown (whether it’s the near future, another culture or the lives of the ‘alien’ protagonists to us) and be transformed by that experience. So other myths, legends, and histories—as metaphors for universal problems and questions—are the most formidable strategies to immerse ourselves into a ‘mirror reality’ that has significance for our own life. 

In particular, the power of Science Fiction is to make reality become ‘obsolete’ in a way, and from that moment of discovery on, we perceive ourselves or our current existences in its potential, in its relative moment along a path of ‘other plausible’ possibilities. What if solar power could run our society? What if we could 3D print our food starting from cloned cells? What if we could terraform new continents for people seeking asylum or escaping from climate change or war? 

Science Fiction becomes then a precious instrument to empower individuals and communities showing that certain conditions could be changed—for better or worst—and in doing so, it explores the cracks in the wall of the present hard time, thus proving that reality is fluid, malleable and ever-changing, if only we could see through and beyond the veil of the present.   

Bishnupriya: Tell us your reasons for carrying these stories through the painstaking road of translation. On second thought, I may be wrong with the adjective ‘painstaking’. Am I?

Francesco: There was a time (from the 50s through the 80s of the last century) when important works of speculative fiction were translated from one country to another and throughout the world, especially in Europe, Russia, and Latin America. Today, however, the hegemony of the English language in the publishing industry has created a situation in which almost every author wants to be translated into English, which, in turn, means that everyone knows everything about the US and UK Science Fiction, while they completely ignore what is being written next door, for example between France and Germany, China and India, Brazil and Argentina, Russia and Finland. In reality, of course, high-quality Science Fiction is being written everywhere in every language; it is just that for most big publishers, commercial concerns come before cultural concerns, with the result that the ‘global readership’ does not necessarily end up accessing the best possible books, but only to the ‘best’ possible books available in English. The cultural loss of such a short-sighted approach is huge and very risky. A study by the University of Rochester found that only 3% of what is published in the US comes from a translation . Similarly, on any SF shelf in any bookstore from Tokyo to Amsterdam, from Roma to Rio De Janeiro, there are hundreds and hundreds of books translated from English (a figure that in some markets goes up to 80%), and few from each nation’s own writers or writers writing in languages other than English. That is what Antonio Gramsci would call a ‘cultural hegemony.’

So, going through the process of translation was a natural consequence of my desire to know what was happening to the Futures of the Rest of the World. Basically, I’ve asked myself: what would happen if we all read one single kind of story, experience one single kind of society, live in a single kind of economy, eat one single food, and share one single view of the future? Today Science Fiction is indeed a global phenomenon and as such, it should include the voices and experiences of people speaking Portuguese, Arab, Chinese, Hindi, French, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, and German, just to mention the most commonly spoken languages. Also, pretending that texts and stories should be ‘naturally born in English’ is imposing a huge and unfair burden on all the people that do not speak English, many of whom do not have access to English language instruction and/or cannot afford to study it. There is a lot of work to do in this respect, not just on markets but mostly on the perception of reality. I try to do my part to ‘decolonize the imagination’…

Bishnupriya: In your opinion, in the age-old parameters of loss and gain in translation, how would you place this anthology?

Francesco: Most people across the world believe that Science Fiction is written mostly in the Anglophone world (not even in the Western world). For example, have you read any French, German, Italian, or Spanish SF in the last 10 years? So people’s imagination has been ‘colonized’ by 80 years of cultural domination by big publishers and entertainment industries who had the power and economic strength to export their Science Fiction narratives. Ludwig Wittgenstein once said: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” That means that reading translations allow us to access another world, live in more than one universe, explore multiple cultures, and understand many different points of view and futures. 

So let me make this metaphor of the lake and the ocean. 

If you sit on the shore of a lake, you can fish very good examples, sometimes excellent ones, but in any case, you’re on a lake where the biodiversity of the fishes is limited and, in the long term, you will end up eating the same kind of fishes. The only way to change this situation is to go on the ocean to catch other fish and maybe get even the ‘White Whale’, but in order to do that, you can’t just use your normal stick… you need a boat, and such a boat—in literary terms—is a translator, someone that knows how to navigate on high seas, someone that knows the original language of those ‘creatures’ and is the only expert that can judge the quality of those ‘strange fishes’. This is to say that without translations, we would be limited to knowing only the shape of our little pond of literature. That’s why Kalicalypse is important and relevant because it’s a multicultural collaboration between editors coming from different cultures and backgrounds—such as Tarun K. Saint, Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, and myself—and because it features translations from Bangla into English, thanks to Arunava Sinha, and from English into Italian by Gabriella Gregori and Francesca Secci

Bishnupriya: Science-fiction, being a predominantly western genre, how do you feel about its mutation in the Asian canon of storytelling?

