Words for Worlds - Issue V

Hello, and welcome to the fifth issue of the Words for Worlds newsletter!

What I’m Reading

After submitting the sequel to The Wall earlier this month, I’ve been on a bit of an SFF break. I read two excellent - and connected - works of history: Alice Baumgartner’s South to Freedom, and Sudhir Hazareesingh’s Black Spartacus.

South to Freedom chronicles the 19th-century politics of slavery along the southern border of the United States. It brilliantly weaves together individual stories of the slaves who traveled south to Mexico to gain their freedom, and the political and military conflicts that this engenderd, right up to the Civil War. What struck me most powerfully was the Mexican government’s consistent anti-slavery stand, despite tremendous pressure from the United States, and even after the loss of half its territory - and, leading on from that, the great personal risks that ordinary Mexicans often took to protect escaped slaves from being taken back across the border by their former masters: it is always heartening to know that there are times in history when people - and even governments - do the right things for the right reasons, even when it would be easier, and indeed economically more viable, to not.

Sudhir Hazareesingh’s Black Spartacus is a biography of the Haitian revolutionary leader, Toussaint Louverture. It chronicles Toussaint’s time as a slave on the plantations of (what was then) Saint-Domingue, and the eleven years between the beginning of the revolution (1791), and Toussaint’s capture and imprisonment in France (1802), just before the French forces were defeated and Haiti became independent.

I was struck by the granular historical detail in Black Spartacus - Hazareesingh seems to have analysed every last scrap of correspondence and documentary evidence from those eleven years, painting a vivid, almost daily portrait of a remarkable figure. But Black Spartacus is anything but dry: like CLR James’ Black Jacobins - that also dealt with the Haitian revolution, Hazareesingh is not afraid to take sides (and I mean this in a good way). At times, I felt that the book was veering into apologia: there was always a justification presented for what were admittedly cruel acts, and Toussaint’s motives were (almost always) presented as above reproach. But then I thought of how other historical figures from the time - such as the slave-owning George Washington - are represented, and it struck me that we, as readers, seem to have an internalised double-standards when deciding what is forgivable, and in whom. The singular merit of Black Spartacus is, at least, that Hazeeringh lays out his facts before judgment, and lets the reader come to their own judgment, which might differ from his.

Finally, I did a re-read of Dinkar’s Rashmirathi, the epic Hindi poem about the story of Karna. As a child, I had heard fragments of the poem from my parents, and this was the first time I was reading it cover to cover, as an adult. I continue to be struck by the rhythm of the verse, how brilliantly Dinkar manages to match it to the event (counsel, debate, war) - you can sense your own breathing and pulse respond to the poem’s flow. The final section of the poem - Arjuna and Karna’s duel and Karna’s death - is a long piece of sustained brilliance, the high point of which is Krishna - despite being a god - expressing uncertainty about what is right and what is wrong. It’s hard not to come away at the end without tears in your eyes.

The Indian Scene

The British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) announced its longlists for its 2020 awards yesterday. Samit Basu’s Chosen Spirits and Lavanya Lakshminarayan’s Analogue/Virtual have been long-listed in the best novel category; Prashanth Srivatsa’s “Seven Dreams of a Valley” has been long-listed in the best short fiction category. Congratulations to all, and it is great to see Indian representation at the BSFA awards.

On a side note, an annual BSFA membership is reasonably affordable, and gets you access to the BSFA magazine, as well as nomination and voting rights. Recommended!

What’s Happening at Strange Horizons

I particularly enjoyed Ryu Ando’s short story in this week’s issue.

Recommendation Corner

Nick Joaquin, The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic

I read this book of Filipino magical realism/short SF during a visit to the country in 2018. Joaquin’s short stories are a cross between the half-eerie half-detached tone of Borges, and the relentless wit of Oscar Wilde. They chronicle Manila’s Spanish colonial past, with all its Hispanic undertones, its American-dominated early-20th century, and the post-War devastation. Archbishops rub soldiers with has-been revolutionary leaders, street boys share the pages with new-age religious cults, and in every story there is just that slightest, spine-chilling hint of the fantastic, the other-worldly. And through these stories, Joaquin explores Filipino nationalism, Spanish colonialism, American Imperialism, youth, love, and old age in a shattered Manila, and so much more. As the Foreword – once again – puts it: “His unapologetic, Calibanic choice of English is both rebuke to the occupier and revenge upon it… the Romanism of Chaucer is archaic, but the Romanism of Joaquin is current: it’s about grief under empire.” (xii – xiii)

Quotation Corner

“…the sublime is always ridiculous to the world, senator.”

  • Nick Joaquin