Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: In Conversation With Tasha Suri

Recently, I caught up with Tasha Suri over Zoom to discuss her life, career, and writing during a global pandemic, in advance of her forthcoming and highly anticipated The Jasmine Throne, a queer epic fantasy whose worldbuilding has strong influences from the Indian subcontinent. Her household had recently been vaccinated—a great relief in these days—and we condoled each other on how time has gone strange and how the activities of daily life have been so restricted, especially when you live with vulnerable people. “You don’t live in London,” she says, “because you don’t like to go out!”

I joked that I’d try not to be a terrifically boring interviewer and ask Where do you get your ideas? But the question’s already out in the open. “I still don’t know,” Suri says. “People do keep asking, and I still can’t answer that question.”

The identity issue seems to come up a lot in discussions of speculative fiction. Queer, BIPOC, ownvoices: How does who we are effect what we write? (Strange that so few straight cisgender white men get that question, but such is the world we live in.) The Jasmine Throne is a strongly and strikingly queer work of fantasy. Ten years ago, it might not have been a lead title from a major publisher. What’s changed? What brings Suri to write it, and write it now?

“There’s always been queer science fiction and fantasy. But there has been a change, I think, in its promotion and its support from the Big Five [publishers], and the opportunities for social media to support that work as well? In a way that just didn’t exist before. It’s more that there’s a lot more promotion, a lot more highlighting, a more out and open audience and more out and open authors, of that kind of work. Interestingly enough, I did an event with C.L. Clark [author of The Unbroken] and somebody asked a question, who were the [fictional] sapphic couples that you loved when you were growing up? And Clark said, well, I’m old, so there weren’t any sapphic couples when I was growing up. (And I was like, you’re not old! We’re the same age, so you’re not old!) But I think it’s true, right? If you’re a Millennial, or older, even if you were a bookworm and you went to libraries, and you went to bookshops, and your mum, or your dad, or whoever raised you brought you books, you probably still didn’t have much access to queer material. I think for a lot of us, our first kind of like experiences of queer fiction were online, from things like fanfiction, because that was something that was easily accessible, available to us without any kind of monetary input, or us being able to actively seek that out and know what we were looking for. So I also wonder if part of it is that you have this group of people who are now all in publishing or writing who either are a bit younger than me and grew up actually having access to queer fiction and therefore being able to write it a little bit more confidently and with knowledge of themselves, and you also have a group of people who started out with things like fanfic, found a way to find their voice, and are now getting published—and are also editors, and acquiring editors, and marketers, and the audience that’s buying those books, so you suddenly have this whole field of people who are more out and open and more aware of the things they like, buying books and writing books.”

A zeitgeist? So did she deliberately write The Jasmine Throne to tap into that zeitgeist, then?

Oh, she always writes for the market! That’s sarcasm. But seriously, it’s a tricky one, she says. “There’s a few different things in play. Sometimes ideas come to you when they come to you, and you write them as and when you have the opportunity. I started reading more widely in SFF once I got published—because once you’re in the industry, and I wasn’t at all before I got published, you start hearing about more books, so you can start reading more books. So I had books I loved, and I had SFF that I would buy in bookshops or online, but there were just things coming out from indie publishing, and smaller publishers, and from the Big Five that I hadn’t known about, and once I got into publishing I read them, and I read a lot more queer fiction, and that was great. And that also showed me there was an audience for that work, and that I could write it and possibly get published. Whereas before I wrote The Books of Ambha, I was always wondering, Is there an audience for POC books and books that are drawing from non-Western narratives? And it’s easy to say once you’ve done it, that yes, there is, but it’s harder to say on the other end, before you get there. When I published Empire of Sand—actually, probably up until after the publication of Realm of Ash—I wasn’t out. I mean, I was out in my personal life, but I wasn’t necessarily out to everyone who knew me, or out online. And we all have our own reasons why out-ness can be difficult, and, like, there’s a really exposed way that social media can make you out if you choose to be? And I knew I could write a queer work without being out. But as we have seen multiple times, on social media and other places, it’s harder. And it makes your life more difficult. Especially if you’re a woman, because people like to question women. So I wasn’t necessarily out [as an author], and I didn’t want to deal with all the issues that come with being out—being questioned about my sexuality, or whatever it might be, that wasn’t something I was comfortable dealing with. And I knew from working on Empire of Sand and Realm of Ash, and the publicity around that, that people will ask you identity questions. And they don’t always mean it in a cruel or a bad way—often it’s from other people of colour, who want to know what it is like, being in the industry, and what it’s like having a marginalised identity similar to their own while being in the industry, and that’s all good stuff. So I didn’t want to approach writing something queer until I was in that position [of being out as an author], and quite frankly I wasn’t in the headspace to do it either.