Francesco: There was a time when the Future (and its little literary brother Science Fiction) was imagined, created, and distributed only in and by the West, but that time is finished—even though large parts of the West don’t know or don’t want to admit—and now there multiple Futures coming from many different sources and areas of the world: take for example China with Sinofuturism or India with Kalpavigyan and Jugaad Science Fiction, or the whole African continent with African futurism (which is different from the Afrofuturism developed in the US and UK). So, following this trend, also storytelling should represent this shift and include these traditions, sensibilities, and emerging innovations in order to make Science Fiction survive and adapt to the ever-changing shape of the Future. If Science Fiction doesn’t mutate, either it will cease to be Science Fiction and become Current Fiction (not capturing anymore the ‘zeitgeist’ of its own time) or it will naturally perish becoming a self-replicating ‘meme-engine’, proposing the same stories over and over again, told by the same kind of author or group of people. Read the article: Pop Culture Has Become an Oligopoly .

So we should all welcome the hybridization of Science Fiction with other cultures, lifestyles, and canons, especially and mostly because Science Fiction is the Fiction of Transformation and thus, as such, is meant to explore ‘uncharted territories’, ‘meet the unknown’ and ‘inhabit the uncanny valley’. It’s a great moment to explore Science Fiction today because we’re moving from the old ‘Sense of Wonder’ to the new ‘Sense of Wander’—a synthesis of wandering around the world in search of Science Fiction narratives. See my article: From the Sense of Wonder to the Sense of Wander .

So I urge you to read more SF in translation, you’ll be amazed to discover so many hidden treasures and neglected authors. 


Tarun K. Saint

Tarun K. Saint, an independent scholar, and writer was born in Kenya and has lived in India since 1972. His interests include the literature of the Partition and Science Fiction. He is the author of Witnessing Partition: Memory, History, Fiction , based on his doctoral dissertation. He edited Bruised Memories: Communal Violence and the Writer and co-edited (with Ravikant) Translating Partition . He also co-edited Looking Back: India’s Partition, 70 Years On , with Rakhshanda Jalil and Debjani Sengupta. He has edited The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction , Volume 1 (2019) and Volume 2 (2021). The bilingual (Indian-Italian) science fiction anthology Avatar: Indian Science Fiction , co-edited with Francesco Verso appeared in January 2020, and the bilingual Science Fiction collection Kalicalypse: Subcontinental Science Fiction (co-edited with Bodhisattva Chattopadyaya and Francesco Verso) in 2022.

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Bishnupriya: Let me start with Kalicalypse, that has us very very impressed already. Can you share a little bit of a back story as an editor for the collection? What is the inspiration behind this collection and what was the route map for the curation of the stories?

Tarun: Good to know that you have enjoyed reading Kalicalypse. As my fellow editor and publisher Francesco Verso may have mentioned, this was a follow-up to Avatar, an anthology of Indian SF brought out by Future Fiction in 2020. This time, the third co-editor Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay suggested that the ambit be expanded to include the entire sub-continent. I have some experience in editing South Asian SF anthologies, so I welcomed the idea. We then reached out to both established and upcoming writers in the field, who responded generously with some striking stories. While the emphasis was on originality, we did make room for some reprints that caught our attention (stories by Indrapramit Das, Haris Durrani, and Shweta Taneja, for example). Translator Arunava Sinha was our mainstay for the selections from Bangla, one from West Bengal (Trishna Basak), and one from Bangladesh (Mohammad Zafar Iqbal). 

Bishnupriya: Going through your body of work, Partition of the Indian subcontinent and South Asian science fiction emerge as two very prominent albeit mutually very distinct themes. I was curious to know if there is a correlation that I am missing here. 

Tarun: Interesting that you noticed this! While Partition literature was the area I focused on for my doctoral dissertation (later published as Witnessing Partition , Routledge India, second ed. 2020), also leading up to several attempts to anthologize work in the field, science fiction was a genre I had taught for many years at the Department of English, Hindu College.  Along the way, I perceived a gap in terms of a paucity of anthologies of SF from India and South Asia. The experience of previously assembling and showcasing the work in a given genre certainly proved to be an asset, even as I acquainted myself with the evolving history and contours of sub-continental SF. While there is no direct correlation, I did try and synthesize my understanding of the still unfolding afterlife of the historical trauma of the Partition with SF conventions in my story ‘A Visit to Partition World’.

