Earth, in Mutinie [Blood and Dust: Part 3 of 3]

Blood and Dust is a trio of essays about, among other things, Philip Pullman’s paired His Dark Materials/The Book of Dust trilogies and what it means to be, or ideally not be, a Sinhala Buddhist. This is the third and final essay in the set, all brought to you by my patrons, those paragons of virtue and taste. Part 2 was Ruinous; Battering. Fair warning, this one is probably the most depressing of the three.

Theſe Elements in Mutinie

වඳ-fear, the fear of extinction, is widespread, deep-set, and powerfully tied to the root and founding myth of Sinhala Buddhism, which moves simultaneously in both directions: Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country because-therefore Sinhala Buddhism must have the foremost place in Sri Lanka. The possibility of losing that primacy, the threat of losing status and power for the race relative to other races, is what that dreaded extinction looks like in the present day: not losing life, but soul. The fear of extinction is not truly fear of the hard stop at the end, which is after all in the distant future even in the wildest nightmares of the Sinhala supremacist, but of the long decline on the way, which is where they believe we now are. The fear of the slippery slope, the ground already uncertain underfoot.

Of course, in Sri Lanka, race as such (especially in English) is often not how we talk about what are, nevertheless, clearly race-coded issues. We talk instead about ethnicity, culture, religion, majority/minority, north/south, specific historical actors and events. These do all have specific meanings: I don’t mean to suggest that they are always reducible to euphemisms for race. However, they are frequently used in a euphemistic way when what is actually being talked about is race/racism, with the result that many seemingly sober analyses begin by impatiently dismissing race/racism as either irrelevant or insignificant, the province of fringe extremists, and promptly rendering their analyses hollow, no matter how ascetic their sobriety. We are usually told that it’s all actually about something else—class, or the “economy” if you don’t want to say the c-word. Or to put it another way, that the problem is not about race but poverty and precarity.

It would indeed be a simplistic to suggest that all seven million people who voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa in November 2019 are racists in the narrow sense of practioners of the local extreme of racist violence. Seven million people might not have seven million distinct reasons for that vote, but there will certainly be many reasons with permutations beyond easy counting. But all those individual reasons are founded upon shared fears, and while the justifiable fear of poverty and precarity is undoubtedly present, perhaps even primary among those fears, in this country all common fears for the self-identified Sinhala polity are framed, organized, and directed by that root වඳ-fear, the fear of slippery soullessness, the fear of a barren Sinhala no-future. It’s not poverty per se: it’s Sinhala poverty against the prosperity of others.

Precarity, economic disenchantment, youth disillusionment: all these things are real social problems, but as long as these anxieties are framed by race, the energies they generate are channelled and directed by racism. Not necessarily the firebombing kind of racism (that too); not even necessarily the kind that deplore-supports (supplores? deplorts?) the firebombing (that too); but rather the kind that sees Sinhala poverty as a problem distinct from වෙන අයගෙ poverty. It is impossible to bridge this fracture without first acknowledging how deep it goes. To even speak of bridging is wildly premature while the state of affairs is deep and ingrained denial.

Much commentary insists on that denial, framed as an optimism less of the will than of the gut. There is something digestive about this optimism, something masticatory. Hope is the fiber of psephology, the reduction of politics to electioneering and the elevation of electoral results to mythic resonance. In victory it manifests as the inability or unwillingness to see naked but tactically useful hypocrisies; in defeat it manifests as imitating the action of the (wounded) lion, stiffening up the sinews, summoning up the Sinha-le. I don’t want to make—and yet so often find myself making—an argument against hope, but the problem is that so much hope is dragged out like last year’s decorations and dumped in public in the very moment of defeat. The moment of defeat is too valuable to be so soiled. There is a clarity that comes from understanding the depth and extent and texture of defeat, its structures and histories. Without that clarity, hope is shallow.

By defeat I don’t here mean electoral defeats alone, or any particular election: I mean also this long defeat of progressive politics, perhaps what Stuart Hall called “the Great Moving Right Show” about the rise of the right in the late 70s—he’s mostly speaking about the UK, but the same is true across much of the world, and certainly here as much as anywhere. This was a rise that never stopped, and which some of us have lived in all our lives, and which continues without serious challenge to date. This is also why recurring post-election discourse in recent years about a newfangled “wave of strongmen” or a “rise in populism” is ridiculous: it’s not that this isn’t happening, it’s just that it’s been ongoing for decades. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not our first strongman president. It would be more accurate to say we have never had a non-strongman (or strongwoman) president, any more than we have ever had a non-racist politics. As an occupied colony or dominion, as an independent republic, even as something that once bore a distorted resemblance to a democratic socialist welfare state, our politics has been defined by racecrafted Sinhala supremacism. That abyssal history is the truth of our defeat.

Perhaps we are also fooled into too-easy hope by stories: it is a popular narrative convention that protagonists must begin deep in defeat to end in triumph. But the sharpest part of that kind of story is not in the triumphant ending; it is more often to be found in the troubled beginning. Not the very beginning but a scene soon after, usually a moment of utter defeat, where the story shows you the depth of what is at stake.

In the 2019 TV adaptation of His Dark Materials, they made two changes to that scene as it is in the book. First, they replaced Tony Makarios with Billy Costa, which makes sense. It’s one fewer Tony to keep track of, and presumably one fewer child actor to wrangle, not to mention making the scene that much more painful because we see and relate to the Costas more in the show, which is of course the whole point. But the second change is trickier. They took the dried fish away from Billy.

Taking the fish away is the heart of the scene in the first place. In the book, the boy—who has been severed from his daemon by the villains, having had his soul cut away—is near death, and is pathetically clinging to a dried fish in its place when Lyra finds him. When she and her allies are attempting to make him comfortable, some adult thoughtlessly takes the fish away from him because he doesn’t understand its symbolic value to the boy, or to this scene. When Lyra asks where the fish is, people respond with nervous laughter, and Lyra responds:

“Don’t you dare laugh! I’ll tear your lungs out if you laugh at him! That’s all he had to cling onto, just an old dried fish, that’s all he had for a dæmon to love and be kind to! Who’s took it from him? Where’s it gone?”

Lyra Belacqua, in His Dark Materials

This is one of the ways in which we know that Lyra understands instantly the true horror of the intercision of souls, well before any of the adults have processed it. It is important because it shows what happens when you lose your soul, which is that you cling to whatever you might find at hand that at least looks like a soul, something that approximates a lost soul’s shape and size and the memory of life, even if it is long dead and dessicated.

It’s important to the story that we see Lyra understand the cost of the dried fish: that it is beyond price. It is even important that someone should take it away from the boy, because that is how the story is able to demonstrate that the appropriate response to that loss is rage. The story, at least in that first book, understands the value of exploring defeat.

On the other hand, when the show removes the fish from the narrative entirely, when there is no fish, only a boy—when the text itself is playing the part of the random man who does not understand the value of a symbol—it is left to the watcher (or perhaps more accurately, the reader) to play Lyra’s part and ask, who took it from him? And of course, it does make sense that a TV adaptation in 2019 would do this. The Great Moving Right Show has done a lot of moving this quarter-century: perhaps a scriptwriter found it too obvious, too belaboured, too sentimental. Of course this is about defeat and loss, they might say, but what is even defeat and loss except the whole world as we know it? There has never been an alternative, so why dwell on a fish?

(I feel like I am arguing for the space between samudaya and nirodha here. Between cause and cure there are many questions to which the answers are beyond price: is this proximate cause or ultimate cause? Is this cause or correlation? Are there biases in the questions? Are there buried assumptions in the questions that are still there in the answers? Is the apparatus faulty? Who paid for this? This is why this essay will break with genre tradition and not end on a note of hope and exhortation. This essay is only meant to trouble.)

We—and here I mean Buddhists, including unbuddhists like myself—don’t have souls. This is not exactly what anatta means, but also, it sort of is. We are not, or at least were not supposed to be, a tripartite array of discrete components. Except we are that, now, like everybody else. For us, the horror is not intercision of souls but the grand intercession that ensouled us in the first place: the invention, between the late 19th and the mid 20th centuries, partly imperial and partly postcolonial, of the Christianized, modern, political Buddhism, which today is the standard establishment Theravada of Sinhala Buddhism, and more importantly, the selfhood that it makes out of us. The soul grafted on to us, dead on arrival: we have an old dried fish in our hands and are beating ourselves to death with it.

The ſtedfaſt Earth

In the long run, you can think of the Sinhala fear of extinction as a straightforwardly true prophecy, in one (or both) of two ways; it’s just that neither of those ways are the one that the fear itself is concerned with.

The first is the way of hope. This is the idea that the painful fiction of “race” can become extinct through people collectively, gradually learning how to disengage from it, to harmlessly discharge the energy, the mythic resonance, and the emotion that it has been imbued with for several generations. Nothing becomes extinct here except an idea that was never even ours, and which has caused only horror. The optimism of the spleen, if you will. It’s a lovely idea. I wish I believed it was possible.

The second way, which has the unfortunate quality of being real and underway, is the way of despair. It is that the greater crisis will overtake this fear of extinction and annihilate it along with much of the contested sacred land. This is the pessimism of the gallbladder. It is full of bile, you see.

These are Sri Lanka’s final decades as we know it. How do we know this? We are neck-deep in true prophecies.

The pessimism of the gallbladder teaches us that grandiose climate agreements will not be enforced or followed. Meanwhile, we are deep into the business-as-usual scenario already. Many writings on the subject still persist in the unearned optimism of the spleen and waffle about 1.5 degrees when we are already looking at much worse than that, and that is only going to accelerate. Weather, like racism, can no longer be defined as the local extreme of itself, because extreme weather is already becoming, simply, weather.

Our low-lying coasts will go under: the island whose territory was mythically sanctified by Buddha’s three-point landing, that sacred, prophesied island whose perfect unity vs. unitarity has been fought over for so long, will be unceremoniously redelimited by the sea. Almost all of us will live in moderate to severe climate hotspots in just three decades—there will probably still be Rakapaksas in politics at that time. Between the sea, the storms, the floods, the landslides, the bad air, the heat, the food shortages, and the indifference of our elites who will simply decamp when it gets messy, many Sri Lankans will become climate refugees.

All of this is in the next few decades; many of the people who will live it are already alive. By the next century, given the ongoing net global failure to act on climate change, Sri Lanka will be uninhabitable, along with much of the rest of South Asia. For this nation, there will be no twenty-second century.

For Sinhala climate refugees, the fear of racial extinction will lose some ground to true fears, but it will also become a rallying cry, a performance of the devoured past ever more frantic because of its attenuation. Sinhalaness will not, more’s the pity, simply go away by itself. This is the business-as-usual scenario of race and its story of blood: unlike climate, it doesn’t change. It is a fixed idea, still the hammer that made a nail of the world. It does not go away; it can only be relentlessly recognized and disavowed at every turn. How to do that, how to break it so it stays broken, is not an easy question. Any easy answer is a trap.

