An Interview with Shveta Thakrar
Q: To begin our interview, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Shveta Thakrar: Yes! I’m a dreamer who unabashedly believes in magic, a Hindu who wants to bring some of her heritage and mythology to life in her writing, and someone who is even now tapping her foot, wondering when she’s going to get her wings and shape-shifting serpentine tail. I also really like cupcakes and mangoes and spicy things. And food in general. And compassion and empathy. And colors. And social justice. And the night sky. And elephants and peacocks and lotuses and goddesses and forests and mythology and folklore . . . and of course, books and magic and fantasy.
In fact, I’m busy assembling my personal library full of enchanted tales (and painting bookcases violet and berry pink to hold them) as I type this. May that library contain a rich selection of tales of adventure and wonder from all our global traditions.
Q: What fairy and folk tales did you grow up on?
Shveta Thakrar: Mostly the well-known works collected and edited by the Gebrüder Grimm (“Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and so on) in various books—along with the Disney versions—though I also read South Asian stories in Amar Chitra Katha comics. Also some Panchatantra fables from my dad.
(A side note: It didn’t occur to me until I was in my twenties that my South Asian stories were every bit as much fairy and folktale as any of the Grimm or the occasional Russian yarn about someone throwing a comb behind her I’d devoured. No one had made them sound relevant, and that’s something I want to see change.)
Q: How did these tales shape your development and who you decided to become?
Shveta Thakrar: As I said above, I’ve always loved magic, and I’ve always longed for something more than what we can see. I wrote before about feeling like a changeling, albeit one who doesn’t know what her original form was, and I often still feel that way—trapped in a world that has no place for me and expects me to appreciate its mundane concerns. But since I’m stuck here for now *grin*, I’ve tried to channel that sense of isolation and displacement into my art and making a better world in whatever way I can. Sometimes that means speaking out and writing; sometimes it means diving deep into books, spending time among greenery and blooms, taking time for spiritual practice, and living a magical, creative life.
(I very much believe in adding sparkle and whimsy wherever possible, whether through how I decorate myself and my teal-walled dreaming room or by carrying large branches through city streets or by sending letters written in jewel-toned ink on pretty paper and stamped with a wax seal.)
But on a writing level, I noticed in my mid-twenties that there didn’t seem to be much media that reflected the desi and the Hindu I was/am. And if there was, it did so in a harmful way, like in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It hurt, that absence, that blithe erasure, that harmful representation—all of it. I had a lightbulb moment where I knew I needed to help change how society views marginalized people—to help take them out of the margins and into the mainstream. And I knew I wanted to do that using the fantasy I love so much, the fantasy that sends silver jets of starlight whooshing through my veins.
Because everyone deserves magic.
Q: You did your Master’s degree in German literature. Were there any German fairy tales that spoke to you? Which ones?
Shveta Thakrar: Yes; I loved the works of E.T.A. Hoffmann, particularly Der goldne Topf (The Golden Pot), and was a big fan of the German Romantics in general. But even the basic Grimm stuff like the story with the dresses of sun, moon, and stars illuminated something in me that wanted to visit a place where I could find such things. That wish has never gone away; I’m always on the lookout for my magical Night Market, for the portal to Faerie (which to me encompasses all mythic traditions).
Q: In works like your short story “Lavanya and Deepika,” you combine the rich lore of India with the Norwegian tale “Tatterhood.” What inspired this weaving of different tales together?
Shveta Thakrar: Ha, the answer to this one is pretty matter-of-fact! I saw a call for submissions put out by an editrix of color, and she was determined to allow people of color to lay claim to the Western tales we’d been immersed in, so she started her own micromagazine focused on retellings. For my part, I loved the concept, and I got to play with the notion of “beautiful” and “ugly,” hence an “ugly” rose sister in “Lavanya and Deepika.”
Q: What potential new ideas and explorations can come from weaving different tales from different cultures?
Shveta Thakrar: We live in a fusion world. That sounds flippant and maybe even dismissive, but I don’t mean it that way at all. Rather, our ancestors have always traded tales and ideas and traditions. Always. A fluid exchange of values and ideas is what keeps civilizations healthy.
In fact, I’m going to quote aforementioned editrix Nin Harris here: “I’ve always had an appetite for fusion cuisine. I love the traditional, but I think we have to open ourselves to the in-between. Most cultures were never meant to be locked in stasis, and if we expect them to be locked in stasis, fixed in time, within a glass container, we aren’t doing them justice. A hybrid myself, I’ve always nurtured a love for the in-between. How could I not? To hate the in-between, to hate hybridity would be to despise myself.”
