Although Anjali Sachdeva’s fantastical collection of short stories, All the Names They Used for God, was named one of 2018’s best books of the year by NPR and won the 2019 Chautauqua Prize, its literary ancestors — the pulp magazines of the 1920s — once sold for only 5 or 10 cents.
“There was a hesitance to embrace speculative fiction as part of an American literary tradition,” Sachdeva said, as she traced the genre’s history from its Golden Age to its reinstatement as a “fringe” pursuit after the paper shortages of World War II.
Fifteen years ago, when Sachdeva was still in graduate school, there still existed the prevailing belief that speculative fiction was “childish.” At 3:30 p.m. last Friday in the Hall of Philosophy, after remarks from Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, as well as Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill, Sachdeva contended the opposite, arguing that the genre is especially relevant in a world confronting sexism, political upheavals and a global climate crisis.
Celebrating a book that provides a richly rewarding reading experience, the $7,500 annual Chautauqua Prize honors an author for a significant contribution to the literary arts. This year, nearly 80 Chautauquans served as readers, a founding principle that ensures, according to Ewalt, “no book has won the Prize without first receiving the careful attention and enthusiastic support of our own community members.”
He described All the Names They Used for God — which was selected from 205 books, the most nominations in the Prize’s eight-year history — as following “characters … in pursuit of the sublime” as they navigate “the borderland between salvation and destruction.”
“In the words of author Carmen Maria Machado, ‘Completing one story is like having lived an entire life and then being born, breathless, into another,’ ” Ewalt said.
In his remarks, Hill recounted how the Institution’s namesake Prize grows each year. The 2019 process saw heightened interest in being a reader, more nominated books and “tougher and tougher decisions” for the final selection.
“This year’s winner beat out the Pulitzer Prize winner in fiction (The Overstory, by Richard Powers), a Pulitzer Prize finalist in nonfiction (Week Three’s Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle pick Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, by Elizabeth Rush) and some of the most acclaimed titles of the year to capture this prize,” Hill said.
During his introduction of Sachdeva, who currently teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and at Randolph College’s MFA program, Hill mentioned the author’s extensive backcountry hiking experience, as well as a childhood spent “reading fantasy novels and waiting to be whisked away to an alternative universe.”
“As her readers, we are indeed whisked away,” Hill said, before thanking the sculptor of the physical prize, Kirsten Engstrom, for “sharing her gifts so generously and hauntingly, in the same spirit of the book itself, with Anjali and our community.”
Inspired by Sachdeva’s bleakly funny short story about an alien species, “Manus,” Engstrom’s sculpture features two hands — one long-fingered and strange, the other human — resting on top of each other. Before Sachdeva began her lecture and reading, Hill presented Engstrom’s piece to the winning author.
At the top of her talk, Sachdeva thanked the entire Chautauqua community for an “incredibly warm welcome” and described how, as a debut author, the Prize has afforded her “greater freedom.”
“An award of this caliber makes a huge difference in terms of recognition and future opportunities,” she said. “Beyond that, it means a great deal to me to receive the award from such a dedicated community of readers — people who have given literature such a central place in their lives.”
She then launched into the central case of her lecture: Why everyone should read speculative fiction, a genre she defined as “a loose umbrella term that covers any representation of the world that does not strictly adhere to reality.”
Referring to Bill McKibben’s Aug. 14 morning lecture on climate change, Sachdeva cited Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, a science fiction novel set in a society ravaged by environmental disaster. Sachdeva also saw fictional parallels with reality in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, a feminist sci-fi novel in which a diplomat from Earth travels to a culture in which individuals are “ambigendered.” Nevertheless, she said, speculative fiction writers “are not prophets.”
“So why should we read speculative work if the writers are only going to get it right 1% of the time?” Sachdeva asked. “And what is the use of the vast selection of speculative writing that is not concerned with the future at all? I would argue that reading work that predicts the future is a sort of added bonus of speculative writing — but that’s not its primary value. In fact, one of the most meaningful aspects of speculative fiction is its ability to see more clearly the things that are happening around us, right now.”
She looked to CLSC’s Week Eight author Kanishk Tharoor, who presented on his nation-spanning short story collection Swimmer Among the Stars, as an example of a writer rendering “the speculative version of events … more powerful, in the moment, than reality.”
The centerpiece of Sachdeva’s own collection, a short story called “All the Names for God,” is itself ripped from the headlines. One year after the 2014 kidnapping of 276 Chibok schoolgirls in Nigeria by Boko Haram, Sachdeva encountered an article reminding her about the tragedy. She described the resulting short story, in which two schoolgirls develop powers by which they can control men, as a kind of “wish fulfillment” for those women robbed of their childhoods.
“Speculative fiction forces you, in a word, to speculate,” Sachedva said. “It makes you think of yourself, your neighbors and friends, your enemies and sometimes all of humanity in ways you may not have thought of them before.”
Readers and writers of speculative fiction are “phased by very little,” she said; their first impulse is not to evade the uncertain, but to charge into “uncharted territory.”
“If you can’t even imagine something, then you certainly can’t bring it into being or fight effectively against it,” she said. “It’s human nature to be suspicious of things that seem strange, but speculative fiction allows you to explore that suspicion in a controlled form — so that when ideas and propositions come along in the real world that are worthy of your attention, you are past that phase and you can judge those ideas on their merits and not by the discomfort that they make you feel.”
The first Golden Age of speculative fiction emerged from a “toxic form of nationalism,” similar, Sachdeva proposed, to what the planet is experiencing now. With despair comes a “longing for solutions and alternatives that mere reality can’t fulfill.”
“I also think there’s no better way to inoculate yourself against dogmatic thought than to engage in imaginative speculation,” she said. “I encourage you to take some time in your life to focus on the world that is not, and all of its imaginative possibility, as a means to learn how you can better shape the world as it will be.”
Before concluding her lecture, Sachdeva read an excerpt from “Pleiades,” the last and oldest story in All the Names They Used for God, about a set of septuplets birthed from genetic modification.
“I invite you to immerse yourself in the story,” Sachdeva said to the audience. “Just enjoy, if you haven’t experienced it lately, the feeling of living for a few minutes in a different reality.”