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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Shweta Narayan Talks About ‘Pishaach’

[Interviewer’s Note: This is a series of interviews featuring the contributors of The Beastly Bride: Tales of the Animal People edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling.]

Shweta Narayan was born in India and lived in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, and Scotland before moving to California. She has an ongoing fascination with shapeshifters and other liminal figures, and with fairy tales and folk tales from all over.

Shweta primarily writes short fiction, some of which has recently appeared or is forthcoming in places like Realms of Fantasy, Podcastle, and the Clockwork Phoenix 3 anthology. Not being great with boundaries, she also writes poetry, prose poetry, and odd little in-betweens; much of the poetry can be found online at Goblin Fruit. Several novels are waiting till The Dissertation Is Done (because Shweta’s also a PhD student in Linguistics). She draws when she runs out of words.

Shweta was the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship recipient at the 2007 Clarion workshop.

Charles Tan: Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, what made you decide to combine Selkie stories with serpent/Naga stories?

Shweta Narayan: I don’t think “decide” is quite the right word. I doubt I could approach a Naga story any other way.

Let me unpack that. I’ve loved snakes since my mother took me to the Madras Snake Park when I was five or so, and I’ve actively looked for Naga images and stories as long as I can remember. But while I am a heritage Tamil speaker, I’m neither fluent nor literate in any language native to the Indian subcontinent, and that leaves my understanding of my “own” folklore pretty sparse.

Most of the tales that I grew up with were from Northern Europe; my parents made an active effort to counter that trend, but the European stories were just easiest to find. And since I read a lot, and we didn’t live near any English-language bookstores till I was twelve, just keeping me in reading material must have been a task!

So Selkie tales were part of my formative reading. And when I was seven or eight, I wasn’t left thinking about the objectification of the Selkie bride and her reasons for leaving, or about the distraught husband. Forget the grownups — I wanted to know what happened to their kids! So that’s a story hook that has been hanging around in my brain waiting to latch onto something for a long time.

I only know three patterns of traditional Naga tales: sentient snake interacts with religious figure, hero goes to the land of the Nagas to gain magic or wisdom, and hero goes to the land of the Nagas to get a bride– and that last lies so close to Selkie stories that I never consciously “combined” the traditions, because they were not really separate in my mind to start out with. It felt obvious that Naga brides would be compelled to stay somehow and would leave as soon as they could.

CT: What are the challenges in re-mixing and combining stories of different cultures?

SN: I wouldn’t know! As you might guess from my answer to the first question, stories of different cultures are all jumbled together in my mind already, and it’s pulling them apart and staying true to one culture that would be difficult for me.

I do think there’s a serious risk of falling into colonial patterns with a background like mine — of making the Indian side of the story mere “exotic trappings” to what’s essentially a British story. And there’s no way someone like myself, who has really only been a visitor in India since early childhood, can write a fully authentic Indian story. I’ve certainly done the best I can, but it’s inherently an outsider narrative in more than one sense.

CT: Where did the title Pishaach come from?

SN: I asked someone from Mumbai for a good insult term that might be used against a girl who is threateningly weird; something analogous to “witch” that wouldn’t sound out of place coming from kids in the Mumbai area. Pishaach was one of his suggestions.

The reason I went with it, both as the insult and the title, is that it has mythic resonances that work for the story. “Pishaacha” is (depending on the story) an individual or a race in Hindu mythology. They (or she) are flesh-eating malevolent spirits, commonly translated as “demons”, though I think that’s misleading.

Members of the mythic race can also possess people, causing general weird behavior — so I think the insult could be read two ways when it’s used against Shruti, and either works.

CT: For some of the contributors, their stories in the antho are about being of two worlds, of metamorphosis, of change. Is this also reflective of your own personal experience? (And if so, how?)

SN: Yes — in just about every way conceivable. I don’t believe I could write this story now. It came out of my experience, fears, and understanding at a time when I was going through major life changes.

I was in my first year of marriage to my wonderful husband, whose ethnic heritage is all-European, and who is culturally a California boy. We’d been together for some years before marrying, but socially (at least to my side of the family) marriage is Different. And while it all worked out, the process of getting there was fraught at times. So I was really living the between-worlds experience in a new and sometimes daunting way.

I was also having health issues (quite serious ones, as I’ve discovered since) that were affecting my cognition, leaving me feeling like an academic failure for the first time in my life. I was supposed to be writing my dissertation, not a short story, and I could not make sense of concepts I’d understood for years. So changes triggered by my health were a part of Shruti’s changes.

CT: What’s the appeal of the Beastly Bride concept for you?

SN: Oh, it’s such a wonderful concept! Shapeshifter stories in general speak to me — not only because of my marriage but because I’m a third-culture kid, an Indian who grew up almost everywhere but India, and I don’t fully share a culture with anyone I love. So characters who can pass as members of a culture, while being something else entirely inside, give me a thrill of recognition that no other archetype does. And in the Beastly Bride(groom) stories, they get to try out living with someone else, and they let *us* get at, and think about, all the anxieties and joys of loving and living with someone from a different world.

3 Comments on EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Shweta Narayan Talks About ‘Pishaach’

  1. Lise Breakey // May 26, 2010 at 2:52 pm //

    Way to go, Shweta!  I’m so proud to know you.

  2. C.S.E. Cooney // May 26, 2010 at 3:25 pm //

    Aside from inciting an earnest Pavlovian droolfest in my mouth, Shweta Narayan’s prose always TEACHES me something. And this interview is no different.


    CT: Where did the title Pishaach come from?

    What a great question, Mr. Tan. Thanks for asking it.


    And Shweta, thanks for the answer. It gave me joy in the pit of my stomach.

    Now I guess I have to read this story, don’t I?

  3. I agree, the question about the title of the piece was totally informative and interesting.  I love fascinating little windows like that into the connotative thought process of the author.  The interleaving of themes from the author’s life into story also adds a fair bit of richness to me when I read the story.  I know folks who will argue that it detracts, and that the story should stand alone, but interviews like this are pretty major drivers for me to go buy books.  If I know what they were trying to do, it gives me an additional angle to look at how they did it.

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