Bishakh Som’s debut graphic story collection, Apsara Engine, forthcoming from Feminist Press tomorrow, conjures up shape-shifting global cities, erupting with queer intimacies and witty banter in eight eerie and tender stories.
Bishakh Som’s comics have appeared in the New Yorker, Boston Review, We’re Still Here: An All-Trans Comics Anthology, Beyond II The Queer Post-Apocalyptic & Urban Fantasy Comic Anthology, and The Other Side: An Anthology of Queer Paranormal Romance, among other publications. She is the co-author and illustrator of The Prefab Bathroom: An Architectural History (2014), and received the Xeric grant for her comic collection Angel (2003). Spellbound, a graphic memoir, is forthcoming later in 2020 from Street Noise Books.
In this conversation, Bishakh and I talk “Desi,” a term referring to homeland for diasporic South Asians, akin to the Italian paisano. One of the challenges of conducting a Skype interview with Bishakh about her latest work was in translating the shared, familiar shorthand we have adopted through our long friendship and collaboration in poetry-comics. One of the pleasures was in exploring the stylistic permutations and exciting pathways that her comics have taken over time.
The Rumpus: Let’s talk about the title of your graphic story collection, Apsara Engine. Within Hindu mythologies, apsaras are celestial courtesans. At times, these sexy female consorts are sent to earth by male gods to disrupt the meditations of hermits whose psychic powers begin to rival the gods. Your “apsaras” appear to disrupt the power of entrenched cultural and gender norms on the consciousness of characters. How and why do you combine this mythological figure “apsara” with the technological term “engine?”
Bishakh Som: A series of older comics I made in the aughts were called Angel and I was thinking about what the Desi equivalent of angels might be. Which got me to thinking about apsaras, who are very feminine figures that are also slightly marginalized in Hindu mythology. As celestial courtesans, they’re not quite deities. They are involved in dance and seduction. But they don’t get their due in in literature and mythology and I wanted to see what happens if you moved these marginal figures into the spotlight. Whether the characters in my stories represent those apsaras, I’m not sure. Maybe they do and that representation has to do with queerness and femininity. In some instances, they also present a disruptive force, you might say, an interruption within normativity. I didn’t think this through explicitly when I started this book, but the idea seemed to seep through the book as I worked on it.
As for the engine part of the title, I’m very interested in science fiction; namely, I’m interested in what science fiction does to open up possibilities. There’s stuff in the book that is not quite science fiction but has a somewhat worldbuilding quality to it. I wanted to combine those two things: the queer feminine energy and the worldbuilding aspect. And I wanted to investigate the idea of a machine or a generator of queerness and femininity. What would that look like?
Rumpus: To me this “disruptive” queer feminine energy opens portals to otherworldly spaces in your work. This apsara energy disrupts the trappings of heterosexual romance, alters animal-human encounters, and warps the very fabric of the global city. At times the cityscapes and landscapes look quite detailed; other times, the architecture in your comics seeps and melts. What elements went into that worldbuilding?
Som: It’s very important that the reality looks like a place that the reader might inhabit. That specificity was very important because then the disruption becomes even more tangible. Against this backdrop you recognize that there is this sort of swerve that interrupts that reality. The story “Swandive” is the best example of that disruption, a disruption that opens portals into other possibilities. That’s when the architecture, landscape, and urban fabric start to become more liquid, more open.
Rumpus: “Swandive” is one of my favorite stories. It starts with a character, Onima, performing an academic lecture on “trans cartographies” at a conference and encountering Amrit, a young admirer in attendance. Later, they draw a map together and reencounter each other again and again in different realities activated by their drawing. In that story, there is an explicit way that queerness and geographies intersect through mapmaking. Can you talk about “trans cartographies?”
Som: To be fair, when Onima is talking about trans cartography in the story, it’s meant to come off as a little nebulous, as a pretentious conceit, and the reality of this practice only becomes clear later in the story, when she and Amrit both start drawing the map. The conceit behind the pretension is about how you can use mapping not as a descriptive tool but as a generative one. Like drawing in general, mapping can be a way to open up possibilities that might not exist in the world you inhabit (a world which in Hindu thought is itself Maya, a veil of illusion). So drawing and making maps of places that you can imagine in a way brings them to life. The way trans people sometimes have to create their own families and bonds—that’s an act of imagination. I was suggesting that this act of imagination could create not just familial relations but entire cultures, cultures that are drawn or written by these maps. The mapping exercise leads into an exercise in the imagination, exercises in creating cultures that you want to inhabit that don’t exist. With the mapmaking, Onima and Amrit create and recreate their own doubles, in worlds where they know each other, and in worlds where they don’t know each other.
