Prime Edition

Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean

(Ed.) Kirsty Murray, Payal Dhar and Anita Roy

Young Zubaan

Pages: 264 Rs. 295

An anthology dripping with collaborative alchemy

Zubaan’s latest offering, a mixture of science fiction, fantasy and “wish fulfilment” narratives, crackles with the energy and the collective wisdom of its versatile contributors, writes Aditya Mani Jha.

ADITYA MANI JHA  22nd Nov 2014

An illustration by Priya Kuriyan from Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean.

erendipity is what happens when good artists meet and collaborate with open minds. Last week, as I was speaking to Aussie writers Kirsty Murray and Isobelle Carmody at the Oxford Bookstore (N-Block, Connaught Place), I had the good fortune of coming across one such happy coincidence. Murray has (along with Payal Dhar and Anita Roy) co-edited the recent Zubaan anthology Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean, a joyful, accomplished and ambitious collection that is chock-full of brilliant writing. An all-woman project, its feminism is presented through genre stories; either fantasy or science fiction. Often, it also pairs writers and artists who had never worked together before; like Carmody and artist Prabha Mallya (who has worked on books like The Wildings, The Hundred Names of Darkness and The Competent Authority).

The coincidence that Murray was talking about involved Cat Calling, a short story written by Margo Lanagan, where a group of young girls come up with a unique defence against cat-callers. The narrator of the story is helped by a group of her friends, who collect everything that the lecherous men have ever said to her; all the comments about her body and the way she walked. Suddenly, in the growing chorus of the fearless young women, the tables are turned on the men.

"I felt like laughing, under cover of all our noise; I felt like crying, but I was too busy throwing ugly words back at the men. I didn't care what they did; it felt good to sing and shout out these things, from this big safe group. I could almost understand the men, why they did what they did. They must want this wonderful feeling."

An all-woman project, its feminism is presented through genre stories; either fantasy or science fiction. Often, it also pairs writers and artists who had never worked together before; like Carmodie and artist Prabha Mallya (who has worked on books like The Wildings, The Hundred Names of Darkness and The Competent Authority).

As Murray reminded me, this methodology and the spontaneous coming together of like-minded young people to combat cat-calling, was classic Blank Noise, an initiative to which the author Annie Zaidi has contributed; Zaidi also features on Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean, with a story called Anarkali. Murray said, "The funny thing is, Margot never knew about Blank Noise before I told her about it. And that goes for most people in Australia. But when people read it now, they will search the Internet and realise that there is this thing called Blank Noise that helps young women."

Lanagan's young protagonist not only neutralises the threat before her, she actually starts to understand where the wolf whistles come from. This process of familiarising oneself with the Other is also evident in Carmody and Mallya's story, The Runners, where we witness mankind's matriarchal future; men are no longer free agents but slaves to the tune of a soft fascism perpetrated by women. The Runners is also remarkable for its intelligent treatment of techno-paranoia. Carmody told me cheerfully, "I'm a Luddite," before explaining her stance: that machines are definitely the way to go for a lot of key human realms, but we should guard the impulse to question as if our lives depended on it. Carmody said: "We ought to pause, slow down, look at the larger picture and ask ourselves, 'What is this all about?'"

There is a mechanism employed in folk tales that seems intricate and ingenious to the uninitiated, but seems almost transparent when you consider the historical contexts inseparable from the stories themselves. This mechanism explains how folktales balance wish fulfilment and upholding a society-approved stance on the Big Issues. A (generally transgressive) wish made on the part of the protagonist is often fulfilled, but the moment or the process of fulfilment changes the protagonist in a fundamental and sometimes irreversible way (often, the wish has a "corrupting" influence on those who dreamt of a radically different life). The bottom-line is this: the story can be seen as a trade-off between progressive and conservative points of view, almost as if the transgressive messages were toned down (or allegorised) in order to make the work palatable to the mainstream. In Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean, three stories tackle this trope directly and with great wit and vigour.

The first among these three is Zaidi and Mandy Ord's Anarkali, which seeks to overturn the crushing of a woman's spirit. The woman in question is Anarkali, the almost certainly fictional slave girl who had a relationship with crown prince Salim (who would later be known as Jehangir, son of Emperor Akbar). In Mughal-E-Azam, Salim is drugged by Anarkali so that he can never know of her exile, thus paving the road for the prince's future ascent.

n Zaidi and Ord's mini-comic, the earth whispers to Anarkali and somehow enables her to literally walk within walls. But when she asks Salim to escape along with her, Salim blurts out: "If only you knew how I missed you," upon which Anarkali retorts, "Missed me? Is that all you can say?" She then proceeds to take control of the situation, completing the transfer of power from the original story. "She has always done as he wished. But now she must take the lead. And he must follow. Salim resists. But this is no time for gentle persuasion." I really enjoyed Ord's artwork on Anarkali; it does a great job of depicting Salim as the insensitive, privileged brat that he was.

The second story that handles wish fulfilment is Little Red, by Justin Larbalestier, a story that is essentially a modern-day upgrade of Little Red Riding Hood. In an opening reminiscent of what Roald Dahl did with Revolting Rhymes, Larbalestier writes:

"You've heard this story. Only this time she didn't meet a wolf in the woods. There were no woods, no wolves. Besides, everyone knows men are worse than wolves. Sharper teeth too. The only thing that was the same was the redness: the suit she wore was scarlet. The knife she wielded was sharp. Her name was Poppy."

In Larbalestier's story, Poppy and her grandmother are both engineers, in a dystopian future and the "wolf" is a voice with unauthorised access to her headset; a voice that taunts Poppy using the lost-little-girl tone of the original story.

The third story that highlights the problematic nature of wish fulfilment is Kuzhali Manickavel and Lily Rae Martin's The Wednesday Room. Manickavel's micro-fictions are sharp and unerringly well-worded. Here she finds a suitable ally in Rae Martin, some of whose illustrations reminded me of Jill Thompson's work in the Death series, in the way they can be playful and dead serious at the same time.

Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean also has a fascinating series of afterwords at the end, where the contributors talk about their collaborative process. A beautifully produced volume, I can see Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean on year-end lists and hopefully, university curricula very soon.

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