Have you wondered why you’ve never heard of an anthology of Indian and Australian speculative fiction? Or why, if you’re Australian, you’ve never heard of so many of the Indian writers and artists whose work is in Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean?
The things that keep Australians from reading and enjoying indigenous Indian fiction and that keep Indians from discovering the work of Australian writers and artists is nothing to do with any lack of talent on the part of the creators. It’s mostly to do with market forces, with our shared history of colonisation and with British and American dominance of international distribution and their control of territorial rights. Post-colonial nations face myriad difficulties when it comes side-stepping the entrenched blocks that have kept direct conversations developing between cultures across Asia and the Southern hemisphere. But this is a long and complicated discussion that requires more than a single blog post to explain.
In an age of shrinking book sales, publishers have every right to be nervous of proposals with no precedent. Hopefully, Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean will set a small benchmark for what’s possible in regard to cross-cultural collaborations and in years to come we’ll see more and varied publishing ventures that transcends time, space, financial barriers and cultural boundaries.Suffice to say that without support from the Australia Council for the Arts,
Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean would never have gotten off the ground. Thanks to a Creative Partnerships with Asia Grant, I was able to get the ball rolling and guarantee Australian Society of Author rates to the contributors. It meant that Young Zubaan and Allen & Unwin could take a punt on a left-field project. The grant allowed the writers, editors and publishers the time needed to produce a book of integrity and quality. As worthwhile as the idea for the anthology sounded to both publishers, the logistics seemed impossible and it would have been ‘pie-in-the-sky’ without funds to kickstart the project. Independent funding was crucial.
When travelling in India, I’ve often been complimented on the fact that, for an Australian, my English is quite good. Australians have a reputation for speaking incomprehensible slang. English is a plastic language that adapts itself to take on national characteristics but thankfully, with concentration, its possible to adjust your ear to most versions of it. I never had trouble making myself understood while travelling on the sub-continent as the English language is just one of the many things we share with India.
India is the second largest English speaking country in the world after the United States of America. Approximately 125,226,449 Indians speak English – every day. That figure is expected to quadruple in the next decade. It’s also a multi-lingual country with English and Hindi as the official languages of government. But there are twenty-two other official languages of the union. In addition, hundreds of languages and dialects are used across the sub-continent. In some ways, those varied languages inform the way English is spoken in India yet Indian-English is far more ‘British’ than Australian English.
All of the Indian contributors to Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean speak perfect, impeccable English. Many of them fluently speak several other languages as well. It may seem odd to mention this but it’s surprising how often I’ve been asked about how I went about organising ‘translations’ of the Indian contributors’ work.
Thousands of words that English speakers use daily all around the world have their origins in India. The lines between Australian English and Indian English can be very blurry – pyjama, bungalow, rice, verandah, shampoo, khaki, thug, chutney and even archaic words that Australians associate with WWI ANZACS, like ‘Blighty’ are derived from Indian languages (to name just a few).
Nevertheless, small questions arose from both the Aussie and Indian editorial teams about different usages in the anthology. Payal and Anita were mystified by terms like “veggie-maths”, “panel beater” and bunyip. I found myself explaining that ‘cat-calls’ is synonymous with ‘Eve-teasing’. I was unclear about what odhni meant, only familiar with the more common word, dupatta, used to describe a long Indian shawl. Then, when the stories went through another stage of editing with Susannah Chambers and Sarah Brenan at Allen & Unwin, I began adding explanations in my emails about the cultural and historical context of some of the Indian stories, not because the stories couldn’t be read seamlessly, but because understanding something about the Mughal Empire or the story of how Krishna’s mother saw the universe in her baby son’s mouth enriches the reading of the stories.
Australian and Indian fiction published in the USA tends to be edited to make it more ‘friendly’ to American readers whereas Indians and Australians read American fiction with out query, despite all it’s linguistically idiosyncratic terms. In many ways, as former British colonies, Australia and India have a closer understanding of each others use of English than we do of American English, though we are inundated by American culture. One of the satisfying things about editing Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean was realising how small the gap between cultures can be and to see the potential to deepen the connections through the power of story.
Originally, Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean was only going to contain the work of eighteen writers and illustrators but in September 2012 I had a revelation at the Brisbane Writers Festival. Sometimes writers festivals do that to you. It was one of those slap yourself on the forehead moments.
I was a guest at the BWF as a member of The Bookwallah along with Australian author Benjamin Law and Indian authors Annie Zaidi and Chandrahas Choudhury. So many things Indian, and especially to do with the anthology, were on my mind. And then I saw Justine Larbalastier speak about her work and realised we simply HAD to have one of her stories in the anthology and somehow I was going to have to figure out how to make the grant funds stretch.
I’ve tracked Justine’s career for years and have always been a big fan of her work. But all the other authors had been working on their stories for a few months so I wasn’t surprised Justine was reluctant to come on board at first but I am so grateful to her that she took the plunge. Because I love her story ‘Little Red Suit‘, a gripping futuristic retelling of Little Red Riding Hood.
The other great thing about getting Justine on board was that it forced the editorial team to sit down and think which Indian writer would be included in the mix to balance the Australians out. And that’s when Anita Roy signed on as a contributor as well as co-editor. The book was now perfect – 10 Indian contributors, 10 Australians and all three co-editors included in the line-up.
Anita was a little shy about coming on board as a writer although she’s written millions of words across a long career in publishing. Her short story Cooking Time was polished up while on a writing residency at Sangam House and added a fresh new flavour to the balance of stories in the collection.
Anita is a powerhouse as a stand-up comedian and story-teller so when Isobelle Carmody and I went to India last November, Anita mc’d events in Delhi where she lives and Kolkata where she was born. Perhaps it’s the fact that she is so well-travelled that made her time-travelling story so arresting. Global food crises and centuries of cuisines made Cooking Time a seriously tasty addition to Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean.