The Lone and Level Sands

St. Jerome Reading in the Desert, Giovanni Bellini, 1480
St. Jerome Reading in the Desert, Giovanni Bellini, 1480.

There have been two Brandon Sanderson profiles in mainstream media outlets in recent* weeks. Jason Kehe in Wired  and Adam Morgan in Esquire. The first begins by bemoaning the lack of mainstream literary attention paid to Sanderson and sets out to repair it; the second comments critically on the first, which was widely perceived as something of a hatchet job, though I didn’t think so. To me, both pieces read as positive overall, despite both containing criticisms. Kehe’s primary criticism is about Sanderson’s writing; Morgan’s is about Sanderson’s support, both moral and financial, for the homophobic Mormon Church. Both of these criticisms are undercut. Kehe comes around to the perspective that, while Sanderson writes bad sentences, this is fine because sentences don’t matter, only story does. What does it matter if someone is a bad writer, if writing itself is bad? Meanwhile, Morgan focuses on Sanderson’s commercial successes and how good he is as an entrepreneur and employer. What does it matter if someone materially supports homophobia, if they put queer representation in their books? 

Both profiles do make interesting points, as well, at least in the sense that it’s interesting to hear these claims made in this way, on these platforms. Kehe—who is obviously a fan, who else could read 17 to 20 novels by any given author and be familiar enough with the lore to claim bona fides—takes the criticism of Sanderson as a poor writer of prose to a very familiar place: story over sentences, worlds over writing. This is Asimov’s plateglassery combined with Tolkien’s celebration of worldbuilding; a conversation central to the genre for decades, in other words—this is what the New Wave was about. The disdain for ornate language, as I’ve written about before, has been a misguided literary commonplace for centuries, its roots in a combination of Christian denunciation of pagan excess and Orientalist denunciation of the florid East, now routinely presented as standard stylistic advice. Asimov’s essay on “plate glass” writing is only a minor variant of this tradition.

Tolkien, meanwhile, warrants special citation here because Kehe’s profile of Sanderson is quite reminiscent of the argument of Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories.” Both represent a Christian-framed mythology of consolation (perhaps inevitably,  the first hit for Tolkien’s essay as of this writing is a PDF of the essay hosted on the website of an explicitly homophobic Christian  sect, Calvary Georgetown Divide. I have here linked to a different copy) that presents the fantasist as (sub)creator, a maker of worlds, as Tolkien argues and Kehe reaffirms on Sanderson’s behalf. “On Fairy Stories” is, I believe, the essay in which Tolkien originally coined the phrase “secondary world,” now as commonplace as a dead darling. The religious framing is not necessary for the eucatastrophic ending that Tolkien describes, though he does frame it that way, but in his concept of worldbuilding it is inescapable. There is creation, the primary world, authored by a  primary creator, belief in whom and in which is fundamental to proper  living. And then there is the subcreation, the secondary world, authored  in homage, in which belief is required for proper reading. As above, so below: belief is paramount in both cases, i.e., the suspension of disbelief. Worlds must be made with care, consistency, and coherence. Such is the  responsibility of a (sub)creator. Kehe’s argument on Sanderson is this, rehashed: that Sanderson is not (much of) a writer but a (great) worldbuilder, both on and off the page. Morgan extends the latter part of that argument with his comparison of Sanderson’s 64-person enterprise to an indie game studio, with employees to help with every aspect of production from continuity to merchandise to event management.

This is all very well for the entrepreneurial, the would-be heads of  their own production studios, the subcreators-in-waiting, the wiki-ready and metatronic  among us. But I think it would be uncontroversial to say that—while I’m sure anyone would be pleased to make vast sums of money—many novelists, perhaps most, have no desire whatsoever to build or run the kind of enterprise-grade apparatus that  Sanderson has and does. Most novelists are not, in my experience, desirous of becoming startup founders. But this is also why I think the distinction between writers and worldbuilders is meaningful. This distinction, too, has its own long history in the genre. In a way, this, too, is what the New Wave was about. Michael Moorcock has long cogently argued that “worldbuilding is a failure of literary sophistication,” that the pseudo-realism that requires the suspension of disbelief is not something to aspire to. Or M. John Harrison in his instantly-legendary notes on worldbuilding in 2007:

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically neccessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study.

In 2020, Helen Marshall published an excellent paper on this, called “A  flare of light or ‘the great clomping foot of nerdism?’: M John  Harrison’s radical poetics of worldbuilding” (full text available from here as a PDF), which contextualizes and comments on Harrison’s remarks in more detail and is well worth reading—among other things, it is a good counter to the contemporary ubiquity of the worldbuilding ideology among writers of fiction and critics alike, including the literary profile writers. 

Coming back to Christian symbolism of worldbuilding as a work of subcreation, Harrison had something to say about that, too

The whole idea of worldbuilding  is a bad idea about the world as much as it is a bad idea about fiction. It’s a secularised, narcissised version of the fundamentalist Christian view that the world’s a watch & God’s the watchmaker. It reveals the bad old underpinnings of the humanist stance. It centralises the author, who hands down her mechanical toy to a complaisant audience (which rarely thinks to ask itself if language can deliver on any of the representational promises it is assumed to make), as a little god. And it flatters everyone further into the illusions of anthropocentric demiurgy which have already brought the real world to the edge of ecological disaster.

This, I think, is the real danger of worldbuilding as a practice and a literary norm. This is the science-fictional root of longtermism, the clomping foot of the boy demiurges attempting to build a world of the world. As with the real homophobia behind representation on the page, this requires the suspension of disbelief. The world, to be built, must be made small. The technique requires the stripping away of complexities. It is not ambiguous that Eru Ilúvatar created the world. That is a simple fact, the kind of fact that is not only unavailable in what Tolkien called the primary world, not only ridiculous, dangerous and arrogant if treated as fact, not only contestable but with deep and consequential histories of contestation. It is common to describe worldbuilding projects as encyclopedic, but few worldbuilding projects have the space (or the interest) to investigate the depths of historical-psychological complexity, ambiguity, unknowability, and irreducibility that might be seen in the edit history of a single contested Wikipedia page—to say nothing of the epistemological failures of Wikipedia itself, its biases and overwhelmingly vast absences. Worldbuilding as a totalizing project cannot help but fail. My feeling is that “suspension of disbelief” and “secondary world” were not helpful ways to think about what is actually happening when we read a text, and yet they are tropes so influential and well-established that many of us take them as givens, as expectations of how we should read and what a fantastical text is supposedly doing.

Not everything that comes in the form of a  book is the same kind of object, even when they look vaguely similar. Some books are television—screenplays avant le deal memo. Some books are franchise tie-ins, in most cases anticipating the franchise. Some books are novels of one type or  another. It’s odd to see mainstream glossy magazine profiles unthinkingly—unknowingly?—reproduce arguments half a century old at minimum, but perhaps this is apposite. In my view, this is what Christopher Priest’s attempts to make slipstream a thing or Harrison’s own attempt to coin and claim New Weird was about: to carve out an acknowledged space for writing to be writing in all its slippery quiddity, the opposite of what Kehe claims for Sanderson—a place where the sentences matter, and are the whole of the matter. 

* This was written, and published on my Patreon, at the end of March. If you’d also like to see my essays and updates early, you can sign up at

Make Your Bones

"Ezekiel’s Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones", Gustav Doré (1866), the biblical passage that also inspired the song "Dem Bones."

Fiction is a mutating rat king of genres writhing in an oversized trenchcoat, yet many of them have different readerships with little overlap for all that their tails are tied together. This thought originally came from seeing (yet another iteration upon the endless samsaric wheel of) commentary about “YA fantasy” vs. “adult fantasy.” I won’t rehash the arguments, they are familiar. But some thoughts on genre’s functioning in general. How “YA fantasy,” for example, is a genre, if a broad one, to the extent that there are specific expectations when you pick up a YA novel: protagonist age range, coming-of-age narrative, &c., and “adult fantasy” is not. If anything, “adult fantasy” is merely a negative marketing signal to clearly identify things that are not YA, so that nobody gets mad about buying the wrong thing. To set expectations more clearly in novels (for anyone) a broader vocabulary of genre is needed, and so the signals rapidly escalate into marking comedy and tragedy, into tropes and settings and devices and even entire recognizable plots.

A great many things tell us what to expect from a given book that we might have in our hands, and as readers and book-buyers, we are all quite adept at navigating these signals. Many of them are obvious—imprints, presses, and authors become known for the kind of work they produce. Cover design, marketing, and bookstore placement send many messages. And of course, genre. A common objection is that genre is “only” marketing, and yes, sure, do we not all live within the hellmarket? What is interesting about genre is that it is there, and visibly doing some kind of work, and it is one of the simplest ways that readers encounter intertextuality.

