Suna Dasi – Renaissance Woman

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Renaissance woman – A woman who has broad intellectual interests and is accomplished in areas of both the arts and the sciences.

By strict definition I can be termed a renaissance woman. I am an oncology nurse, and solidly grounded in the world of evidenced based science and the order that must come of that. I am also a writer who thinks in very abstract terms, who challenges normalcy and social convention. In both spheres of my life I hope that my presence challenges stereotypes and misconceptions. As much as I dislike labels, I do like the idea of being a renaissance woman.

Renaissance woman – a woman who has acquired profound knowledge or proficiency in more than one field.

As you can imagine, when I have the opportunity to meet someone who fits the description of a renaissance woman, I want to know more about her and what makes her tick. I want to learn from her. I want to share her with everyone else.

©Steampunk India


 

I met Suna Dasi via Twitter several months ago. I recall seeing pictures of her. One was of this saw a gorgeous Indian woman in a steampunked out sari and another of the same woman holding a microphone as she appeared to be belting out some righteous rocking tune. Of course I followed her. I later learned Suna is also a writer. Suna is a renaissance woman and the embodiment of divergence and diversity. Imagine how thrilled I was when she agreed to an interview.

Suna, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me.

Thank you for such kind words, Khaalidah, I’m pleased to speak with you!

You do so much that I’m not sure where to begin. Why not start by telling me some basics. What is your past/current educational focus and is it related to what you do now? What is your day job, if it is different/separate from your creative pursuits?

I grew up in Europe; I had a very traditional public school education and simultaneously spent six years at a youth theatre school. After that I studied theatre and dance for one year at the ArtEZ institute of the Arts. Currently I live and work in Edinburgh where I am part of Indie production company Art Attack Films. I’m a backing vocalist for Texan singer/song writer Erin Bennett. In the gaps, I write fiction.

I caught your name on the Wikipedia page for Syren an alternative rock band and you also sent me a link for Erin Bennett, who appears to be the band lead. Tell me about that. How’d you get involved with the band? How long have you been with the band? I see that you sing. Do you play any instruments as well? Do you tour and travel?

As a child, I had lessons from a formidable old biddy who had worked in Africa, teaching choirs of little brown children to sing songs about how One is Never Alone when One has Jesus. She called us ‘Childies’ and made intense little hop-skips on the spot when she conducted the songs, which made her frill dress collar jump under her chin. We were given vocal exercises prior to singing in order to improve our diction and intonation that wouldn’t have looked amiss in a Victorian schoolroom. Luckily she had grown more whimsical in her old age, so besides the odd No Man is An Island, she mostly taught songs about delicate fairies flitting across woodland dells, rather than solemn Christian songs.

I have always sung in either theatre or popular music, but never took to any particular instrument. However, everyone around me plays at least three, so I am more than content to stick to my voice.

In 1999 I met the group I still work with today; I became involved in their projects, traveling to London in my spare time. Eventually I moved permanently and have been touring in different set-ups ever since. On one of the American tours we met a young, fierce and incredibly talented Texan girl who invited us to her home for drinks and played us a short acoustic set of her work.

You have an obvious love for all things steampunk. I can dig that. Tell me why you like steampunk so much.

To start with, my own heritage sparked some of the urge to specifically write in the genre:

My ancestors left India in 1861, on a British East India ship bound for the Caribbean as indentured workers; little more than slaves. My personal connection to the era gives me a vested interest in it and my family’s story, set against the wider historical backdrop, inevitably influences the writing.

Indian, Dutch and English maritime history, women’s history, and the Industrial Revolution have always held a particular sway over my imagination, as has the Victorian era as a whole. It is such an enormously dynamic chapter in the history of the modern world. I have always loved Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, H.R. Haggard and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to name but a few.  One of my favourite books is Michael Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time and I will always make a case for this being one of the earliest modern novels with Steampunk elements as well as his Warlord of The Air  series, which predates the moment when most folk consider modern Steampunk fiction to have started. When the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic came out (for which my friend Kev O’Neill did the glorious and iconic artwork) I was delighted especially with Nemo’s character, as it delved so much deeper into his Indian background, something Verne himself only mentioned in passing.

I have had a lifelong love affair with science fiction; mixed with a continuous gravitation towards alternative modes of thought and living.

