Today’s Picture, 11/21/13

Cobb Gate, the University of Chicago, November 2013.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Mary Anne Mohanraj

The novel The Stars Change takes place in a far-flung future, on a world that is not Earth. But for her story, author Mary Anne Mohanraj reach into our planet’s recent history — and her own.


I live in a bifurcated timeline.  Perhaps all immigrants do, but rarely are the differences so dramatic.  In this timeline, the bright one, I have a job, a house, a partner and two healthy kids.  In the darker timeline, I could easily be dead.

My family left Sri Lanka when I was two years old.  They didn’t plan to stay in America; they came here to work, maybe for a few years.  Like many immigrants, they thought they’d save up some money and then go home, but as their kids grew up, went to school, as they settled into their American lives, it became harder and harder to imagine going back.

Still, in 1983, when I was twelve, my parents planned to send me back for a summer, to live with my grandparents, to reconnect.  They were still thinking we might all move back to Sri Lanka.  But then, a few days before my flight, my dad received a telegram.  Don’t send her.  There’s trouble coming.  He cancelled my flight.

It’s called Black July in Sri Lanka.  Riots erupted in Colombo, the capital city, killing thousands of Tamils, the ethnic minority group, the group to which I belong.  Brutal chaos ensued – friends of mine who were there tell horrifying stories.  They saw tires put around men’s necks, saw them lit on fire.  They saw women and children dragged from their homes, pulled from cars to be raped and killed in the street.

I saw none of this, but the stories haunt my fiction.  Whether I’m writing mainstream lit or fantasy or science fiction, I keep coming back to the war in Sri Lanka.  I keep thinking about the life I would have had, if my parents had made different choices.  If we had stayed there, and been killed in the riots.  If I had gotten on that plane.  If we had fled, as so many of my aunts and uncles did, and ended up as refugees in Canada or elsewhere.

When I started writing a science fiction novel, after twenty years of publishing erotica and mainstream lit., I planned to write something light, something fun.  I was going to write about South Asians!  In space!  With lots of sex!  Oh, I’d start with a war, because every story needs some conflict – the first interstellar war, in fact.  People would hear the news, and would take to their beds – a reasonable response to the end of the world.  I was aiming for smutty, funny, maybe even charming.

But as I wrote the book, the tone shifted.  This was, after all, the darker timeline.  The darkest.  I needed a reason for the war, and it turned out that it was the pure humans against everyone else – specifically, both the aliens and the humods, those genetically engineered to be different from human.

Yes, it’s a race metaphor.  Of course it is.  Writers write what troubles them, what disturbs them, and on a fundamental level, I cannot quite believe that there’s a place in the world where complete strangers are willing to kill me because of my perceived race.  Tamils and Sinhalese speak different languages, are typically of different religions (Hindu/Catholic vs. Buddhist).  But I grew up in America, and I can’t tell by looking at a Sri Lankan which ethnic group they belong to.  Can Palestinians tell Israelis by sight?  Do Hutu know Tutsi at a glance?  And even if they can – by the color of their skin, the shape of a face – why is that worth killing for?

When you read the newspapers from lands torn by ethnic conflict, you’ll see rhetoric about purity.  Racial purity, ethnic purity, language and religion and culture.  When a group feels itself under attack, divisions tend to harden, and people tell themselves stories that justify their hatred.  In America today, it’s clear that many conservative white people now feel themselves, their way of life, to be under attack.  Political positions grow rigid, and people harken back to a ‘lost’ way of life, an idyllic time when things were better.  In Sri Lanka, many nationalist Sinhalese still talk about the Tamil ‘invaders’ who took over their island, even though both groups came to Sri Lanka more than two thousand years ago.

The title for The Stars Change comes from a university motto:  Sidere mens eadem mutato:  The stars change, but the mind remains the same.  I think the university meant it to be hopeful, but there’s a darker reading – that even when we go to the stars, we carry our minds, our prejudices and fears and hatreds, with us.

The Stars Change is set at a university, on a planet settled by South Asians.  As with many major university towns, there’s a diverse population, and sometimes, with those differences, conflicts emerge.  There are outside forces, agitating for war (because with war comes profit, among other things).  There are buried resentments that erupt into violence.  There is pain, and fear, and death.  I totally failed to write the light, smutty book that I’d originally aimed for.

But despite the darkness of this timeline, there is brightness too.  There is hope.  In the end, this is a book about frightened, divided individuals, human, humod, and alien.  People who have good reason to fear and even hate each other, yet manage to put aside their differences and come together as a community.  When a missile threatens to obliterate the Warren, the alien ghetto, there are some who would stay safe in their beds and let it burn.  But there are others – there will always be others – who run towards the flames, trying their damnedest to help.

In Sri Lanka, during the riots, there were so many Sinhalese who sheltered their Tamil neighbors from the brutal thugs.  At the risk of their own lives, they stood up to those with hatred burning in their hearts.  In the end, theirs is the story I wanted to tell.  Even in the darkest timelines, I believe a light can burn.


The Stars Change: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s

Visit the book page, which includes an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

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