That said, we also have to be mindful of who tells/retells stories and how. Our world has been shaped for the worse by various empires and the damage of colonization, and that’s created a power imbalance that prizes Western stories and (white, straight, cis, able-bodied, Christian) Western storytellers. They’re given attention and weight, they’re considered canon, their voices are privileged over others, and their lens of viewing the world—stereotypes, biases, and all—is seen as more authentic and relatable than any other. This is a problem. This means #ownvoices often don’t get to tell their own stories, and when they do, it’s not to the same reception and acclaim as those privileged voices.
Then there’s the question of appropriation. Sometimes a tale or topic just isn’t for you to take or retell. Honor that, and leave it to the community from which it came.
Q: Fairy tales have the power to cross cultures, changing and adapting in each telling, and yet the term “fairy tale” has often been applied imperialistically only to European tales. What can we do to disrupt this Eurocentric perspective on what constitutes a fairy tale?
Shveta Thakrar: Stop prioritizing European tales and stop othering everything else. Instead, we should teach a large selection of tales from each culture from the start. They should be grouped together in beautiful anthologies with those European tales and treated with the same respect and recognition. And not referred to as “exotic” or “a break from the norm”! (It’s like how we talk about art history but really mean Western and a little Latin American art. Um, what happened to the rest of the world?)
Q: Your fairy tale–inspired fiction often includes elements of feminism and the empowerment of women. How do you shift and change tales to bring in empowering messages and to counteract the patriarchal messages that flood fairy tales?
Shveta Thakrar: I’m not going to lie; I’m a down-with-the-kyriarchy kind of girl. It feels natural to me to tell and read women’s and girls’ stories, and I’m far more interested in them. I also look around at the world and am half sick of shadows—sorry, I mean, of misogyny and turning women against one another and forcing them to submit to men. I have zero use for that, and zero use for pretending we can’t change society’s “rules” if we choose to. Nothing is written in stone; we just act like it is.
So I look at the stories and where I feel they break down in terms of protecting girls and women, and I rewrite that bit with what I consider a healthier, more loving take. Girls’ voices matter, for example. Girls can be friends instead of enemies in competition. Girls can save the world. Girls can be brown and queer and disabled and have mental illness and speak other languages and practice other faiths and live in other countries and be awesome.
Q: You often weave fairy tale elements into your fantasy fiction. What is it about the fairy tale that speaks so effectively to really powerful explorations of the fantastic?
Shveta Thakrar: We all know different takes on the tale types. They’ve been passed down through generations, and so they resonate in our skin, in our cells. Our job as authors is to flesh out those skeletons, but their echo of ancient recognition makes them perfect for shaping and sculpting into new stories. It’s almost a cheat code, if you will, a formula that has the weight of repetition behind it, making them accessible to a modern audience—while allowing us to bring in marginalized people and cultures to the forefront.
Q: Words have power in your work, shaping the world and carrying with them a form of magic. What is it about the idea of words that makes them often indecipherable from spells in so many fairy tales?
Shveta Thakrar: Put simply, words matter. The old rhyme lies: they do far more damage than sticks and stones and breaking bones—they break the heart. Tell a child that they are a mistake often enough, and they will begin to believe it. What is more heartbreaking than that?
Tell someone that their being female, queer, being brown, being disabled, etc. is wrong, and you harm them. But by the same token, celebrate those parts of their identity, and you help create a safe space for them to flourish inwardly. Words are spells.
Q: Your work often deals with LGBTQ2 themes and ideas. What potential do fairy tales have for evoking queer themes and ideas of queer liberation?
Shveta Thakrar: One of the things that troubles me about societal narratives, the things we teach our children from birth, is the idea that everything must be sexualized in a heterosexual way. What I mean is, a cis girl and a cis boy cannot simply smile at each other in daycare without people declaring them a One True Pairing and predicting their future together. This is dangerous. It creates the idea that the only worthy outcome in life (particularly for those people identifying as female) is an opposite-sex/cisgender romantic partnership. Not wanting that, or not putting that ahead of everything is just not a societally acceptable option.
It is also dangerous in that it erases. It erases gay people, lesbian people, bisexual and pansexual people. It erases asexual people. It erases transgender people and Two-Spirit people. It erases people who may be any of those things but want to be in more than one relationship at one time or who are happy on their own. I think fairy tales are a perfect vessel to showcase those of us whose identities have been erased in the mainstream notion of “happily ever after”: the bisexual brown queen, the nonbinary tailor who goes on mischievous adventures with the help of his cane, etc. We get to write them back in; after all, those tales exist for all of us.
