I first met Amruta Patil on an inky dark night at a dinner party in an old Goan beach house.
The Bookwallahs and I had driven for what seemed like hours down the tiny winding backroads of Goa to reach the home of Indian performance artist Nikhil Chopra. Although Amruta and I only chatted briefly at the dinner party, I was struck by the way she talked about her graphic novel Adi Parva.
Amruta is both a writer and a fine artist, one of those people who is as at ease with words as she is with paint. Before leaving Delhi later that year, I made sure I tracked down a copy of both the magical Adi Parva and Amruta’s earlier darkly urban graphic novel, Kari.
When Anita, Payal and I discussed which Indian illustrators we wanted to see included in Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean, Amruta was on everyone’s list. As both a writer and an illustrator, Amruta was keen to create a solo piece for the anthology rather than have to collaborate with a writer. None of the editors wanted to force the collaborative process on any of the contributors and co-incidentally, one of the Australian graphic novelists, Nicki Greenberg, felt very similarly to Amruta about creating a solo piece (more of Nicki’s story in a later blogpost).
I love Appetite, the story Amruta created for the anthology. It beautifully articulates the way young women are told to curb their hunger for life, how from adolescent onwards, girls are told to be a smaller, lesser version of themselves. The protagonist of Appetite, Coral, is a voracious, feisty character – a true sky-eater and ocean swallower.
Not many of the contributors to Eat theSky, Drink the Ocean had the chance to meet in person and most of the collaborations were via email, phone and skype. One exception was the creators of the magical graphically illustrated story, Anarkali.
Moat is in the basement beneath the Wheeler Centre for Books and Ideas. Its thick stone walls shield patrons from the noise of the city so it’s a good place to think your own thoughts – or in this case – share ideas. I dropped by to see how Annie & Mandy were getting along, feeling a little like an anxious matchmaker as I sat down to listen to their conversation.
Both Mandy and Annie generally create contemporary realist work. Annie is one of those multi-talented writers who has tackled every form – she’s a poet, playwright, journalist, filmmaker, short-story writer and a novelist. She’s not conventionally considered a YA author but she had co-authored The Bad Boys’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl, a collection of stories about Indian teenagers navigating the tricky transition into adulthood, and all the editors wanted to see her work in the anthology.
Mandy Ord is a prolific cartoonist and comic book artist whose book Sensitive Creatures was selected for the prestigious White Raven list at the 2012 Bologna Book Fair. Mandy’s dark, urban landscapes and strangely melancholy characters are very Melbourne in their flavour but universal in their emotional depth.
When I joined Annie and Mandy at their table in Moat Cafe, they were talking about what sort of rules they might break to transform a story from realism to speculative fiction. Annie paused for a moment and rested her hand on the thick wall of the basement cafe. Then she began to tell Mandy the story of Anarkali, of how the great Mughal Emperor Akbar had entombed a beautiful young dancer in the walls of his palace for the crime of loving his son, Prince Salim.
I saw the excitement in both Annie and Mandy’s faces as they started talking about how a retelling of this story might work, of how they might change Anarkali’s fate. When the drafts of the story tipped into my dropbox and I opened the files my heart began to race.. Annie’s pared back words read like poetry and Mandy’s stark, vivid illustrations gave a boldness to the tale that encapsulated everything I’d hoped for the stories in the anthology.
Before working with Annie, Mandy had never been to India and knew few Indian stories. In January, Mandy and Annie were both guests of the ZEE Jaipur Literary Festival, the largest literary festival in the world that is staged each year in Rajasthan. Before an audience of hundreds of Indian readers, they discussed the genesis of their re-telling of Anarkali in the gorgeous and lavish Durbar Hall of the Hotel Diggi Palace. The Diggi Palace was converted from the home of the royal family of Jaipur to a heritage hotel in 1991. In some ways, the ornate setting is a world away from the Moat Cafe but thanks to the power of the story of Anarkali, the the stones and the stories of the two venues are mysteriously connected. You only have to use your imagination and you can start walking through walls.
A lot of people have asked me about the strange and evocative title of Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean and where it came from. When I mention the Wobblies, most people look mystified. Even if you know who they are, it’s not necessarily easy to see how a collection of YA speculative fiction focussing on young women can connect to a group of rugged labourers form the early 20th Century.
So – some background. The Wobblies was the nickname of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical international labour union that was formed in America in 1905. There are dozens of songs associated with the unionists but one of the most famous is Joe Hill’s The Preacher and the Slave . Written in 1911, Joe Hill’s song became so iconic that a line from the chorus entered popular culture.
You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.
In the early 20th Century, the unions saw the churches as being inextricably linked to the bosses. Workers had to know their place and not expect too much for themselves or their families.
You can watch plenty of versions of the song on Youtube but my favourite version is from the album pictured above.
I came across the song while researching the early 20th century for my novel The Year It All Ended which is set in 1919. Not long after reading about the Wobblies, Anita, Payal and I were bouncing around possible titles for the anthology including Tomorrow is another Country and Quantum Leap. But I was humming Joe Hill’s song as I worked and thinking about how we were all talking about wanting a world that was out of reach.
Reading about the labour movement of the early 20th Century led me to think of where women fitted in the fight for fair working conditions and of Chairman Mao’s famous quote that ‘women hold up half the sky’. So much fantastic progress has been made for working people in Australia but women still earn, on average, 15% less than men for the same work and sadly, the gap has widened in the last decade. If women are holding up half the sky, they are being paid much less for their labours.
Somehow, Joe Hill’s cheekiness took hold and I talked with Payal and Anita about taking down that bit of ‘pie in the sky’ and eating it right now. So Eat the Sky was born as the first half of the working title. Drink the Ocean came a short time later as an extension of the title needing more balance. Later, I realised that I’ve always associated the ocean with mermaids and sea goddesses and that drinking the ocean was a natural expression of the mystery of our connection to the sea and the tides . We also joked that all that kept the Indian and Australian creators apart was a stretch of ocean. Although we only thought of it as a working title to begin with, it provided such direct inspiration to so many of the stories that by the time all the contributors work was submitted, we knew we couldn’t change it.