Paradigm Shifts and the Reading/ Writing Life

Greetings! Thanks to Jeff for giving me the opportunity to bring some thoughts and speculations your way. Today I’d like to start by talking about experiences that drastically change the way we view the world. Sometimes these changes take place over a long period of time, and sometimes they are sudden and dramatic. I’ve had my share of both. I’d like to share some paradigm-shifting experiences (including books) that have not only indelibly impacted who I am but have (naturally) affected how I write and what I write about. I invite others to share such experiences if they are so moved.

Certain such experiences are universal, I believe. As we grow up, our experiences with such things as death, sex, etc. redefine the world as we see it. I still remember when my daughter was just about a year old, and we were going for a walk on a paved path in the lawns of the apartment complex where we then lived. That day there were many large ants at the edge of the path, and my daughter was naturally intrigued by them. Leaning down to look at them, she inadvertently stepped on one.

The hapless creature wiggled a bit, then lay still. My daughter looked at me and said: “Make it all right again!” I had to tell her I couldn’t; that the ant was dead. That this condition was final and irrevocable. Although I phrased this as gently as possible, she was utterly distraught. She cried and cried. Death had entered her world, and changed it forever.

Thanks to this and to another incident around the same time, when my daughter asked me to turn off the sun on a really hot day, and I had to confess that I couldn’t, she learned early that her parents weren’t the demi-gods she had thought we were. This revelation of our fallibility and our powerlessness was disturbing, but also allowed her to be indulgent with us in our imperfection.

For reading animals like us, certain books can be paradigm-shifting as well. There are books and authors who have changed the way I look at the world. Generally their effect has been more like a gentle seismological shift over time than an earthquake-like change in the way I think. Among the authors who helped me see the world in a new light was the Hindi writer Premchand, who wrote some of the most moving and harrowing short stories and novels about ordinary people in village India and the complex relations between genders, castes and classes. In English there was Ray Bradbury, whose book Fahrenheit 451 made a deep impression on me at the tender age of eleven. Before Bradbury I’d read Asimov and Clarke, and enjoyed Clarke in particular for his cosmos-sized imagination; his works were among those that planted the seeds for my life long interest in science. But what Bradbury did for me with Fahrenheit 451 was to show me that science fiction could be a tapestry — that it could draw not only from science and technology but from the sociological imagination, and that it could do so lyrically and beautifully. I’d always loved both the humanities and the sciences, and looking back, I can see in Bradbury’s work the first indication to me that there were realms where one did not have to discard one for the other.

Later, at thirteen, I read Anne Frank’s diary, which had a devastating impact. I still can’t quite articulate how it was to first learn about human brutality on that scale. Then I came upon the non-fiction works of the British naturalist Gerald Durrell. Growing up in New Delhi, a city of several million people, I was already attuned to co-existing with a bewildering variety of non-human living beings — in fact, among my first friends were the pariah dogs of Delhi. I had been observing birds and animals since my early childhood as entities in themselves, with their own (utterly fascinating) lives and agendas. Durrell’s books put it all into perspective: from them I learned about the worldwide threat to the continued existence of various species and this ultimately led me to being part of the environmental movement as a teenager in India.

By my teenage years, though, I’d lost my connection to science fiction. I couldn’t quite articulate why at the time. It was only when I came to the U.S. as a graduate student of physics that the experience of profound alienation led me to seek out science fiction again. The experience itself was paradigm-shifting. To be in a place so different from home, where every possible thing was different, from grass blades and trees to light switches — where there were no crowds or pariah dogs, and where people drove on the wrong side of the road — it was strange, exhilarating, frustrating. I was appalled at the waste of resources (huge restaurant servings, one person per car on the highway!), confused by the norms of social interactions. It was truly like being on another planet. The only literature that spoke to my condition was science fiction. So I began to read it again. Over the years I got my Ph.D., published my research on quark physics, went back to India to work as a post-doc, got married and found myself, rather unexpectedly, back on American shores. That was the time when there was a huge shortfall in physics research jobs and my daughter was on the way, so I decided to take a break from academia and turn to an old love, writing. Except that this time I wanted to write SF.

When I went back to reading science fiction in my graduate student years, I realized what had put me off about the genre. There were no people like me in those imagined futures or alternate worlds. Even though we Indians were the second most populous nation in the world, somehow we had simply disappeared in those fictional futures. And that was true for other Asian and African cultures in SF too. I realized I loved science fiction because I loved science and literature and found the universe fascinating to speculate about — but was there any place for me there? And could I write it?

My brother and my husband had both been urging me to read an author called Ursula K. Le Guin for quite a while. So at last I got a copy of The Dispossessed, and read it. I read the Earthsea series and The Left Hand of Darkness, and my world exploded. I had never realized there could be science fiction (or fantasy) like this. It was then that I knew there was a place for my voice in the genre.