Genre is not neatly diagrammable or mappable precisely because maps make gaps, and that summons Things to arise in the gaps and change the territory. Genre is necessarily vague. A sort of thing, a kind of thing. To say that something is a genre is to say that it’s a particular kind of thing, that you can have specific expectations of it. You can read Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone and move on to Clare’s City of Bones and then to Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and they all have more in common than bone-themed titles: they have the same broad plot about an alienated young person who discovers themselves to be not only empowered but central to intrigues. Which is not a criticism; the pleasure of a genre is precisely that it reproduces pleasure. City of Bones is also the title of one of Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels, for instance, and that’s a different genre that’s equally repetitive, if not more so, and whose reproducible pleasures are even more tightly wound. (A mystery that is never (re)solved can be a novel, but it’s no longer in the genre of mystery novel.) Or consider Stephen King’s Bag of Bones, which employs this reproduction of pleasure, this setting and meeting/subverting of expectations, at multiple levels: in the classic ghost story it retells, in allusions to Rebecca, and most of all in a recognizable subgenre of King himself, stories about blocked middle-aged writers with fucked up family lives and supernatural midlife crises.

A work is within a genre to the extent (all sets are fuzzy; crispness is an illusion) that it sets expectations and meets/subverts them so that the reader’s experience of the pleasures of that text include the reproduction of the strange into the familiar. This provides a vast array of highly specific prefabricated options, some of them vast Kirbytech machines (“big rocks that do magic”—for example, the time travel in Swanwick’s Bones of the Earth) and some plot structures well-known enough to rate as tropes that readers can ask for (“enemies to lovers” &c.). This is also the logic of comps and loglines: to anchor the new in the known and predict the pleasures of the text in advance. You can see this as a buyer’s perspective—the reader deciding how to spend their money, the acquiring editor trying to predict those decisions, the agent trying to predict those decisions, very marketplace, so capitalism—and that’s true, but I think much the same dynamic would apply even when substituting time and attention for money. That is, this isn’t necessarily about hellmarket rules. In any world, the mortal reader must choose what to read next, and that decision is predicated on their prediction of the pleasure that text will produce.

Texts get called literary—as pejorative or plaudit, being either low culture or high culture snobbery depending on speaker; there is no non-snobbish way to refer to such texts, so I am employing it in both senses at once for maximum snobbery—to the extent that the text’s pleasures are not rooted in the setting and meeting/subverting of expectations, or rather, since expectations are inevitable in the florid multiplying of signals in all directions from all sources, to the extent that the text uproots itself from this concern and orients itself to a different plane. For example, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, an undeniably literary text says Messrs. Nobel and Booker, is indeed a crime novel, but its signal pleasures are not in the plot, where it sets and subverts expectations in a familiar way otherwise indistinguishable from a genre crime novel in the subgenre of unreliable quirky narrators, but in the prose, and in what, from the perspective of moving the plot forward, as in getting us from A to B as effectively as possible, is extraneous: the astrology, the William Blake, the character’s perspective. Either way it’s a good book, but what makes it literary is that reading it to find out whodunnit is not the greatest pleasure of the text.

Of course these things are not in fact extraneous. There is no necessity to get us from A to B as effectively as possible, merely the possibility. You can go from A to B via a detour through the rest of the alphabet, you can fake out B with C or Q for that matter; you can not go anywhere at all and simply explore the world of A itself: what a strange character this is, bipedal and arms crossed, a buffalo stance. All that matters is whether it works. (Itself the most complicated possible question that can be asked about a text, I know, but we shall gently contain its tremendous radioactive fallout to this aside. Run and save yourself—I’ll stay behind to close the parenthesis behind you.)

I am trying to avoid a hierarchy of snobbery in either direction by arguing that there is no flat plane upon which to build it. The reason that literary and genre are not mutually exclusive definitions is that they are concerned with different things, different planes set at odd angles to each other: they may intersect and overlap in various places, but as terms, they are not the same kind of thing. That is to say, literary and genre are not in the same genre, and to say so is a literary concern. The literary concern is whether words matter, whether the familiar instruments of language are made strange. It is quite normal to have texts where the words very much do not matter, as anyone who reads enough novels knows. Sometimes such texts translate easily to television because they were already television: the novel that is actually a screenplay in waiting. Those are simple examples of texts that are definitionally not-literary.

This is orthogonal to genre’s definitional playing with expectations because it is easy for a text to do both things. Consider Garner’s Boneland: a decades-later “adult” sequel to a pair of classic fantasy novels that would probably have been marketed as YA or children’s literature if they had been published somewhat later. It is a book that is burdened with formal expectations, and yet it is a book where the words matter so much that, as Le Guin wrote of it, you read it to figure it out gradually, “as with poetry, learning another language, learning to see and think differently.” Boneland is a book where the words matter from beginning to end, a book that absolutely delights in what is extraneous to structured plot in prefabricated units, while still visibly working within structures derived from a well-worn magical children’s adventure fantasy tradition worked before by many writers, from Susan Cooper to Dianne Duane to Garner himself. That is to say, it addresses both literary and genre concerns. Many books achieve this quality only in fragments, or perhaps not at all; even more books never intended to achieve any such thing, and so meet their own expectations.

A book—as a commercial product ensconced in the paratextual full three-piece suit of cover and blurbs and marketing—sets expectations relentlessly, but it is not a given that the text it contains will always meet them in a predictable way. Outside of the most neutral-tasting extruded product made from recycled mush, many texts are still at least a little wild, suffering themselves to be dressed up in order to be permitted onto a shelf in a store. To find that wildness in a text, even if brief and fragmentary, to find the places where it plays with the expectations in unexpected ways, to find those moments where the words matter, to me this is the pleasure of reading.

This essay brought to you by my patrons and was posted early access over on Patreon a month ago. (See also my most recent Readings post, which went on my Patreon as a patrons-only post and I forgot to post about it here.)

The Unsigned Cross

Last year when Nandini and I visited the Don Bosco Museum of Indigenous Cultures in Meghalaya, I remember pointing at this mural and being like oh hey they did a homage to— but at that moment, my mind was quite blank; I could remember only that I knew the original painting being referenced, but not what it was, and promptly forgot all about it before my phone got any signal again, so I didn’t look it up. But just now I happened upon the picture in my photo album and remembered this time: Dalí’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross.

The Don Bosco Museum is run by the Salesians, who have been active in the region for a century, and has several exhibits focusing on the history of Christian missionaries &c. in the region. Hence the mural, which is the least of these. The museum itself was constructed in the 90s, so the mural presumably must date from no earlier. Salvador Dalí made his painting in 1951, so in his Catholic fascist era—well, he had been a fascist for far longer, but in keeping with his move to Francoist Spain, the Catholicism was relatively new.

Dalí lived to cause offence and the most offensive thing a member of the Spanish avant garde could do, by 1951, was to endorse the church and praise the religious traditions that Franco claimed were the true Spanish heritage. This painting glories in sleek archaism. Its style may look cornily photographic or cinematic but actually it is closely modelled on visionary 17th century Spanish paintings by Zurbaran and Velazquez.

(from this 2009 article by Jonathan Jones)

That citation of Zurbarán is interesting, because perhaps even more than the novelty of the point of view, what I always found striking about the Dalí is that piece of paper resting on the cross at its top, folded into quarters and with a corner lifted, in place of a titulus crucis. It is faithfully recreated in the form of what looks like an equally blank scroll, in the Don Bosco mural. Neither says INRI, as one might expect, and they do not have an artist’s signature, as would be traditional with a cartellino (in Italian; in Spanish a cartela), a once-popular trompe l’oeil device to include a note (looking more or less exactly like that) about the painting or its painter in the painting itself. Francisco de Zurbarán used cartelas as signatures frequently, as did many other Spanish painters of the period, such as El Greco, in paintings such as these: El Greco’s Saint Andrew and Saint Francis (1595-1598) on the right, with the cartela on the ground beside them, or Zurbarán’s The Martyrdom of Saint Serapion (1628) on the left, where the cartela is pinned to the tree or post or which the saint is bound.

In both of the above paintings, the cartela exists within the world of the painting, much as the unsigned note does in the Dalí. That is interesting because there are cartelas that exists on a different diegetic plane (and of course I am fascinated with travel between diegetic planes, this being a major concern of my own writing) such as, for instance, Zurbarán’s own Adoration of the Shepherds (1638) below, which places the trompe l’oeil cartela figuratively on the surface of the painting, as if it were literally a tag attached to the canvas.