Rumpus: Onima and Amrit draw a map of an imaginary city using some place-names and sites from Calcutta, India, even as they live and meet in the States. The geographies of the US and India seem to overlap in their mapmaking. As an immigrant from India who has grown up in the States, what do you feel your relationship is to the subcontinent?
Som: When my parents were alive, they maintained an atmosphere of Indian culture in our home—through food, music, language. But now I don’t have any immediate family living in the US. So where is that sense of culture coming from now? To some degree that comes from having friends like you, or from having a community of fellow Indians and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Many of my queer friends understand that idea of needing to create a family and therefore create a culture. Clearly, I look like someone from South Asia but what does that actually mean? It’s sort of like the signifier is unhooked from the signified. You can try and recreate culture for yourself by wearing a salwar kameez or ordering samosas and pakoras for a party but at what point does even that become a conceit?
We both grew up here and we’re both are slightly displaced from what we would consider the origin point, if there is such a thing. It sort of puts you in a nebulous state. Even if you go back to India, Indians there will say: we don’t consider you to be part of our culture. Where do you exist? There are no answers. That’s what that story “Swandive” was trying to get at when Onima and Amrit have that conversation about being displaced, not only in terms of gender, but in terms of culture. You just do what you can to choreograph your own way of living. Whether it’s through drawing or writing or just being with friends and saying this is how we exist. Going to a queer Desi reading or going to someone’s house and watching a Bollywood movie. You create that culture for yourself. There’s still this yearning or longing for something that never existed or maybe did exist at some point and just evaporated, something that you try to recreate. Or, as Onima and Amrit do in their mapmaking, create.
Rumpus: Speaking of creating alternate realities, there is a way that “Swandive,” which appears in the middle of the collection, allows us to read characters from the other stories as doubles of each other in alternative parallel timelines. The potential for another life path is possible for any single character—in the multiverse!
Som: This parallelism was deliberate for some of the other stories so I’m glad you pointed that out. For example, in the last story, “I Can See It in You,” Sara, Rajiv’s girlfriend—you could also see her also as the protagonist of the first story, “Come Back to Me.” In “I Can See It in You,” Sara is talking about a beach house that she wants to decorate and she thinks of it as this idyllic, artistic utopia that she is going to create. In the very first story, “Come Back to Me,” the same character is in a beach house and it’s a slightly alternate version of her. She is living with this other guy James and the first Sara’s life seems to have taken a completely different path. She’s like a shadow Sara.
Rumpus: As a longtime follower of your work, I noticed there’s always been great architectural detail in your comics (perhaps, coming out of your training as an architect), but what I notice now is this explosion of bodies. You used to draw one type of body—svelte, elfin, young— but your comics are now peopled with a variety of bodies and characters, who possess a wide range of movements and gestures, and who are of different generations.
Som: When I first started drawing comics, people thought I was really influenced by Japanese manga. Some of my characters looked a certain way and had this manga hair with goth overtones. I liked manga, but I wasn’t trying to channel it exactly. And I was like “I have to break out of this and start drawing different people.” I wanted to draw comics about South Asian people, about South Asian women in particular, so that gave me a chance to explore other bodily possibilities. And also, no one does comics about older people. I was drawn to the idea of mother figures, so I started writing stories about these older women who are not necessarily mothers, but who represent a kind of femininity that maybe goes back to this reverence for mother-goddesses, like Durga or Kali. I wanted to have representations of these types of energies. So, for example, in “Pleasure Palace” the protagonist is this older woman. I wanted to write a story from her point of view but not have her be some “old biddy.” I wanted to have her sexuality be in the forefront.
Rumpus: Yes, I love this older Indian woman’s diva/devi attitude in “Pleasure Palace” when she is approached by a young, white American tourist who wants to experience an “authentic” India through her.
