Editor’s Choice Award January 2020, Short Story

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

India World by Amit Gupta

“India World” caught my eye this month with its inversion of the Western immigrant narrative: an exploration of the gap between our stories about a place and what they truly are—and how stories change what a place can be. This piece outlines a sincere exploration of what home, country, and citizenship mean, but when the places and names are peeled back, it’s an exploration whose subtext is incredibly at odds with what the surface details are saying. This month, I’d like to discuss subtext, and how we can check—and be confident—that we’re in control of what our stories say below the surface.

On the surface, “India World” is already a fairly smooth and easy read: it’s the kind of idea fiction that is more invested in explaining its thesis than inferring it through shown action, but Rohit is a sufficiently sympathetic protagonist—and the way he’s torn between the parts of Delhi that remind him of his family and his unsteadiness with the rest of modern India a sufficiently compelling conflict—that the story engages me to the end. I didn’t have bobbles, pacing stresses, or issues with the surface of the work.

Even more interesting is the way “India World” treats stories about places. There’s a powerful statement being made about the way people live in assumptions and histories, not present-day realities, by the way Rohit’s parents haven’t matched their “land of opportunity” narrative to the air quality warnings they live under in San Jose; the idea of a theme park for white colonialist visitors where staff are rated on obsequiousness and deference, one nobody Indian-born wants to work at; Rohit’s father putting on the cowboy accent and Rohit, at work, being rated on his accent and given a failing grade while his supervisor derides his country to his face as a cultural wasteland. We never see that bright future India, the one that produces all the cutting-edge technology and has gained ascendance on the world stage. It’s a ghost lurking outside India World’s attractions. We only hear stories about it.

It’s a fascinating set of questions, but it’s where “India World” takes the gap between stories about places and their realities that I ultimately feel could use the most work and thought in the next draft—and that comes through in the subtext.

When I strip back everything, the action of the plot is: Rohit, who is “confused” about his cultural identity and heritage, goes back to his family’s country of origin to work a menial job and is taken under the wing of a more socially powerful older man. A speech from that older man inspires him sufficiently to immediately correct his inability to perform certain parts of his job, and he continues to advance via personal favoritism. No one else Indian-born wants to speak or interact with him outside his specific role. Ultimately, given the opportunity for indentured labour in India toward a potential permanent home there, he is called home to make—almost in his own words—America great again by reconnecting it with its historical pride, because it is good for immigrants to go home to their original countries and work on problems there instead of moving to more developed ones for a better life.

It’s a direct inversion of the immigrant experience, and I suspect that’s a commentary. But the question that left me with is: Whose story is that about how the world works? Whose values are these, really?

On the surface, “India World” sketches out an interesting future that’s doing some thinking about what makes a family, a home, and a culture. But what a story believes—what it truly endorses—is less about what it says than what, in that story, works: which actions are actually rewarded by results. And it’s hard for me as a reader to shake that “opportunities are created, not given” sounds a great deal like right-wing American pulling yourself up by your bootstraps; that Rohit’s triumphant choice to return sounds a lot like white American “immigrants go home”; that the idea that “education in who we had been, and who we could be again” being more important than actual economies and pragmatic skills training and resources has the waft of propaganda; that “if we can just remind ourselves of who we once were, maybe we can rise again” is one hair away from the established political slogan of people who run concentration camps for brown children.

“India World” is a story about the stories we tell; any story “India World” tells about India, America, Rohit, being bicultural, and how the world works is going to call extra attention to itself with readers—because “India World” has already asked us to pay attention to the gaps between stories and the real. Its readers are primed to notice what’s going on below the surface, what doesn’t fit.

And the story that is happening below the surface is, right now, not a fit with the story on top: an immigrant having the brutal and exploitative immigrant experience in India, instead of America, and rejecting it on the surface—despite completely, uncritically embracing every story America tells about how that brutal and exploitative experience is actually good below the surface. Even though India is not the most right-wing and isolationist version of America; it has its own ways of doing things, values, failure points, and stories.

So after a few reads of “India World” my main, and sole question is: Why is the vision of a world-leading, innovating India not more than a reskinned repeat of the American South? What is India’s future?

I want to be plain: I very strongly feel there is strong potential in this piece to do interesting, sincere, heartfelt work on the questions it’s already raising—what makes a place real, what makes a person real, what you do when you’re not quite enough for either of your cultures. There are already tantalizing hints laid that Rohit’s modern India isn’t all that it seems, but they’re currently undeveloped: both the tiny warning spike of a surveillance culture in the jalebi wala’s food contamination panic and Chandra’s slight hint about caste limitations are incredibly telling details—as is the incredibly exploitative path Rohit faces to Indian permanent residency status—but none of them quite pay off.

I’m interested in where those hints lead, and what the India of this story actually looks like and why, and what the implications of it are. In short, what I would suggest is the strongest opportunity to develop “India World” in future drafts is basically doing the core work of science fiction: taking some significant time to think about what strengths, shortcomings, failure points, quirks, and patterns a future, world-class-economy India would have, extrapolating them from the now, and working Rohit’s experience to include that place.

I’d love to see this story take into account what that thriving and unequal India’s values would be. Even if it ended up treating people like Rohit and Chandra in similarly cruel ways, I’d like to see it have its own reasons—ones that feel less pasted from another culture—with the goal of making its text and subtext match: so I, as a reader, could believe Chandra when he talks about throwing off colonialism without seeing it be enacted absolutely through “India World”.

Best of luck!

–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)

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