Some fifteen-odd stories and two children’s books later I can now see where and how my reading and my experiences led me to be the writer I am. I’m still and always will be in the process of becoming a writer and my life experiences and some of the books I read continue to inform and affect what I become. There are a few other life-changing books I will mention as I cover various topics in the week ahead.

What books changed you?

17 comments on “Paradigm Shifts and the Reading/ Writing Life

  1. Kurt Kremer says:

    My childhood started with boys adventure stories: the Hardy Boys, Three Boys in the Indian Hills, Emil and the Detectives, Peter Pan, Robin Hood, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn (boy adv meets full blown lit); rolled into mythology: Greek, Indian, Norse, Celtic, Native American, 1001 Nights; and naturally into years and years of fantasy and science fiction (most of the then canon and some that should be shot from cannons), F&SF as the safest place to hide and explore when I wasn’t outdoors. We lived in in a little flat roofed house on a forested butte, the woods braided with old logging roads kept by coyotes, deer, a pack of feral dogs, the occasional cougar (there’s a title), and us. A nearby collapsed lumber mill with rusted out chimney that was our forbidden planet, and more that is fair to list in a blog reply. I found Loren Eisley and Barry Lopez, who described that natural world under my “adventures” in ways that I felt but couldn’t describe. PKD bent it around my head, Le Guin laid it straight and then flipped it over, Borges opened it up again in 500 words or less, Patrick O’Brian gave me adventure back. Dante made me love poetry and guilty that I’d never learned Italian. Reading Vandemeer and M. John Harrison gave me permission to write like Rumplestiltskin dancing at a rave hosted my Mysterians for people other than my friends. V. Singh, who will be 16-even stories soon, shows me how to reach back to themes I thought I’d lost touch with and work with them, ahem, anew. Most of these authors/stories didn’t provide the big bang–more like lots of little bangs that continually expand the universe.

  2. Cat Rambo says:

    My dad brought back Samuel R. Delany’s The Fall of the Towers for me from a trip when I was 11 or 12. It made me realize how much could be done in writing, and absolutely amazed me. In high school PKD kept changing my mind about the nature of reality as did The Illuminati Trilogy and Castenada.

    Later on, Djuna Barnes yielded prose adrip with meaning, and the Russian Formalists showed me how narratives could be turned into tinkertoys and taken apart. Alan Moore’s The Watchmen made me aware of the fabulous resonances genre tropes could take on. E. H. Young showed me how much marvelous heart and humor a story could hold.

    Kurt – “reading Vandemeer and M. John Harrison gave me permission to write like Rumplestiltskin dancing at a rave” – I LOVE that.

  3. Hello, Kurt and Cat,

    Thanks for sharing. I’ve been privileged to read some of Kurt’s writing and confirm that he’s been chanelling Rumpelstiltskin on occasion, and creatures from another planet at other times — and it’s all good! Cat, I’m also happily familiar with some of your work (may there be more!) and agree about PKD. I haven’t read as much of him as I’d like to but one novel and several short stories of his have contributed to the blown state of my mind. Some of the writers you both mentioned are not known to me (who is this V Singh of whom you speak) so I’m scribbling myself a To-Read List.

    Its funny —- there are books that have helped form who I am and also books that have restructured my notions of the world, and oddly enough some times, these are the same books. Tells you something about the world, or books, or our minds.

  4. Kurt Kremer says:

    Must now write short story titled “Rumplestiltskin at a rave hosted by Mysterians”…

  5. Bill Ectric says:

    Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut showed me how a writer could insert himself into a story to dramatic effect without losing momentum.

    Vast Active Living Intelligence System by PKD. Pop stars latch onto religion, a doubter finds faith while a believer loses it, somebody goes crazy, a crazy person finds clarity, and they all flux mirror-like into one another and back as an alien intelligence reaches out from a shiny side-of-the-road aluminum can satellite in outer space. I think.

    Early Hunter S. Thompson, interjecting late night, speed-fueled ruminations that supposedly came to him as he drove a fast car on a dark highway, gave me the feeling that he was discovering truths even as he composed sentences.

    There are also things I want to say about VanderMeer’s writing, but I’m struggling to put it into words. Working on it, though.

  6. Very captivating !The secret of making of Vandana Singh is now unfolding ! Early childhood experiences undoubtedly greatly shape a person’s later life.Some readers having similar milieu like me shall definitely identify with the elements of your saga .I have also read and still admire GERALD DURRELL on whose death I did an obituary in a leading science popularization in India recently.Asimov has also been my favourite sf writer. Move on please ,we are attentively listening you !

  7. Vinod Khare says:

    The one book that I can say forever changed me was the Lord of the Rings. I read this book quite late in my life (and thank god for that) – in my second year at college. And I was hooked. Here was a tale that had little or no excitement in it (the action scenes are rather underplayed, don’t you think), did not adhere to modern writing convention (isn’t it a bit too telly?) and too full of proper nouns for anyones comfort. And yet, and yet it leaves the reader in a daze when you’ve finished reading it. I have read it two more times since then and always enjoy picking it up and reading a chapter or two at random.

