Sukanya Venkatraghavan's Magical Women anthology has tales of witches, rakshasis — and a critique of patriarchy
Sukanya Venkatraghavan, the editor of Magical Women, speaks about putting together the fantasy anthology, why powerful women are seen as dangerous and why old tales and legends about magic continue to inspire writers and readers
The world is afraid of a female who knows she is powerful, Sukanya Venkatraghavan writes in the Editor’s Note to Magical Women.
We all yearn to be magical, and we have forgotten that we are. Stories remind us of this fact, says Sukanya about what draws her to fantasy fiction.
With respect to Indian fantasy fiction, we seem to have trouble separating mythology from religion, she says.
In one universe, a tawaif (courtesan) discovers the magic that inhabits her missing friend and lover, and how gramophones can steal the souls of those who speak into them. In another, a gang of witches come together to celebrate, and among their party is a young witch who considers adopting a ‘normal’ life. In a third, a twin residing in a woman’s body kills her sister's lovers and robs them. In a fourth, a young girl who belongs to a clan that weaves together universes with their own hands strays from the rules – and wreaks havoc.
The anthology in which these characters are bedfellows has been aptly titled Magical Women, published by Hachette India and edited by Sukanya Venkatraghavan.
“The world is afraid of a female who knows she is powerful,” Sukanya writes in the Editor’s Note to Magical Women, which contains 14 stories. Patriarchy is built around the fear of women’s power, among other things, she explains. “Think of every story where a woman’s strength has come out for the world to see. Think of how beautiful and terrible that strength is. Of what it can begin and end. Kali, Kannagi, Circe, Sita (when she finally decides to leave), Shoorpanakha, Katniss Everdeen, Joan of Arc, Maleficent, Draupadi… I can go on. Even a show like Game of Thrones ultimately shows us that women with ambition will be feared and cut down by men,” she explains.
She speaks about how women’s bodies are still being policed and how our sexuality is both monitored and controlled. “Witch hunts happen around the world and in this country to this day. Are women part of this system? Yes. Women are the victims of this conditioning almost as much as men. It all boils down to fear.”
Sukanya says that the idea for the book came from the state of the world today, and what it means for women specifically. “I was inspired by some all-women fantasy anthologies I came across, like Toil and Trouble and A Thousand Beginnings and Endings. I have wanted to do an anthology for a very long time, I just wasn’t sure about the theme. I woke up one day in 2017 and said out loud, ‘I am going to do an all-women (which now includes a non-binary writer) fantasy anthology and I am going to do it now.’ It seemed like a crazy idea for a one-book old author, but here we are.”
Apart from having a broad brief in mind for the stories, which mentioned that the pieces should feature ‘women who create their own mythology in this dark yet dazzling world’, she was certain that she didn’t want ‘raja rani’ type stories. “I wanted stories set in our time or the future. Because the future is closer than we think,” she explains.
Was including different notions of the female and femininity a criterion while selecting stories? “The idea was to tell women’s stories. Stories about the magic they possess. The different notions of femininity and what it means to be female was bought in by the writers and their unique perspectives. You have 14 writers. You are bound to get 14 different ideas of what it is to be a woman,” she says.
On the subject of whether queer and female writers get fair treatment in India’s fantasy fiction, Sukanya says the inquiry should extend to writing in all genres. “Why single out fantasy fiction? We need more women writers. We need more queer writers telling their stories. We need publishers who are willing to pay these writers what they deserve. As much as male authors make and more,” she asserts.
“We all yearn to be magical. And we have forgotten that we are. Stories remind us of this fact,” says Sukanya, of why she is drawn to this genre. Neil Gaiman, Ursula K Le Guin, Graham Joyce, Laini Taylor and Sabaa Tahir are some of her favourite fantasy fiction writers, and she is deeply influenced by the atmosphere Daphne Du Maurier created in her works.
In the Editor’s Note, Sukanya also speaks about the continuing presence of magic in our culture. But why do old tales and legends about magic continue to fascinate writers? “Stories about magic are invariably about finding your best, most powerful self. Of obliterating evil. Of making the world a better place. These themes are more relevant now than ever before,” Sukanya explains.
One of the perspectives – and criticisms – people have about Indian fantasy fiction is that is dominated by mythology. Sukanya’s take on this is that fantasy fiction in any part of the world is largely derived from myths, fairytales and folkore. “With respect to Indian fantasy fiction, we seem to have trouble separating mythology from religion. Though we do have writers like Samit Basu, Krishna Udayasankar, Shweta Taneja, Indrapramit Das, Tashan Mehta etc. who write fantasy that is not in the vice-like grip of ‘religious mythology,” she says, adding that mythology is a “fluid beast”. “New myths must be created just as much as the old ones are being retold and reinterpreted," she says, before quoting from Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet: "When we stop believing in the gods, we can start believing in their stories."
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