An interview with Sheba Karim, who edited Alchemy: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories 2.

Sheba Karim, who edited Alchemy: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories 2 — a follow up to Electric Feather, the first anthology of erotica published in India — writes fiction for adults and young adults. The former lawyer and Fulbright-Nehru Scholar, who has an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, talks of editing the anthology, and of her own short story in it, in this e-mail interview.

What attracted you to the project?

One of my stories was published in the first Tranquebar anthology, and I thought it would be fun, as well as challenging, to edit the second one. I also enjoy editing, which is pretty vital for a project like this.

What were the criteria in selecting the stories?

Good writing! Obviously it had to involve sex, but it’s much easier to work with the author to increase or elaborate on the sexual content of a piece than to turn a bad writer into a good one.

What, according to you, is the purpose of erotica?

There is the obvious — to entertain, to inspire pleasure in the reader. What I think differentiates literary erotica, aside from the level of the writing, is the use of sex to explore other facets of human nature and relationships. After all, sex is a primary motivator of human behaviour, and yet a lot of fiction shies away from it, making literary erotica all the more important.

What has 50 Shades of Grey done to erotica?

Well, I think it’s popularised it. There are all kinds of 50 Shades of Grey spin-offs now, and women who might have been embarrassed reading erotica are now reading it with gusto. It has also increased the revenue of the sex toy industry. I do wish it wasn’t so poorly written, because it would be unfortunate if that were someone’s main impression of erotica.

How is erotica different from porn?

Distinguishing between erotica and porn makes more sense in a medium like film, where you can argue that an erotic film would have an actual plot and characters you actually care about whereas porn would be a bunch of random people just having sex. But a story will always have some type of narrative, and transport you into a character’s mind, into a fictional world. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I think a better distinction in terms of the written word would not be erotica versus porn but ‘badly-written erotica’ versus ‘well-written erotica.’

Has the Internet changed the way we consume erotica?

Is there anything the Internet hasn’t changed? We can access erotica without having to leave our homes/bedrooms. For better or worse, the Internet has something for everyone. Name the fetish, and it’s almost guaranteed to be watchable, readable, downloadable.

Which is your favourite story in the collection?

I liked them all for different reasons: Matinee by Mohan Sikka for how it captures a sexual awakening, Foreigner by Amitava Kumar for its humour, Periscope by Lopa Ghosh for its lyricism, F is For Fire by Abeer Hoque for its setting... you get the drift.

Is erotica about sex, power or gender?

It’s often about all three. It’s hard to completely separate sex from power or gender. M. Svarini’s wonderfully inventive Mouth is an example of a story that takes sex, power and gender to places you never imagined.

What would you say your story, Next Year at the Taj, is about? Love, loss, exploitation?

Funnily enough, I intended it to be a story about loss and impart the feeling that when Rahul decides he’ll go back and be ‘happily ever after again’ in his marriage, it’s actually too late. But I read a few reader reviews in which they thought Rahul was going back and would be successful in saving his marriage, and I realised that I’d been reading the story like a pessimist, and it is possible he could have his ‘happy ending’, though it would take a lot of hard work, on both of their parts.

Are short stories best suited to the genre compared to a novel?

Well, it’s difficult to write sex well. So, in that respect, writing a story is easier because you’d have to dream up a lot of well-written, visceral sex for an erotic novel while also having all the other elements like character development, tension, narrative thread, etc. But if you are able to do so, then a novel works just as well, if not better.

From the author's mouth...

‘Mouth’ is a genre- and gender-bending entry in Alchemy. This futuristic tale describes a four-way orgy in tantalising, tender detail. Author M. Svairini talks about the genesis of the tale and her take on erotica.

How did ‘Mouth’ come to be?

I started writing a character who was 100 per cent about oral sex, and would be going to an orgy where she would be totally satiated. I thought about what would give her even more pleasure, so the idea came of a kind of technology that would divert sensation from all of her erogenous zones to her mouth. Then I started to imagine a world around her, and the rest of the story arrived. I've always been a fan of feminist utopias/dystopias. I wanted a world that didn't have to deal with male-female gender roles, so I got rid of those but realised it needed a different kind of hierarchy in order to create conflict. That all sounds very deliberate, but actually I just started writing what I felt was exciting, and the story unfolded. Then the world got more complex and cohesive in the revisions.

How would you describe erotica?

I don't really bother; I just write stories that turn me on, and I leave the describing to others.

Do you believe that smut is getting respectable?

I have no idea what “respectable” even means!

Does respectability take the furtive thrill out of smut?

I don’t find furtiveness to be much of a thrill. It's not much fun to be closeted, filled with shame, and unable to find material that turns you on or even makes you feel like your desires are healthy and acceptable. If so-called respectability brings more access to sexy stories to more people, that’s great. Open, fully expressed and liberated sexuality is much more thrilling for me.

Classics are getting an erotic twist. Comment

One of my first and favourite erotic series was the Sleeping Beauty series by A.N. Roquelaire (Anne Rice). I think it would be fantastic to do this with the Indian classics, which are pretty kinky, erotic and gender-bending already.

Do you believe in air-tight compartments for genres?

Absolutely not. I don’t believe anything creative should be locked down or air-tight.

Is India ready for erotica?

Very much so. It was ready for erotica many centuries ago too, when the temples of Khajuraho were built, and the thousands of erotic poems and paintings were composed and created. We have a long and vibrant tradition of smut writing as well as art in India. Nothing about erotica should be shocking or new to Indians who know their own history and parampara (tradition).