Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Essay: Reactions to the Ashok Banker Interview as the Interviewer

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

There's a lot of controversy surrounding my recent interview with Ashok Banker over at the World SF News Blog (WSNB). For the purposes of this essay, I'm not here to discuss Banker's points (feel free to agree or disagree with them over at WSNB), but focus more on the methodology of the questions (or rather, one question in particular). Of course bear in mind that I AM the interviewer, so my reactions are biased.

First off, my philosophy when it comes to interviews (other interviewers will have different practices) is that the interview isn't about making the interviewer look good, but rather focuses on the interviewee. Considering the fact that some people commented at how the interview made me look amateurish/idiotic/culturally insensitive and then quotes a couple of Banker's responses, I'd say mission accomplished.

Second, I'd like to thank Mr. Banker for answering all of my questions. As Cory Doctorow put it, "I ask 10 1-sentence questions, you do 10 essays, I get to put my name on it, OK?" is one unfortunate extreme when it comes to email interviews, but right now it's the most convenient tool at my disposable. And honestly, answers reprimanding me isn't the worst thing that could happen. The worst thing that could happen is that the interviewee replies with one-word answers, or worse, not answer the questions at all (with video or audio, an interviewee's silence or no comment can be telling, but that's honestly not optimal in print). The interview certainly had some questions which annoyed Banker but if he was willing to answer them, then it's only fair that I publish them in their entirety, even if it might make me look unflattering.

Third, there's a couple of reactions stating that my interview conveyed my ignorance (culturally as well as with regards to Banker's work). Sure, I'll accept those criticisms. There's one question however that I take exemption to, however, which is what I'm going to tackle:
What made you decide to write in English? Are there any nuances with that particular language that you’re not quite able to accomplish in Hindi?

Not-Lol. I’ve met this particular cultural bogey before and it remains as unfunny as ever! My mother tongue was English, not Hindi, and in fact, there are more English-speaking people in India than in the US – it’s one of our two official national languages in fact. And of course, you probably know that India has the fastest growing publishing industry and English-literate readership population in the world – I believe our publishing business is No. 3 right now and on track to be No. 1 at this rate in the next two decades or less. I grew up speaking only English, learned Hindi only later in school because it was a compulsory subject (as were either Marathi or French – I took French), and English remains the only language I’m completely fluent in even today. So I have no idea what cultural stereotype you have of me, and am not responsible for it but it’s as offensive as my asking someone named Johnson why he chose to write in English instead of Swedish! Still, I guess you didn’t mean anything by it, so let’s chuckle and move on. :~)
Banker is entitled to take offense (and thankfully doesn't take my question personally). I suspect this isn't a one-time incident, but rather a systematic misunderstanding, the same way that Asians in the US are often asked "so you're Asian, do you know martial arts?" or that it's presumed that Filipinos working abroad are maids (and no, Filipinos in the US are not martial-artist maids ala Hayate the Combat Butler). Not that I was aware of this when I was doing the interview, since it's not a question that I've seen in his other interviews online. But I can understand the frustration.

Now for the question itself, which can be broken into two parts. The first: What made you decide to write in English?

Apparently, a plethora of criticisms arose from this, in tandem with my second question and Banker's answers. What I'm really annoyed is when people presume that just because Banker is fluent in English--based on his writings--that it's justification enough not to ask that question because, hey, he's proficient with it so it must be his first language. I have two pet peeves here:

1) Readers assuming that I'm doubting his fluency in English. (I'm asking him why, not whether he's capable of doing so. Which is clear considering the entire interview was conducted in English.)

2) That just because you write in English (and fluent at it) doesn't automatically means it's your first (and only) language.

Here's my context: I'm a Filipino. The Philippines has had two national languages, English and Filipino. Some citizens are proficient with both (and I think it's a cultural misnomer to think that just because you're fluent with one doesn't mean you're not in the other; it's perfectly possible to be fluently bilingual, or trilingual, etc. as the case may be). Others will take umbrage that English is a national language (imperialism!), just as some will take umbrage that you presume they know how to speak Filipino (because like India, the Philippines has a couple of regional languages as well, and some groups don't take kindly to the fact that Filipino is enforced upon them as the national language). A softball answer to the question "What made you write in English?" would be to simply say that it's the language you're most proficient with. For some writers however, they have conscious agendas for using a specific language. It might be to cater to a wider audience, it might be for nationalism, or it might be because of syntax and linguistic nuances. I even know Filipinos who are versed in both languages yet for one reason or another, chooses to write with just one. What I'm interested is the why.