Last year, there was some Dalí news. In the 70s, a good twenty years after the painting above, Dalí revisited it to create a sculpture of the same name: Christ of Saint John of the Cross. Or rather, he made a wax model that could be used to cast multiple bas-relief sculptures using a process that is known as lost wax casting.

This is how lost wax casting works, in brief, as I understand it. An artist makes an original model in clay or wax or anything they want to work in. A mould is made from this model, and the desired number of wax copies can be made using the mould. A given wax copy like this is coated with a kind of sandy slurry to create a heat-resistant final mould around it. This is then put in a kiln under extreme heat to melt the wax out (hence “lost wax” as a name for the method), leaving a hollow, heat-resistant mould into which molten bronze or another suitable metal can be poured for the final casting. While multiple such bas-relief casts of the Christ of Saint John of the Cross have been circulating, the original wax model that Dalí made in the 70s had been lost until last year, when it was found and appropriately overpriced. Presumably due to it having been lost, this wax model is also apparently called The Lost Wax, which is either somebody’s very clever pun on a lost wax model used for lost wax casting, or just everybody being very confused about what’s going on. The model, and a typical bas-relief, look like this.

To me, it looks like absolute ass, just a total piece of shit, though of course I am not a doctor. It seems odd that Dalí would tie this garbage to his (controversial, probably fascist somehow, but iconic) painting by using the same title. Much casual commentary seems to claim that the bas-relief is replicating the painting in three dimensions somehow, which is nonsensical to me since the angles are completely different, this one being much more conventional—frankly, I don’t know if the doubled angles of the painting can even be represented in sculpture at all, it seems to me that this is impossible by design? But perhaps this is, to borrow a phrase kept alive to this day by Sri Lankan newspaper editors, only Dalí belatedly snook-cocking at the paragone. Anyway, the interesting thing about this sculpture is that it lacks the cartela, and the INRI has reasserted itself. Whatever he was doing in the 50s, here he is doing something else.

How can we read an unsigned cartela in place of the titulus on a cross? Is that absence about the authorship of the painting, or the authorship of the crucifixion? The diegetic plane—the surface of the cross, not the surface of the canvas—suggests the latter, and perhaps that is why this crucifixion is bloodless. Perhaps, too, the absence of the titulus mirrors the absence of the nails and the thorns: every instrument of pain has been removed from this crucifixion, including the cruel words. Or perhaps it is that signature itself is superfluous in the age of celebrity, so there is only the gesture, only the sign of a signature. All this you see in fiction, too. Everyone from Stephen King on down has written themselves in as a character, and that’s not even counting more or less thinly disguised author inserts or autofiction. But there is also a broader question in the unsigned signature, which it seems to me lies in what we sometimes call style, which is a poor word for this thing, this suchness, this idea of a particular articulation of the world expressed in the work produced by a singular human embodied consciousness, which is to say, it is the articulation of the world by the world—its complexity, its violences, its graces—as refracted through a tiny lens, this eye of a needle, that we call a person.

Both Dalí’s painting and sculpture refer repeatedly to the Christ of St. John of the Cross, which is an actual drawing drawn by St. John of the Cross, a crucifixion “from above,” made in the 1570s. This is what John drew.

It is remarkably strange, most especially in the angles. Different from what Dalí chose to go with, but equally unusual, and now post-Dalí, certainly more so. Not only the angle of viewing, but in the off-kilterness of the cross itself. It leans backwards, lit from behind; Christ hangs forward, shadowed. Unlike Dalí, John of the Cross did not omit the nails. This drawing is small. Four inches high, three inches wide. It would stand, a cross-section, comfortably inside the human brain. Juan de Yepes y Álvarez, who had been John of the Cross for less than a decade by then, saw this in a vision and drew what he saw. Or at least, that is how we say it, when we speak of this sort of thing, how we contain the thought of someone’s mould overflowing with something raw and glowing and overheated, on the verge of shattering. There is no indication that John of the Cross intended this drawing to become public, to whatever extent that meant anything four and a half centuries ago. Dalí, too, claimed that he saw his painting in a vision, in a cosmic dream, but he would say that, wouldn’t he.

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The Root and the Hour

The “Sinhala nation” does not exist, and yet the state is designed in its service, and all politics revolves around its fears and desires. This is how we got where we are.

This is not the need of the hour, you might say: we were talking about gas, and food, and fertilizer, and the absent dollar. I agree. This is not the need of the hour. The hour, which has many needs, is greedy. It wishes to swallow up all thought with its many mouths. The hour has no time for the day or the decade, much less the century. With nothing but the eternity of hours in our hands, we exchange the important for the urgent. The hazard is not simply that the one goes unaddressed in favour of the other: it is that the many branchings of the urgent are rooted in the important, and by ignoring the root for the branch, we address symptom but not cause. Worse, we accept the unaddressed cause as a given, take its framings for histories, incorporate its agendas into our purported solutions, and thereby create more and more urgent needs for the hours to come. That, too, is how we got where we are.

El incendio de noche, Francisco Goya, c. 1793

Ever since independence, and in fact, even before independence, Sinhala-Buddhist discrimination, boycotts, and pogroms against minorities—“riots” is how they are often described, but we are beyond euphemism and out of fucks to give—are the basis of how this country works. The pogrom, in particular, is not a moment of aberration. It is fundamental. The pogrom is a disciplining engine. Its purpose is to restate the nation-state. The pogrom is a ceremonial recitation of the vision statement, for a country defined in the attempt to create a clear-cut, fixed Sinhala majority that would forever rule the island: rendering of half the Tamil population stateless, boycotts against Tamil businesses, the erasure of the Tamil language, violence against peaceful Tamil protestors. This was the defining issue at independence, and, with hundreds of thousands dead and the North under occupation, it is the defining issue today. This is not, as it is usually framed, “the Tamil question.” This is the Sinhala question.

The baseline environment of discrimination, punctuated by the regular cycle of pogroms, serves economic purposes, ideological purposes, and political purposes: undermining, destroying, and looting minority businesses; intimidating and terrifying minorities and dissenters into submission; and creating security crises that can be exploited for political power. It reinforces the border of the nation: who belongs to the majority and who does not. It is a simple machine, containing no sophisticated electronics but only mechanical wheels and levers that any fool can oil and maintain. Many fools have.

There is a problem of rhetoric in describing the pogroms as solely either disorganised or organised. Casual descriptions tend to fall into one or the other, but neither works as an explanation by itself.

On the one hand, if you say the Sri Lankan pogrom is solely disorganised, spontaneous violence by Sinhala Buddhists against Tamils or Muslims, then you risk absolving state actors (or other ruling-class actors, such as opposition politicians attempting to destabilise the state) of responsibility. The direct involvement of the likes of Rajaratna and Mettananda in the 50s or Cyril Matthew in the 80s or any number of contemporary examples demonstrate that state and ruling class actors are absolutely a factor and cannot be ignored. Much scolding of “ignorant mobs” or appeals to the better nature of said “mobs” relies on the underlying idea that violence erupts spontaneously because of bad ideas held by other people, and can therefore be avoided by exhorting said other people toward personal growth. Of course, there is plenty of evidence that a lot of perfectly ordinary people have terrible, racist, violent ideas, and it’s not much of a stretch to imagine many of them happily joining a mob given the opportunity. We can accept this as a contributing factor, but not the sole or ultimate cause.

On the other hand, if you say such violence is solely organised, entirely managed by the state and/or other nefarious actors, then you risk absolving the Sinhala Buddhist polity at large—it’s essentially a denial that widespread or structural racism is a serious contributing factor, which it undoubtedly is. Pogroms require years of indoctrination and propaganda, to prime and maintain a sufficiently large segment of the population in the necessary cultural separatism, supremacism, paranoia, and ethical illiteracy required to make mass outbreaks of violence possible when its instigators demand it.

So. obviously, the answer must be that the pogroms are both organised and disorganised. They have always been nurtured and prepared and heated up over years, then actively incited and led in the moment of boiling over. It’s important not to lose sight of this “both,” though, because what matters is the interaction between organisation and disorganisation. Instigation can but does not require conspiracy of the more obvious sort. Sri Lanka is, by design, a leaking gas cylinder and the political culture is to sit on it and light matches.

It is not enough to say “stop lighting matches.” Even the leak isn’t the root of the problem: it is the nation-state, framed as compressed, productive, explosive fuel. This is indeed useful for those who cook with it—we know their names and their dynasties well—and they are least inclined to change the state of affairs, because for them these are the affairs of state. But for those of us who are under pressure inside the cylinder, rendered and reproduced as toxic and flammable, the need of the hour and the need of the century are aligned: we have to find our own safe way out, because the only other destinies that shall be made available to us are conflagration or consumption.