In this multiverse, there is no Dust to grace us, like Lyra, with the gift of understanding deep truths without effort; like the other readers of the alethiometer, we have before us only the possibility of doing the lifetime’s work to understand those truths on our own—and while we read and think and try to understand, to not allow ourselves to be co-opted by the grinding Magisteria of our worlds as most alethiometer-readers seem to.

“We have to build the Republic of Heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere.”

John Parry, in The Amber Spyglass

When Parry, Will, and Lyra speak of the Republic of Heaven in The Amber Spyglass, they are contrasting it with the more traditional Kingdom of Heaven: the idea is, stripped to the bone, is simply that people must try and make life on Earth a heaven instead of waiting for bliss in a next life. This is a profound idea but also a greeting-card truism, or perhaps more charitably a well-worn slogan, that the point is not to interpret the world but to change it.

What becomes of this idea when we have already made of Earth a hell? Given its own premises—because for us there is still no elsewhere—it would seem at first that nothing changes and we must work toward a People’s Republic of Hell. But those premises are themselves shopworn. Heaven and Hell are not fungible: this is the error of shallow hope, the hope that does not reckon with the depth of defeat.

Like Parry’s rejection of the Kingdom of Heaven, Sinhala Buddhism’s political turn in the 1940s and 50s—during the slow process of independence from the British Empire—put away childish things such as questions of soul and spirit and salvation, nirvana banished not just to the next life but to a future life unimaginably distant from the concerns of the day, to instead build the infernal republic of their heaven where they were. In this they succeeded: the Citizenship Act, the Sinhala Only Act, the 1972 constitution with Buddhism’s primacy written down in black and white. “For us there is no elsewhere” is to this day their rallying cry: that they have only this one sanctified island.

But perhaps John Parry is not the right voice for us to hear about the Republic of Heaven. In his mouth it just turns to ashes. Let’s hear it from Lyra instead, so we can hear the better version, too.

“He meant the Kingdom was over, the Kingdom of Heaven, it was all finished. We shouldn’t live as if it mattered more than this life in this world, because where we are is always the most important place […] we have to be all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and patient, and we’ve got to study and think and work hard, all of us, in all our different worlds, and then we’ll build …”

Lyra Silvertongue, in The Amber Spyglass

Ever since the rise of the right forty years ago—which is to say, ever since the neoliberal turn, the pilot episode of the Great Moving Right Show —the rulers of the world posited a new Kingdom of Heaven of their own: endless growth, endless prosperity, an end to troublesome history, capitalocene without end. And in that same forty years, at the very same time, those same rulers went to war with that same Kingdom of Heaven and overthrew it: plundered and exhausted its resources, burned through the world. A future conjured and destroyed at once, in the same movement. The price of this necromancy—in exchange for that beautiful moment of value for the shareholders—is the transition from capitalocene to chthulucene, or, more likely, the very cthulhucene that Haraway refuses, Black Tom’s revenge. This long moment of our lives when, it seems, the mask is always coming off.

Lyra’s tactical injunction to study, think, and work hard is straightforward regurgitation of Protestant work ethic; her definition of the republican affect is composed of childishly sensible commonplaces—kind, curious, patient—but cheerful is where the British child-hero’s sheer grating Britishness becomes disturbing, evoking that old chinuppery, a stiff-upper-lippery, a calm to keep in all this carrying on, the colonizer’s smug self-soothing. For everyone else, it is a reminder that overthrowing gods and heavens is far easier than overthrowing empire and its hellspawn, race and nation. As Lyra learns, overthrowing heaven is easier than overthrowing the church, too.

Sinhala culture will never overthrow its temples in the time it has left, of course, no matter how degraded its gods have already become: the pessimism of the gallbladder teaches us that. The temples will not be overthrown by too-few hands and too-weak wills, but they will fall to smog and sea and storm anyway. This is what it means to have one crisis overtaken by another. It’s been only a few decades since the Muhudu Viharaya was excavated and restored to the beach where it now stands—and where it has spent a lot of that time being a flashpoint for Sinhala anti-Muslim racism—and soon enough to be moot, when the sea takes back what it is owed.

I don’t argue against hope and cheer out of a love of misery; I argue against them because they manifest too soon in their shallowest form, as denial. Even this could seem harmless but for the things that are lost to drowning in those acidic shallows; grief, despair, and rage are a fragile mangrove biome, but somewhere in that swamp grows the ability to finally learn from plentiful defeat, to look for not only the roots of things but the underwater joins between those roots, the connections at once occulted and obvious, to find the everyday Sinhala/Buddhist daemon that’s been in our face the whole time, to understand how desperately we need intercision.

Ruinous; Battering [Blood and Dust: Part 2 of 3]

Blood and Dust is a trilogy of essays, or perhaps a unitary tripartite essay about, among other things, Philip Pullman’s paired His Dark Materials/The Book of Dust trilogies and Sri Lankan mythopolitics—it is brought to you by my patrons, who are the most brilliant and most beautiful. (This sort of elaborately ridiculous essayistic exercise is actually exactly what I had in mind when I set up a Patreon in the first place.) Part 1 was last year’s Abyss & Brink. This is Part 2. As is known, the middle part of a trilogy is always the best, or the worst.

Noiſes loud and ruinous

Fantastical worlds, like alternate universes and nation-states, are generally accompanied by what is (often tiresomely) called “worldbuilding”. This is the purpose of a root and founding myth, such as “Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country”. Here founding is not a dating—in Sri Lanka, in any case, the myth dates only to the middle 19th century, not the twin 5th centuries AD and BC that the myth claims for itself—but a description. This is the work that a founding myth does: it founds, from Middle French fondre, to melt and pour into a cast. It shapes. It moulds. And so in this molten place we come to race/racism, and its dark prophecies of extinction, from the Great Replacement to the Rivers of Blood to the Rising Tide. Power is expressed as the fear of losing that power; there is no castration without penis, but also no penis without castration.

In Sri Lanka, too, we have the same fear-claim, except adapted from its white supremacist origins to serve postcolonial Sinhala supremacism, most usually expressed in this context in the form of anti-Muslim racism—as Gangodawila Soma claimed in the 90s and Udaya Gammanpila claimed last year, the prophecy of the Sinhala supremacist is that the Sinhala race is going extinct.

Where do these strange fears come from? How did that adaptation happen?

In the case of Sinhala Buddhism and its association with land, however, it was not God (or a god) who established the island for the Sinhala people in the beginning, but rather the Buddha […] according to the Mahavamsa and its story of the island’s primordial charter, in his three visits to the island, during which he cleared the land of inimical forces and meditated as he went along, the Buddha sanctified the island, one aspect of which was his proclaiming that its human inhabitants—commonly assumed by the Sinhala people to be the Sinhala people—would be responsible for its preservation.

Tessa Bartholomeusz, In Defense of Dharma: Just-War Ideology in Sri Lanka

The Mahavamsa is important to Sri Lanka’s root and founding myth, but not as a source. The Mahavamsa is itself produced as an object of racist thinking, being “discovered” and translated into English by the British during the occupation in the early 19th century, only after which it was first translated into Sinhala in the 1870s. The Mahavamsa becomes the Mahavamsa in the same span of time that it takes for the British imperial census-takers to invent and harden racial categories.

It seems that at least until 1824 Sinhalese and Tamils were perceived not as clear-cut ethnic groups, but first and foremost as members of a number of caste groups of various sizes […] In 1835 a detailed statement of the total population had been prepared from headmen returns and registers of births and deaths. The population was grouped under the following headings: whites (9,121), free blacks (1,194,482), slaves (27,397) and aliens and resident strangers (10,825). The categories were no longer castes, but they expressed more clearly the feeling of exclusion-inclusion that permeated colonial situations. The British were whites. The ‘others’ were their antithesis—blacks, an all-encompassing term. In the 1871 and 1881 censuses the term ‘race’ appeared for the first time along with the category of nationality. In 1871 there were seventy-eight nationalities and twenty-four races.

Nira Wickremasinghe, Sri Lanka in the Modern Age

By the 1880s and 1890s, this new-old Mahavamsa was being routinely cited in letters to a wave of new Buddhist periodicals, a confused (but not confusing) hotbed of nationalist, anticolonial, and racist sentiment. This type of rhetoric does not significantly evolve, any more than anything changed in the quarter-century between Gangodawila Soma and Udaya Gammanpila. What Dharmapala said a hundred years ago is what is said now. What we see in the 1890s is not even a simpler or more primitive version of the argument we see in the 1990s: it is identical.

For instance, the outspoken monk, Venerable Sobitha, reflecting a common reading of the Mahavamsa, has argued that “everyone [knows] that Sri Lanka was a Buddhist country and Buddhism has been the country’s religion for 2,500 years.” […] In his line of thinking, if devolution of powers were granted in the north—thereby legitimating the territory as non-Sinhala and non-Buddhist—the integrity of the Buddhist island would be undermined. This, for Venerable Sobitha, would be unthinkable: from his point of view, which is based on the Mahavamsa, the Buddha himself claimed the entire island, including the north, as the Buddhist promised land. The 1997 remark of the Venerable Sobitha had been foreshadowed for over at least one hundred years; a Buddhist layman, writing in 1893, referred to Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, as the “sacred Island” as he described the island as the “centre” for Theravadin Buddhists.

Tessa Bartholomeusz, In Defense of Dharma: Just-War Ideology in Sri Lanka

If you’re wondering, yes, that is the same Maduluwawe Sobitha from the battle for the Republic of Heaven in the previous instalment of this essay, the same man who now gets an annual memorial lecture. He has ascended into myth now, a lifetime of racist activism obscured so that he can reappear as a newborn elder of liberal democracy. Of course, this is political mythmaking: it is (presumably) understood by most (or at least some? I prefer to imagine manipulation rather than mere gullibility) that these are lies, but pragmatic lies, tactical obfuscations that serve a partisan and purportedly antifascist purpose. But at the same time, it is also the kind of myth that becomes hyperreal, becomes factish, becomes a source of distorted thinking.

Racecraft—a deeply useful word I keep borrowing from Karen and Barbara Fields—is that which creates race as a credible reality in social consciousness. The only purpose of race as a category is racism: to discriminate based on ancestry, to create double standards. In what is generally referred to as British divide-and-rule policy in occupied Ceylon, race was the fundamental unit of politics. This is why the history of the censuses matter. Independence didn’t change this: race determined representation in the Legislative Councils then as much as it determines party politics and electoral blocs today.