“And then, when it came to The Jasmine Throne, I had an idea, and it was sapphic. And I ended up talking to my agent about it and saying, would Orbit mind if I wrote a sapphic story? Which, if you look at Orbit now and how many sapphic books they have? It’s kind of a ridiculous question! What was I thinking? But it goes to show what headspace you get in. And I don’t think this is just me, I think when you’re not out, or when you are rightly or wrongly worried about the consequences of outness, you can often feel like you’re in a very narrow tunnel. And sometimes there really is a narrow tunnel! You were correct to think it is there! But sometimes you’re not. And I needed that sense check, which is why you have agents and friends and editors and people that you can speak to. I didn’t know if what my USP [unique selling point] was, if we’re talking in a business sense, was to write heterosexual POC books—I know this sounds so ridiculous, I know! But I was like, is that what Orbit wants from me, is this the specific thing that Orbit wants from me, that they want to sell that I write, or can I write other things? Going to Orbit, saying I had a sapphic fantasy, they were like YES, GIVE IT TO US, so this wasn’t [coming] from anything that had been said to me, or done, or implied, I don’t want to suggest that it was.”

There’s always that social thing, isn’t there? The don’t-get-out-of-your-lane, it keeps it doesn’t need to be said for you to worry about it.

“Yes. And I was worried about getting out of my lane! But I wasn’t, clearly! I mean, we could have a long discussion about lanes, and who gets to write what.”

Talking about Suri’s own books is much more fun, though, I suggest.

“Yeah, let’s do that,” she says, laughing. “So, I wanted to write—I had this idea for [The Jasmine Throne]. There were all these other factors for why I hadn’t written something queer before, but frankly, when The Jasmine Throne came along, the idea wanted to be written. And it wanted to be queer. That romance between Malini and Priya [two of the main characters], it was there, it didn’t want to be straight, or whatever else it could have been. That’s just what it was. So I worked on it, and Orbit liked it, and they wanted it to be much more epic, bigger—so I worked on it some more, and then it became the book that it is.”

Speaking of writing epic novels, and writing epic novels in a pandemic—does Suri have any tips?

“No! I have nothing for you,” she says ruefully. “The fact is, I found it really, really, really, really hard to write the sequel to The Jasmine Throne. The Jasmine Throne, I wrote before the pandemic happened. And then I edited it during the pandemic. Which was hard. And then I wrote the first round of the sequel—it’s been handed in—in the pandemic. And it is not my best work, I think I can say. It will be my best work, once it has been edited! So people don’t have to worry about that—but I think when you’re creative, having a life, and experiences, and not being worried about death all the time is really super-helpful to your creativity? And the pandemic made it so I was living in a house with the same people all day every day and worrying about death. Which really impacted my creativity. So all I can say is that I often found that I was running not on creativity or excitement or joy or any of those lovely things, I was just writing to write, to get the book out. And often it was very hard to make myself write at all, because I couldn’t concentrate, my concentration was somewhere else. I’m dyspraxic and dyscalculic, which barely impinges on my life at all, but under stress, suddenly my ability to organise things, thoughts, work, goes by the wayside. So it had to just be me pushing through, pushing through, pushing through.”

I feel that. Even my ability to read last year went crash. Suri’s a big reader, too, and she doesn’t think she even read fifty books. “I realised how much reading happens when you’re not at home! I would read on the Tube, I would read on the train, I would listen to audiobooks when I walk! And now you’re in your house just constantly!

“I’ve talked to authors who found the pandemic really good for their concentration. I don’t think it’s like, one-size-fits-all. But I think for a lot of us, the pandemic has been really bad for concentration and mental health and accomplishing things. That said, it’s my job? So this is the weird thing of something being creative, but also your job, and you do it, and it pays your bills.”

The issue of income per working hour for writers is occasionally a depressing one, so we pass lightly over that in favour of talking about fantasy and romance. Suri’s track record with The Books of Ambha is a particular and particularly compelling combination of fantasy and romantic elements: Both the fantasy and romance is epic in scale. Is Suri carrying forward that approach in The Jasmine Throne?