Bishnupriya: With so many emerging SF writers unlocking newer doors to futuristic and SF storytelling, would you say South-Asian SF has been able to carve its distinctive niche? 

Tarun: Indeed. As a scholar and literary historian, Suparno Banerjee has shown in Indian Science Fiction , since the 1990s a New Wave of SF writers has emerged, redefining the premises of the genre. This applies across the sub-continent, I believe, as writers of note from Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh continue to produce distinctive and challenging novels, stories, and speculative poetry. The rubric of South Asian or sub-continental SF is more capacious and inclusive, I believe, allowing us to juxtapose the new kinds of important writing emerging in this geographical and cultural space which is often fluid and marked by traits of hybridity and experimentalism, yet unified in its courageous opposition to authoritarianism, fundamentalism and homogenizing tendencies in society across the region. Hopefully, the subgenre will not remain merely a niche phenomenon as more critics, scholars, and readers recognize the significance of this moment in cultural history.

Bishnupriya: This is a general question. What qualities do you think makes a good editor? Also, I have noticed, most of the stories in the collection are written in English (I am talking about the English section here) while the first one is a translated one. Was there any additional editorial work in selecting that one? This question also leads to my wider curiosity regarding the editorial ethics of creating a translated collection. What does it involve?

Tarun: A difficult question to do justice in the context of a brief interview! An editor’s work entails a good deal of reading in the field chosen, an ability to establish an outreach and network with the community of writers, and sensitivity to the individual writers’ preoccupations and style. Sometimes the invitations may be declined, or the submissions may not be up to the mark. That is part of the experience, of course. One has to strive to sift the grain from the chaff while making selections—the great joy is in receiving an outstanding story or poem, in which a certain crystallization of the elements into a new configuration takes place. Character arcs, thematic focus, and metaphors, besides a compelling storyline all must receive adequate attention in good writing, whether genre based or otherwise. An editor needs to develop that hawk’s eye view, as well as tackle the mundane tasks of correspondence and copy editing with equanimity.

In this collection, there are two translated stories, actually, chosen by the translator, Arunava Sinha. We were sent synopses of several stories by him, given the language barrier (at least for two of us in the editorial team), and finally came to a consensus as regards Trishna Basak’s story, which fitted the volume’s concerns well. In the case of SF writer Mohammad Zafar Iqbal, who is a teacher of physics and a legend in Bangladesh, it was a great help to be sent his own choice of possible stories, out of which one was selected. This is a remarkable tale, especially in the context of resurgent fundamentalism across the sub-continent (which the author has faced in person on campus). The extension of editorial vision to the domain of translation certainly requires a different lens to be deployed, as well as a willingness to trust the judgment of colleagues and translators who know the corpus in the given language better. There is definitely scope for a volume of translated work, as attempted by Bal Phondke in the 1990s, in It Happened Tomorrow . This necessitates a democratic ethic for the team of editors and a good collective understanding of the field as well as the dynamics of translation, besides extensive networking.

Bishnupriya: What are you working on these days? How do you stay a writer and still be an editor at the same time? 

Tarun: I am currently working on two new anthologies. Southern Flows (again with Francesco Verso) is an attempt to knit together Oceanic SF from the South, in response to accelerated climate change and consequent perils facing oceanic ecosystems and coastal cultures. The second project is taking shape, perhaps the first anthology of detective fiction from India (including translations). Both volumes may appear in 2023.

I must admit that wearing these different hats can be a challenge. At the moment the editorial imperative is in ascendance, though I hope to return to my own writing sometime in the future.


Also, read an interview of the artist from Odisha, Ramakanta Samantaray, published in The Antonym

Practicing Art In Secret— In Conversation With Ramakanta Samantaray


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For the month of September, The Antonym will be celebrating Translation Month to mark International Translation Day celebrated on 30th September. A number of competitions, giveaways, podcasts, and more have been lined up for the occasion. Please join The Antonym Global Translators’ Community  for updates!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bishnupriya Chowdhuri is a Bengali artist and writer trying to find her roots across continents and oceans. She weaves hybrid pieces about memory, women, and bodies using what is often awkward if not an unsavory tangle of Bangla and English. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Central Florida. She is a collector of girl names, pretty pebbles, and family recipes. Her address keeps changing. 

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