More importantly, independence didn’t change the colonial relation that racial hierarchy had imposed. The imperial project to redefine the entire world on racial lines largely succeeded—the whites, the free blacks, the slaves, and the aliens, in the typology of the 1830s, a basic relational structure that has remained intact through all the fine-tuning and euphemistic renaming it has undergone since—and the formal end of empire did not undo it. Rather, what independence and the 20th century accomplished was that the Sinhalese self-determined themselves as the inheritors of the role of whiteness: a movement commonplace across the Commonwealth. Sinhalaness, defined into being by racecraft census as the demographic “majority” in the context of a generations-old politics of representation-by-race, could then be weaponized by the universal franchise in 1931 and strengthened by the Ceylon Citizenship Act in 1948 to divide and disenfranchise the largest “minority”. The Mahavamsa ideology of the island as a sacred Sinhala Buddhist country smoothly becomes the ideology of tactical electioneering (as witnessed most recently in November 2019). Sinhalaness claimed that white space, becoming the new unmarked default, the inheritor-owners, and therefore by definition being set against the still-marked exceptions. The relation of marked to unmarked, of owner to interloper, has no mode other than domination.

This racial relation, which could not be any older than itself, was nevertheless (and still is) projected backwards in time as the filter through which to understand all Sri Lankan history, including the precolonial, the ancient, and the mythic. The racial framing posits ancient, destined, and enduring divides that stretch into deep time, obscuring the much simpler truth that the divisions are the largely arbitrary product of racist colonial policy in the lifetimes of our great-grandmothers. Race is a predatory framing: it eats the past, including the past that predates it.

Some clarifying distinctions are probably called for. Race is not language-speakers or culture-practitioners, which are things that anybody could learn or forget. Rather, race is the framing itself: the assortment of humanity into hierarchical subgroups based on ancestry to justify the violence of present and historical domination. Race is power’s claim of inevitability. It is power’s assertion that injustice is natural and necessary.

Racism, similarly, is often (re)defined in casual usage as a subset of itself, referring exclusively to the local extreme of racist violence. So, for example, in contemporary Sri Lanka that would be assaulting minorities, firebombing mosques and churches, setting people’s houses on fire. But most racism is neither notably “extremist” nor physically violent. Racism is a much larger structure than only its local extreme, its sharp end: by the time a situation arrives at racist violence, it has already been racist for a long, long time. Even the 1915 anti-Muslim pogrom was predated by decades of Mahavamsic belligerence.

Racism at its broadest is an insistence: to always see the world through race. To be unable to see it otherwise. To constantly speak race into being, because it is a necromancy that cannot sustain itself without endless blood sacrifice. To speak “the Sinhala race” into being is to simultaneously bemoan its impending extinction, a demise possible because race is something in the blood—an ancestral biological essence of Sinhalaness, something that can be diluted or made extinct by preventing the Sinhalese from breeding. Or to return to Udaya Gammanpila’s claim, by the Sinhalese being outbred. This last link is a “fact check” contradicting Gammanpila, one of several that I’ve seen in recent weeks, that refutes his claim in exactly the wrong way. That wrongness is important, however, to the understanding of Sinhala racial thinking common to all wings of the southern polity.

The idea underlying Gammanpila’s claim, that the Sinhalese even exist as a distinct breeding population that can go up or down, is absurd and racist. But the liberal argument against it, as represented above by the fact-checking website but mirrored in all the other responses I’ve seen so far, is merely to contest the arithmetic of the race between races. Censuses and rates and ratios are cited to postpone the demographic extinction for future so distant that it is of no concern, and to argue for the relief of continued demographic supremacy in the long present. This is not a counterargument but a confirmation, which is why this entire genre of response has never had the slightest effect on the racist claim in all these decades.

By reinforcing the idea of races as biological realities, as distinctive breeding populations competing for demographic and therefore electoral supremacy, this genre of refutation merely echoes the racist position that there is in fact potentially something to fear. If it is the arithmetic that is wrong, that leaves open the possibility that future events will change that arithmetic, and agrees that if the arithmetic some day happened to confirm the claim, that Gammanpila would then be correct, instead of being merely racist either way.

The claim cannot be refuted from within the racial framing, because the racial framing exists in order to make this claim. It is the entire purpose and definition of being Sinhala that one should fear Sinhala extinction: this fear of extinction, this වඳ-බය, is the core of the identity. A more reasonable counterargument would be to point out that there is no such thing as Sinhala people; therefore the Sinhala people cannot go extinct. The “Sinhala race” is a relation, not a population: it exists only as privilege and domination. This is what it means to be a race, as invented by British racecraft, as distinct from the myriad older ideas of allegiance and fealty that might have once defined what it meant to be a Sinhala, Chola, Kaurava, Pandava, Stark or Lannister. The explicitly racist Sinha Le/Blood of the Lion movement, for example, isn’t only trying to invoke bloodshed with that image, as that article surmises: it is also invoking this mythic ancestry, the legendary descent from the lion, to evoke this core fear of extinction.

Since the fear of Sinhala extinction cannot be argued away without arguing away the category of Sinhala itself, in a way, the fear of extinction can only be ended through a kind of extinction, the undefinition of a category, the ending of an insistent way of seeing the world. So you could call it a true prophecy, one that fears fruition.

With all her battering Engines

A perfect prophecy encapsulates the (original, inner, interrupting, idyllic) Dust trilogy. By “perfect” I mean that it is not only a true prophecy, but that it is the kind of prophecy that isn’t and couldn’t be subverted. Destiny is fixed, from the perspective of Dust, which is greater than time. Dust participates directly in that fixation within time and plot. It answers questions. It directs characters. It gives gifts: Lyra is able to read an alethiometer without training and without reference books, an impossible thing except by grace.

An alethiometer—a device that when questioned by an adept answers any question truthfully—would seem to confound the very nature of plot. How is possible to have drama if the protagonist has access to perfectly accurate and reliable information at all times? So this ability is constrained in various ways. Sometimes Lyra simply does not know the right question to ask, or fails to ask a question at the right time, or actively avoids knowing the future out of exhaustion or despair. Sometimes Lyra subordinates her will to someone else—she does this with Will for a while, allowing him to decide whether to use the alethiometer or what to ask it.

The alethiometer itself is not, despite its coldly scientific name and its apparently impersonal mechanism, a neutral source of answers: it is Dust that speaks through it, as it does through other such interfaces, and Dust has an agenda. The war against God is part of that agenda, but so is the preservation of the social status quo. Dust is all about things staying as they are fixed: heterosexual, paired off by destiny, socially stratified, godless but priest-heavy. Dust is quite literally attracted to sexually adult humans, presumably because in this multiverse, bodily sexuality represents the pinnacle of all being, a state envied even by angels. It is eros, not agape, that is a cosmic force. Two teenagers make out after (accidentally) killing God and this is enough to reverse the flow of Dust across worlds. Of course, drama requires the frustration of eros, too: at the end of the interrupting trilogy, Will and Lyra must separate into their respective universes for ridiculously contrived plot reasons.

But the outer, encapsulating second trilogy has already prepared a backup romance for Lyra: Malcolm, who as a young boy saves a baby Lyra from various threats in La Belle Sauvage and then reappears as an older man in The Secret Commonwealth when she’s a young woman—after the interruption of the entire original trilogy and all its contents, including Will and the war against heaven—as a spook, a secret guardian, and perversely, one of her teachers at university and eventually, it seems, her love interest. At least, this seems to be where it is going, though one hopes the as yet unpublished third book will go somewhere less creepy with it.

(God forbid that Lyra go unattached to some kind of male guardian figure/romantic interest for any length of time in these books—well, yes, God would have forbidden it if he were not already dead, and in fact did try at one point, sorry to Father Gomez. Lyra’s longest stretch of independence from such a thing, I believe, was in her mother’s custody in The Amber Spyglass, during which Lyra was kept unconscious.)

This possible-romance is not the most encouraging development, plotwise: it is still less discouraging than the other main plot of the second trilogy, which is that Lyra is reading some popular books that insist that daemons aren’t real and Pan is mad at her because he finds this insulting.

The Secret Commonwealth is largely Lyra’s journey in (re)discovering that magic is real, the same magic that she was so familiar with as a child, after a young adulthood tainted by trashy postmodern novels that have taught her to be sceptical of magic: a journey that seems rather unnecessary, and perhaps would have been persuasive material for a book that was about somebody else altogether rather than Lyra Silvertongue, who was named by a bear, became an honorary witch, talked to ghosts, visited the land of the dead, fought harpies, and personally fulfilled a prophecy that involved the death of God, all before puberty.

Or perhaps it would have been more persuasive even if it was just set in a universe where magic was not the most everyday and commonplace reality. Daemons change shape without conserving mass and speak human languages in bodies that don’t have a human vocal apparatus: every day in every human life in this universe is filled with violations of physics and biology. Is it possible for anybody in this universe to even develop a concept of science or scepticism, never mind whatever strawman Pullman is attempting to beat here? It is a magic universe made for faith. Its philosophies and cultural controversies should not so tiresomely resemble ours. I dread that the next book will elaborate Lyra’s battle against political correctness.

The Secret Commonwealth is, therefore, about Lyra absurdly losing touch with the root and founding myth of the Dust universe, which in a magical universe is also its truth: that humans have daemons. Unsurprisingly, she finds out that the clever authors she idolizes are hypocrites and liars, and of course their scepticism is a false god. Unlike the inconsequentially grand stakes of the original trilogy, we are two-thirds of the way through the second and so far it’s an extended spat between Lyra and Pan, and some creepy hovering/grooming from Malcolm. But perhaps this also makes sense, if you think of encapsulating narratives as smug realpolitik and interrupting ones as the hypocrisy of false idealism. Or perhaps the Dust trilogies are simply cursed to have weak middle episodes.

What does it mean to deny the fundamental structures of your world so thoroughly that you question the reality of the everyday daemon in front of your face? This is what Lyra is doing in The Secret Commonwealth, and it is what we must learn to do every day in the regular, exposed Commonwealth, the gentrified husk of the former Empire. In a magical universe built on faith, Lyra is wrong to question her daemon; in an all-too-unmagical world built on violence and racecraft, we must question our demons if we are to ever be free of them. Otherwise, the racecraft that organizes our politics and analyses alike, that reinscribes and reinforces itself every day, will never stop trying to cut—with its unsubtle knives, always further up and further in—through the veil of intervening human bodies into some perfected raceworld, some sacred island where that old necromancy is real at last.


Thanks again to my patrons, who did nothing to deserve this. Part 3 is Earth, in Mutinie.

Abyss & Brink [Blood and Dust: Part 1 of 3]

Blood and Dust is a trilogy of essays, each one a house divided against itself. It is brought to you by my discerning and excellent patrons, by the apocalyptic gurning of the history we are cursed to squat in, and by the letter B: for bitter, baleful, and bileful.