Suri’s always loved fantasy and romance. “I think that,” she says, “if you go to the romance section of the bookshop, you’re less likely to find that in a traditional epic fantasy sense. So you’ll find—or you used to, I think it’s a bit less popular now—loads of paranormal romance, the classic beat-by-beat romance, with werewolves, and witches, and vampires, and that kind of thing—I’m not telling you anything you don’t know! But you find less of the epic fantasy stuff. There are a few people doing it, like Grace Draven, who was self-published initially, but you wouldn’t necessarily find that combination very often. I think in the fantasy section you might find it sometimes, people like Juliet Marillier, romance within a folkloric setting—you do find romances in epic fantasy, I think a lot of people talk about The Blue Sword [Robin McKinley], which I haven’t read. But that was always something I really loved. And when I started reading fantasy, when I was a little bit younger, it was always the romance that I homed in on, that I was really interested in? Even if that wasn’t the whole point of the book. So when I got to writing my own fiction I was like, “Well, I love romance, and I love fantasy, so I want a fantasy setting that’s really big on the romance.” And that’s what I did. And I think a lot of people are also on board that particular boat. You often see people saying, I want a fantasy romance! And there just aren’t that many. I think the only market that serves that [big densely built fantasy with lots of feelings] is YA. Young Adult fiction does that really well. It doesn’t seem to be that common elsewhere. And I wish it was! Because I would like a proper villain romance? With some X-rated content. With, you know, everybody sweeping around in robes. That’s just, you know, something that I think we deserve. But publishing has not yet provided me. So we’ll leave that there. (Don’t ask me to come up with the concept! Just sell it to me and I’ll buy it.)

“So that’s what I wanted to do. And obviously because it is fantasy, and I’m interested in things like colonialism and empire and gender and, you know, free will, and magic, and that kind of stuff, that’s also a huge part of my books. So yes, I love the romance, but it’s not just the romance—even if that’s being very reductionist about romance and what romance does, romance does a lot of other stuff as well, but the books, they are fantasy novels, if you think of the lens that’s being applied to the content, if that makes sense.

“And then, The Jasmine Throne! If The Books of Ambha are, “this is an epic fantasy but it is about the relationships, often between just two people, often romantic”, The Jasmine Throne is, “this is an epic fantasy about the relationships between about six to seven people, and about fourteen others who will die in this book.” There are some romantic relationships, but a lot of these relationships are not romantic. So romance is a big part, but it isn’t the entire point, and it isn’t even the central point, necessarily. I would say that the relationship between Malini and Priya is what drives the book? And drives book two and book three. But it’s not the only thing that drives it. I guess it’s more traditionally epic fantasy than my first two books, but I think I bring the same kind of sensibilities around, you know, feelings about familial relationships as the focus, and found families, and marriages, and women’s role in a patriarchal society, that kind of intimate relationships stuff is still very important to me. But it’s amplified onto a larger scale.”

One of the accomplishments of The Books of Ambha (Empire of Sand and Realm of Ash) was its examination of the consequences of colonialism, both large-scale effects and the kinds of intimate compromises people make in their lives under it. Did Suri do any particular research into this sort of thing?

“I did an English degree, which means that I just read a lot of books. And then wrote about them. I didn’t study history or anything specifically. What I did do at university was, I got angry about stuff. Which can be great critical thinking skills training, occasionally! So I started reading things—like a lot of people at uni, I read Edward Said, Orientalism, and The Subaltern Speaks, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak—I was lucky that I kind of self-led quite a lot of what I wanted to research and write about? And my tutors were like, “That’s fine, we don’t care what a bunch of undergrads are doing anyway, do what you want!” So I read a lot about how colonisation affects people’s fiction, and their dreams, and their ideas, and how people are silenced, and how perhaps our sense that they’re silenced is actually a reflection of our privilege rather than the fact of their silence. I read a lot about that. I read a lot about the theory of colonisation and imperialism, how it impacts people, and that really informs what I write now. I also cared about it on a kind of… [personal level]—I read a lot of N.K. Jemisin at uni, her books were coming out, and I was like, Heeey, there’s not a lot of people of colour writing science fiction and fantasy, and it was the first time I’d really noticed that. I’d just kind of accepted that the way the world is, is that white people write Western fiction, and there are not many of us [people of colour writing], and that’s just how things are, you don’t question it necessarily. (Maybe I was a bit slow.) It was the first time that occurred to me, and it was around the time that I realised there were very few non-white people on my [university] course, and despite the fact that I come from a very comfortable, you know, middle-class background, there were certain aspects of privilege… I didn’t have access to. And I was like, “Gosh, I wonder what’s holding me back from those? You’d think the money would’ve sorted all of that out!” It made me think about things in a different way. And all of that informed my approach to what I wanted to write.”

