A not so brief overview of a brief

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Isobelle Carmody and Samhita Arni in Bangalore. Turns out they are kindred spirits and huge fans of Ursula Le Guin. Isobelle collaborated with illustrator Prabha Mallya and Samhita with author Alyssa Brugman.

For those who aren’t familiar with how publishing works, commissioned authors are often sent a ‘brief’ – a set of instructions or outline of what the publisher is hoping to receive from the artist or writer. Usually, the brief for authors contributing to anthologies includes word length, themes and a schedule. But for Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean we asked our contributors for a whole lot more.

We had a lot of faith in our contributors. They were selected on the strength of their existing body of work and the respect we had for their integrity, as both thinkers and writers.

They all delivered more than we expected. Some of the collaborations were way more innovative and complex than we could have anticipated. I like to think that this was in part because of the themes of the anthology. Trust, co-operation and licence to innovate make for a potent starting point to any story.

Working Title: Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean (yes, weird, extravagant, see note below*)

Word length: for prose contributions – 2,500 words – for illustrated stories/graphics – 10 pages

Deadline: 1 December, 2013

Anthology editors: Commissioning editors – Kirsty Murray, Payal Dhar, Anita Roy (Young Zubaan). Allen & Unwin editors – Susannah Chambers and Sarah Brenan.

As this is a collaborative project and the idea behind it was to open up conversations between two distinctively different countries, it was always intended that some authors and illustrators would work together. But when we began discussing the whole project, we realised that it would be wonderful if ‘writers & writers’ as well as ‘artists & writers’ could connect in some small way. We’re hoping that everyone will be happy to at least say ‘hi’ to their Indian/Australian counterpart, maybe exchange an email or two, or skype if you feel comfortable talking about your idea. We have matched all contributors in the hope you might enjoy meeting an Indian/Australian author. It would be lovely if this resulted in a tiny bit of cross-pollination.

The pairing may simply involve conversation, rather than conventional collaboration or sharing of work, perhaps bouncing around a theme or idea or mentioning your starting point. It would be interesting if the two very different pieces wound up containing an element of cross-referencing but it’s not a necessary outcome. There’s no obligation to spend time on this but in the spirit of the project it would be lovely if you could just wave at each other.

In regard to the stories, we’re very open to whatever you come up with but please remember the feminist theme: The central idea is of re-imagining the world from a feminist perspective. We suspect (hope!) some people will interpret “feminist” as thinking their stories around the futures of girls/women, others will see it as a world free of patriarchy and yet others will paint new or alternative social orders based on some other kind of kyriarchy — I don’t think that’s a bad thing, it’ll give us a variety.

Since this is a YA collection, the stories should in some way “speak” to teens. We’re hoping the readership will be roughly 13-17 years of age.

We are open to author-illustrator pairings working out their process together but offer the following suggestions on how to proceed, if you’re feeling unclear:

Once a theme or idea is established it would be great if the writer could send ‘word images’ to illustrators. plus a synopsis to the illustrator. Illustrators can then storyboard the illustrations. Illustrators have free reign to decide how to arrange the illustrations – and also feel free to opt for straight illustration, though we’d really love it if the stories were in graphic narrative format.

We encourage writers to make contact with the visual artists as soon as possible and discuss their themes and ideas with the illustrators. We hope illustrators will offer feedback on the story and also contribute to its development. If you decide a different process suits you better, absolutely fine.

*The Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World Union) had a 1930s labour song about how the bosses and priests tell you that you won’t get to eat pie until you’re in the sky (dead) – which is where the phrase ‘pie in the sky’ came from – something impossible, something you can’t  have in this lifetime. But I liked the idea of swallowing the world, taking big hungry mouthfuls of this life, of eating the half of the sky we’re holding up. It’s about the desire to have and do impossible things, especially things that girls aren’t meant to do. And also of the idea of being connected to the planet. If you eat the sky and drink the ocean you are part of it and everything’s connected. It also seemed to echoe something about strange future worlds and alternative realities. Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean is currently only a working title and may change when we receive the work.

END OF BRIEF

The happy-ever-after end to this not so brief-brief is that no one behaved as we expected – they all rose above our expectation and the working title became the inspiration for new visions, new worlds and an extraordinary new book.

 

Things that add up

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? 

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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,   

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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.

How to edit a cross-cultural Anglo-Indian-Australian melange

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.

Priya Kuriyan, Kirsty Murray, Isobelle Carmody, Anita Roy and  young Indian readers at the Delhi launch of Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean

Priya Kuriyan, Kirsty Murray, Isobelle Carmody, Anita Roy and young Indian readers at the Delhi launch of Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean

Kirsty is an Australian author of books for children and young adults.

“Books are windows into other ways of being.”

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