Into this wilde Abyſs

In the weeks before 2019’s much-dreaded Sri Lankan presidential election, I read and (re)read Philip Pullman’s paired His Dark Materials/The Book of Dust trilogies (of course, spoilers abound in this essay for all of the above, including the election) partly for light relief from the apocalyptic mood and partly to remind myself of the story before watching the new TV adaptation. The first is the original trilogy from the 90s: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. The second is the still-incomplete ongoing trilogy: La Belle Sauvage, this year’s The Secret Commonwealth, and the as-yet untitled, unannounced finale. Instead of being entirely either a prequel or a sequel series, the second trilogy encapsulates the first: La Belle Sauvage is set about a decade before the original trilogy and The Secret Commonwealth about a decade after it. Or to put it another way, the first trilogy interrupts the second.

And of course, this made me think about, as everything does right now, the very election I was attempting to distract myself from, because Sri Lankan political history of this decade is also framed this way: a narrative of encapsulation, the interruption of one history by another. There was fascism, interrupted by an idyll of liberal democracy, and now, again, there is fascism; this is the story. The Sirisena-Wickremasinghe UNP administration of 2015-2019 as an interruption between the prequel and sequel fascisms of the Rajapaksa brothers. This interruption, this idyll, is temporary by design and destiny, a storm’s eye surrounded on all sides, a definitionally brief respite.

This framing is at best only partly true; what truth it can bear is based on the visible reduction in both harm and fear during the idyll, relative to the preceding decade. But this framing is also absurdly pollyannaish, not only because that idyllic administration protected its predecessor from prosecution but because various forms and degrees of harm continued to be perpetrated throughout this ඊනියා idyll. Was the violence really more constrained than before or only better targeted? Instead of attacking journalists in both north and south, the focus shifted to harassment of northern journalists alone. Did the idyllic administration not provide uninterrupted state sanction for Sinhala-Buddhist violence and harassment of minorities and dissenters? From the idyll’s failure to prevent, counteract, or successfully prosecute the perpetrators of the Digana anti-Muslim pogrom to the absurd imprisonment of the writer Shakthika Sathkumara for having the temerity to mildly critique Buddhist hypocrisies in a social media post, we see the continuous sharpening and strengthening of the tools, policies, and strategies of a Sinhala Buddhist fascist state exactly like the one it purportedly interrupted. From the ongoing military occupation of the north to the niqab/burqa ban and totalitarian surveillance fetishism after the Easter bombings, we see continuities, not interruption. To the extent that there was in fact a change, that much-celebrated, much-cited visible change we began this paragraph with, that idyll also visibly understood itself as an interruption. When the time came, it put itself away as a childish thing, undoing itself.

Any assessment that plants itself firmly on the ground of principle must acknowledge that the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe administration was not an idealistic effort that ended in dismal failure, but a grand and shameless hypocrisy in the first instance, and a tremendously successful one. There is no better demonstration of that hypocrisy than the campaign’s original whitewashing of Maithripala Sirisena—a man who until that point was best known as a proudly self-proclaimed war criminal in his own right and a vocal defender of the execrable 18th Amendment—as a humble soft-spoken saintly rescuer of democracy against autocracy, a characterization that only held very briefly, but long enough.

But why even bring this up now? Isn’t it all long since moot? The interruption, whether it was an interruption or not, is over; is it not petty to argue about whether it was actually an idyll or not? No, because without plucking out these deep-set hypocrisies, clarity of thought is impossible. This peculiar framing of 2015 continues to distort thinking in the present day. Propaganda repeated often enough acquires a factish sheen. Now we routinely see commentary citing it seriously as fact, despite all evidence to the contrary. It is long past time for southern commentators to acknowledge that the yahapalana campaign and its associated “movements” were a cynical, self-serving, partisan myth constructed as part of an electoral strategy. And more importantly, that this myth is not dead but still alive, serving to obscure the unbroken fascistic continuities, the long collusion of our purportedly divided ruling class, and the depth to which Sinhala Buddhist supremacism is not a fringe ideology but the core of all southern politics.

The election is not the subject of these essay, of course. This is a book review only. But if you like, the reading of events is also a history that interrupts—and does not interrupt—the reading of the books. This is about rhetoric. This is about myth, and lies.

The distorting myth of idyll, of interruption, leads the unwary reader to be more and more susceptible to a world of lies about where we are and how we got here. Some of these lies are told to us. Some of these lies we tell ourselves. Sri Lanka is a mangrove swamp of such myth, of course, but if you follow the roots until they come together, what seems at first like a forest comes together into a single organism with many manifestations, a particular dark fantasy told and retold every day since our great-grandparents were young. This is the root and founding myth that goes largely unchallenged in the south, that encapsulates everything from Mahavamsa to Dharmapala to Sinhala Only to the war—how it began, how it ended—and to the recent election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa: that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country.

The warie fiend stood on the brink of Hell

The most memorable thing about Pullman’s Dust universe—pretty much the only thing I still remembered about the original series after twenty-odd years, before rereading it recently in preparation for the TV adapatation—is that it is part of a multiverse where sentient life is tripartite in the Christian theological sense: there is body, spirit, and soul.

This multiverse includes our own universe, where spirit and soul are both tucked away within the body, and the Dust universe where most of the story takes place, where spirit is similarly obscured by body but soul exists outside the body, in the shape of a magical talking animal called a daemon. The animal is always symbolic in some way, and its form is fluid until the body’s puberty, when original sin—which here is the self-knowledge of sexuality—fixes the shape of your animal daemon into the form it will always occupy in your adulthood.

That fixed shape in turn is a visible marker of character, which the books fully identify with social class. Working-class humans have dog daemons because dogs are seen as naturally subservient; antihero aristocrats have unique exotic animals to symbolize their nobility and specialness; more openly contemptible villains have “bad” animals like snakes and hyenas and insects and suchlike; cute children have cute furry animals.

This is of course at the level of craft a convenient and frequently lazy device of characterization, among other things, but at the same time in the world of the story it is also deeply essentialist and casteist—adults not only have souls which are fixed and unchangeable and representative of fixed moral character, but also of fixed social role in societies that are deeply hierarchical caste systems. Destiny is fixed, if not at birth, then at puberty. This is, if you like, the root and founding myth of the Dust universe.

And of course, in the fantastical Dust universe, destiny is in fact truly fixed, because this entire cosmos is predestined and perfectly, fully known, not by God (who does, fantastically, exist) so much as by an immanent cosmic Spirit greater than mere gods, which is itself sentient and omniscient. That Spirit is variously known in different universes as Dust, as Shadows, as Dark Matter. Mortals can imperfectly access this knowledge of destiny through a variety of methods: prophecy, for example, or by directly interrogating this cosmic spirit using techniques such as the I Ching or technology such as the titular golden compass, a truth-telling device of mysterious origin called an alethiometer.

The golden compass is one of three transcendental objects that the books of the original trilogy are named for: the golden compass, the subtle knife, and the amber spyglass. The first is, as just noted, for accessing omniscient knowledge of destiny. The third object, the amber spyglass, makes it possible to see otherwise invisible movements of spirit in the mundane world—this ability to see the unseen spirit appears to be one of the big ideas of the second trilogy as well, perhaps because it is a relatively minor part of the original books.

The second object, though, is set in opposition to the others. The subtle knife allows its destined bearer to cut anything—body, soul, spirit, the veil between universes, God himself. It seemed inevitable that I should read it as representing Science, from the Latin scindere, meaning to cut. It is immensely powerful and ultimately dangerous: it must eventually be broken and its works undone. Or more broadly, it could stand for Reason, rationality, logic. This is a plot that operates on faith and grace. It acknowledges the subtlety and power of the laukika, especially in the hands of the master technocrats of Cittàgazze, but remains firmly occidented toward the lokottara. Cittàgazze is, after all, long dead of its own hubris.

As all this suggests, the books are thoroughly Christian, in the anti-establishment form of a renewed Gnostic heresy. God exists, but is not the true creator but rather a powerful, villainous demiurge; the Church, as the depoped Magisterium, is a similarly oppressive ruling body. The original trilogy is a rebellion against God, in the most literal form imaginable, via the gathering of an army of allied powers—humans, bears, witches, rebel angels, Gallivespians, Maithripala Sirisena, Ranil and the UNP, Chandrika, the National Movement for a Just Society, the Purawesi Balaya, Maduluwawe Sobitha—to overthrow God through force of arms and establish good governance, a yahapalana Republic of Heaven.

This great revolution is ultimately successful, but it does not appear to have had any effect in the mundane world. By the time of The Secret Commonwealth, the Church is still the same violent, repressive force it was in the (interrupting) original trilogy. The cruel powers of the world do not appear to have noticed the death of their God.


Thanks again to my patrons, to whom no blame attaches; meanwhile, I shall nurse this migraine as if it were a black dog, and cultivate my despair and unreason.

Part 2 of this series is Ruinous; Battering.

New post: The City Uncity

Tade Thompson’s Rosewater and Sue Burke’s Semiosis.

I’ve written a review of two more novels shortlisted for the 2019 Clarke award, Tade Thompson’s Rosewater and Sue Burke’s Semiosis: I paired them because of their structural and thematic commonalities, as I probably will also with the Whiteley and the Saadawi.

The review is publicly available here as a Patreon post: https://www.patreon.com/posts/28181987

Many thanks to my patrons for supporting these! Greatly appreciated, you all are why these essays can fungally exfiltrate the biodome and successfully infect the noösphere.

Still noodling over the options of how to actually use Patreon’s posting features. I plan to continue to have both public and patron-only posts: the latter will be on Patreon out of necessity, but in future I think I’ll switch to putting the public posts here and linking them from Patreon rather than the other way around. Mostly because I much prefer the very flexible and extensive WordPress formatting options to the stark and rudimentary formatting features that Patreon provides for text posts. It is not exactly friendly to the longform essayist, that place: one gets the impression it’s designed more for embedding or linking to content than actually containing it. What I like about the new WordPress interface (the controversial Gutenberg editor) is that it seems equally at home with both. The paragraph should be treated as a quasi-magical high technology from a Lost Age, to be hoarded and dreaded for its dangerous powers, not consigned to poor implementation of paragraph and line break tags.

Love, Lies, and Brevity

I’ve been reading what one might call the Marriage Triptych: three unrelated books by writers who are part of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, each with “marriage” in the title and each about, among other things, the Sri Lankan civil war. They are: Love Marriage (2008) by V. V. Ganeshananthan, Marriage of a Thousand Lies (2017) by S. J. Sindu, and The Story of A Brief Marriage (2016) by Anuk Arudpragasam.

The titles are perhaps deceptively mellow, in the same way that you can’t tell just from the title of Toni Morrison’s Beloved that it’s a gothic horror. The titles’ echoes in each other seem resonant, too: the books are not very alike, but of course they are brought into the same frame by their connecting theme, in much the same way that communities—ethnicities, diasporas—are imagined and re-imagined.

