Phew! It’s been quite a week for me and quite a journey for this story! Amidst a pretty frightening health scare this week, I had the excitement of knowing this was coming out. Suffice it to say, I have A LOT to say about this story but I’m also worried that if I say too much I’ll detract from the actual experience of reading it. So I strongly recommend you read the story first before you read this! ;o)
First thing I need to say: No, sorry. This story is not autobiographical. Not at all. I am not on some fuel planet, and I have never worn a tuxedo. There are no lovelorn cephalopods waiting for me on distant shores! Having said that, it’s informed by real life experiences and emotions in ways that are not always obvious.
First, for those of you in the cephalopod-loving school, here’s a digital painting I made in 2010, which was a norty riff off Hokusai’s nortier paintings:
I have always been mildly amused by tentacle pr0n and cephalopod-lovers. But you can’t deny they are rather majestic creatures who are frighteningly intelligent. So it’s no surprise that it’s a HUGE Lovecraftian motif but no Cthulhus were maligned in the making of this story. I do have some Lovecraftian riff story ideas somewhere in my head — you can’t research and write about Lovecraftian motifs as a Gothic academic and not want to write your own — but this story comes from something else.
(even though in RETROSPECT I went “Ahah, shades of Innsmouth! Didn’t expect THAT to happen!”)
There were several OTHER influences for this story, presented in a haphazard fashion!
(1) The first impulse for this story occurred during a brief beach vacation in Port Dickson in 2000, around the time when I was an editor at a Johor publishing house. It was a vacation with family and one of my very good friends who was also a colleague (one of the rare HS friends I’m still in contact with). A beach holiday in Port Dickson felt like being on a fuel planet. There were ships, offshore rigs, and the sands were red. Completely red! This made the South China Sea look green, and I immediately started having SFnal daydreams. I was at the beach but my mind was imagining a fuel planet with an engineer stationed there. She was unhappy. And that was because she would rather be somewhere else. In this story, I imagined that she would be learning new things about her heritage and her spirituality. Wasn’t sure what it was — but I really enjoy far future SF universes that dig deep into Earth cultures, even though the old school of it can be quite problematic. That night, I sat on the balcony with my SFnal imaginings and something peculiar was happening. There were people down on the beach with flashlights and they seemed to be looking for something. That intrigued me so much that it went into the rough story idea in my head — a mish-mash of different scenes and ideas without a cohesive plot at this stage).
Then I had another vacation in 2001, this time in Ipoh, across from the limestone cliffs where the Sam Poh Tong Temple was. And that gave me more ideas about there being a cousin who was this mouthy holy kind of person.
(2) I set this story aside as an idea because work, grad school (my MA studies) and various other things came in-between. And then I discovered, around 2005-2006, an entire universe of online SFF zines and blogs that I never knew existed (despite being a lurker on the SurLaLune fairytale forums). Well, my world kind of changed. I’ve been reading Clarkesworld Magazine off and on since the first issue in 2006. I yearned to be published in it but never thought I’d ever be good enough. And the moment — the MOMENT I started reading it, I suddenly knew I wanted this story of mine to be a story for this magazine. So there you go. This was always a story I wanted to be a Clarkesworld story even though I tried to play it cool by submitting it to two other places beforehand — mostly because I had Prosthetic Daughter in CW slush, also when you want a thing too much you’re kinda scared to go and try to get it. So no, I didn’t scare the good editors with this anecdote during my submission, I was still trying to play it as cool as I could, given that I submitted it directly — and bashfully– after the publication of Prosthetic Daughter.
(3) I started drafting this after my PhD studies began in earnest in Brisbane. Sometime between 2009-2010, but some elements were still unclear to me. Why was this engineer of mine unhappy? I left it aside and started making outlines about the ecosystem of Psychereon. One day, I wrote a passage about her changing identities, and driving tourists to the edge of dead volcanoes — and that imagery really struck me. Well of course she had been happy somewhere else, but why did she have to leave?
(4) I mused about the “why” of it until 2015 when I wrote a further rough draft about what she’d left behind — and then it became a story of “after first contact” and I really just dove deep into language, and longing. I was already immersed in cephalopodic images and I’ve been writing underwater passages and stories since forever so it was a natural progression for me.
(5) Last year, my grandmother died. Around the time when I was going for various ceremonies as an eldest grand-daughter “not of the faith”, I was struggling with grief, anger, and feeling out of place. I wanted to write a story that was a warm hug to sooth my sadness and frustration because nothing made sense. And there’s this sense of sometimes as a hybrid you’re alienated from your own cultures, even if people are kind to you. But my grief is not Aakriti’s grief and she remains distinctly herself. Ever had a character who argues back to you as you try to write her? That’s Aakriti for you.
IMPORTANT NOTE: none of my Tamil aunties was maligned in this story, although I’ll admit freely that the frank, mischievous and no-nonsense attitude of Cousin Sharanya may owe a thing or two to my Youngest Aunt. I even gave her one of Youngest Aunt’s favourite things to say (don’t worry, I’m buying her dinner!).
Mostly, I didn’t want this to be a tragic story. I have seen too much sadness. I wanted a story that says, “Hey, it’s okay to relate to your culture(s) in an awkward way, to have all of this love, conflicted emotions, and frustration — there’s a place for you and you can decide how/where you want to be.”
(6) Cephalopods! You can’t read and consume tons of things about Cephalopods in popular culture without eventually writing about them! First contact stories always fascinate me but also, I always wonder why the romantic ones are almost always humanoid. But a couple of Clarkesworld stories broke the mould where that’s concerned so of course I wanted to continue that grand Clarkesworld tradition.
(Incidentally, I’m somewhat amused by the fact that an ex-flame/crush is crazy about all things cephalopods, but no crushes were maligned in the making of this story. But I would be lying if I said not even a smidgen of that leftover emotion slipped into this story. Sorry bro, I’m not buying you dinner. Hope you’re not having sleepless nights! I could have left this out but I am a norty person.)
And there you have it. I could write about the other things that went into the weaving of this tale — thoughts about state borders, thoughts about repression, gender identities, language, immigration, family, the ethics of being an ally etc — but, I’d rather you read and unpack the layers yourselves. It’s one of my most straightforward stories, but for all that, it’s also one of my most layered.
And if you like it, you might (if I may be so vain as to say) be happy to know I’m writing a sequel about another figure I have come to love from this story. I love this Tamilian family I created almost as much as my own family and I want to tell more of their stories.
In closing, thank you Neil, Sean and the rest of the Clarkesworld team for making one of my dearest SF dreams come true! I can’t believe this is out in Clarkesworld! OMG! YOU HAVE NO IDEA!!!!1111
(I have no chill you guys, seriously no chill when this is concerned!)