It’s been a rather hectic week so this is actually 3 days late, given that publication day was on the 4th of January, 2016.
Every story I write is special to me in a different way. This story had its genesis in a very dark place I was in, during the “Annus horribilis” of 2009 when I suffered a major injustice that I knew would never be redressed. It had me questioning the nature of storytelling, and of originality. Anyone who has ever read or worked on TS Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent (I wrote a paper about his essays during my MA days, back in 1999) will know that old saw about “there’s nothing new under the sun”. But there are other complicated questions, questions about ethics, questions about what some of us simply will not do and what others will do without guilt or shame. As I asked in the old Arbitrator story I wrote in 2009–how does any storyteller accuse another of this when all that we are is made out of stories and the ideas of others?
Tower of the Rosewater Goblet began as a sort of meditation on that, but I set it in Sesen, and the story grew into a meditation into various other intersecting concerns: appropriation, colonization, autonomy. But that sounds very political, doesn’t it? It started that way, it didn’t end up that way, once I got to know Erheani and her family, and then Madame Li-Yan, and started to care for these characters. They dictated the story. The pamphlets did the rest. I was and remain passionate about pamphlets and pamphleteering culture. While working on Nigerian-English Literature for my PhD dissertation I did some side-research on the Onitsha pamphlets, and last year I did some pretty intense research on the Early Gothic Revival pamphlets. I wanted to capture some of that freewheeling grandiosity in this story, and the romance/love of printing presses and how they’ve been integral to the blossoming of more than one post-colonial nation.
One of my long-lost uncles was a newspaper man back in the 60s-80s in Ipoh, Perak. He died a few weeks ago. I’m thinking of that, and the history of the press in my country as well. And how fragile all of these apparatuses for voicing ourselves and telling our stories are. How vulnerable we are to censure, and sometimes worse than that, erasure.
If this story was political, it’s political because it is a story I wrote to deal with my own demons and vulnerabilities. I wish I was as strong as Erheani, but maybe that’s why I wrote her. I wrote her for people like me, for the kind of heroes I want to read about, and I hope she’ll mean to you what she means to me. If even a little bit. Because this story is my antidote for all of those inner demons that tell me I cannot write, that I’m never going to amount to anything, that I’ll always be this fat, this ugly, this worthless. But inner demons are like that, aren’ they? They’re the internalization of all of the ugliness we endure in life, the things that are said to us, the things we are made to believe, because they reflect the self-hatred and the fear of others.
This story I wrote so I could laugh in the face of all of those inner demons. But I can share this medicine, this anti-demon spell. It helped me. If you need it, I hope it’ll help you as well.
Tower of the Rosewater Goblet, 4 January 2016, Strange Horizons.