Love Marriage was published a year before the war ended, and is set, I believe, during the same timeframe. The other two are more recently published, but Thousand Lies is set during the second Obama election in 2012, and the reason the titular Brief Marriage is brief is because it’s set in the holocaust at war’s end in 2009, which has shaped the decade since: the decade that ends today, the tenth Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day.

For the first half of that decade, Remembrance Day was called Victory Day. That tells you a lot about the Sri Lankan state, but what it doesn’t tell you is that the change of the name is meaningless. The apparent sensitivity of it, the sudden self-awareness: these things are cosmetic at best, and in so being, they are a mockery of the ideas of sensitivity and self-awareness. It’s much like the original post-war big lie: “zero civilian casualties”. The purpose of a lie of this nature is not to deceive, because nobody could possibly be deceived. It is to demonstrate utter contempt for the very concept of the truth, for the idea of being called to account. Victory Day became Remembrance Day to briefly whitewash the public personas of a new government and president—personas which are quite sullied again by now, of course, through every fault of their own. The name change was superficial: it did not lead to demilitarization in the North, or to reforms. In fact, today we are pointed quite in the opposite direction, towards increased militarization against a new enemy, because the Sinhala-Buddhist state cannot function without a marked enemy minority. Without this, they no longer know who they are.

Love Marriage is about Yalini, who was born during Black July and lives in North America, gradually finding out about her family. Much of that history comes to her from her dying uncle Kumaran, who was an LTTE member, and with whom Yalini’s relationship rapidly grows complicated: she loves him and his obvious love for her mother, and she loves him for his kindness to her, his willingness to share the history she has been denied, but she cannot reconcile herself with everything he has done, the people he’s killed, the ways in which he has compromised her and her family simply by coming to them to die, and bringing his daughter to marry an LTTE financier. The book treats Marriage as a kind of technology: always stylized, always formal, often figurative. Apart from the marriage of Kumaran’s daughter, which Yalini opposes, there is the mirror-marriage of Yalini’s parents, which Kumaran once opposed, and the marriages of her grandparents, in the alien worlds of the prewar past. And then this, the alchemical marriage of individual and family, of person and history:

This is an arranged marriage too, something ordained not by the stars, but by me: this meeting of girl and country.

This encounter with history doesn’t happen all by itself. Yalini only begins to learn about her family as an adult, after the tsunami, after her uncle. Partly it’s because her family keeps secrets, but it’s also that learning history—whether of your family or the world—is work. This is not only a problem for the diaspora: those of us who lived through those years in the South also have to work at encountering and uncovering our histories, of comparing versions of it, of trying to understand. This is especially true of those of us enculturated as Sinhala-Buddhist, because a century-old propaganda campaign effectively is culture and disassembling it is labourious. The absence of this work can be seen in the tightening cycles in which history repeats itself. When political memory is shorter than an electoral cycle, it gets harder and harder to argue for the relevance of historical context. And like for Yalini, the problem is as much a dearth of information in some cases as an oversupply of competing histories in others. The problem is learning how to sift through both silences and lies.

Marriage of a Thousand Lies is the book most distant from the war, I think, even though it’s inevitably shaped by it. In Boston, Lucky is a lesbian married to Kris, a gay man, in an attempt to form a superficially heteronormative brown marriage unit that keeps her conservative family happy and his visa intact (she eventually decides to divorce him, of course, but that’s not the climactic decision). Lucky is hopelessly in love with Nisha, with whom she’s been on-and-off forever, but who is now being arranged-married to a straight man, Deepak, and who is going ahead with it out of a sense of filial duty and confusion. Lucky, who is herself struggling with how she feels, does the work and makes her move: she asks Nisha to abandon her marriage-which-would-be-a-lie, and to run away with her. But of course Nisha says no. That’s how it works in this sort of book, and all too often in real life. Just because one person has done the work and figured out a truth they can live with doesn’t mean anybody else is ready to hear it.

Unlike Yalini, Lucky is not consumed with the need to learn and engage with her family history, but her grandmother is her most direct connection to the war, the family’s historian:

Hobbling out of the room on her walking stick, [Grandmother] says, “It’s always about the ones who aren’t here. Remember that.”

Grief is political. Grief is a politics. Every movement, every cause is founded upon its dead. And so the state fears grief, not because they fear that it will lead to violence but because they don’t care for grief’s accusations.

(The current wave of anti-Muslim violence, both organised and disorganised, shows how violence against minorities is, rather than a problem for the Sinhala-Buddhist state and polity, rather a cyclic process of identity-renewal. It is how that identity, both as held by large numbers of people and as encapsulated into law and practice by the state, defines its boundaries, reinforces its hegemonic position, and reiterates its own existence. Without that violence, ‘assimilation’ would more naturally flow in the other direction: the strict borders of the unmarked Sinhala-Buddhist identity would dissolve the moment they are not being enforced and reinforced.)

One of the ways in which we grieve is to dwell on things that hurt to remember: the faces and gestures of those that are lost, the ways in which they might have spoken or acted.

The wedding has probably started. Both sets of parents will give their children away. Nisha’s male cousin, stepping in for a brother, will guide Deepak to the flower-entombed altar. The priest will make a ring out of reeds and start the ceremony, his nasal chanting filling the room. When Deepak’s sister comes to guide her to the altar, Nisha will stand up, grab the chair for support.

Lucky’s not present at this wedding to see any of this: this is imagined. After she’s rejected by Nisha for the last time, Lucky goes home to make peace with, and come out to, her mother (the struggle is real!) This makes it the most hopeful book of the triptych, a book that’s thoroughly brown and queer (including in its awkward collisions with white queerness) and looking for and perhaps finding a future despite how much of a hold the past has on us. The voice of speculation here, the lie-of-the-imaginary with which she visualizes the marriage-which-is-a-lie on the way to finding and speaking her truth, mirrors a scene in Love Marriage where Yalini imagines Kumaran’s funeral in a different way than it really happened: a lie, but perhaps one that is more true than the truth. He dies in Canada, but she thinks, what if he had died in Jaffna?

Both death and marriage require fire. If we were in Jaffna, having a funeral, the sons of the dead man would gather around an ayer, a priest, a Brahmin.

Yalini goes on to imagine, in detail, maintaining the subjunctive for many pages, an entire traditional Tamil funeral for her uncle—which is, not incidentally, very similar to a traditional Sinhala funeral. (The rites in which we mark marriage and death are cousins, having drifted only a little in the few generations that we have been marked as separate peoples.) Yalini’s imagined funeral is her marriage to her own history, the coming together of woman and nation. Lucky’s imagined marriage is a funeral for her love for Nisha, a formal leavetaking of that which is gone and never coming back. Neither Yalini nor Lucky end their books with any interest in marriage for themselves.

Brief Marriage brings us as close to the war as fiction is capable of. It is set in the very heart of the war’s end. Where Thousand Lies spans years of life and Love Marriage spans generations: Brief Marriage spans a day or so. Dinesh is a young man in a camp along with many other refugees, all starving, many wounded. They are all sheltering, often futilely, from constant shelling by the military. Dinesh is also in hiding from being recruited by what the book refers to consistently as “the movement”. He and everyone else in the camp are living on the very brink of either slow or sudden death. Unexpectedly, he finds himself the object of an arranged marriage to a young woman in the same camp, Ganga. Her father, Mr. Somasundaram, simply accosts him one day.

He was an old man, he was going to die soon, and it was his duty to find someone to take care of her once he’d gone. It didn’t matter whether their horoscopes were compatible, or what day or time was most auspicious, for obviously it was impossible to follow all the customs all the time. Dinesh had some education and he was a good, responsible boy, he said looking up again, and that was all that mattered. There was an Iyer in the camp who could perform the rites, and if he said yes then the Iyer would get them married immediately.

Dinesh and Ganga marry, rites and marriage curtailed by circumstance. The narrative is similarly contained. Dinesh is a thoughtful, precise person, undone by trauma and exhaustion but otherwise clear and methodical in his thinking. The shelling has made him all too conscious of his body, its fragility, the filth that encrusts it, the air that moves through it. He sees the people in the camp around him similarly affected in various ways, including some men so deep in grief that they become unresponsive:

the men reminded him of the frogs he’d learned about long ago in school, whose spinal cords were cut by scientists to study the difference between the higher and lower brains. Unlike the frogs you saw in ponds and puddles, whose wet skin was always expanding and contracting and whose deep, satisfied voices were always rising and falling, the embodiment of organic flourishing, these mutilated frogs were completely still and silent, oblivious to all stimuli, passive even when poked or prodded. Whether they were hungry or thirsty, calm or scared, it was impossible to tell for the only movement they made was when they were pushed over, in response to which they merely righted themselves and resumed their blankness, a blankness they kept till they died.

When Ganga dies, Dinesh too retreats into himself like this, and we finally see this state from the inside, the utter extremity of grief, of sympathetic dying.

Throughout, the book treats his perspective with deep dignity, because the events of the narrative do not. As Subashini Navaratnam says in her extremely thoughtful review:

It occurs to me that there is an ethics to this kind of careful, precise writing. Someone who writes like this must value the moral in the process of creation and the responsibility that comes with it. It is not merely to “tell a story”. It is to fundamentally disturb the reader.

The book depicts just one person’s interiority in all its depth and intelligence, and with all the attendant horror of those things being abused and destroyed. Its politics is contained in the crushing gravity of that stubborn singularity. In its refusal to simplify (or complicate, depending on how you look at it) it has no access to statistics: it cannot ask these questions in the way that we are more accustomed to. It does not ask any questions at all: it merely says that this is how one person might live and love and die in a place like that. It leaves to us to try and encompass the vast expanse of what one single person truly is, and to multiply it, and to multiply it, and to imagine a hundred thousand funeral fires, to imagine who they might have come home to, made peace with, come out to.

History’s Anteroom

Recent publications: a couple of short stories—“Mulch” in See The Elephant #4 from Metaphysical Circus Press and “The Dreaded Name: Thirty-Nine Crowdsourced Annotations on an Anonymous Manifesto Promoting Tactical Human Extinction” (my longest story title ever, by some margin) in the anthology The Internet is Where the Robots Live Now from Paper Dog Books—and a poem, “Vajrakantakasalmali”, in Syntax & Salt.

Since we are in a Janus-faced moment (see also: resolutions and irresolutions, the takings and leavings of stock) there is a round-up of everything I published in 2018 listed here in my bibliography, or alternatively and perhaps more intriguingly in full tweet-thread form here, where I even did little blurb-type things for each of them.

I used to find that sort of thing harder to do than writing the stories—social media self-promotion in general, or worse, writing blurby bits about my own work and trying to say what a thing is about, when obviously everything is about a lot of things. But sometimes you can just say some words and move on with your life? It seems the salve for many of life’s thorns is to try to relax and do the thing and not worry about it too much. And this is perhaps good advice not just for the minor but also the major arcana. See also: the leavings and takings of leave, the piya vippayoga dukkha, which is the name of the thing that flutters in the extremely occupied cage and makes it hard work for the other organs to organ. A lung must lung without having to worry about stray claws and beaks and feathers. A heart must heart.