    The reason it is a life changing book for me is because every time I read it, it makes me want to write. To create a rich and profound alternate world of my own.

  8. My reading list just got longer. I’ve only read a little of Vonnegut, some PKD, not enough VanderMeer , no Thompson at all. Thanks, Bill!

    Dr. Mishra — yes, I agree Durrell is wonderful. Vinod, I first read LotR in my late teens. There are people who love it and people who tear it to shreds. I mostly really enjoyed it although there were some racist elements that bothered me upon more recent re-readings. In any case, if it inspires you, you should write!

  9. Neha says:

    That’s an interesting line of thought. I’ve been reading since as long as I can remember. Here are a few I think brought in a new idea or an entirely new way of looking at things, and changed the way I saw my world:

    Jnana Yoga – a collection of lectures by Swami Vivekananda
    True Psycology – by Swami Abhedananda
    Chapter 18, Bhagvad Geeta – by Swami Chinmayananda
    Lord of Flies – William Golding
    Chaos – James Glieck
    To kill a mocking bird – Lee Harper
    Poems – Emily Bronte
    Bade ghar ki bahu – Munshi Premchand
    Our Culture – S. Radhakrishnan (and many other histories)
    Alice and Wonderland

    I am sure there are many others like the ones I’ve always known and have made me rather than changed me… Noddy, Sherlock Holmes, Ramayan, Mahabharat, Foundation trilogy and so on. As I reflect on this list, I am also realising that there were just as many ideas, radical ideas that I have rejected as I have absorbed and assimilated. It would be food for thought to figure exactly how was the filtering done! :)

    Thanks

  10. Nikhilesh says:

    Ruskin Bond’s books changed my life. I came to know the courage of little children in small indian villages, felt the silence, smells, colours, shadows and images of the Indian landscape. Nobody left such mark on my young mind like Ruskin Bond’s writings did.
    Comics were the closest second – Chacha chaudhary, Nagaraj, Amar chitra katha….

  11. Neha, have you read Autobiography of a Yogi? That has been on my list for a while. A number of people have recommended it.

    Nikhilesh, thanks for pointing out Ruskin Bond. For some strange reason I only came across him later in life (late teens, maybe?) but I love his work and continue to read him today. In his explorations of life in village India, with which he is directly familiar, and the concerns of ordinary people and children, he reminds me of Premchand. One of my favorite stories by him is The Blue Umbrella. I saw the film when I was in Delhi earlier this year, and apart from some of the excesses (in the first half) that the Mumbai film industry is so fond of, it was a marvelously subtle and compassionate film.

    Thankfully he is still around and publishing. I once missed meeting him at a Delhi bookstore by about 5 minutes. Alas!

  12. I don’t know that any book has ever “changed” me as a person, but many have greatly reflected feelings I couldn’t necessarily express, or made me a better writer.

    Survivor: Chuck Palahniuk
    Invisible Monsters: Chuck Palahniuk
    Choke: Chuck Palahniuk
    The Labyrinth: Catherynne M. Valente
    The Road: Cormac McCarthy
    The Divinity Student: Michael Cisco
    The Tyrant: Michael Cisco
    Catcher in the Rye: J.D. Salinger
    The Etched City: K.J. Bishop
    Veniss Underground: Jeff VanderMeer

  13. Thanks for the list, Michael. I’ve only read a couple of those. Time to go to my public library and get caught up.
    My list of books that have helped me to become a better writer is even longer than the books I’ve mentioned. Perhaps I’ll talk about them in another venue, another day.
    Vandana

  14. Hi!
    I’ll answer the question. But first:
    I loved your story Love and other Monsters that i just read in an anthology. Wow. Thank you.
    I too am a big sci fi fan, if only in my mind. Its amazing.
    Now going to the question:
    Octavia Butler is a writer who has shifted my paradigms! All sous entendres are allowed.
    She is another sci fi writer who truly breaks the usual sci fi profiles. shatters them, really. Fledgling and Kindred are the books I love best.
    In terms of other boooks: Tao of Physics; Everything by Casteneda and by Hesse; Withering Heights; Moonstone; Steal This Book; Nectar in a Seive by Kamala Markandaya who I admire greatly; The Dancing Wu Li Masters: The Power of the Possible. This is a short list.
    Keep writing. I’m enjoying discovering your work.
    Poonam Srivastava (not the doctor in Pa; not the judge in Ahmedabad; the writer in NYC)

  15. PS: Nicola Griffith, Slow River
    and a story by her partner, Kelley Eskeridge: Strings.
    These two have to be mentioned. Or I’m a traitor to my list!

  16. Thanks for your comments, Poonam, and I’m so glad you enjoyed Of Love and Other Monsters. I have to agree about some of the authors on your list (the others I haven’t yet read) especially Octavia Butler. I love her work in a variety of different ways. And Kamala Markandaya too, who is a very different writer. I need to get started on Nicola Griffith’s work but I’ve read and really enjoyed Dangerous Space by Kelley Eskridge.

    Vandana

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