M a r k   E v e r g l a d e

Chawlgirl Rising - Interview with T. K. Young

"The best writers...are those who can break your heart with a single line."
- T. K. Young
cyberpunk Book cover of Chawlgirl risingscience fiction with cyberpunk elements author T. K. Young standing in a blue suit in front of olive green building smiling

They’d given their lives to death, and death sustained them.

Chawlgirl Rising is the first full-length novel by T.K. Young, a well-published short story author. When not blazing melodies on guitar, he writes fiction that carries its own melody,

...the coal ship’s prow bashed through the waves like some unstoppable force, the viridian ocean bursting against its hull and spraying into the air like the color of guilt itself, the horizon trembling limitless behind.

Chawl is the term for slums in India, and indeed the book opens with imagery remnant of Netflix’s series 3%, or the book River of Gods by Ian McDonald,

Jaipur's scrawl flickered in Lucas's eyepiece. Stuffed between a ring of mountains, the city's outskirts were a mass of raw-boned concrete pierced by neo-mughal minarets. Further ahead, the setting sun throbbed between its skyscrapers like a spilled vein. A funnel of ash wept from the city's center..."

In the chawl, ordering a drink on the rocks is expensive, not because of the price of moonshine, but because of the price of ice itself! Sustaining life is hard with limited resources. Water in the book lubricates the narrative. I asked Tim, “What real-life events inspired this story? At times, it reminds me of the British occupation of India, or German occupation of Europe during the World Wars."

He replied, “It was a combination of things, some traveling I did in Southeast Asia, reading about one of the unexpected consequences of global warming being the devastation of countries like India that depend on glaciers for their water, and wondering how someone would maintain hope in a hopeless situation."

I asked him, “Corporations like Veolia hold huge shares of the world’s drinking water and the technologies that power it. The Department of Defense states that by 2022, water shortages may be significant enough to lead to war in some regions of the globe. Without vilifying any particular corporate or government entity, how likely do you think the water shortage described in the book is to occur during this century, and will it be due to environmental issues, corporate privatization of resources, lack of effective natural resource management, or a combination of these factors?"

He replied, “It’s already happening. There are cities of millions of people, including Delhi, where the only water they can get is trucked in from organized crime. Here’s an article from five years ago about the situation, and it’s only gotten worse."

The story is told from multiple viewpoints. Lucas is a control officer called to action during a water shortage crisis, forced to take lives in morally ambiguous situations. Skakti is a young girl who is finding her way in a world that seems to know more about her purpose than she does, a purpose on which the fate of humanity depends. There are credible references to Indian cultural practices sprinkled throughout that immerse the reader. Shakti’s name itself means a powerful essence of life, the word often associated with goddesses such as Arya Shakti, a sky goddess variation on Renuka, in turn a variation of the Jainist / Buddhist / Taoist Akasha, the goddess of negative space. When Tim writes about Shakti, “You are the vessel. You will end everything,” we get the idea that this interpretation is what he had in mind. From the direct references to Kali Yuga, Tim is axiomatically familiar with these ideas. The references to Karma also show the author understands the numerous components that impact the overall Karmic result, an understanding that usually only someone indoctrinated in Hinduism / Buddhism would render to this extent.

I asked Tim, “You have quite a background in Hinduism and Indian culture in general. Where did you obtain this background at and how did it influence your approach to the book?”

He replied, “If you can believe it, I started with a Hinduisim for dummies book and went from there. I read some of the Indian epic stories, dug into the mythology, and tried to make things feel as authentic as possible. One of the things I really wanted to convey was the diversity of people in India, and the different viewpoints they’d have on hope based on their religious backgrounds. It felt important to me to make the characters real in that sense, as it would be what a lot of us turn to in desperate times. I hope I did a good job!"

The writing is truly exceptional and a rare find,

The ascetics shuffled through the chawls...collecting the bodies of those who succumbed, performing the unclean antyesti funeral rituals, lighting the fires that sent the dead skyward along rivers of cloud. They’d given their lives to death, and death sustained them.

Cyberpunk fans will delight in the augmentations, from wearable smart technology in the form of bracelets that allow special access to the world, to more drastic combinations of metal and flesh,

Slumped unconscious in his seat, the boy controlled the craft’s onboard computers with his mind. Pus leaked from the electronics glittering from the pilot’s bare scalp...

The writing is fast-paced, but well balanced with scene development that includes rich similes which are highly original, and provide a poetic read that is on par with fine literature or good fantasy, but still gritty enough for cyberpunk fans,

The shuttle sagged to the ground like some sort of rusted insect come to spread its disease...

Pressure moaned through the pipes like the howl of the wounded earth itself

(She) slipped…into a forest of limbs. The mob at the water tower churned in every direction...

The man smiled from behind a beard knotted into a bird’s nest of gray filth...

The sun’s flame scraped Lucknow’s pulverized sky...

The day’s orange fire curled through his flat’s blinds...