Max Porter, "Grief is the Thing with Feathers" (2015)

Max Porter’s Grief Is The Thing With Feathers is fortunately not about Ted Hughes as such despite the overwhelming stench of Crow, but rather about a Ted Hughes scholar. It’s a small lovely book about grief as the madness with sanction, the permitted abandon. There are the things we see and the voices we hear, the half-world we inhabit, sometimes for too long, eating and drinking of it, until we can’t quite come all the way back. That’s me, you see. It took me about seven years to breathe out and say, okay, maybe I’m never going to come all the way back. But then there was an eighth year (and we are in it still—calendrical regimes are complicated) in which I am like, well, fuck it, I can make this work too. It may seem like I’m talking about several things at once. I am, because everything is about a lot of things. Griefs—what an awkward-ass plural that is; it should at least be grieves for the echo, for we be reft when we be reaved—braid. And the pain of being separated from those you love, the diamond-edged precision of this term, the piya vippayoga dukkha, does not speak of death at all, except to encompass it by implication. Death is not the mystery: sundering is.

Once the classless society had been defined as an infinite task, the empty and homogeneous time was trans­formed into an anteroom, so to speak, in which one could wait for the emergence of the revolutionary situation with more or less equanimity. In reality, there is not a moment that would not carry with it its revolutionary chance—provided only that it is defined in a specific way, namely as the chance for a completely new resolution of a completely new problem.

From Benjamin’s Paralipomena
H.L. Seneviratne, "The Work of Kings" (2000)

This anteroom is a hazard for the handling of infinite tasks. This is, for example, how orthodox Sri Lankan Theravada handles the problem of nirvana: defined as an impossible problem of many lifetimes, it’s easy to put it aside altogether and do other things of more worldly import. H.L. Seneviratne’s The Work of Kings records a particular argument about the heritage of a Theravada Buddhist monk in the late 1940s, overlapping with the struggle for nation-making. Walpola Rahula argues for the politicization of the monk, and a social role in keeping with the Christian model; his critic Henpitagedara Gnanavasa argues for a vibhavagami path that precludes this kind of usefulness. Of course, Gnanavasa lost this argument so thoroughly that (as I noted when I tweeted about this book a while back) now, seventy years later, it is bizarre to expect that Buddhist monks should practice Buddhism. Organized Sri Lankan Theravada entered history’s anteroom then, and has since made itself very comfortable there: to yr average frothing-at-the-mouth monk, that anteroom is the world.

The classless society and nirvana are not the only kind of infinite tasks, though. These are not truly infinite tasks: they could be any task of sufficient scope and ambition that it can easily be (mis)construed as infinite. This is, as are many things, a problem of definition. Healing can become an infinite task, if you’re not careful. So can Great Works, if one is so incautious as to attempt them. It’s a pattern that occurs in the large and the small, like nautilus shells and spiral galaxies. But this kind of connection between the large and the small is itself the beginning of an answer, if sundering were a question. Listen, that is Earth under your feet, the same as mine.

War Is Other People

On TV you can have entire shows about—as it were—the family lives of the Grand Moffs where you may or may not be aware of Alderaan exploding silently and invisibly in the background (of course it’s still happening, whether you’re aware of it or not) but where the focus of the story is on Tarkin’s difficult relationship with his children. Not that there’s anything wrong with that1. This show is on my mind ’cause one of my friends is always watching it. I don’t know why. Probably for the Téa Leoni of it all.

Consider milsf/f as a genre of ideology, cutting across/overlapping with genres of medium, form, style or theme. There is a particular form of it, what I’ve come to think of as the “stormtrooper soap”, that has a familiar forumula. It (a) propagandises state/imperial institutions and valorizes their agents who are authorized to use violence on its behalf, (b) focuses deeply on the emotional lives of those agents and (c) erases, tokenizes or downscales their damage on the world and on their victims. There’s rather a lot of milsf/f that are stormtrooper soaps. I find that recognizing that something like “Madam Secretary” as a ghoulish horror show adds a noirish poignancy, a gallows-comedy instagram filter. No, I’m kidding, it’s a terrible show, don’t watch it. Watch “The Americans” instead: it erases/downscales nothing and generally exists on a higher plane, so much so that you might say it “transcends genre boundaries”, which is one of those commonplace phrases for which we really ought to have a cynically shortened phrase like “sensawunda” for2.

(yes, I get that “Madam Secretary” is only vaguely and metaphorically milsf/f. but technically all genre identifications are a kind of metaphor, and the identification therefore depends on context? the American state/war machine is the Death Star in that both are techno-fascistically cool engines of destruction noted for blowing up things that begin with “A” and end with “-an”)

Milsf/f becomes non-tedious and non-trivial, in other words, precisely to the extent that it critiques the institutions, agents and actions they depict. It’s that critique that should lie at their core; this is how a military-speculative story avoids becoming a stormtrooper soap, or worse, mere propaganda.

(and yes, it does amuse me to make this point by referencing two TV shows that are not conventionally considered milsf/f. this is a point of failure to this (slightly argumentative) post that I’m building in as a convenient safety valve: if you find all this offensive to your sensibilities of what is or is not milsf/f, or what it means or what it’s for, feel free to kick it in this rhetorical vulnerability and move on.)

To clear out the fog of war and take a look at the map for a minute, consider Starship Troopers—I know, I know, I don’t mean to pick on Heinlein. More to pick at Heinlein, if you like, the loose tooth of the golden age. Moorcock’s famous “Starship Stormtroopers” essay is an old favourite of mine, agreements & disagreements and all, wherein he shits on Heinlein’s book from a great height. And yeah, I’m more or less with Moorcock on this. It seems that even the most sympathetic reading pretty much just means invoking Poe’s Law, which just moves the question of whether it is the thing itself or a parody-of-itself beyond an event horizon.

(it was definitely turned into self-critique, or perhaps self-mockery, in the 90s film, which seems appropriate. also noted for Evil Psychic Neil Patrick Harris)

But you can’t really talk about Starship Troopers as militarist propaganda (either the thing itself or a parody of the thing itself sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from the real thing) without talking about Forever War, which occupies a necessary opposite pole. War and all its institutions as farce and abomination, including the nation-state and degrading cults like patriotism. This is quite the traditional pairing, Heinlein with Haldeman, and I don’t mean to dwell on it. What interests me is that these two books, positioned as ideological opposites3, provide a plane in which we can place all the other milsf/f stories that are about reform shading into revolution.

The measurement of milsf/f, then, is in how much abomination the story finds in the machinery of war, by which I also mean the machinery of the state. Only one evil Wormtongue needs to be caught to unfuck the governance of the Riddermark, according to the text, which associates both evil and virtue with birth and breeding. Or maybe the story insists that an evil Empire needs to be overthrown to reinstate a “Republic” whose shadow rulers are an unelected theocratic council of power brokers who, again, derive their virtue, power and authority from their bloodlines.

Or a story might pre-emptively bombard us with cynicism, as in Linda Nagata’s The Red: First Light, which literally opens with the protagonist’s cynical assessment of the corruption of the military-industrial complex; the protagonist later is involved in bringing an out-of-control defense contractor to trial, which is a phrase as full of paradoxes as a time travel story–are defense contractors ever in control? Does the international criminal court have the teeth or the legitimacy, either morally or in “realpolitik”, to carry out such a trial? Don’t tell me, I need to read book two to find out.

(it’s like “war crime”, a phrase that accidentally implies that some things that happen in war are not crimes, or that war itself is not a crime. war is fine, it says, war itself is just all right as long as you can avoid these few named atrocities)

In Myke Cole’s military fantasy trilogy (Control Point. Fortress Frontier and Breach Zone), the state/war machine itself creates and motivates its own enemies (hey, just like in real life!), and must be edged to almost the point of cathartic overthrow before it, and the reader, can be frustrated back into the status quo, with negotiations.

(I’ve got another problem with Cole’s series which I can’t let go now that I’ve come to mention it. There’s a trope I particularly loathe, where it’s the Indian military and the Native American militants who are obtuse enough to mistake the aliens from the alternate dimension for gods or spirits from their cultures (to which they bear uncanny resemblances—zomg implications!!1), unlike the hard-headed rationalist American military who knows aliens when it sees them. This is the Wes Anderson of “representing” non-white people. This is The Darjeeling Limited. Which is a film I also particularly loathe so it’s not a great example because if I ignore all these cringeworthy parts I can still sort of enjoy these books—where did I learn this abhuman patience? Why, a lifetime of reading sf/f, that’s where—but there is no force on earth that can make me not hate Wes Anderson films4.)

These are all coordinates on the plane of reform-shading-into-revolution, but since they all fall short of that old Haldemanian limit, they all represent some level of support for the malign idea that violence, organized and applied on a societal scale, is (at least) a necessity and (maybe) a good.

(perhaps it’s too much to expect that this poisonous notion ought to be questioned more frequently in fantastical literature)

So you could say that the reach of milsf/f as a genre is bounded by two clichés, a greater and a lesser. The lesser cliché is, of course, simple variations on the theme of the stormtrooper soap, the war hero, the hagiographic, romanticized reading of the soldier as sin-eater, as the eater of necessary sins, the famous “rough men”. This is itself a military fantasy that has been all too successful in transcending genre boundaries and infecting the world at large; while it enjoys great currency in everyday discourse, in fiction at least we must consider it a cliché that must be demystified to be broken. You don’t demystify the stormtrooper/war hero by “humanizing” them via adding puppies, but by at least trying to talk about what’s really happening: asking whose interests are served by putting other people in harm’s way and why, asking how (mostly working-class) people are led into choices against their own interest through economic pressure and relentless propaganda, how power and violence are romanticized, and so on, and so on. The text has the choice whether to question the tedious propaganda of war or to uphold it, and far too much of this genre chooses to uphold it.

(it may be too generous to call that a “choice”: most of the time, such things are clearly just unthinking defaults. I read a Karen Traviss milsf/f technothriller recently, for example, and clearly I made the choice to do so, and in so doing deserved it.)

