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.

26 Comments on “The Big Idea: Mary Anne Mohanraj”

  1. Wow, what a great Big Idea to read and think about. I work with people who, in my mind, have very little, and I always find it so interesting that the proportion of generosity and jerkdom is just the same as in my well off neighborhood. There is always someone else to insult and hate no matter who you are. There are also always those people who have open minds and hearts and do what they know to be right.
    I get a little down of humanity sometimes. “People are herd animals”, “People are stupider than anyone can measure”. But I do what I do because of those individuals who stepped forward in my life. People who helped me when I needed it for no reason other than it was the right thing to do. Those individuals changed my possible story and were the heroes that made my easy life possible.
    The story of the human race is always going to be the story of those few heroes who stepped forward to honor their conscious when the mob is getting dark. One of the reasons, I love giving fiction to children and teens is that stories of heroes inspire like behavior. One of the reasons our myths are so similar around the world is that self centeredness and hate are so easy. It is harder to love, to protect, and to sacrifice.
    Thanks for this essay.
    I had never heard of your book and I just bought it on Amazon. Happy writing!

  2. I usually skip Big Ideas just for attention conservation, but I will be keeping an eye out for this book. (Partially, I admit, because I really love the cover.)

  3. Can Palestinians tell Israelis by sight? Do Hutu know Tutsi at a glance?

    I am reminded of one of my favorite jokes: Once upon a time during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, a guy is walking through the streets, minding his own business, and then he feels a gun in his back.

    “Catholic or Protestant?” the gunman asks.

    “I’m Jewish!” the man says.

    After a pause, the gunman asks, “Well, are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?”

  4. @tam: Thanks for the link! Made my lunch break. I can’t believe I’d never heard of this author. Combining my two favorite genres and doing it well. More SF erotica please. As for the Big Idea itself, +1 what mintwitch said.

  5. I will definitively be ordering this. I was not in Sri Lanka for 1983, but I was there for 1987, which was not a piece of cake, either. I enjoy authors that I share a common, yet uncommon, tie with.

  6. @tam: The man was kind, and she had no reason to be concerned about pregnancy or STDs. That’s a pretty rare combination outside science fiction.

  7. @Lila: Some people who’ve experienced traumatic transgressions of their personal space (especially in childhood) keep a respectful distance not because they are mindful of the other person’s personal space, but because they are mindful of their own personal space. I thought it interesting that the POV character in that short story just assumed the man was exercising perfect judgement.

  8. Wow. Powerful post. I was going to pick up the book anyway, but the dark interpretation of my (Sydney) University motto has completely sealed the deal, now :)

  9. M.A., I don’t have a funny erotic SF novel, but since you ask, I do have a funny erotic short story about Greek gods, which you’re welcome to read. I did write it twenty years ago, as a callow undergrad, so be kind. :-)

    Thanks for all the nice words, folks. I admit, I was a little nervous about this Big Idea piece going up here — Scalzi’s commenters generally don’t hesitate to (politely) speak their mind. :-)

  10. Wow. I think I need to read this book. I’m sure it will be quite challenging for me. And this is a beautifully written BI.

    Mary Anne, your comments about purity triggered this: Whenever anyone starts talking about purity, part of me goes “ALERT!” If they’re talking about pure water, or a pure tone, or something like that, OK. But when they start talking about people being pure, they’re almost always saying something objectionable, and when they talk about genetic purity, in my experience they’re always racists of one kind or another.

    I’ve been called a “pure” vegetarian, because I don’t eat fish. I didn’t object, but I think the term is inaccurate and dangerous, because the word ‘pure’ carries such connotations of virtue, and is further tainted by the racist element.

    Also, note that a “pure” woman is not one who’s just entirely a woman (what would that mean, that she’s extremely cis?), but one who behaves as a good Victorian woman is supposed to. Oh wait, this is the 21st Century.

    Matt, me too, but me too. (And now that you mention it, me too.)

    Lenore, C’n I borry it? Pretty please?

  11. @tam: But she’s not a woman, she’s a Varisian! ;)

    This is such a fresh yet realistic take on future human/alien society–I loved reading this and hope you continue with more stories in this universe you created. And Kimsriyalani is my favorite new sf character in a long time.