Will there ever be a point where we don’t have to talk about our marginalisations?

“I don’t get tired of talking—I’m going to be really honest—I don’t get tired of talking about how marginalisation impacts my work to other people of colour, and to other queer writers. Because I think that a lot of people wanting to enter the industry are very anxious about how hard it is, they recognise how hard it is, and sometimes it’s enough to be told, yes, it is hard—or sometimes it isn’t. Or “these are things you can leverage,” or, “these are things you can do,” or, “you don’t have to write about your marginalisation! You can write other things! That is also fine!” So I don’t get tired of talking about that.

“What I do get tired of, what I get a little bit exhausted with, is there are sometimes people who think marginalised authors are some kind of guru—and I use guru specifically!—on what is okay to write and what isn’t. So if you ask me whether it’s okay to write about Asian women in this specific way”—her tone becomes a little sarcastic—”I will give you permission! And then you will go forth, and no one will call you a racist. That’s not how this works! I mean, I understand where it comes from, I understand the anxiety it comes from, but I am not like the representative of all Asian women! And I cannot give you that answer. What constitutes good representation, or good writing, or good characterisation of people that’s not racist or not sexist is a very nuanced and complex thing, impacted by the fact that what is racist in one country perhaps may not be in another. What sexism looks like in one culture may be different than in another. How one culture has impacted another is different. How one reader will approach a piece of work is different from the way another reader will. You can take an Indian woman from Delhi and take, like, an Indian-Canadian woman who’s got a different cultural background in Canada, and you can take me, and we will all have a different perspective on whether something is good representation or not. You see what I mean. I find that question kind of aggravating, and often, the people who ask those questions get quite angry with me if I tell them that. So that, I get bored of. I mean, you have people who really want to write good work that represents people appropriately, I recognise that. And then you have people who just don’t want to be yelled at. They’re totally not the same people. And I don’t think I want to be the person who’s telling you how to write things properly? I can’t do that for you. I mean, if you want to pay me two hundred pounds an hour or something! I really don’t want to do it, so that’s the kind of money I’m going to ask for.

“I think it would be a lot more interesting to not ask that question. All the other stuff is fine, I’m happy to talk about how my experience of queerness impacts my work, or how I think I’ve depicted it, or how being a second-gen Punjabi Indian in the UK may have impacted my approach to my writing compared to another person. And I think those are interesting questions. But I’m not like, some kind of guru on identity and what the best way to represent it is.”

And how has her identity impacted her?

“I didn’t really know the publishing industry before I got into it, which is how I ended up with a US agent and a US publisher before a UK one. I’m not sure I would’ve done anything differently, though, if I had known. Because I think that UK publishing is… UK publishing. It has a very specific sense of what sells, and what to produce. And there are exceptions to that, as Orbit I think has demonstrated, but that is not exactly the norm. And I don’t think it’s very welcoming, frankly. When I was started to look about querying, it was a lot easier to understand how to do querying to US agents than UK agents. I didn’t really understand that until later. Publishing is very white and it’s extremely middle-class. And [in the UK] it’s very Oxbridge, and I think that on those axes it’s quite alienating to a lot of different people. I think there a lot of non-white people it hasn’t served well, but also a hell of a lot of white working-class readers and writers have not been well served either. It is very difficult to understand how to break in, and I do not think there are that many resources on how to do it. I think there are efforts to change that in a big way—agencies and publishers and booksellers—there are efforts to make publishing more diverse, but there are lots of things that make it difficult for publishing to be more diverse. One of them being an unwillingness to experiment or take risks, across the chain. And that is a shame, because I think there’s a huge tranche of the population that is not being served. Like, I go into a fantasy section in a bookshop and there’s no romance. We could publish books and sell more books that are maybe not high-brow but people want to read. That would be nice. That’s the kind of stuff I write! I don’t write literary fiction. So of course I’m going to be like, why don’t we publish more of my stuff?