Som: I’ve rarely seen this type of character, whether in comics or film. And that led to wanting to draw other types of bodies, too. While drawing “Swandive,” I was reminded of being at a trans panel at a queer comics conference a couple of years ago. And someone in the audience asked, “How do you draw a trans character?” And the person who answered the question said you could take one approach, which would be to signal transness through bodily clues, like shoulders or jawlines. And she was a trans cartoonist, so obviously that’s totally legitimate. Another answer to this question that I’ve read online is that you draw a trans person the way that you would draw any other person. You would draw a trans woman the way you would draw a cis woman. But neither of those answers really satisfied me. So I was trying to find a third way with the character in “Swandive” and I don’t know if I succeeded. There were certain ways of drawing the body that broke me out of the mold I found myself in before. I was looking at ways of drawing the body that would tell you something specific about the character. So in the case of Onima, a trans woman—she has a very specific way of representing herself and I wanted that to come through in the way I represented her body especially.
Rumpus: You also draw a merman figure that appears in the first story, “Come Back to Me.” And their body seems very fluid, which reminds me of statuary of the Buddha and other “male” figures in sculpture from South Asia.
Som: That’s what I was going for. And that’s something we’ve both grown up with, this sort of art from the Indian subcontinent. The masculine figures themselves are very feminine.
Rumpus: And sometimes the male figures contain the feminine. Like the Ardhanarishvara Shiva, a version of the Hindu god who is half male and half female.
Som: Female characters in this art have their feminine characteristics overly exaggerated to differentiate them from the male figure. But the male characters have very voluptuous, sinuous bodies too. I think they’re very beautiful.
Rumpus: Yes, the male god figures were always shapeshifting. The female figures, perhaps, not as much. But you also have these female shapeshifting figures in the collection. In “Throat,” we encounter a pet dog (with a girl’s face) who attempts to speak human language; the comics convention of speech balloons are used to distinguish each speaker’s dialogue in sequential panels. Another story, “Love Song,” contains a bird creature with a face that’s “a double” of the chimerical dog in “Throat” also attempting to speak with a human; however, “Love Song” doesn’t follow the speech balloon/panel convention, and text appears like lines of a poem on each page. The speaker remains ambiguous, even as the actions grow increasingly violent and strange. Can you talk about these different modes of storytelling in your comics?
Som: “Love Song” is maybe the first piece I wrote in this whole book. Maybe in the aughts. I did it as a mini-comic back in the day, and maybe I was trying more experimental stuff. At that point, I was playing with the difference between text and image in comics, and having them not sync up, to see what that might mean. In that story, there are two different tracks running together—you can try to see or read them as informing one another, or maybe you can see the text as being a soundtrack to the images, or you could see the images as being a “soundtrack” to the words. Maybe these tracks are trying to approximate each other but they are never overlapping.
And that’s true in the very first story, “Come Back to Me.” When it starts off the images and text are in sync. One informs the other. Then as Sara walks on the beach and comes across this hybrid creature, that’s when things start to go off. The text takes one route and is on the path that it has always been, and the images go off on this other path, creating a divergence. So these two pieces are the earliest I had done. I redrew them for the book. That’s when I was in this mode of trying to experiment with the form, but I was also very frustrated with my progress as a comic artist because it seemed like I was just sort of toiling at the margins. Which is why I started to write more “conventional” stuff, where the characters were interacting in a direct way, having conversations which actually made sense. Like you didn’t have to do so much work to put together the images and text. It was more narrative-based. But I really like the more experimental pieces a lot and I didn’t want them to go away, even if they are very different in tone from the more narrative-based pieces in the collection.
Rumpus: Finally, what do you feel that comics bring to storytelling? What is unique to the medium?
Som: I am always asking myself what comics can do that other media cannot, an idea I first encountered through Chris Ware’s work. I think his comics can’t be translated into another medium without losing some of what makes the original version so unique. He sometimes takes a page-forward approach, meaning the page itself is the predominant figure, not the panel—and I think that’s something that can’t be simulated outside of comics. So I took that approach in, for example, the double-page spreads in “Swandive.” As in the story “Apsara Engine,” these spreads are like maps of kaleidoscopic moments, all occurring at once. You can just let your eye wander over it and inhabit that kaleidoscopic space and you’re moving across time(s) and across space(s) at your own pace. You can’t really do that in film unless you stop the film! You could replicate this effect in painting or other visual media, but I think comics have really claimed a space in representing time, movement, and space visually. Comics have been undervalued for so long, written off as cheap—but we know this art form has really deep, rich possibilities.
Photograph of Bishakh Som by Drew Stevens.