Steampunk is a marvellous platform for expressing all of the above and aesthetically one of the most pleasing genres to express it in. Not only that, the added joy of altering, remoulding and re-imagining that period in history into something that is more inclusive, less constrained and with a whimsical leeway to add fantastical elements makes that I always happily immerse myself in it.

What is the extent of your involvement with steampunk? I mean, you have taken some rocking pictures, and you have a significant presence online with your blog and website but what else are you doing? Projects? Writing? Film?

As far as steampunk is concerned, I write, first and foremost.You might say that my initial experiment got slightly out of hand and ran away with me: with the website and the Facebook page, I wished to gain an insight into the concept of British India during the within the steampunk genre. I had an extremely clear idea of what I wanted to write about from the very beginning, but was curious to what extent potential readers would be attracted to both India-based steampunk fiction and/or imagery.

The response was overwhelmingly rapid and positive and when the first story went up it was with the happy knowledge that I was not only pleasing myself.Because the movement itself is so vibrant, it’s very easy – and fun! – to get swept up in other activities, such as dressing in full regalia and attending events. This is not something I have much time for, unfortunately, due to my other commitments. Recently I was asked to give a talk on MultiCulturalism in Steampunk at the Glasgow School of Art and this I was very pleased to be able to do. A transcript of the talk and footage shot at the event will become available on the steampunk India website in due course.

The photo’s are really an enjoyable side effect to the writing, because I started taking them as a way to get a handle on some of the characters I was creating. The fiction is the main focus of the project.

The Steampunk has bled over into other projects on occasion, as you will be able to see in one of Erin’s music video’s.

I also convinced the band to partly perform in Steampunk gear when we opened for Hawkwind last year. As many of their most landmark albums and lyrics are based on Michael Moorcock’s writing, this was utterly satisfying on several deep converging nerd-girl, music -and book loving levels.

I noticed you posted a story on your website for a “steam-inspired tale. Not bad. Are you published anywhere else? Any other completed works you’d like to share? Anything you have in the works that we should keep our eyes opened for?

The story on the website is part of a larger project. It is the first of a series of eight short pieces that form the introduction to the alternate India I am building. The plot threads and characters in those eight pieces, in turn, will come together in a novel that ties up all the threads.

This writing route is mapped out over several years, with parts of short stories to be released on occasion, continually interspersed with music and film projects for Erin Bennett and Art Attack films respectively.

Meanwhile, one of my other Steampunk stories, Unmade, a love story set on a Caribbean plantation, will hopefully find a place in a Multicultural Steampunk anthology which is in the early stages of development in Europe. The story is close to my heart as I chose the location very deliberately: The Orange Hill plantation in St. Vincent is where my great-grandfather was shipped to in 1861. My grandfather was born on the plantation and was released from his born status later in life. It has been a long road to find this story a home and it may yet be longer, depending on how the production of the anthology unfolds. We shall see!

(Of note, I later received an email from Suna regarding the i09 article 10 Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories Editors Are Sick of Seeing. Her multicultural steampunk story Unmade apparently breaks rule #8 with the inclusion of a rather graphic rape scene, and Suna wonders if this has something to do with the stories difficulty with finding a home.)

Jeff vanderMeer and Desirina Boskovich’ The Steampunk User’s Manual is set to come out later in 2014; extracts of my writing about Steampunk India and Steampunk in general will be featured in the publication.

At the moment I am working on the audio narration for Those Dark Satanic Mills, a short story set in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences universe, which I wrote for Tee Morris and Pip Ballantine’s spin-off anthology series Tales From the Archives. This will be released within the next month or so.

Tell me about your involvement with Art Attack Films.

Art Attack made music videos for bands in the US, but when settling in Scotland, branched out fairly quickly into other work. Examples are The Body Merchants, documenting the lurid trade of Burke & Hare and the film we made for the Edinburgh Surgeon’s Hall Museum about the life and work of Joseph Lister, which is part of the permanent History of Surgery exhibition.

The work is always done with a view to facilitate our true passion: making movies.

We have our connection to Accident Man, based on the comic by Pat Mills. This year Titan Comics have re-released the comic so it is the perfect occasion to make the movie. We’ve shot preliminary scenes with World Karate champion Paul Lapsley in the role of Mike Fallon.