The Sinhala question is not a question: it lacks precisely that sense of questioning, of openness or discovery. The Sinhala question is an assertion, a definition, a tautology; it is only a question in that it troubles those capable of being troubled, just as it comforts those who are not. The Sinhala assertion is simply this: the island belongs to the Sinhala nation from the strait to the ocean, and the state, coterminous with the island, must serve the Sinhala nation. The occasional attempt to gentle and liberalize this assertion simply adds one word (“first”) to the end of that assertion, acknowledging that those outside the nation may also be included on sufferance within the state. As our constitution puts it, Buddhism shall have the foremost place, while other religions shall have their rights assured; the official language is Sinhala, and Tamil shall also be an official language. The Sinhala state serves the Sinhala nation, which is formulated as a fixed, pre-democratic majority and therefore defines the Sinhala state, and in this way the two continually reproduce each other. And meanwhile other people may also be there, as long as they remain relegated and understated, which is to say, neither part of this nation or another.

The Sinhala assertion justifies the Sinhala state, but it produces the Sinhala nation as a given. It is easy to identify the Sinhala state. It is the deterministic finite state machine—the elected representatives, the legislature, the executive, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the laws, the police, the military—dominated by those enculturated as Sinhala, speaking Sinhala, and prioritizing Sinhala interests. It accepts certain inputs but not others, and produces predictable outputs in response. It is, by definition, unjust and undemocratic.

But what, exactly, is the Sinhala nation? Is it those enculturated as Sinhala, speaking Sinhala, and prioritizing Sinhala interests? No, not quite. Imagine an enthusiastic Western tourist who becomes a de facto immigrant, perhaps living down south and opening a boutique bed and breakfast, who learns fluent Sinhala, adopts Sinhala customs such as the New Year, wears sarongs, converts to Buddhism and can quote his Walpola Rahula as easily as his D.T. Suzuki, goes to temple on Poya days, makes Vesak lanterns, marries a Sinhalese and fathers children, identifies so strongly with the culture that he says we when he speaks of Sinhala interests, and is proud of it. Is this person Sinhala or part of the Sinhala nation? Obviously not. The answer is “No, but his children are half Sinhalese.” This answer is not really an answer to a question: this answer is the Sinhala question, which is the Sinhala assertion. It is the statement that to be Sinhala is not in the mouth, not in the head nor body, not even in the heart, but in the blood.

This statement is a fiction, a fantasy—an epic fantasy, a myth of origins imbued with great power, for all that it is, at a very simple level, without meaning. It means nothing, and yet it means everything: it is why blood is shed. It is the essence of Sinhala racial-national thinking. Not to be too Sapir-Whorfian about it, but there’s something telling about the use of the same word for race and nation (and species for that matter,) especially when that word becomes a rallying cry.

What, precisely, does ජාතිය mean in Jathika Chinthanaya? It is usually translated nation, as in National Thought or National Consciousness, but Gunadasa Amarasekara, its primary theorist (most recently seen being cringe on main) has of course long since clearly identified the nation with the Sinhala Buddhist, so it could be translated more accurately as Racial Consciousness. That is indeed the great intellectual contribution this ideology represents: anxieties about birth rates, fertility, and replacement, racialized demographics as power. As with the Mahinda Chinthanaya, it barely deserves the description of thought, much less consciousness. It is, rather, the unexamined unconscious of an unconscious nation, tottering somnambulistically over brink after brink, doing itself terrible damage with each crash but so far, never waking up all the way.

In this, the ideology is far older than the late articulation given to it by the likes of Amarasekara. It is the same reasoning through which the demographics of the island, as represented in the flag, were set at 5:1:1; proportions obtained through not only the violent disenfranchisement and deportation of Tamil populations in the very moment of independence, but through the differential definition of populations by race and religion. Tamil-speakers are broken up by religious and regional groupings, and Sinhala-speakers are not, though they could also be: a grandparental generation contended with Kandyan and Low-Country Sinhalese as distinct races, and if Sinhala Christians and Sinhala Hindus and Sinhala Muslims had been counted in similarly distinct silos, the proportions would shift again. All such definitions are fluid, unfixed, and of relatively recent provenance: the “Sinhala nation” is about as old as the car, or the telephone, which is to say, a device utterly inextricable from modernity. It is impossible to use a colonial tool of division for anticolonial campaigning without opening the way to tremendous postcolonial violence. The inability to rid ourselves of this device is, at root, how we got where we are.

Ranil Wickremasinghe gave a speech the day before Gotabaya Rajapaksa returned to the island—under Ranil’s protection, as always, continuing his service as Gota-by-proxy for these past few months. In this speech, he cited Buddhism as an explanation and justification for a neoliberal capitalism. An incoherent one, in that he described it in terms of a national desire, rooted in Buddhism, to be free of debt 1, while the world he and Gota are building is one of deep and permanent indebtedness, but this is only incoherent at the level of mere economics, whereas Ranil is speaking on the level of Racial Consciousness. The appeal is to Sinhala pride, traditionally a precursor to tremendous violence (the Sinhala nation having willfully inherited the mantle of whiteness, “Sinhala pride” is merely Kandyan KKK kosplay, and nothing to be proud of) but Ranil wants to extend this technique to directly support economic violence as well.

This rhetorical gambit seems to be a pet theme for Ranil. A notable previous attempt was his 2005 book Politics and Dharma, presumably ghostwritten but no doubt to his direction, which argued, via a tiresome and irrelevant restatement of samma ajiva, that capitalism was fully compatible with Buddhist values. Perhaps it is: the idea of what “Buddhist values” are has been so severely degraded in this country, from Mahanama to Mahinda, that there seems to be no reason why Buddhism should object to mere exploitation once it has already enthusiastically condoned genocide. But unlike Buddhist jingoism and unlike Buddhist pogroms, which rouse passionate, violent support from much of the self-identified Sinhala nation, Buddhist capitalism only tends to rouse mumbling acquiescence at best. The Sinhala nation is a great many people who have been successfully taught to hate the other, while the neoliberal capitalist rhetoric has successfully taught a great many people to hate themselves (as witness the many people begging for their own impoverishment and exploitation that you will see in any conversation about privatisation: many actively wish for public services to go away and despise the notion of a public good.) But the two rhetorics do not (yet) fit together, despite Ranil’s attempts to try and make them click into place. Persuasion is a field of wrecked experiments from whose ruins you can trace the outline of many a political project, but just because something has crashed before doesn’t mean that failure is preordained.

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1: This, incidentally, is why it is important to look first at the dirty underside of things, whether speeches by a President, press releases by the IMF, strategic meetings by a ruling party. There are always positive, or at least less-negative spins or aspects or readings that are possible. But if you don’t anchor yourself, then you risk getting lost in a frothy cloud of hypothetical positivities that may or, more likely, may not transpire. The worst that is openly spoken of, on the other hand, can be guaranteed to be the least of the trials to come. In most public statements from political actors, only the worst even approximates the real. The rest is sugarcoating, or more pyrotechnically, flares being sent up to distract any heat-seeking criticism. Top Gun isn’t the only 80s propaganda currently enjoying a massive resurgence.

The Extractivism of Setting and the Traitor’s Text

There is a particular tendency in genre fiction very well demonstrated by this thing that Jayaprakash Satyamurthy found under a rock and dragged into the light last year.

Or rather, there are quite a few things happening here at the same time, and they are adjacent, perhaps, but distinct. Let us disentangle them somewhat.

Sometime in the mid-twentyteens, Bryan Thomas Schmidt put out a subs call for an anthology of fiction from writers around the world—the phrase he used, in fact, was “foreign natives”—except Africa, because he’d already got Mike Resnick to represent Africa. Why did he think Mike Resnick, a white American, could represent Africa in such an anthology? Because of Resnick’s Kenya-themed “Kirinyaga” books and stories, of course. Because in the tiny, insular world of white SFF of his generation, Resnick had carved out that niche. He had become, canonically so in this pocket whites-only universe, the African SFF writer.

A somewhat less ugly example. Has there ever been an article in the Sri Lankan media about Sri Lankan speculative fiction that did not mention Arthur C. Clarke? I don’t know the answer to this question for a fact, but I suspect not.

Quite the classic cartoon map of a tiny tropical island, no? There is more than one coconut tree, at least.