I've asked variations of this question and I get different answers. Take for example French authors Melanie Fazi and Aliette de Bodard. For both of them, English is a second language but the former primarily writes fiction in French while the latter in English. And it's a testament to de Bodard's skill that based on her fiction alone, you wouldn't think that English is anything but her primarily language (thus debunking the stereotype). It's my opinion that a lot of international writers are capable of writing in more than one language, but why they stick to one (or not as the case may be) is an interesting question to delve into.

Where I do err is in my follow-up question: Are there any nuances with that particular language that you’re not quite able to accomplish in Hindi?

Nick Mamatas points out that the flaws of the "silent interview" and this is where it crops up in this interview. The follow-up question is unnecessary based on Banker's answers to the first. My second mistake is including Hindi. The reason I included Hindi is because I was consulting an Indian friend who was more familiar with Banker's work and one of the questions my friend suggested was to ask why he wrote in English as opposed to one of the regional languages. Mind you, I'm not pinning the blame on my friend; I'm the interviewer after all and any questions I use (or not use) is my own responsibility. Here's where my ignorance and cultural stereotypes come in. Somehow, I equated regional languages with national language (which has been pointed out, is not the case). But still, even knowing that, Hindi is still one of India's national language and had Banker not answered it in the interview, I am curious as to why he chooses not to write in Hindi (in the same way that I am curious as to why local author Dean Francis Alfar does not write in Filipino).

Also, some misconstrue the question as me placing English as superior to another language like Hindi. That's not the case. Every language has its own nuances to the point that there is no such thing as a perfect translation. There is always something lost, whether it's English to Hindi, Hindi to English, or some other language. Chinese for example has its brevity and reliance on monosyllables and accentuation. If you want to take it further, Chinese has specific words for the gender of your siblings and the order of their birth. Filipino, on the other hand, uses a lot of syllables and repetition. Both are very different from the syntax of the English language (which, quite frankly, has a lot of exemptions).


After what's all been said and done, if I could turn back time, I'd still ask the same question, and my only correction would be to change "Hindi" into "regional languages". The interview after all was a great platform for Banker to share his views. If anything, the interview drew attention to itself because it asked these kinds of questions (or if you prefer, Banker replied with controversial answers to unoriginal questions). At worst, you can see me asking these kinds of questions so that future interviewers don't make the same mistake. But personally, I ask these questions to start dialogue. If I don't bring these points up for fear of retribution, who will?


Unknown said...

Hi, again, like Charles, I'd like to focus my comment here (briefly) on just the pertinent question. I loved Charles' interview questions and did not take offense to any of them. If anything, I told Charles and his editor Lavie by email that I liked their attitude and questions so much, it was the main reason I agreed to this interview despite turning so many others down.

Again, an interview is an opportunity for the subject to make his stand on certain issues clear. I didn't misread Charles' question on English being a primary/secondary language at all, but I saw it as a chance to finally clarify the issue for many other people who use it as a means to bludgeon authors of colour like myself snidely: e.g. reviewers in Locus and Publisher's Weekly and at least one blogger named Tempest made culturally offensive mentions of my work being 'translated' badly or not being in English originally. If anything, I was pleased with Charles for asking that two-part question so I could finally answer it and set people's minds at rest.

I second Charles' conclusion: If the interviewer doesn't bring these points up, who will? As a longtime journalist and interviewer myself, I think Charles did a terrific job and I like his work and attitude very much. I would do an interview with him anytime - and I would do it by email because that way, you have no doubt about the words being exactly those said (written) by the subject, in that order exactly.

I think people read far too much into things like 'tone'. I answered my interview questions quite dispassionately and with a certain pleasure. I'm amused to see so many people assume I'm 'angry' or somesuch. That's like adding smileys or frownies to someone else's email! Chill out, people. Read what's said and move on, not what you think was REALLY said! You'll live longer.



Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

I found this essay - and the response - very interesting. I had assumed both of you were bilingual, so I was surprised that anyone took offense to the question on language. Thank you both for your thoughtful discussion.