We are in post-production for our first feature Selkie, a fresh take on a creature of Scottish folklore. The trailer is viewable on Youtube and the movie stars the warriors of Combat International, who have been part of mainstream movies such as Gladiator,The Eagle,  Snow White and The Huntsman, and most recently Thor 2: The Dark World.

Picture the opening sequence in Gladiator: a huge Gaul brandishes a severed head at the Roman legion and roars his defiance.

This is Charlie Allan, our lead actor in Selkie. We’d known him for some years, through filming his historical building project Duncarron Medieval Village and doing music production on three upcoming albums of his b=and Saor Patrol. We realised he (and his team) could be perfect for our script. He was.

You seem like a very busy woman, so my next question may be a bit over the top. What do you do in your spare time? Any hobbies?

Living in Scotland, the stunning countryside is just there for the taking; I go for big walks as often as possible. I love dancing excessively. If you can’t find me during a night out at a club or party, I’m undoubtedly on the dance floor. I swim. Books are oxygen and listening to music is a close second. I adore going to the cinema and the theatre, most recently seen was the NTLive broadcast of Coriolanus, which was superb. When I can find the time -which is hardly ever nowadays!- I practise archery, climbing and horse riding. This summer I will be fulfilling a longstanding wish by going on a short fencing course. 

Despite all of your interests and talents, what haven’t you done/learned/experienced yet that you would like to?

Oh, a multitude of things. To pick one, I’d like to learn kalaripayattu; the South Indian martial art on which most other martial art forms are based and the fighting style employed by the wonderful actor Naseeruddin Shah, as Nemo in the movie adaptation of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Lastly, because I’m very interested in knowing what makes people tick take this test and tell me what the results are. Do you think the results are fitting?

ENFP (Extraversion, Intuition, Feeling, Perception)

As an overarching description of my character this is pretty accurate.

The ‘seeing everyone and everything as part of a cosmic whole’ grates on me a=s too squishy: I’m an abundantly positive person, but not indiscriminately s=o. I do enjoy socialising and am fascinated by group dynamics. I’m fond of hearing a good yarn and love spinning one, but abhor spiteful gossip. And yes, I have a decidedly silly streak!

There are some differences: I love solitude as much as I adore being part of a heaving dance floor, for instance.

And though I am very empathic and sensitive to injustice and inequality, you would not see me forfeit the interests of my nearest and dearest to change the world, unless they are standing there next to me, doing the same thing.

Suna Dasi on:

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What’s Wrong With Being Nice? The Likable Heroine Effect

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I’m happy to have Alesha Escobar, author of The Gray Tower Trilogy, back on my site. She is touring with the Addicted to Heroines Blog Tour (see the lovely badge in the margin) so I encourage you to take a gander and see who else is involved. This time Alesha tells us about the qualities of a likable heroine, and as usual, she’s got it spot on. Thanks Alesha for stopping by again!

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Do you remember the news story about women getting depressed using Facebook? Apparently some women would read up on others’ status updates filled with on-point hair days, perfect children, glamorous jobs, and unicorns–and log off feeling like crap.

I’m not surprised.

It’s inevitable to compare ourselves to others, and when we feel that a certain status or behavior is unattainable, it leaves us feeling something is lacking, or that we are lacking. The same goes for our fictional heroines–when we see the perfect Mary Sue, we sort of cringe and fail to relate. We’re not perfect, and when we pick up a book, we don’t want to encounter a heroine who’s going to get everything right all the time. Yet, I’m hesitant to throw in my towel and proclaim we need to start writing and reading crude, “unlikable” female heroes.

The idea of the likable heroine is one that rests on the expectation that a heroine be appropriate in her behavior, sweet, nice, or “the good girl.” She has to be likable…right? There’s no room to be depressed, selfish, a user, or a bitch.

For those who critique the “likable heroine” being placed on a pedestal, I agree with them that there’s a problem with this. Women are complex human beings, and we run the range of likable to unlikable. Why can’t our heroines reflect the same?

Still, a female version of a jerk anti-hero isn’t all too palatable either. So let’s strike some middle ground. It’s okay for our heroines to be “real,” to have flaws, and make mistakes. And it’s also okay for her to be noble, brave, and–gasp–kind.

