Interview with Kritika H. Rao, author of The Surviving Sky
Order The Surviving Sky HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s review of the book here
Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?
Thank you so much for having me! I love FBC and it’s great to be here. I am Kritika H. Rao, and I am a science-fiction and fantasy author, a mom of a beautiful, naughty toddler boy, an immigrant, and a general weirdo trying to make sense of life and adulting.
Competent people chaos.
This might be the nicest compliment an author can get. Why else to we write if not to see pieces of ourselves and the world in stories, and to have a shared common experience with readers–even though each interpretation is uniquely its own! It’s been frankly amazing since the release – a few months have gone by and readership is still going strong. I’ve heard from fans who have admitted the same thing you just have – that the book has helped them see themselves (even when the readers haven’t been desi), and find their creativity, and helped them through their own questions about identity. That is incredibly rewarding as an author to hear. I’m overwhelmed and humbled by it.
You do not act as a tour guide for global readers. You unabashedly use concepts and terms from Hindu philosophy without feeling the need to write them in a Eurocentric manner, but at the same time, I think your book is extremely readable for everybody. How did you work towards this?
Mostly by writing the book for me and myself alone. I exist in this world as someone who has an understanding of Hindu philosophy, having studied it and lived within it. But any understanding is only one understanding, and that I think is the beauty of the philosophy – in its truest form, it is fluid and encompassing (no matter what fascists today are trying to reduce it to, which let’s not get into that in this space). I also exist in this world as someone who has consumed and loved a lot of Eurocentric media, so there are certainly reflections of that in the book as well, whether they are genre conventions or tropes or whatever. I don’t think I actively thought about how to blend the two. I told the story to myself for me, and I’m lucky enough that others liked it/ and that publishers picked it up for worldwide distribution. It’s the dream.
Ashrams historically, in Indian mythos, were places of knowledge and meditation, where sages would go to be removed from the world and meditate–but they functioned as mini societies too, with students and councils and (in myth) often a husband-wife couple who were at the head of the ashram, leading and guiding disciples. The aim of the ashram was singular – to work with a collective mindset, being a part of society and being removed from it too. I imagined that in a dystopian futuristic science-fiction world, and Nakshar was born of that– a part of the planet and jungle, but removed from it by floating above it too. Architects became, in a sense, like the main students of an ashram — powerful but also removed. The way I interpreted all of it really was very much from a space of “here’s a good idea gone wrong” and a lot of complications of the world arose from that.
Your magic system is based on an organic ecosystem, and stresses on the importance of ecological balance. Was this an intentional choice, and how did you arrive at it?
I cannot overemphasize how the ecological themes within the story were completely organic to the storytelling. It’s interesting to me how that happened, because I think in so many ways nature does that to us all the time. It creeps in on us in our lives, it is omnipresent, we think we are walking away from it–shutting the outdoors–when we close our windows and doors and go to sleep, or work in our little offices; but that’s a ridiculous way of thinking, isn’t it? We are embedded in nature, it surrounds us. Any separation from it is such an illusion. In so many ways, nature crept into the storytelling too, and it formed its own balance – violently – just as it is doing with us in real life now. Whether the characters will survive it is another question, but nature and ecology are doing what they always do… participating.
The end of the book teases us with a promise of a wide expansive world. I assume that a lot of attention will be paid to the natural world, but that the ashram setting will be important too. Could you tell us what we can expect?
I think there will be a lot of surprises, for the characters and by extension, for the readers. You’re right – the ashram setting will be important, as will the natural world – but it won’t be in the way you expect. One thing I’ve tried to do with the series is ensure there are so many layers to it, and new knowledge that comes to the surface with every changing notions of society, of the characters themselves, of the world and what they know of it. A lot of that will happen in Book 2.
As someone who grew up in India, the way family relationships and expectations are integral to the functioning of the ashram resonated with me. The protagonists have a rocky marriage with one partner being given all the privileges available to individuals in the society, and the other is quite solely defined by their connection to their spouse, and are expected to aid them contribute to society in a prescribed manner. Even the cultural pressure to have children is depicted at some point in the book. Would you like to tell our readers more about this?
Hmm, again, those are things that kind of crept in the storytelling. I knew that Ahilya and Iravan must personify very different states of being, and belief systems, while also being complementary to each other. Otherwise, how else would their marriage have worked at all? The exciting thing for me with A&I is the ability to look at one thing, and then see through their lens totally different interpretations to it—so much so that it seems you’re looking at entirely different things. Marriage, their differing privilege, their roles in the ashram — all of that really came from putting them on opposite ends of the spectrum and seeing how those ends really look more like a continuum of a circle, when you zoom out a bit. LOL I’m sorry if that doesn’t make much sense.
Most desi storytellers derive inspiration from our biggest epic, the Mahabharatha. Your book does not reference it as much, but has strong undertones of our collective mythos. What are your favourite stories from the Indian storytelling culture, and which of those do you most often visit?
Honestly, anything to do with Shiva gives me comfort. If you look to see, his mythos along with that of Shakti is embedded all through The Rages Trilogy.
Along the same vein, what characters in Indian epics seem most underrated to you?
I’m going to answer this question slightly differently and say, that there are tons of women, trans, LGBTQ characters in Indian myths that don’t get enough screentime. I’d be here all day trying to list them, because it’s always the big gods and myths that get their share, when there is so much rich story out there. On that note, stay tuned for an announcement in the near future – I’m doing my small part to highlight more women stories myself in Indian mythology.
We are having a massive year with respect to desi inspired stories. What other books would you recommend to readers hungry for more?
I haven’t read these yet myself, but Sons of Darkness by Gourav Mohanty, The Pheonix King by Aparna Verma, are both desi stories which I’ve heard great things about. I’ve read R. R. Virdi’s The First Binding, which is gorgeous and lyrical and talks about the shape of stories itself. Then there is Tasha Suri too, whose Burning Thrones Trilogy series ender I am super excited about.
Mostly SFF, honestly, and lots of picture books, thanks to my son. The books that truly do it for me though are ones that delve deep into ideas – if there is an intriguing question at the heart of a book, about us as human beings or the nature of the world, or bigger things like consciousness and the universe – that’s totally my kind of jam.
In closing, do you have any parting thoughts for our readers?
Yeah, this is going to sound controversial, but I’ve always wanted to kind of say it – no book will be the perfect book for you. I mean, I get it, the thought behind needing books to come to us exactly in the way we expect them to, but books change their shape in the act of reading, I think they change us as readers when we’re reading too. I think sometimes we forget… that it’s okay to be surprised, and intrigued, and yes, even be confused by a book. It’s okay to not understand it fully – and personally, I don’t know that it takes away my enjoyment of that thing. I don’t need to look up at the night sky and understand every bit of it to delight in it. It serves me well as a reader to bring that attitude to books I’m reading too.