I’ve had a chance to do a few interviews in my time, but this interview with Turbulence author Samit Basu is what writer’s dreams are made of. If you haven’t seen my review of the book (he references it in the interview), check it out on GMtv. Samit gets candid about the portrayal of women in comics in the US, awkward male writers, and geek culture in India vs. the United States. Without further ado…
Samit, thank you for this opportunity! I am sure you are a busy guy with the release of your novel Turbulence in the US this week. What are you feeling right now? What’s going through your head?
Many good things. Last year, when the book came out in the UK, I felt a sense of homecoming: when I travelled there, I met so many wonderful writers and readers who shared my tastes in books and films and many other things. In India, that’s a very rare experience because that shared mindspace is not something I find often at all in writers, though the readers have miraculously let me make my living as a writer for a decade now.
I’ve never been to the US: it’s a place that exists very strongly in my imagination, though, through thousands of stories I’ve experienced set there. Also, publishing-wise it’s an extremely large and intimidating market, as well as being the home of superhero culture, so I was really nervous before the book launched last week. But the response has been incredibly warm, and that’s such a relief. There’s really nothing like seeing your work connect with people very far away. I’m not saying this to be nice, but watching the Geek Mundo video review was one of my best experiences as a writer, and not just because it was such a kind review. But new format, new country, and geek heartland too – wonderful.
Turbulence is so classic in many ways and so modern, hip, edgy and contemporary in others. What was it like writing a novel that brought so many classic superhero tropes into the 21st century?
Again, thank you, that’s a very kind thing to say. It was, in a word, fun. Fun because I was able to operate outside the rules set by eight decades of superhero fiction and build the whole world from first principles. Fun because once the characters started to compare themselves to superheroes, I was able to then start using the incredible collective mythology of superhero culture to both augment this world and try to make it stand apart. I think a lot of 21st-century superhero stories – Heroes, Misfits, Alphas, Chronicle – have approached this from the same angle. I hadn’t seen the last three before writing Turbulence, but having seen them later I realized those guys must have had as great a time as I did.
I know you’re a geek. It was oozing all through the pages of the book. Your love for many things geek was super tangible as I read about Vir, Aman, Sundar, Bob, and Anima in particular. What inspired you to writeTurbulence and which geek subculture do you think influenced you to write this book the most?
Turbulence was really about wondering what sort of superheroes my part of the world might create. We have a large number of Indian superheroes in India, but they’re mostly wholesale copies of successful American ones. But if you think about, the needs of the South Asian superhero would be completely different: for a start, it wouldn’t be about preserving their environment from supervillain attacks, it would be about changing it completely, fixing it, building a new future. The powers would be based on 21st-century needs and desires, not necessarily classic powers from elsewhere in the world. Yes, I am a geek, but I have to confess I’m not entirely sure about subculture classification. But I’d been reading and seeing a lot of urban fantasy and of course superhero stories before I wrote Turbulence. Powers, The Authority and Watchmen were definitely influences.
Turbulence technically takes place in various locales, but is mainly grounded and based in India, a place that most people in the Western world tend to associate simply with call centers, Bollywood movies and yoga. Did you set out to make a statement about India and its geek culture?
We don’t really have a geek culture in India the way you do in the US, though we produce an inordinate number of geeks who mostly end up assimilating themselves into the many wondrous geek universes the West and Japan create. There might be a Bollywood geek culture, but it’s not as well defined as Western or Eastern geek culture, with its websites and cosplay and conventions and merchandise. Mostly, people in India can’t carve out the time for obsessions like this. When we have our equivalents of Comic-Con, for instance, it’s mostly about DC/Marvel merchandise, not anything homegrown. There’s no SF/fantasy scene or real comics scene at all, so it often feels like I’m working in a vacuum, though this has really changed over the last five years or so.