  12. A few more quick thoughts, and sorry for not aggregating all my comments today.

    1) Echoing others, the cover and the title have that new old-fashioned quality. I feel like I could be picking up an understated speculative fiction novel from the days before American SF covers got so flashy and glossy, where the ideas and characters loom bigger than the gadgets and world-building. The explanation of the title makes it ten times better. I know lots of readers (and writers) care little or nothing about titles, but to me it signals a cohesive theme if a title can encapsulate at least some of the core essence of the story. I’m actually curious, did you encounter any difficulty getting the title you wanted? My (quite possibly mistaken) understanding was that publishers often choose titles.

    2) While I admit that I find it hard to swallow humanoid aliens (or even aliens that think like humans), I think it works so long as the author is clearly crafting the aliens as a commentary on humanity. If we ever encounter real aliens, this could pose a problem of making our species seem human-centric and human-normative, but I think we should forgive ourselves that since we are, so far as we’ll know until then, the only memetically complex species. It can’t actually be human-washing if there’s no peer species to human-wash. The only place I can see this really being a problem currently is with primates and possibly other animals that may posses limited cultural propagation.

    3) I love the idea of transhuman “aliens” since the forking of our own species seems much more plausible than humanoid aliens.

  13. As another member of your tribe, another one who was displaced through space and time and living lives which might have been deemed improbable if one imagined them while watching over the newborn babe sleeping in a cradle – my respects, adn I HAVE to read this book…

  14. In college, at the time (1983). One of my professors had planned to take a sabbatical year in Sri Lanka at the time; to study, write, and visit friends both Sinhalese and Tamil. She was told to stay home just before her family left. So I got to take classes and watch her face grow bleaker through the semesters as things got worse.

  15. As a life long believer in the power of peace and the failure of violence I have to jump in here to clarify the events leading up to Black July. This is not to dis the book in any way. The premise with its underlying metaphors provide a solid basis for a good story.

    It should be noted however that Black Friday was triggered by a violent attack by militants of a particular ethnic group. To be more precise “The riots began as a response to a deadly ambush on 23 July 1983 by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a Tamil militant group, that killed 13 Sri Lanka Army soldiers.” This was in an area where the Sinhalese ethnic group was dominant and most of those killed were Sinhalese. Sadly the Sinhalese responded with violence and in the end. The immediate local result was hundreds, perhaps thousands dead.

    It would be enough if that were the end of it. It is generally accepted that this clash led to the Sri Lankan Civil war between the Tamil and government forces regardless of ethnicity. The final toll, after 27 years was nearly 100,000 dead. As Ms. Mohanraj points out so eloquently, ” 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?”

    My point is simple and I ask that any and all share it at every opportunity. “Violent means beget more violence not resolution. Peaceful means beget resolution… peaceful resolution at that.”

  16. Can Palestinians tell Israelis by sight?

    Of course they can. Even Israelis who don’t look Levantine (which is a lot of them, when you figure in the Russians and the rest of the Ashkenazim, the Ethiopians, and the Indians) usually have distinctive modes of dress, and even if you’re talking about secular Jews vs. secular Muslims and Christians, their body language is different. (I work with a lot of Israelis and have been there twice.)

    South Asian sectarian politics can get really messy — my country considers the Tamil Tigers to be a terrorist group.

  17. A few responses, and sorry it took me a while to get back to this. Gulliver, I had no trouble with my title, but this book was initially Kickstarter-funded, and then picked up by a small press; small presses are generally more flexible re: titles than big ones. Although, to be fair, HarperCollins published my previous book, Bodies in Motion, and they let me keep my title there too.

    Ah, Steve. I would not disagree with your comment, about what specific event triggered Black July. But I would ask you to then take a step further back, and ask what triggered the formation of the Tamil Tigers. I have several history books I can recommend if you are interested in the messy and painfully complex history. It was more than I could fit into this essay.

    And Interrobang, the U.S. considers the Tigers a terrorist group too — now. They reclassified several groups around the world as terrorists after 9/11, and that is its own messy story. Before 9/11, many (including Americans) would have called them freedom fighters, against an oppressive and discriminatory Sri Lankan government regime.

    I’m not a Tiger apologist, certainly — their tactics became brutal as they became increasingly desperate (and short on funds, in part due to that reclassification as terrorists which dried up overseas expatriate support). They ended up using child soldiers, suicide bombers, etc. and so on.

    But they started out as idealistic freedom fighters, building solar-powered schools and an alternative government in the north; many in the diaspora (in my father’s generation) supported ‘the boys back home.’ It fascinates me, seeing how that shifted over time.

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