But even when it successfully breaks the bounds of this lesser cliché, milsf/f is much more frequently defeated by the greater, which is empire. You see it wherever milsf/f throws up battle scenes with swarming enemy aliens, whether Heinlein’s bugs or Card’s buggers or Cole’s goblins, or in a million other books, films and TV shows, in which we are reminded that fictional enemy space aliens are all too frequently a metaphor for the colonized, as expressions of white anxiety about colonialism, imperialism, slavery and exploitation, as triumphalism, as guilt, as shame, as fear of reprisal. You know that generic scene where the brave colonial space marines fire their plasma-cannons into the onrushing alien hive-swarm? You’ve probably seen it a thousand times. That image goes back to this utterly science-fictional image: the British using the Maxim gun5 in the First Matabele War in 1893, four years before The War of the Worlds. The sfnal image of the alien other as the massed-stupid-evil-dangerous-swarm to be defeated by superior virtue or technology or know-how or fighting spirit, is very old-fashioned imperial propaganda from when our grandparents were young. The secret metaphrand of milsf/f, the thing-being-referenced that makes sense of the imagery and tools it uses, is almost always empire. Empire is the gigantic, unmissable, all-encompassing historical referent of the last five centuries, with 20th-century pulp sff hatching into being, aliens and all, to work out the nightmares of empire’s fall.

(of course, The War of the Worlds is the wrong kind of alien invasion, but still an excellent example of fear-of-reprisal invasion lit. I’m just using it to calibrate the timelines here. there are so many different kinds of invasion lit in sf/f; even exploration literatures are just invasion literatures written backwards.)

One sometimes hears it expressed (e.g. in that article on Starship Troopers that I linked earlier) that the device of the-war-against-the-aliens is fun because the aliens aren’t human; that they can be unambiguously, definitively deserving of death without ethical considerations. That’s what they said when the empires went out to conquer the real world, too.

Today’s sort-of related reading recommendation & palate cleanser: “Excerpt from a Letter by a Social-realist Aswang” by Kristin Mandigma in Clarkesworld: “When it comes down to it, how is this novel you sent along with your letter, this novel about an interstellar war between monster cockroaches and alienated capitalist soldiers, supposed to be a valid form of social commentary?”


  1. Sometimes you just want to watch TV, and insofar as anything is all right in this loathsome hellworld, this is all right. Sometimes books are TV for all practical purposes. The book-as-television is such a different thing from the book-as-novel that I consider them formally distinct kinds of object despite their superficial similarities. Most series-oriented urban fantasy (e.g. the Dresden Files books, which is why it’s a pity the TV show tanked, moving Paul Blackthorne from The Hero roles to The Dad roles before his time) are good examples of the book-as-television. Less like literary objects working in the tradition(s) of the novel and more like visual entertainment objects expressed in prose. Which I don’t mean in an insulting way. TV and comics have had their effect on the book, and camera-oriented prose, or blatantly Whedonesque snappy-patter narrative, are now commonplace idioms of fast-paced narrative fiction. Probably at least three-quarters of my reading is books-that-are-TV, as a kind of comfort food. On the other hand, it’s been like a year since I quit smoking so I’m owed a vice. 
  2. I propose “tranjenbo” as a verb, as in “The Americans tranjenbos both its genre-of-medium (i.e., mere television) and its genre-of-ideology (spy/pol/thriller slash alt-historical milsf/f) into a blistering critique of the propaganda of valour”. I’m kidding, you don’t have to look at me like that. 
  3. Haldeman has said in interviews and such, iirc, that he wasn’t responding directly to Starship Troopers, but there is clearly a generational shift of perceptions captured in these two books, in how America thought of war—at the point Forever War came out, the USA had just about finished dropping a world war’s-worth of bombs on Laos in the so-called Secret War, a term hastily reclaimed and sanitized by the American pop-culture industry. I’m not sure what the shift in perceptions was, actually, but I assume it had to do with this newfound need for secrecy, which (like charity) covers a multitude of sins.  
  4. Rushmore was okay. 
  5. Whatever happens, we have got / The Maxim Gun, and they have not.” — Hilaire Belloc, “The Modern Traveler”, 1898. Ostensibly this is satire, given that Belloc was in some sense opposed to British imperialism, but then again he was also a racist proto-fascist so I feel like Poe’s Law continues to apply. 

Excisions

In a recent interview I answered, briefly, a question about why it's important to read widely, and I wanted to expand on that a little bit because, well, lots of things boil down to reading widely. The length, the breadth, the depth of your reading: the geometry of the complex shape it forms in your life, as seen from outside time. Why does it take effort to make this shape something other than a brief, depthless line?

Of course, you don't have to read widely. It's not like you're required to consume ethnically produced fiction from each continent in equal quantities for a balanced diet1. It's not like you could be overdosing on the South American (the gout of too much magic realism) while suffering from a severe South Asian deficiency (the scurvy of not enough arranged marriages)… Read whatever you want, is what I'm saying, and go in peace. Some find it possible to stop there.

For the rest of us, who continue to pick at the scab again and again—

To attempt an argument from first principles, the natural urge of the reader2 is surely to explore and discover (other minds, other lives, other worlds), because that's the same impulse that drives people to be readers in the first place. So rather than reading widely being the special case, it seems to me that it should be the norm; all else being equal, each reader will explore as widely as they can before the natural limits of circumstance and mortality constrain them. And since life is short and troubled (and there are too many stories) every mortal3 reader is, eventually and through no fault of their own, parochial.

The problem is that all else is never equal. The world is so arranged that readers are never allowed to discover this limit of exhaustion in and of themselves. Constraints on the personal scale4 hardly even enter into it, being shadowed by the overwhelming fact that literature and its moving parts—the stories, the books, the writers, the publishers—are not neatly, evenly distributed around the world's languages and geographies. Even if you happen to lead a particularly untroubled life with much disposable income and plenty of free time, and you have the best will in the world to read the near and the far, the like and the unlike alike, you can't. Because we don't live in that world; we live in a world where most of the stories needed to make up that neat, even distribution don't exist. There are too many books for anyone to read them all, yes, but that's an irrelevant impossibility; the important point is that there are not enough books5, nowhere near as many books as there should be.

(Why? It is a Mystery. Here is a locked geopolitical sphere, no way in or out, but there is something misshapen lying on the earth, a suspicious arterial spatter of language, disproportionate wealth pooling in rigor mortis. Tread lightly, this world is a crime scene.)

So reading widely as a practice—not for show and not for points, but as a long-term strategic arrangement between you and your bookshelf—is a kind of portal fantasy. It's a door into a another world, a better one. Not the kind that you can build; but a parallel that we can't touch, a world a knight's-move away that splintered away from this one in the apocalyptic centuries of murder and pillage that we refer to with genteel euphemisms like “colonialism”. But it's not about nostalgia for this never-was, either; it's an algiatric strategy to remember and to be remembered, to resist the sly elision that, under cover of euphemisms, quietly becomes excision6. And I'm not just talking about how histories are written: there is something worse still in those swollen absences in your own mind where there should be a history that you should have known but that you never learned, or worse, that you could never learn. The wounds you didn't know you carried. To read widely is to try to learn, using only your sense of touch in the dark, where your scars are.

Today’s unrelated reading recommendation & palate cleanser: “It Was Educational” by J.B. Park in Clarkesworld: “One of the dead is a real human being and he has filed a review of his death. It was fast and I had time to watch as my stomach pumped out blood onto the ground. Glub glub, he had noted, jotting down the onomatopoeia.”


  1. I'm allergic to the well-balanced bookshelf as a peacock tail, that ted-talking, award-friendly strut.  

  2. Idealized, of course, but I rather do mean the reader without a capital R nevertheless, in an attempt to flatten no characteristic apart from the reading itself. 

  3. Immortal readers are beyond the scope of this argument, and may no doubt eventually read everything. 

  4. Time, of course; disposable income (or the tech/savvy for “piracy”); literacy in languages that have a literary tradition and a publishing industry; a literary education of some sort, that sort of thing. By which last I don't mean a schooling but just that even the most didactic of autodidacts must come and drink of their own accord, if only to learn what they like. (Obviously this metaphor is not about drinking from either the Pierian spring nor the Castalian, or any particular named magical spring/quest location. Reading the canons depends on reading widely, not the other way around; reading widely depends on reading-at-all. So maybe just water itself, ubiquitous, precious and polluted.)  

  5. In a hideous symmetry, the US+UK publish five times as many titles per year as all South Asia put together, while having one-fifth the population. Maybe one in every thousand Americans is a novelist—some day if that proportion extends across the globe, we'll call that balance. But that's not a day that'll be seen by anybody now alive.  

  6. Of course, there are always plenty of people to act and argue in favour of this kind of excision. On the one hand, you want to ignore this contemptible time-wasting bullshit—e.g., the thing with the yellowface-pseudonym guy7 or more recently, the risible rant from Michael Grant on how “there is no YA or middle grade author of any gender, or of any race, who has put more diversity into more books than me”—but on the other hand maybe it's better to have this shit out in the open so you know not to step in it.  

  7. The problem with which is not that some asshole can hack a nonwhite editor's sense of poco solidarity (which is just a special case of historically rooted empathy, and not something that comes with harshly policed borders). The problem is Hudson's imperial entitlement and arrogance; by including the poem, Alexie is saying that this is not just a lone rogue poet behaving badly but an arrogance very much ensconced and institutionalized in the mainstream of what is Best, and American. Which seems accurate, and preferable to allowing this sort of pustule to fester unseen and deniable. (One familiar objection to the use of “nonwhite”, as I used it above, that it centres whiteness. But the whole point of “whiteness” is that it is already centred, by definition: it was invented to occupy the centre and deny it to others. Allowing it to fester and necrotize unacknowledged renders the entire ethnographic discourse gangrenous.)  

Which This Margin Is Too Small To Contain

Some thoughts on “diversity” in sf/f and discovering that I’m apparently a “writer of colour” and all that. I never actually use these words myself, whether to refer to either myself or anybody else. Though at the same time I don’t object to their use to refer to myself or anybody else either. It’s complicated. I do periodically worry at the meanings of these words, and I guess I’ve been saying stuff like this for a while now:

So let me unpack that a bit.

If essentialism is the pernicious idea that categories are more real than people, strategic essentialisms are a rhetorical technique when you’re aware that the essentialism in question is bullshit but you temporarily accept being identified with a category in order to achieve something, even if that something is just making a point. There are all sorts of good, practical reasons to collectivize identity in this way, but I think it works best when it’s goal-oriented and time-bound. Because when it’s not, then it can also mean just signing up to be reduced to a category for somebody else’s convenience.

This is a high-risk high-reward rhetorical move, in other words. To name a thing is to bring it into existence as a theory-object, and it’s difficult to dispel it after that, never mind to control how it gets used or who else it might get used on.

Consider this category of “POC”, people of colour. This gets used a lot in the sf/f community, who (at least in the circles that I’ve so far engaged with) appear to have generally adopted it as a way to refer to non-white people. I assume this arrived in sf/f publishing via academia/litcrit? idk. In any case, it’s here and being used.

(also I should say that apart from “writers of colour” one also sees “POC writer”, which in particular is a truly godawful construction. “person of colour writer”…? what. I mean, I’m all for mangling language for amusing or interesting effects, but come on!)