I didn’t really set out to make a statement about India at all: I’m born and raised there, but I think the country is impossible to understand, simply because it’s so many worlds stashed in together, and there’s very little understanding or translation between them. What I did try to do was create a world based on the India I knew, the people I’d seen, and the places I’d been to. As authentic a world as possible, except of course for the superhero Augmented Reality layer.
Pakistan is mentioned several times as a power that guys like Jai, Vir and Aman–to an extent–would like to vanquish with their superpowers. The book doesn’t address Pakistan in a negative way. Uzma is Pakistani herself. But it does remind readers that relations between the two countries aren’t the best. That is a real political issue. Why did you decide to include that in the book?
‘Relations aren’t the best’ is putting it mildly. I had Pakistan in the book because it’s part of mainstream Indian thought; I wanted to include as many Indian obsessions as I could in Turbulence: Bollywood, cricket and religion are key areas. Pakistan came in mostly because Vir and Jai are from the military, and Pakistan has always been the Indian military’s chief concern: there was no way of avoiding it and trying to stay even remotely real. But there’s also no reason to address Pakistan in a negative way. Most Indians don’t think of it in a negative way except when there’s some kind of terrorist incident and the inevitable media drumming up of public sentiment afterwards. There would be a lot more mingling and friendliness if politics and military allowed it; that it still doesn’t in 2013 is ridiculous and sad.
Which of the superheroes in your Turbulence and beyond do you identify with the most?
Aman, I guess. Though I had great fun sharing headspace with Tia, Vir, Jai and Uzma too. But Aman’s quite similar to me, though he did a much better job in his situation than I would have and is generally more driven and capable, I think.
Turbulence has strong women (and a little girl) like Anima, Zothanpuii, Tia (my favorite), Uzma, Namrata, and several others who are professionals, wives, single ladies, etc. I felt like I could identify with them on a very real level. That’s not common in the world of comics, graphic novels, etc. Who inspired such strong female characters and what are your thoughts on the stereotypical superheroine?
Tia is my favourite character too. I know comics and SF/fantasy get a lot of heat because of the way women are treated/created in them, and it’s entirely justifiable. And it’s always struck me as really odd that you don’t have more strong women in geekland; perhaps this is because of the stereotype of creators and readers in these media being socially awkward men. I don’t know, because I haven’t experienced that world in real life, and it’s unfair of me to discuss this stereotype, I guess. But it’s changing, right? It has to be. Look at Joss Whedon’s women. They’re always amazing.
I don’t see myself as deliberately setting out to create strong women; I try to write real women just as I try to write real men, and if I succeed in making them strong (and thank you for saying that) it’s probably because I know many incredible, strong, clever and generally amazing women. So it doesn’t take any specific intention or desire to create them: it’s just that these are the women I know. But do I think there should be more strong female characters? Of course I do, it’s silly and weak that there aren’t. If SF/fantasy/comics are the literature of the imagination, there’s absolutely no excuse for a lack of wonderful women.
I have to confess I’m not deeply immersed in comics lore in the way that a really hardcore geek should be. I didn’t grow up reading comics. And most of the comics I did read were fabulous, and had really great women in them. But then I started off reading Gaiman, Moore, Ellis, Carey, Vaughan and Simone, all of whom write comics with fantastic women in them. Anything I’ve tried which has really stereotypical dumb-sexy heroines usually doesn’t have too great a grip on its male characters either, so those just haven’t stuck in my mind.
Turbulence delves far from the superhero archetype that alienates some geeks of color looking for protagonists that look like them; that they can see themselves in. Did you intend to posit a more diverse idea of what superheroes should look like?
What can we be on the lookout for from you after Turbulence and where can our readers find more info about you?
Well, Resistance should be out in the US next year from Titan. I’m on the web at samitbasu.com and on Twitter at @samitbasu
Well, thank you again for the interview, Samit! We wish you nothing but success and can’t wait for Resistance next year.
I want to say thank you as well. You’ve made my work and me feel very welcome, and I’m full of gratitude.