Clarke was, in point of fact, not Sri Lankan, but he lived here in a state of such absolute colonial privilege that they made a new category of resident just for him. Seeing as he was capable of distorting the very concept of citizenship around himself, as a wealthy, famous, white English settler in a newly postcolonial nation, it is unsurprising that he continues to occupy the high ground in the unconsidered literary history of Sri Lankan speculative fiction. It is a negligible feat, by comparison. Unlike in Resnick’s case, the identification of Clarke with Sri Lanka (or rather, the other way around) is widespread in writing about SFF, both local and occidental. The island becomes a funny line in his author bio, a quaintness, much like the number of cats an author might have.

There is something wrong happening in each of these instances, obviously. For my purposes here, the question at hand is not whether the stories are good or not, or whether the authors/editors are good people or interesting artists or not. Clarke certainly wrote some wonderful stories; he may also have been a pedophile, a persistent charge that I’d long dismissed as a common slander against a gay man until the relatively recent accusation from Peter Troyer, as documented by Jason Sanford. Neither Schmidt nor Robert M. Price, the editor of Secret Asia’s Blackest Heart, seem likely to be interesting curators from my perspective, given their contemptible sensibilities, but it’s certainly possible that their anthologies have included stories that I might have liked. Any fool can pick obvious winners. Many fools do.

These things are not irrelevant, certainly, but they also confuse the issue because they are more compelling and more immediate than what I’m trying to point at, which is how canons are manufactured.

This essay is not, of course, actually addressed to the likes of Robert M. Price, an established bigot, or the fashy little press that gleefully publishes these white power anthologies. This is not a callout. Such a thing would be ridiculous. Price’s introduction to this anthology (readable via the Amazon preview) calls Edward Said a leftist propagandist and declares that orientalism is a good and desirable thing. There is no thought to engage with here: it is the desert of the clowns. Rather, I’m talking to the kind of people who write about books: critics, journalists, engaged readers. This is not about this or that particular book. This is about a tendency. A mechanism. A movement or transfer.

Are Resnick’s “Kirinyaga” stories particularly racist? I know I’ve read one or two, but it’s been decades and I don’t remember them at all, so don’t take my word for it either way. Clarke was not racist or even condescending toward Sri Lankans in his fiction, as far as I can remember. On the other hand, I would not bet a single rupee that Secret Asia’s Blackest Heart is racism-free, but who knows? Stranger things have happened. But the presence or absence of racism in the texts is not at issue here.

Nor is this about #ownvoices. It would be absurd to say that only Kenyans can write stories set in Kenya, or Sri Lankans in Sri Lanka. Sofia Samatar isn’t Kenyan either, but “Ogres of East Africa” is wonderful. Putting it in the same context as Resnick’s Kirinyaga is in fact vaguely embarrassing, a condition exacerbated by the fact that Resnick won multiple Hugos in the 90s for those stories while “Ogres” took third place in that year’s Locus poll. This tells you something about how genre literary awards fail, yes, but it also tells you something about genre canon formation. If you asked for Kenya-related speculative fiction from, say, a Hugo-voting audience (as a shorthand for a historically canon-forming, white-dominated, American-dominated body in English SFF), you’re still much likelier to hear about Resnick than Samatar, and long before you hear about Ray Mwihaki or Clifton Gachagua or any other writers actually from Kenya.

Recognition as a writer needs time. You must be published widely, read widely, remembered and reviewed and talked about. Resnick had work published decades before everybody else named here. These are deep structural advantages—whiteness, citizenship in the metropole, proximity to the western-based major publishing industry, early-mover advantage in name recognition. This matters because it turns canons into a kind of colonialism of the speculative imagination.

Like so.

Canon is a tricky word. I am using the term lightly; I mean those works and writers who are widely recognized and repeatedly cited, which of course produces multiple and varied groupings depending on who you ask and for what purpose. Every such canon is formed by citation and repetition. Every act of curation contributes to it. Every anthology of African or Asian fiction, every article. Even a listicle adds a pebble to the pile. And in speculative fiction publishing, white Western writers, which is to say, specifically, white writers from the metropoles and settler colonies of the long British-American empire, especially those of previous generations, have had decades of a head start. Their canonization for work that draws heavily on the third world—as setting, as prop, as raw material—was built on the same lines as all other colonial enterprises, like the settler-colonial squatting that Resnick or Clarke perform.

Many, many traditions abound in writing fiction about place. They are often and easily confused. At minimum, you could make a crude distinction between work by the people who are, in the important sense, from there (i.e., including diasporas) and work by the people who aren’t (i.e., including resident white expats.) This does not automatically mean that the former is good and the latter is bad, or even that one is necessarily more authentic than the other. In the first place, authenticity is a trap and best avoided by everyone. And it is quite possible that sometimes an outsider will see more clearly than an insider. But this is not an evenly balanced sometimes, and it is especially not so when that place is a third-world colony of the empire. The contemporary publishing industry remains nearly as concentrated in the heart of the metropole as it was then. The imbalances of access and proximity have changed but little, and those imbalances are governed by long histories of orientalism, exoticization, and exploitation even if any given work is not. The question is not (or at least, not only) “is this book racist?” but how much easier it was for that book to be published (and reviewed, and cited, and canonized) than a contemporary work by an author from the place the book is writing about.

An example. Clarke’s Fountains of Paradise, a book precisely as old as I am. Fountains is set in a version of Sri Lanka, and written by someone who had at that point been resident in Sri Lanka for decades. Here, too, I read the book so long ago that I don’t remember it at all. I have no quarrel with it and I’m not trying to cancel it—I feel like I have to keep making this disclaimer to forestall people summarizing this whole essay as me trying to cancel various books or people. Fountains probably won a Hugo and a Nebula and so on.

Yup, there they are.

This is a good example of a book that falls, for me, squarely on one side of that line about writing about place. It is (probably) a fine book in the tradition of books that use Sri Lanka as setting or inspiration, but Clarke, as an almost ludicrously privileged Englishman sahibing it up in the colonies, had several orders of magnitude more access to the Western publishing industry than anybody who lived on the island in 1979. My father’s first novel (Tilak Chandrasekera, පස්වෙනියත් පුතෙක්) came out that same year, as a matter of fact. It was “self-published”, as many local books were at the time, and by local standards it was quite successful, going on to multiple printings in the 80s and 90s.

My brother drew the cover art (both the original design in 1979 and this updated one for the fourth reprinting in 1990.) Self-publishing was a family business. Even I (eleven at the time) was recruited to proofread this one.

පස්වෙනියත් පුතෙක් is not speculative fiction, but it is absolutely a book about place, what would probably now be called autofiction—for my father in his first book, that place was the village in Kurunegala where he grew up. A village that, in the 1930s-40s that the book is set in, was in fact arguably in the jungle, or at least jungle-adjacent. (You could find some jungle there even in the 80s: I once managed to get lost in it as a boy. What can I say, jungle happens. Even the Mahabharata describes us as जाङ्गलवासिन, jangal-vasina, jungle-dwellers.) Clarke had arrived in Sri Lanka when my father was still a teenager, though out of the jungle by then and living in the same city. By the year these two books were published, Clarke had been living on the island for more than half of my father’s life, already a fixture. My father had no quarrel with Clarke either: he spoke of him admiringly, and bought me a copy of the Sinhala translation of 2001. They didn’t really live in the same country, as writers, for all that their houses were perhaps three kilometres apart for the decades of their later careers. They were by no means writing about the same place, and success as an author meant such wildly different things to them that they were not even on the same planet.

This is why it’s so much more complicated than writers who are from there and not from there. A work that is in a significant way about place could, then, be many different kinds of text.

For example, you have the imperialist’s text, which sees a place the way colonial administrators saw it. Leonard Woolf’s Village in the Jungle is a classic of this type, with Woolf having been himself the very same kind of colonial administrator who appears in the text as the only oasis of sanity and rationality in a gothic horror of native madness and violence.

Clarke’s renditions of future Sri Lankas are a less heavy-fisted version of the same: the island is urbane and genteel and tropical and, most of all, small. The expat’s text, the postcolony that is merely the metropole writ very small, mimicking the upper-crust Colombo 7 life that Clarke understood.

Then we have whatever this is. A burdensome thing. Perhaps we could call it the kipling text.

Whether the orientalism renders the objectified as infantile, monstrous, exotic or what have you, what matters for all these texts is that there is a distinct flavour of that place, something like a spice, that can be taken out of it, mixed into a dish, a taste that the discerning reader can pick up, perhaps even become expert at picking up. Can you tell River of Gods from Song of Kali in a blindfolded taste test?

Consider an even more casual encounter with place: the tourist’s text. This is the author’s note from Trouble in Nuala, which is the first novel, published 2016, of a self-published cozy mystery series now at least ten books deep. The Inspector de Silva Mysteries is “set in the 1930s amidst the rolling green hills of colonial Ceylon” and is written by a white British woman, Harriet Steel.

