The Best Asian Speculative Fiction

“Diana, can you hear me?”
There was no response.
“Diana?”
Stephanie’s voice echoed through the house. The little glass dome hanging in the corner of the kitchen glowed with pink light. Stephanie put the shopping bags on the marble countertop and sighed. Diana had been sluggish for about a month now, and whenever she was queried about her slow responses, would simply reply, “I recommend that you update my operating system. I assure you that it will greatly improve my ability to serve.”

As compelling as that argument was, Stephanie had been reluctant to comply. Yes, a fully upgraded Diana would provide her with more help, and some of her new features sounded good. Okay, she didn’t understand what they were exactly, as they had names like the Oneiric Satiation Module or the Phronesis Budget Calculator, but she had to admit that they literally sounded impressive. But there was a part of her that took a spiteful glee at saying “no” to Diana, which was odd considering how hard she had pushed Jason to purchase her when they first bought the house.

Lucia wondered how long the rain had been pouring and, with some urgency, edged off the bed and slipped her rain jacket over her duster. The throbbing rain dangled a curtain of mist outside her open window – the skies heft with the twining bodies of clouds. Outside it was already light.  She worried about the rice fields that could have turned waterlogged and, by now, caking with mud. She floated barefoot across the narrow partitions of the bamboo walls, and the gaps of the hallway, the slat floor squeaking as she whisked by.

Her nephew, Jimwell, who’d arrived at Madarag the day before for a visit, lay quietly asleep in the next room. A mobile phone vibrated next to him but Lucia did not want to wake him. She wanted to ask him last night why he came but there were other things to worry about. Her farm wasn’t making much and she feared he would ask for something she might not be able to afford or give. That was something she’d ache about like some flame being stoked in her gut. She paused when she reached the house’s small receiving area, only to see her son gone. His sleeping mat was already folded on top of a wooden bench. The radio beside it droned with static. She looked out of the window and found Arvin, sunburned skin glistening with rain, crouching by the pond fields, drilling holes between the canal walls of the paddies to drain water out of them. He no longer looked like a boy of nineteen but a man with his muscles straining around his neck, his shoulders rounded and chiselled. Valleys and wide flat-lands glinted behind him; the trees that stood on the edges of the rice fields were draped in rain water.

‘Are the rice plants flooded?’ Lucia called out when she reached the ladder of the house whose elevated foundations, abetted by sturdy culms of bamboo, sank into squares of concrete. Her feet landed on the soil, soft and wet – the crunching of her bones drowned out by the squawks of hens and roosters and the squeals of pigs penned behind the sty. The roosters and fowls and the dog and her puppies scrambled to circle her, their heads aloft and alert for an early meal. She felt the cold air circling pockets of mist toward her skin; the weight of humidity that blanketed them the night before had simmered out.

‘I got up as soon as the rain started,’ her son called back, pressing his fingers against the mud that surrounded the young, short stalks of rice. The soles of his feet and the corner of his ankles were buried in the swirl of muck.

‘I’ll cook for you some breakfast. Come and eat when you’re done.’ She wasn’t sure if he’d heard her. She got busy with the drenched firewood by the small stove on a concrete cubicle they had placed a few steps away from their stilted house. She stacked the firewood on top of each other and lit it with a match that she thumbed out of the side pocket of her dress.

She noticed her nephew yawning by the ladder when she turned to chase the hens and the chicks that occupied the table as well as the benches below the elevated house. Thick bellies of smoke from the firewood looped and wrung about them the odour of wet muddied boots and rotten leather.

‘Ah, you are awake. How was your sleep?’ She wondered if this time she should ask why he came but fought the urge to do so. He’d probably tell her in no time.

‘My sleep was good, Iyay. Where’s Arvin?’

Review of Inside and Other Short Fiction by various, edited by Cathy Lyne

The tagline on the cover of this provocative anthology pretty much sums it up in a nutshell: “Japanese women by Japanese women.” Featuring eight short stories and a foreword by novelist Ruth Ozeki, “Inside and Other Short Fiction” is a gritty introduction to contemporary writers who explore the issue of female identity.

Mahesh Rao

 

Mahesh Rao was born and grew up in Nairobi, Kenya. He studied politics and economics at the University of Bristol and law at the University of Cambridge and the London School of Economics. In the UK he has worked as a lawyer, academic researcher and bookseller. His short fiction has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, the Bridport Prize and the Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Contest; his work has appeared in The Baffler and is also due for publication in Prairie Schooner. The Smoke Is Rising is his first novel, which is already garnering great reviews. He lives in Mysore, India.

Kitaab recently reached out to him to ask him about his writing journey so far.

‘The Smoke is Rising’ is your debut novel. How did the idea of this novel (clash of modernity and tradition) come to you?

smokeisrisingIt was while walking past the house where R K Narayan lived in Yadavagiri, Mysore, that I began to wonder how Malgudi would appear on the page, if it were being written about today.  After a number of drafts, this eventually became a novel set in contemporary Mysore. And in the novel, the construction of Asia’s largest theme park, HeritageLand, and what it represents to the inhabitants of the city, raises questions  that could apply to almost any other city in India.