The sky was a crusted bronze, the great buildings around him marching into its smog like tombstones receding in time.

This combines to create powerful imagery that makes scenes come alive,

The air around him shivered, thick with static and its drab pumice. Spikes of dead grass rose from cracks in the culvert, whipping back and forth in the same rhythm as the dead woman’s hair while the sand lapped at her flesh.

Note that none of these metaphors are trite, nor are they too abstract or esoteric with their allusions. This keeps the book interesting and accessible to audiences of various reading levels. The rich imagery during scenes like the sandstorm entirely immerse the reader. The writing focuses on minute details that bring the scenes alive, while the metaphors ensure the reader stays engaged throughout the descriptions while adding impact. The efficiency of this allows many scenes to be shorter than average, keeping the pacing quick. All together it’s a brilliant strategy that works!

I asked Tim, “Do you have a background in writing poetry? How do you approach writing prose so that it reads with such vivid poetic intensity? What state of mind are you in when you write like that (fervently emotional letting it flow, or rationalizing every letter)?”

He replied, “The old axiom for writing is show, don’t tell. My goal when I’m writing is to make you feel everything as intensely as possible in a scene, and I use description and action to accomplish that. To me, everything on the page should be as urgent and propulsive as possible. So things like verb choice, exactly what details are highlighted, are crucial. The best writers, to me, are those who can break your heart with a single line and that’s what I’m trying to do when I write.

"I was an English major in college and do write some poetry. When I write, I try to think of myself as a sci fi version of T.S. Eliot and Cormac McCarthy. I sit down and generally let things flow for a first draft. Then in the review process I am meticulous about cutting things back to bare bone and refleshing with the detail that supports the overall theme. It’s a process, but when I get things right nothing feels better."

Descriptions are well balanced with dialogue that cuts straight to the point, in addition to the occasional action scene. The action never feels artificial; it arises as a natural consequence of the conflict and poverty of the world. Those scenes carry moral consequences and, at times, ambiguity which make them intriguing,

“Mate I know the bloody law,” he said.
“But look around, there’s no law here. It’s us and the storm.”
“And we can’t save everyone!” Lucas answered.
Karam’s fist crashed into Lucas’s jaw, staggering him. “Except that twice now I’ve saved your miserable arse,” Karam said. “You think on that, while I take them…

I asked Tim, “It is seldom that someone’s first novel reads with such mastery over literary style. Did you practice by writing other books first that never ended up being published, or was writing short stories enough to hone your technique into its present state?”

He replied, “I’ve been writing short stories since I was 10 years old, so that’s 30 years of practice ;). And this one took seven years to write, which is a lot of honing! I just keep working until everything feels right - there really aren’t any shortcuts."

The real wars are fought within characters themselves, to a large degree,The only way to protect himself was to stay numb, to perform his duty. Shakti believes she hears voices that come not from her mind, but from the gods, which causes conflict with her brother and many of the other chawl residents. It also makes her read as an unreliable narrator at times, which is good as it adds to the sense of mystery as the reader tries to piece out who, or what, is communicating with Shakti, if anyone. Is it something spiritual or otherworldly, or merely a ghost in the data matrix of reality? Or is she schizophrenic? This sort of questioning is somewhat unusual for science fiction and more common as a fantasy trope, so it is a welcome addition to the text’s various layers which assists with its cross-genre appeal.

Although there is violence, there is seldom violence without reflection or remorse,
He was choking on the taste of corpses, suddenly overheated and sweating. There had been so many more than they he'd thought.

One of the more interesting lines is in Chapter six,

The soul divorced from its future struggled to accept the pain of its present.

I asked Tim, “Often wise people advise to practice being present in the here and now, but more than just that is required. The quote above suggests that without a path in life, without hope, the present struggle becomes unbearable, and in the context of the whole paragraph, can lead people into the apathy of addiction. How do you conceptualize the quoted line and its relevance to our lives?”

He replied, “The biggest theme I was trying to explore was what would you do if, in the back of your mind, you knew there wasn’t any hope? How would you keep going, especially if your entire job was really just to extend the suffering for a few more months/years? That to me was interesting in an almost excruciating way for a character. So I wanted to dig into that, and show a spectrum of characters based on the choices they made - you could try to numb the pain, or fight it, or give in to it. For Lucas in particular I wanted to see how he’d harden himself against it, and then what would happen to finally break that hardness."

Chawlgirl Rising is truly an exceptional find. This is more than just a tour of poverty, or an exposition on inequality, it is a passionate, poetic venture into the heart of storytelling itself, clothed in cyberpunk elements that, far from being ostentatious, amplify the appeal without being the center of it. In other words, this isn’t style over substance, as it equally delivers on both fronts, without resorting to a mere rehashing of tired phrases. Note that many would consider the book dystopian, or even solarpunk due to the ecological themes, but the class conflict and tech will also appeal to cyberpunk fans. Well done and highly recommended! Check it out on Amazon or fine booksellers.