This is the extractivism of setting at its smoothest and most efficient, its pathway having been cleared by a century or two of the texts that preceded it, that hacked their way through the jungle and laid down rail into the village.

Now in my sixth year as fiction editor at Strange Horizons, I have read a very large number of short story submissions and there have indeed been some, not many, stories that use Sri Lanka as a setting. A few are even authored by Sri Lankan writers, on the island or from the diaspora. Most, however, are not. Certainly, the worst have been strong examples of the tourist’s text. They have a certain distinctive quality of overextraction and give a great bitterness in the mouth. What’s hardest, as an editor, is that I try not to be more demanding of the Sri Lankan setting than I am of any setting. Or rather, I try to be no less demanding of any setting. What is true of the island is true of the world.

But there is also more than one kind of text in the other(ed) and orthogonal tradition, the writing of those who are from there. The tourist text can be written in both, and often is. And there are many others, both on the island and off it, often overlapping: the witness’s text, the refugee’s text, the exile’s text. Too, there are the comprador’s text and the patriot’s text, the paired science fictions of muttering uncles, seen more often in the newspaper opinion columns than on the bookshelves. And then there is the ideal that I think that any writer with some shards of conscience and consciousness might aspire to, the traitor’s text.

The traitor’s text must refuse authenticity—which is a fetish of the patriot, the tourist, and the imperialist. The traitor’s text is an ideal, being the work that must critique both the big empires and the little ones, so the comprador’s text and the patriot’s text are also traps that await all of us who are, undeniably, from there. Pits shallowly disguised with dry leaves. The traitor’s text is the measure, for me, of what writing about place must reach for. It’s available to anyone, whether you’re from there or not, but some things about it are just harder to reach if you’re not.

It’s important to say, I think, that I use setting in this essay deliberately. I do not say culture. I talked this over with Nandini, who pointed out that my use of the extractivism metaphor puts this essay in dangerous proximity to unintentionally reifying culture in the process of trying to do the opposite. This is one of the traps in talking about this, that it can so easily be confused with a superficial argument about appropriation. This is not about appropriation: this is about the problems of setting in fiction that trouble us all because we live in the same empire-haunted world, ruined by colony and postcolony alike, this tainted, unstable ground. There is no true and authentic fixed thing, and no one can, or should wish to, lay claim to it. Imagine the horror, if there were such a thing that you could hold in your hands, that you could never put down or toss away, how it would burn and cut. Jungle is not an object: it is a process. It jangles, it jungles. Sometimes jungle is inauthentic, being merely colonial-era plantations gone back to the wild. Sometimes the jungle in question is urban. I live in the city, crocodiles in the canal down the street, I’m in a WhatsApp group (alongside three hundred of my overly meme-happy neighbours) run by the local grama niladhari, who issues updates on vaccination schedules and so on. The title of his job, essentially the lowest rung of local government, has changed several times over the decades (gammuladaniya, grama sevaka, grama niladhari) but the prefix remains intact. It means village.

By its very nature, the traitor’s text must be layered. It is complex, because the world it describes is complex. It cannot essentialize. It cannot be condescending or onanist. It can never be cozy. This necessarily makes it a more difficult text to engage with than all the others, which makes sense because the traitor’s text can only exist in response to all the others: it comes after them, logically if not necessarily chronologically. When I write a horror story about a village in the jungle, it comes after Woolf, and must struggle with Woolf, and this would be true in many senses even if I had not read Woolf (I have, but as often happens, I only read the book after having already responded to it several times over.) This canon exists because Woolf has over a hundred years of citation. Woolf even has authenticity, having been in and around the very situations he writes about. This is why authenticity doesn’t matter in fiction. I do enjoy Village in the Jungle as a gothic horror—and that ending is magnificently written—but to enjoy it, you must understand that the bulk of its power and horror is in how and why Leonard Woolf came to be the person to write it.

The Red Flag

This was going to be a Twitter thread but then I was just typing furiously and realized it was just too long, so here it is in abbreviated essay form.

The first and most important thing to understand about the Sri Lankan flag is that every version of the lion flag is, definitionally, racist and fascist in symbolism, including the official one. It was intentionally designed that way, by committee. The proportions of the “majority box” to the “minority stripes” (5:1:1) were determined by population ratios which were determined by:

  1. racialized census categories introduced by the British Empire in the preceding few decades and enthusiastically taken up by the burgeoning Sinhala-supremacist postcolony, which divided the Tamil-speaking population into sub-races by religion but not the Sinhala-speaking population and
  2. the chaos introduced by the then-contemporary Citizenship Act, which made a massive proportion of the Tamil-speaking population stateless and disenfranchised.

The clear intention of the national flag’s design was to centre this Sinhala supremacism and marginalize minorities, represent them as barely-tolerated outsiders at best. Contemporary dissent (e.g. Senator Nadesan) makes it clear that this was not an analysis that was somehow beyond them. It was pointed out, very explicitly, and ignored.

The reason the flag is fascist in addition to being racist is (in addition to its reliance on racialization, the glorification of the dominant “race”, and the warlike symbolism, all fascist standbys) is because this lion also came accompanied by an entirely fictional mytho-history concocted by E.W. Perera and D.R. Wijewardena. The story is that the lion flag represents a return to a mythic precolonial history, which it does not. Purported centuries-old or millennia-old connections to Kandyan flags and Dutugemunu &c. are nonsense: fantastical worldbuilding as background for nation-building. Flags of the precolonial world did not serve the same purposes as nation-state era flags, any more than “Sinhalese” represented a racial designation rather than a political designation in the era before colonial racialization. They did not carry the same meanings, and the lion had no special place: you’ll find plenty of other animals wandering about in flags and other precolonial iconography, a whole zoo of them. The idea that there could be any sort of rebooted franchise, a meaningful remake, a direct connection between a symbol and its meaning before and after over two hundred years of colonial reprogramming and brainwashing is laughable.

Perera, an epic fantasy writer before his time, simply invented a brief and outsourced the design to a London designer (Southwood & Co. in Regent Street), presumably some white guy, who knocked off a generic European heraldic lion passant with finials and called it a day. At best, they were more likely influenced by British and Dutch colonial flags of the preceding generation than anything else, but seeing as how Perera, Wijewardena et al. were already thoroughly brainwashed by colonial programming, this would have been perfectly acceptable to the Sinhala supremacist mindset. It was Britishness that the Sinhala elite wanted and envied, to finally become the white man, the colonizer, the master sir.

The specifics of the flag’s design clearly didn’t really matter to Perera or Wijewardena, in any case, given that they found whatever the designer came back with acceptable. One wonders if there were private rounds of feedback and redesign, but I suspect not. The details only matter if you give a shit. All they wanted was to put a lion on it. Their strategy of decolonization was merely to ensure above all that the “Sinhalese” inherited the colonial mantle of whiteness on the island. Whiteness exists to be the race that dominates other races—this is why “race” exists and why it was invented—and in the postcolony, at least in Sri Lanka and probably elsewhere too, the changing of the guard was not reflected by the deconstruction of this construct of race, but by its rigorous enforcement. The goal was not and never unity: such things are judged by what people do, not what people say, and the national flag is the perfect example. Taking the colonizer’s place, becoming the colonizer was the only ambition of decolonization-era Sinhala elites. And it remains true today, which is why the national flag now exists in multiple unofficial variations, each one making the flag’s true nature more explicit than the last.

The version of the flag seen in the tweet, meanwhile, is of particular interest because it actually has no history that I’m aware of: it is an entirely new thing under the sun. Even the alleged historic flag of Kandy had finials, not fig leaves, so this is not that. Besides, all legitimized versions of the flag have the lion holding the sword by the hilt, not by the blade. The only flag that I’ve seen before with that design is Dayasiri Jayasekera’s innovation from 2020.

At the time, this was seen as a simple, if ludicrous error, given that it apparently got all the way to this moment without anybody noticing.

Of course, this version of the flag has the minority stripes, so it too is not a match. The perahera flag cannot claim a history even two years old; it is freshly hatched, mere days in the making.

But the return of this blade-holding lion makes me think that this is perhaps not an error after all. Perhaps it is merely a catwhistle, a new icon chosen by fascist thought leaders as being more appropriate for contemporary Sinhala modernity, a self-harming lion, a bleeding lion that can’t stop cutting itself.

Invisible Collagism

From the Literature Clock, a project I love for its particularity, its ridiculousness, and weird genius

In a throwaway anonymous blogging project between fifteen and twenty years ago, I spent some months making poems, or hyperlinked poem-like objects, that were collages of a sort, composed entirely out of lines quoted from other people’s published poems. I cited each line by linking it to the site where I’d found the text of its original poem. The game was to choose lines in such a way that they worked together, in some aesthetic that I can’t quite recapture now but at least still feel that there was in fact a there there, something a little like a Dadaist cut-up, I suppose, though I only encountered those later and was not intentionally trying to emulate them.

