Pride Month | ‘Why confine ourselves to the binary?’ Author S.B. Divya on exploring gender through her writing and life

In her latest novel ‘Meru’, the author also dabbles in Sanskrit in a bid to “pull it into the future”

Updated - June 22, 2023 04:42 pm IST

Published - June 08, 2023 03:31 pm IST

S.B. Divya says ‘Meru’ is both an adventure and a love story.

S.B. Divya says ‘Meru’ is both an adventure and a love story. | Photo Credit: David Perry

Though S.B. Divya’s latest science fiction novel, Meru, is set in the far future, the inspiration for it comes from the past. “After my first novel, Machinehood, which was fairly near-future, highly technological and realistic, I wanted to write something slightly further out,” she says, speaking from her home in Southern California over a video call.

“I liked the idea of exploring post humans and genetic engineering,” the author, 47, says. “I had the setting for the story and needed a plot because I’m terrible at that. I was thinking about my favourite childhood stories, including ‘Nala-Damayanti’ from the Mahabharata.”

The story has an interesting plot structure, she adds. “Typical romances end when the two people get together. With Nala and Damayanti, they get together fairly quickly and then all the complications arise. I decided to take that architecture and apply it to this very far future and that formed the core of Meru.”

The main characters’ names, Vaha and Jayanthi, sound close to Nala-Damayanti. Divya chose to create chapter titles in Sanskrit because she learnt the language in 12th grade. “The professor who was teaching the class was a bit of a linguist and he got into the etymology of the words and how they relate to Indo-European languages, which was fascinating.” When it came time to write Meru, Divya thought, why not pull Sanskrit into this future.

Negativity around Sanskrit

On the classical language being equated with the far right today, she says, “It’s a little unfortunate that we take something cultural and tie it to fundamentalism and religion. It is regrettable that something so deep rooted in India has to be given this negative connotation by association. Even though most of my family is Hindu, my father is an atheist and I was raised agnostic. I don’t associate the language with the religion at all.”

Describing Meru as an adventure and a love story, Divya says, “It has politics and space travel. It has a vast scope — we start on Earth and then travel through the solar system and land 200 light years away on this Earth-like planet called Meru. It is an epic in space, and involves all the elements of a classic — conflict, romance, power struggles, great change…”

One of the fascinating aspects about Meru is the gender of the characters who are post-humans called alloys. “I have been exploring non-binary gender both for my own identity and also in my writing since 2015. As we step into the future, gender becomes more fluid. We have ways where it becomes increasingly easy for people to change their biological and sexual characteristics. So why should we confine ourselves to the binary? I like they/them, but the ze/zer pronouns came from a list called Spivak pronouns. I used them in my novella, Runtime. I’ve used them in some of my short stories, too,” says the author.

In the book, Jayanthi, the adopted human child of alloy parents, has sickle cell anaemia. “When I was crafting the planet Meru, I decided that I wanted it to have higher oxygen than Earth. Lower oxygen would be harder to survive. Also, the purple skies that come with higher oxygen are really cool.”

On genetic diversity

Divya wanted to find a genetic anomaly in a human being that would potentially allow them to thrive in this higher oxygen atmosphere. “I talked to a doctor friend and he suggested sickle cell disease as it is slightly easier to treat and better understood genetically. What was interesting to me as I was researching was that depending on how you inherit the sickle cell gene, it protects you against malaria.”

In thinking about genetic engineering and eugenics, and what makes someone a better human being, Divya says, people tend to forget perfection is environmental and circumstantial. “They often forget that genetic diversity is a strength, not a weakness.”

There is a fuzzy line between sci-fi and speculative fiction, she adds, with the latter being an umbrella term. “Anything where we’re adding something beyond reality is speculative fiction. In science fiction, the speculative elements are rooted in what we know today about the natural world. Science fiction would be something that is not magic, which is what separates it from fantasy, and not supernatural, which is what separates it from horror.”

Divya is happy that science fiction in Indian English writing is growing. Sci-fi films are often in conversation with their written cousins, she says. “The movie stories tend to become much more popular than the literature. It infuses pop culture, and then authors like me react to it and re-imagine the tropes from the films. The future is coming so quickly, technological change is accelerating. People see the need to explore the possibilities of our future in our lifetime. Science fiction is such a great way to explore those kinds of questions, fears and hopes. It is not about the future, it’s always the concerns of the present, seen through a speculative lens.”

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