Welcome to the Worlds of Iona Datt Sharma

This post was originally going to be a review full of praise for Not for Use in Navigation: Thirteen Stories by Iona Datt Sharma, because I well and truly lost my heart to that book.

But when I finished that collection, I found that I couldn’t stop. I have spent the last week immersed in every other bit of fiction I could get my hands on by this author, which included: the novellas Sing for the Coming of the Longest Night (co-written with Katherine Fabian), Penhallow Amid Passing Things, and Division Bells; an anthology called Consolation Songs (edited by Datt Sharma and to which they contributed one story); and a handful of short stories published in different online magazines (found here).

I am sad to report that I have exhausted all of the available fiction by Iona Datt Sharma. But I am overjoyed to have found them in the first place.

Iona Datt Sharma’s stories and novellas mostly live in the realm of the speculative. Some of their stories are set in possible futures, where science and technology give rise to deep space exploration, augmented people, sentient space ships, and humans and aliens alike putting out tentative roots into the soil of new worlds.

Some of their stories are fables, in which the Indian folklore figures of Akbar and Birbal are reimagined, genderswapped, and given the rule not only of India, but of a galactic empire.

Some of their stories are set in an alternate history or present, where one can slip into the world of the fae if one knows just how, or where salt and iron sing through one’s blood and manifest in magic.

The left-hand path runs deep underground and then deep under the water. The wind sings inside those passageways with nothing to raise it, and the shadows whisper in long-forgotten cants. Penhallow doesn’t believe in the fairy folk, but she’s a sensible creature. All her girls and boys march sharp right.”

Penhallow Amid Passing Things

Only Division Bells is unique in that it has no speculative elements. It’s a charming and witty romance story, and it also shows the honest, sharp edges of grief and desolation in its lovable protagonists Ari and Jules. It, like many of these stories, makes wonderful use of Iona Datt Sharma’s legal know-how. Division Bells follows the story of a beleaguered government department working to get a Bill through Parliament, and somehow, in a mere 25,000 words, it manages to draw you completely into the workings of the civil service, peel back layers of personal loss and family dysfunction, meditate on climate change, and serve up a tender and touching romance.

And this brings me to the reason that I spent the last week devouring these stories. I think, in part, it’s because they are such a perfect blend of the fantastical and the recognizable. Their characters — whether in a visionary future or a magic-infused past — are struggling with everyday, mundane, enraging things like legal red tape and infrastructure malfunctions, overbearing relatives and loneliness, the experience of overhearing your girlfriend’s friends talking shit about you. There is racism and patriarchy and colonialism to deal with. There is pain but there is also joy.

Above her head, flocks of messenger birds glowed, iridescent and luminous, forming out of dispersed water and then filtering off to nothingness. Grace remembered the birds were being used by the union men on the docks in the general strikes, and liked the thought of them taking flight from here, keeping the movement alive from these unassuming rooms above a whelk shop.”

— “Quarter Days”

The worlds are also just so complete. Each one felt unwaveringly real; I had no difficulty whatsoever in believing that I was getting a glimpse into places and lives that existed before the story and would go on existing after it. And there is a warm sense of something that I can’t quite put my finger on braided through these stories — something like nostalgia, if one can be nostalgia for imaginary things. Perhaps it is the unbreakable thread of hope.

I cannot imagine why Iona Datt Sharma is not a name on the tip of everyone’s tongue. I urge you to check out their stories and I am jealous of all of you folks who get to read them for the first time. (Although, since I have already reread some of my favourites, including “Quarter Days,” “Alnwick,” “Light, Like a Candle Flame,” and “One-Day Listing,” I can attest to the fact that they also reward multiple readings).

While I await their forthcoming novel, you can find me daydreaming about magical railroads, fae-born enigmatic lovers, the magic of Salt and Birds-in-Flight, and the lure of the distant stars.

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