Q: Are there any tales you can think of that are already filled with queer potential?
Shveta Thakrar: Honestly, anything! (Well, as long as it doesn’t contain other harmful messages like racism or anti-Semitism or sexism. Ew and no.) For example, I adore the tale of Nala and Damayanti. Why couldn’t Nala be a woman or a trans man or a romantic asexual or or or? Or why couldn’t Damayanti be a man, etc.?
I want to give these two novels and this one tweet a shout-out, as they show how the limits of queering tales are really only the author’s imagination:
Ash by Malinda Lo: a lesbian retelling of Cinderella
Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst: a high fantasy in which a princess falls for the sister of her betrothed
https://twitter.com/broodingYAhero/status/720722943668563969 (This is meant in jest, but it sums up how malleable story clay is for writers.)
Q: You have mentioned before that you enjoy adding an Indian flavour to your work. What cultural ideas, tales, and themes have you drawn on in your fiction?
Shveta Thakrar: Excellent question! Hmm; I have used mythical beings from Hindu and Buddhist dharma so far, and I want to explore doing some retellings. On themes: feminism, freedom, friendship, emotional strength, appreciation of different ways of being female, spirituality. Beyond that, for cultural ideas, I am definitely interested in exploring a middle ground between the Asian tendency to put family above individual will and the Western opposite of prioritizing individual will over the family’s decrees.
Q: You have talked before about how important it is for there to be representation of diverse voices in fairy tales. What are some methods to give voice to those tales that are underrepresented, oppressed, silenced, and otherwise erased?
Shveta Thakrar: First, people in positions of privilege (white, straight, etc. authors) would do well to use their platform to shine a light on #ownvoices. They can start by normalizing these other tales and other voices who would tell them.
Secondly, editors and agents can actively pursue these diverse voices by seeking them out and inviting them to submit, whether stories or novels. Those authors need to be shown there is genuine interest in their work. Editors and agents, don’t wait for them to come to you. Go find them—and show you want this kind of work by publishing and promoting it!
And stop assuming the quality of work by marginalized authors must be inherently less. That is harmful and completely untrue to boot.
In terms of fantasy, imperialism has left us with (false) ideas of what’s magical and what’s not. Celtic and British fey = yes. South Asian nagas = what? Weird! No. (Correct answer = YES, PLEASE, NOW. All the creatures from all over the world.)
We all need to work on expanding our limited horizons.
Q: The theme of flowers appears frequently in your work, particularly people who share characteristics with flowers. What aspect of flowers appeals to you? What potential do flowers hold to represent ideas?
Shveta Thakrar: In Hindu and Buddhist dharma, the lotus is the symbol of enlightenment. It rises through the muck to break through the surface of the water in search of the sun. I adore this.
And flowers also work as a symbol for our lives and our personal growth: we start from a bud, hopefully bloom in our prime and offer beauty and a lovely fragrance and maybe fruit to the world (and some of us will cast off seeds to create more plants), and finally wilt into sleep at the end of our lives.
I also just love how beautiful and colorful flowers are. They add such splendor to everything!
Q: Music frequently features strongly in your work. What is it about music that speaks to you? How do you weave music through the fantastic and the mythical?
Shveta Thakrar: Though I’m an amateur harpist, I don’t know much about music theory from any part of the world, but I do know that music moves us in ways we understand and ways we don’t.
I love the various moods music inspires in me. It often feels like tapping into something Else, something from Elsewhere, and it opens doors for art and imagination. Some songs wrap me in a cloak of sound, and my heart swells in response, becoming that elusive portal to Story, to Dreams, to Beyond. It feels inseparable from my storytelling, so I just braid it in, the same way I could never write without drawing on lush descriptions of color.
Shveta Thakrar is a writer of South Asian–flavored fantasy, social justice activist, and part-time nagini. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Flash Fiction Online, Interfictions Online, Clockwork Phoenix 5, Mythic Delirium, Uncanny, Faerie, Strange Horizons, Mothership Zeta, Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories, and Beyond the Woods: Fairy Tales Retold. When not spinning stories about spider silk and shadows, magic and marauders, and courageous girls illuminated by dancing rainbow flames, Shveta crafts, devours books, daydreams, draws, travels, bakes, and occasionally even plays her harp.
Derek Newman-Stille (interviewer) is a PhD student in Canadian Studies at Trent University. Derek conducts research on representations of disability in Speculative Fiction. He is the creator of the Aurora Award-Winning website Speculating Canada.