(Why was this a blogging project instead of a document? I don’t think anybody was reading that blog. Perhaps the occasional random passerby. It was a public project but not one particularly meant to be encountered, if that makes sense: “publishing” these poetic-extract objects, even just on a blog that nobody was reading, was at the time enough for me to take it seriously as a small art project. I was teaching myself some things, and that required both play and a kind of earnestness. But I worried then, as now, that my disposition is such that I simply would not take seriously work not intended for publication: the brain’s wise lizard knows.)

At first, I used full lines: I would try to make a line from one poem match the next line from a different poem not only in rhythm or some kind of harmony or pleasing disharmony, but also to choose lines in such a way that they could be read one after the other as if they had been born that way, creating through their juxtaposition a new meaning, or at least an intriguing nonsense. But after a while, keeping complete lines untouched became tedious because there were so many instances when things almost worked but not quite. So instead of quoting lines in full, I began to quote fragments. I still refused to write my own words as connecting glue, so I took the connecting words and phrases too from other poems.

(Why this refusal? I think at the time it was—and still is, I suppose—because I write little poetry, and I am uncomfortable with the form. That’s not to say I don’t touch it at all. A couple of years ago, at the very beginning of the pandemic and around this very time of year, a few days before Independence Day with the planes growling overhead, I put together a whole chapbook of poems, with my own words this time, and my own layout and design to boot. This is the first poem in it, “langurous”: I was reminded of it today because all these things happened again, dog and monkeys and planes. It is the nature of these circular days, these years turned in upon themselves.

But I have not written a poem since this chapbook. So perhaps my experiments with poetry may be considered seasonal at best.)

The collage project ended the day I took the word “and” from somebody’s poem and used it to link two phrases together. It was important for the game that I did not just write my own “and”; it was an “and” taken from some poem that I loved very much. I linked this solitary word to its source. This provenance made the “and” special, and the game lawful. It also made the game complete: there was nowhere left to go, and so it was done. Sometimes an ending comes upon you long before you understand you were working toward it.


A few years ago I half-wrote this (some of it escaped as twitter-thread radiation at the time, so if some of this sounds familiar, that’s why) in reaction to, among other things, a Sri Lanka politician—it was Mangala Samaraweera, in fact, whose recent death and subsequent hagiographies are what reminded me of this half-written essay again, before today’s headlines—saying that he was not a Buddhist but “a person who follows the Buddhist philosophy,” which has long been a Sri Lankan middlebrow commonplace for people who want to distance themselves from the tacky or ugly parts of Buddhism. The objectionable, depending on the objectors, might be the old-fashioned ritual trappings, the pogroms, the philosophical or salvific failures, or the politicized establishment. Common in all of these is the rescue of Buddhism from itself. Each is a search for some pure and uncorrupted heart, a philosophy, a way of life, some higher teaching separate from the muddy and the goday and the bloody. But at least for those whose objection to actually existing Buddhism in Sri Lanka is its cost in lives and to life, this search merely recreates the problem on slightly higher ground. Looking for the pure and uncorrupted heart is how hell was made.

The Gandharan Fasting Siddhartha, from the Lahore Museum. I like him as an icon of failure—this represents one of the unbuddhist paths of experiment. Also, he looks metal af.

Since this is a context where religion is racialized, it is also commonplace to say that you were born a Buddhist. I was born a Buddhist, in this sense, which means that I went to temple on the full moon, learned the Pali prayers by heart, cut bamboo to make Vesak lanterns in May, and as the members of my family died one by one, invited seven monks from the local temples to come sing the prayer for the dead. All that sort of thing. I did these things not out of considered and intentional choice but simply because this was the world I knew, and those were the things one did in it. Eventually, as with most things lacking a heart, my practice of the rituals faded away. I have not made a Vesak lantern in decades. I don’t miss it, but I remember the feeling of that childish religiosity like fresh-cut bamboo on my fingertips—too smooth, too easily broken, and too sharp at the edges.

I don’t call myself Buddhist any more. There was a long time when I still automatically used it as an identifier in forms and affidavits, but even that has passed many years ago. But because Buddhism is racialized in Sri Lanka, it’s also impossible to entirely escape it: regardless of what you believe or don’t believe, practice or don’t, Buddhist privilege is inescapable if you have a Sinhala name or had a Buddhist childhood. For example, I know the ඉතිපිසෝ, which is a short prayer of praise for the Buddha, now most notable for its use as a shibboleth to distinguish Tamil speakers from Sinhala speakers during the 1983 pogrom. Once you know things like that, I feel, this prayer—and all the other Pali prayers—become unspeakable. They stop meaning what they say; they stop meaning what they might have once meant. Now they mean something else.

That article, itself a hagiography to yet another asshole politician, includes anecdotes spanning the period between the 1977 election and the 1983 pogrom—I was born in 1979, of an age with the Prevention of Terrorism Act, so when I say this was the world I knew, I mean that I have never known a Sinhala Buddhism that was free of this violence. And its pedigree goes back decades, arguably centuries: it is safe to say, at minimum, that no-one now alive has ever known a different Sinhala Buddhism. And yet people constantly appeal to the spectre of one, something clean and untainted whose abstract purity in a higher realm justifies the violence in its defense in this one. This appeal is the heart of Buddhist fascism, and as a rhetorical move it is not restricted to the Sinhalese.

However, if the situation was such that there was only one learned lama or genuine practitioner alive, a person whose death would cause the whole of Tibet to lose all hope of keeping its Buddhist way of life, then it is conceivable that in order to protect that one person it might be justified for one or 10 enemies to be eliminated — if there was no other way. I could justify violence only in this extreme case, to save the last living knowledge of Buddhism itself.

The Dalai Lama, 1997 interview

Is it necessary to explain that this is wrong and deeply foolish? Is it not self-evident? Clearly, it is not self-evident. Myanmar’s 969 movement adapts this fatuous comment with ease into a justification for more generalized violence in Buddhism’s “defense,” and you will find the same language and same reasoning anywhere you care to look in Sinhala Buddhist rhetoric. It is the standard rhetorical manoeuvre by which Buddhists declare themselves above normative Buddhist ethics. Buddhist ethics is valuable, they say, because, e.g., it forbids killing, therefore killing is justified to preserve those ethics, which are certainly too valuable for everyday use. Buddhist ethics are like the good china, the fancy heirloom teapot you have in the glass cabinet for visitors to admire, but you are definitely not going to serve tea out of it.

To the Sinhala Buddhist proponent of violence, what they are doing is not hypocrisy, but sacrifice. Their belief is that they are selflessly ruining their own karma in order to save Buddhism for future generations. The violence, you see, is altruistic. The well-known fascist monk Gnanasara, for instance, made a production of this rhetorical move in 2019, by first declaring first that he would abandon his political activism to meditate and focus on religious pursuits, and then “changing his mind” because nirvana can always wait, but fascism is urgent. And “nirvana can always wait” has been standard-issue since before Independence, and the work of Walpola Rahula. In contemporary Sri Lankan Theravada, Buddhism is what is most useless to Buddhism, and exists only to be put aside.

But even that little zinger risks replicating the same manoeuvre I’m trying to argue against: the implication that there is a cleaner Buddhism, somewhere, even if in a purely hypothetical realm.

Why do I say “unbuddhist” instead of “non-religious”? Why අබෞද්ධ instead of නිරාගමික? Mostly, it’s that the latter tastes like cardboard to me. An airless word, a nothing word of studied neutrality: that isn’t what I’m getting at. People also say “atheist” here sometimes, by analogy with the popular Christian version, but that is entirely meaningless in this context, since the (non)existence of gods is not at issue. I like “unbuddhist” because it’s a pejorative to reclaim, perhaps, but also because it signals both opposition and proximity, in the same way that an atheist is someone who exists in a theistic framework and opposes it. Much of my thought, my fiction included, is inflected by buddhisms of various types. Nor is it particularly unusual for people to customize their buddhisms in this way, by dropping the parts they find objectionable and streamlining others—in fact, this was how the 20th century reform movement worked in the first place, stripping out what they considered empty ritual and ramping up the activist politicization.