We like heroines we can relate to, but many of us also like them to be the torchbearers of really cool qualities and personality traits. At least that’s what attracts me to a heroine. Give me the intelligent Elizabeth Bennets who find love, the Eowyns who refuse to be caged, or the fierce Britomarts who hold their heads high.

If I could be a heroine, I’d want to possess some of these traits. So what’s wrong with being nice or likable? Nothing at all. Just remember that there are deeper layers, desires, and qualities to the likable heroine, and instead of resting on simply one aspect, try exploring the whole person.

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The Reason I Don’t Watch the News

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Granada, de Cine This morning as I was headed to the kitchen to prepare a late breakfast for my family I stopped for a moment to catch a particularly compelling bit of news on an international news channel. There was this looping reel of footage that kept showing the body of a tiny girl wrapped in a white sheet. She was dead after having been brutally raped by two men who had kidnapped her. This footage also showed the poor girl’s shell shocked parents. Their grief was palpable.

This is why I don’t watch the news.

According to the news report, the kidnapping and rape of young women is nearly epidemic in India which is second only to the United States. The reporter interviewed young women on the streets of India regarding the recent passage of laws that would mete out severe punishments to any man convicted of rape. This was all complicated by the fact that the numbers of women who are actually willing to report the crime are minimal due to the shame of having been the victim of such a crime. Yes, the victim is shamed and blamed.  The perpetrator? Not so much. This is misogyny at its worse, when it is woven into the very fabric of the culture. It is sad, unjust, and plain horrific.

This is why I don’t watch the news.

But, just so we don’t point blaming fingers at India, or some country in the Middle East, or any other so-called third world country we’d like to pretend is so much less progressive than we are in the West, misogynistic ideals and a whole host of other cross-cultural cross-societal ills is as broad and diverse as the people who uphold and abide by them.

It doesn’t matter the country or culture because people are people, and not all of us are good. And of those of us who are good, not all of us are completely good.  Simply, we live in a world of mostly good intentioned people, but amongst those good people is another more insidious element that we should all be afraid of.  They are there.  We don’t know who they are but, we work with them and go to school with them and we talk to them while waiting in line at the register.

Why don’t I watch the news?

Because it makes me angry, and because it scares and saddens me. Watching the news makes me lose faith in the world and the people in it. And, I’ll sound a little Sybil-ish here, it also gives me a tiny bit of weird hope. In our ever shrinking global community we are learning more and more about each other and as such we are slowly eliminating misconceptions about people who are different from us. We are sharing the best of ourselves and hopefully doing away with the worst. As long as there is an Earth with people living on her face, we will see ugliness and injustice and error, but things can be better, right? This is my hope.

This also brings me to the topic of my writing. My major WIP, Bilqis, which will be book one of the Hinterland Chronicles, echoes much of my woes about the state of the world we live in, personal and global.

I am fortunate to have had extremely few openly racist or anti-Muslim experiences in my life. I’ve had people say some incredibly asinine things to me, but I’m not hypersensitive and I can generally determine the difference between malice and ignorance. With that said, we all know that racism still exists and anti-Muslim sentiment is pervasive and in many instances heartily accepted. This is what the Hinterland Chronicles addresses.

What I’ve attempted to create is a world/society that is scarred by religious turmoil and racism, much like our own. Imagine that the government, with the best of intentions, has tried to solve the issue of religious and racial divisiveness by outlawing the practice of any faith. Imagine that those people who persist in religious observances are punished, ostracized, and ejected from the major cities. Imagine that they are forced to make their lives scavenging off the land which is a vast wasteland.

What do you think would happen?

I’m still working on the first draft, but it is difficult to write about issues of faith/religion without sounding as if I am preaching and proselytizing, which I am not. I pray that I am successful.

We should absolutely mine information from our experiences and the world for our writing.  This includes the news.  I suppose I’m simply not strong enough to tolerate it… or to say it in a more forgiving way, I’m too sensitive. On second thought, it isn’t an altogether bad thing is it? Aren’t most writers and artists intuitive deep thinking individuals?

If they’re not… shhh. Don’t ruin the illusion. I kind of like it.