“I don’t know if that’s specifically about me being a second-gen non-white British person, but that is something I think about. I do think [my identity] has informed what I write. It’s obviously drawing at least partially from my own background and if not my own background, then things that I grew up seeing and reading that a white British person in my position may not have seen or read. That’s impacted what I produce. And I feel like I’ve been really lucky, because I think I’ve entered the industry at a point where a lot of people of colour, particularly black writers and editors and readers, have really pushed to create more diversity and more opportunities for diversity, and if I had started five years earlier I may not have had those opportunities. So those opportunities have allowed me to be published and to write the kind of books that I want to write rather than something that might have, earlier on, been easier to sell. But I think it’s quite telling that there’s a bunch of British authors who have sold to the US rather than the UK, and have US publishers and not UK ones, like Natasha Ngan—NYT bestseller—for example. Sangu Mandanna’s books, which are fantastic. She wrote A Spark of White Fear, which is a Mahabharata retelling for a YA market set in space—[publishing in the] US, again. There are people in the industry doing good work, but they’re working against the historical biases of the whole industry, and then there are people who refer to themselves as “publishing’s favourite Nazi” and are supporters of Tommy Robinson (eg. Stirling Publishing), on that end of the political spectrum. I don’t think they’re representative. But it shows that there is work to be done. And I hope that work continues to be done.”

We move on to a slightly lighter topic for our last ten minutes. The appeal of epic fantasy: What makes it so great?

“It’s an escape. It’s an escape, isn’t it? And escape doesn’t have to mean you go somewhere full of, like, sunshine and rainbows, you get to go on these adventures, and get to experience all those awful emotions we experience in real life but on a different, a cathartic, scale. It’s like the catharsis you get when you watch an action film. It’s this explosion of emotion and feeling. And I think magic, and epic battles, work in that way, that it takes all that emotion we have in our real lives, and allows us to experience it on a scale that we will hopefully never really experience, and that’s really exciting. And it’s just magical! It’s all so cool! People get to wear armour and robes and do stuff!”

Robes are a theme with Suri, then?

“I do like robes! I guess I don’t really write novels where there are robes. Everyone’s wearing, like, saris and tunics. Maybe I need to write some robes. Some exotic Northern European thing…”

Is there a particular epic fantasy trope or worldbuilding element that most appeals to her?

“I’ve gone blank! I think the point of epic fantasy is that it can create these really gorgeous moments that encapsulate horrific possibilities of death and world-destruction, and combine them with a guy taking his shirt off and having wings. And if that isn’t the entire point of fiction, then I don’t know what is.”

Any books in particular she’s enjoyed reading, or that she’s looking forward to?

She Who Became the Sun by Shelly Parker Chan. It’s just so good. I loved it. It had better get a big audience or I’ll be super-mad. The writing, the quality of it, the way that it approaches things, its sensibilities. It’s so beautiful, and so tragic. It has fisting! You know, what more can you ask for? I don’t know! And I’m partway through The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid, which is just lyrical and beautiful, and gorgeous Jewish fantasy. I really like it, I really really like it. But I haven’t finished it yet. And I thought The Unbroken (by C.L. Clark) was amazing. What I really loved about it was that it has a lot of representations of what I would say is more butch womanhood? And it gives humanity to people who have often been denied that. And I think it does that really well. It also balances this thing of how to depict colonialism, colonisers bad! With, “but princess and guardswoman [together is] sexy!” And it has lovely tension between those [things and people].

“I want more Indian-inspired fantasy, though. I don’t think there’s a huge amount: In fact, I’m sitting here and thinking about it, and I cannot think of many. So I’d like to see a bit more of that, that would be really nice. Just a little bit more! Enough that it’s not me sitting here on my own. There’s a fair bit of really good Indian fantasy in YA, but not outside it—there are lots of really good Desi writers who should just get some more deals so I can buy more of their books. I’ve read the ones that are already there, so I’d like a few more. And keep the sapphic fiction coming. And I do want a really good villain romance—I don’t care if it’s het, if it’s gay, if it’s sapphic, I just want a villain romance. Don’t make me try and write it, I’m too soft, it’ll end up being long conversations about consent and feelings and then everybody will hug.”

The Jasmine Throne publishes June 8th with Orbit.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. She was a finalist for the inaugural 2020 Ignyte Critic Award, and has also been a finalist for the BSFA nonfiction award. Find her on Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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