It’s a bit disorienting for me to suddenly become a “person of colour” overnight just by wandering into the sf/f scene. I’ve been online in some shape or form for twenty years, but never as myself, never under my real name and identity like this; back in the day it was normal to use pseudonyms, and by the time that convention changed I’d settled into habits. All this—<all-encompassing gesture>—came about because I wanted to publish as myself, under my real name. And when I started to publish in US markets, this “of colour” thing started to become a thing. The very first time I heard the phrase “person of colour” online (fortunately, this was before it was applied to me), I thought it was some sort of slur. This is, as far as I can tell, a common reaction for many non-Americans who encounter the phrase for the first time: a raised eyebrow and a “you called me a what now?” And then, for those who care to find out, googling up a digression about the specifics of the American civil rights movement.

(semi-related: I’m very dark-skinned for a Sri Lankan, but also male. so for me colourism is more a source of amusing anecdotes than anxiety or stress. for some reason, a life’s worth of being the butt of (very mild) colourism has made the whole “person of colour” thing even funnier.)

So, yes: I dislike the overextension of “POC” outside America because it’s so explicitly an American term. I suppose its prevalence in the online sf/f community is a direct result of the sf/f field being so completely American-centric for so long that any international players are still considered incidental? Regardless, it’s a phrase inextricably tied to a time and a place and a history, entangled in the history of “coloured” and probably to “gens de couleur” somewhere in there. It’s a term that’s meaningful only to American minorities who understand its place in their history, who own its reclamation. By all means, use it in that context, where it is an excellent example of a strategic essentialism for the people that chose to use it.

Using it to describe all the billions of non-white peoples of the world, on the other hand, is not a strategic essentialism. It’s just plain old regular essentialism, nothing but a pure statement of American cultural hegemony: by using it this way, you are literally saying that all the multiplicity of histories and differences in the vast majority of the world population are all subsumed collectively into an honorary American minority for, what I don’t know, convenience. The imperial gaze is out of control! All dark-skinned people have dissolved into an undifferentiated brownish sea of sludge! I propose a fully equivalent replacement term you can safely use to describe all non-white people everywhere in every possible context. That term is “mud person”. You’re welcome.

But wait, you say, seriously, what’s an okay way to say it then? Like is “diverse” okay or “marginalized” okay or “minority” okay? And first I gotta say, I’m not the pope of okay here. This is just me talking regular bullshit, not papal bullshit. As someone newly on the receiving end of labels—and as someone new to these labels—I regard them with more interest than censure. I get that a lot of people have clearly already processed these objections and discounted them, given e.g. how frequently I see Asian writers self-apply the term. And that’s fine! I’m not trying to start a land war in Asia. I’m just (belatedly, I suppose) processing it.

(I was going to say that I regarded them with “anthropological” interest above, incidentally, but I suppose I am not so much the anthropologist in this metaphor as the genre-savvy ethnographic subject.)

What interests me is interrogating the language being used, not in policing usage. If you’d rather stick with whatever terms you’re using, that’s entirely your call. I won’t take it personally1.

Consider the other words. The problems with “minority” are hopefully obvious: it’s useless unless you peg it to a particular geopolitical territory. Here I advise against treating an amorphous, increasingly-online metacommunity like sf/f as somehow equivalent to a nation-state: it is not. It does not have borders. It does have centres and peripheries, but those are very much in flux and to some extent a factor of perspective, the famous echo-chamber effect. It has many different overlapping interest groups, instead of a population. It has no minorities. Sf/f is not a country. It cannot have minorities, or for that matter, majorities. So “minority” is meaningless unless you’re specifically talking about a particular country or city or convention membership or newsgroup or what have you.

“Diverse” and “marginalized” are trickier. First, diversity is a property of a group, not an individual. You need a set of entities in which you can measure variation before you can say whether there’s variety or not. And second, there’s more than one way to measure variety.

So it makes sense to talk about “diversity” when talking about contributors to an anthology or magazine, or a publisher’s roster of authors, or to talk about “marginalization” when you’re talking about some category of writers who you would expect to see in those groups but are missing for some otherwise inexplicable reason.

Consider that second point again. Say I have a story published in an otherwise all-white TOC, then yeah, I guess my inclusion marginally increases the ethnic diversity of that publication. But if everybody else on that TOC is also male, then it does not increase the gender diversity of that publication. In both cases, the diversity or lack thereof resides in the TOC, not in me. Whether it’s “diverse” or not depends on the question being asked. I know this is kind of an obvious point to belabour, but it often seems to cause confusion.

For example, a publisher might claim that a given anthology is “diverse” because it has women in it, ignoring the total absence of non-white people. Or there might be lots of non-white people on it, but nobody who isn’t American or resident in America. Or—look, my point is not that every TOC needs to have one of each kind like some sort of deranged Noah’s Ark, which is both absurd and impossible. My point is just that the fact that the word can be used to describe any kind of variety, combined with the fact that there is more than one kind of variety, combined with the fact that some kinds of variety can be achieved more easily than others, tends to act as a either a blind spot or a fig leaf, depending I suppose on how cynical you are about this being a deliberate rhetorical device. And that’s the problem with nonspecific cheerleading for “increased diversity”, and the reason why it can so easily be subverted.

Which is what brings me back to the first point, that “diversity” is a property of a group and not an individual. But now consider this formulation: “a diverse writer”. Used this way, the “diversity” is reified and placed inside the body of the writer. It moves focus away from the editorial policies and acquisition decisions. It becomes a property that is physically attached to some writers, the diverse writers2. And through them, it becomes a measurable commodity that can be bought or sold.

It behaves, in other words, exactly like a nonconsensual strategic essentialism, which is, er, the same as essentialism, the idea that the categories are more real than the people3.

Words like “POC” and “diverse” and “marginalized” and whatnot are all a euphemism treadmill, yeah? The only way off a euphemism treadmill is to stop using euphemisms, or rather to abandon the false categories that were once described by slurs and are now described by euphemisms. Which means recognizing that categories are not more real than people, because individual people actually exist and even the most well-defined category is, ultimately, an imperfect abstraction based on tradition and policy as much as observation.

I don’t have a real answer here, but I do think many of the euphemisms could simply be dropped and that might help a little.

For example, if you really just mean “non-white” sometimes, then maybe say non-white, no? Sometimes it’s important to actually say “non-white”, because by doing so at least you’re acknowledging that the problem you’re trying to solve is a problem of an existing white supremacy. It only promotes white fragility to talk about this stuff without ever talking about whiteness.

(of course, brown-on-black racism in South Asia is also a thing, and casteism/colourism is a big part of it but I think even there, that anti-blackness is mediated through the absent-but-implicit whiteness, i.e., through colonial history and anticolonial nationalisms. to talk about whiteness is to talk about history, not a skin tone.)

Like if you want to talk about the unbearable whiteness of a TOC and if you phrase your argument as “it’s not diverse” instead of questioning the homogeneity of white supremacy, or worse, if you’re asking “where are the diverse writers”? Because of the way these questions recentre the problem, and attach “diversity” as a property to some bodies but not to other bodies, the issue then becomes about baryonic and nonbaryonic humans.

About how much dark matter you need to stuff into a TOC before it undergoes the state change into being “diverse”.

Which just brings up the attendant fauxtroversies, like is dark matter even tangible, really? Can it interact with ordinary matter on the same level? Is this affirmative action somehow? That conversation always ends up being about the reality, the tangibility of the nonbaryonic humans. The phrase “the diverse writer” is a trap because it differentiates that writer from “the writer”4, and thereby implicitly leaves room for the question “is the diverse writer a real writer?”

All of this is not intended to make it impossible to say words anymore, as peaceful as that sounds. Uh, obviously that’s not helpful. I think that if you really want to identify people by made-up ethnocategories, maybe it’s better to peg it at nation-state5 of residence and/or origin, instead of continent (boo) or race/ethnicity/colour (ugh), with the exception of when the people in question explicitly sign up to be identified under any of those things as an act of (hopefully goal-oriented) strategic essentialism.

Of course, we could all just start calling people by their names instead of their categories, but that’s probably a bridge too far.

Today’s unrelated reading recommendation & palate cleanser: “Item Girls” by Kuzhali Manickavel in Granta: “In the night, she slides her finger into The Dark One, who tries to think about post-racial America, the antioxidant properties of dry beans, steam pressure washers, Maoists. Instead, she thinks of the bite of sugar at the back of her throat, armies of sunlight dancing on her back, the ocean rushing from her mouth like it is ready to drown.”


  1. Unless you take me up on “mud person” for serious, in which case fuck you in advance. 

  2. For me and many other writers, this also puts us into a position of needing to worry about and fetishize our performance of our own authenticity. This rhetorical trap is sheer elegance in its simplicity: so many of us walk ourselves right into it and have a lot of trouble getting out again. The work made from inside this trap is what I call “authentica”—an awful lot of South Asian litfic is authentica. I want to talk more about this, and how for example it ties into nationalistic projects or anti-imperial projects and the ways in which this is both interesting and terrible, but unfortunately this is an extended ramble that this footnote is too small to contain. 

  3. Gender essentialism falls into a similar trap of considering the theoretical categories of “male” and “female” to be more fundamental than the actually-existing individual members of the human species who manifest a great variety of individual characteristics. Hence “reconstructive” genital surgery on intersex babies to “assign” them to a known category, because that category is fallaciously granted a greater degree of reality than the actual baby. It’s like the reverse of that parable or something. 

  4. Here’s another way this sort of thing gets out of hand: I said “Asian writers” earlier as if that was a real thing. But it isn’t, really! Quite apart from the sheer vagueness of “Asia” as a category—so broad as to be meaningless! Might as well say “Earth writers”—without further qualification, you can’t help but have it mean writers from Asian countries resident in those countries as well as writers from Asian countries who are expatriates in non-Asian countries as well as to some extent writers in non-Asian countries whose ancestors were expatriates from Asian countries, and sometimes maybe even writers from non-Asian countries who are resident in Asian countries, and that’s not even asking what languages they’re all writing and publishing in, and for whom? These are all wildly different constituencies, so much so that it’s not meaningful to even attempt a strategic essentialism between them all. There’s no common project here. So “Asian writers” is essentialism in it’s bluntest possible form, because the assertion contained here is that there is some mysteriously hyperreal category called “Asian”-ness that is attached inextricably to the persons of all those different kinds of people despite the fact that they have absolutely nothing in common. See also, like, all of Africa Is A Country. Continentism is a thing! 

  5. Why do I say this, when nation-states are also terrible fake things that need to be abolished? Well, at least they are legal/geopolitical entities distinct from the physical person of the writer, and are existing big dumb objects that can be pointed at. And “lives in X” or “is from Y” is relatively uncomplicated; it works for baryonic and nonbaryonic writers alike in the same way, which is a sort of flattening, at least? idk.