But if you disavow the monks, political or otherwise, assuming an otherwise is even coherent; if you take away temples, relics, prayers, and rituals; if you take away poyas and the flag; if you ignore all the endlessly pedantic numbered lists of nonsense like the Thirty-Two Characteristics of Great Men; if you put aside orthodox understandings of karma and rebirth, samsara/nirvana, and meditation; if you have little interest in the alleged life of Siddhartha Gautama and less still in jatakas, buddhas, pacceka-buddhas, arahats, bodhisattvas, heavens, hells, or gamified enlightenment bonus points; if you ascribe little significance to the middle way, the four truths, the five precepts, the eightfold path, and so on, in that the important parts of those are derivable from ethical first principles and the rest are historical oddities and stray leftover bits; if you are specifically opposed to the linking of buddhism to race and nation and history, to “Sinhala-ness” in Buddhism, to the idea that a “Buddhism” even exists that could or should be “protected” or put in a constitutionally “foremost” place, all of which I do—then even if you continue to find, for instance, the paticcasamuppada, the trilaksana, and the idea of sunyata valuable and emotionally and intellectually significant, as I also do, you are definitely not a buddhist. You are merely a picky asshole, as I am. What I’m talking about here is not reformatory. This is not a stripping down to essentials, because I also don’t care about a lot of the essentials. This is merely an accommodation: my accommodation to the religious world I grew up in. This is what’s left of that world, after some consideration. It is possible, I think, and desirable, to disavow without appeal to purity.

But let’s talk about a real Buddhist instead.

Earlier today (and this is what prompted me to dust off this half-written essay yet again—truly this is an extremely cold take despite its hot-takeish timing) Gnanasara was appointed chairman of a “One Country One Law” presidential task force, signaling not a mainstreaming, exactly, since he was already thoroughly mainstream, but perhaps an upshift in Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s willingness to publicly and directly associate himself with the likes of Gnanasara, something the Rajapaksas used to be a little shyer about. More precisely, it’s a signal that the administration believes that the mainstreaming of Buddhist fascism has been successful enough that a figure who was once somewhat controversial even for their own base might now be more broadly acceptable. Perhaps they are wrong about this, but in a way the appointment is a self-fulfilling prophecy: even if it gets reversed, it means that the next ratchet on the overton window will be that much easier.

I’m mixing the personal and the political here in a messy way. I’ve been trying to write about my own experience of navigating a buddhistic worldview, but it would be hard to explain why all that flensing was necessary without pointing at what was and is in the world. Buddhism is not about the ideas. It’s not even mostly about the ideas. It is a social practice with an organic history. In Sri Lanka, that history has been violent for a long time even before the tremendous violence of the last few generations, from the caste restrictions of the nikayas to the genocidal justifications of the Mahavamsa.

But I bring up Gnanasara here because he’s exactly the kind of monk a great many Sinhala Buddhists would say (or used to say—I would guess that he is more acceptable to them today than he used to be ten or even five years ago) was not a “real” monk. And yet his real-monk-ness was formally endorsed and insisted upon by the highest Buddhist authority in Sri Lanka. If you wanted to call the Dalai Lama and ask him for a second opinion, it is fully consistent with Gnanasara’s perspective. This is the real Buddhism: if you think it isn’t, the error and the apostasy are yours.


Happy Stanislav Petrov Day! And this is a special Stanislav Petrov Day, because 2021, in addition to being the second plague year, is the Year of Lem, so in addition to apocalypses that are and might have been, we must also confront the untranslatable other.

A Lem story was recently published in English for the first time, “The Truth,” in a translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. I was reminded of Solaris by this passage:

Just before the explosion, the string of plasmatic flame, until now almost uniform, had narrowed at identical intervals like a plucked cord, and then, having broken down into a series of round grains, had ceased to exist as a whole. Each of these grains was growing and changing, the borders of these droplets of atomic heat became fluid, and projections began to come out of them, producing the next generation of droplets; then all these droplets converged toward the center and formed a flattened ball, which, contracting and inflating as if it were breathing, was at the same time sending out on reconnaissance something like fiery tentacles with quivering tips …

This short story was published three years after Solaris, and you can see the echoes of the one in the other. “I wonder what we could talk to the Sun about? What are the common issues, concepts, and problems that we share with it? … First communicate with the bacteria in your bodies, with the bushes in your gardens, with the bees and their flowers, and then you’ll be able to consider what methods to use for sharing information with the Sun.” Lem’s question is precisely not about the alien as the other, in fantastic literature’s all-too-easy (and racist) device of racialization, whether in elves or klingons, but about the alien as the incommensurable being: a response, perhaps, to the widespread failure of fantastical literature to imagine aliens that are not merely foreigners to be, in some fashion, conquered and tamed. The solar entities in “The Truth” are even more unknowable than the planet Solaris, which at least has the decency to haunt its intruders in their native guilts.

It’s easy to see why Lem was not fond of the cinematic adaptations of Solaris. The extended review of solaricist literature that takes up so much of the book is both masterful and unfilmable, because it is so very much a thing of text. Even the lovingly detailed descriptions of the transient formations of Solaris, the mimoids and the symmetriads and so on, are not about those visuals, for all that the images are stunning—rather, the book is about the different interpretations of what those phenomena mean, as advanced by generations of theorists of Solaris, and the dizzying effect of moving through these endless models and theories as we the reader mirror the history of futile attempts to make sense of something that is incomprehensible in any human frame of reference.

He was simply a pedantic classifier, one of those whose outer calm concealed an unflagging passion that consumed his whole life. As long as he was able, he relied exclusively on the language of description; when words failed him he managed by creating new words, often infelicitous ones that did not match the phenomena they were intended to describe […] “dendromountains,” its “extensors,” “megamushrooms,” “mimoids,” “symmetriads” and “asymmetriads,” its “vertebrids” and “rapidos” sound terribly artificial, but they do give some idea of Solaris even to those who’ve seen nothing but a few blurry photographs and poor quality films. Of course, even this conscientious classifier was guilty of rash moments. Humans are constantly coming up with hypotheses, even when they’re being cautious, and even though they’re quite unaware of it. Giese believed that extensors constituted a root form, and he compared them to greatly magnified and heightened versions of tidal waves in terrestrial oceans. Besides, anyone who’s immersed himself in the first edition of the work knows that he originally named them precisely “tides” led by a geocentrism that would be amusing if it weren’t for his helplessness.

Lem, Solaris

Tarkovsky’s 1972 Solaris makes a heroic attempt to adapt all this rampant textuality to video. Where in the book we read the text of Burton’s testimony, in the film we see a film of it. There is even a film within the film within the film, as the recorded younger Burton attempts (and fails) to show his tribunal what he has seen on Solaris—while the older Burton impatiently fast-forwards through chunks of his younger self’s testimony. Or Gibarian’s cryptic note to Kelvin, which in the film is a (somewhat less cryptic) video instead. All of this works quite well. What doesn’t work is that film adaptations seem compelled to insert massive doses of sentimentality absent in the novel. Tarkovsky, for instance, adds forty minutes of opening prologue set on Earth, attempting to ground Kelvin before he’s sent off to space. There is a father and a crying aunt. After forty minutes of this, the film finally catches up to the novel’s in media res opening.

Interestingly, this is not where Tarkovsky breaks up Part 1 and Part 2. Part 1 continues through Harey’s arrival, her dress without seams, their first conversation. It’s only when Kelvin takes her to the rocket that the film switches to Part 2, even though there is no significant gap in time and no break in setting. Even the theme of violence is not new by this point, because Kelvin reached for a gun (absent in the novel) as soon as Harey first arrived.

Other people’s ghosts are only eerie, perhaps, but our own are compelling. Kelvin, upon seeing again the woman he loved, who killed herself long ago, cannot help but respond to her with tenderness along with the terror and revulsion. “Don’t be afraid,” he tells the ghost haunting him. They are both afraid. How to tell the beloved dead that they are dead?

Neither Tarkovsky’s film nor the 2002 Soderbergh Solaris make any serious attempt to depict Solaris itself. At least in 1972, you could argue, maybe Tarkovsky didn’t have the technology to make a real go of it: he did what he could to suggest strange fluids and miasmas. The 2002 film is, unexpectedly, even worse on this front. There is no attempt to CGI up some mimoids. The planet is merely a vague blur in the distance while the focus is entirely on the romance between George Clooney and Natascha McElhone. “The book is called Solaris,” a caustic Lem observed on learning this: “Not Love in Outer Space.” Though this is true even of Tarkovsky’s film to some degree, or at least its marketing. All adaptations are, sooner or later, Love in Outer Space. But Solaris is not any recognizable human storyteller, and therefore not a romance novel author. The hauntings are not an opportunity for the guilty or grieving to make peace with their lost ones; it is not a neat device of closure or an attempt at communication. The hauntings are an epiphenomenon of human proximity to the truly alien: we only shatter along the faultlines that we bring with us.