Author spotlight: Roquia Sakhawat Hussain

Rokeya Sakhawat HussainImagine it: India. The year is 1880. Her Majesty Victoria, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Queen, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India sits on her golden throne. The East India Company and the Great Rebellion are things of the past, the British Raj is in full swing, and British troops are stationed everywhere, it seems.

Sir Richard Temple, in India in 1880, writes that

…under the plastic touch of western civilization, the face of the land, the economic conditions of the country, are undergoing modification, and the religious ideas, the moral sentiments, the social habits, the political aspirations, of many classes of the people are changing fast. Whether these movements shall be for better or for worse, must depend on the conduct of England under the guidance of an all-wise Providence. Wonderful as India has been in her past, and is in her present, she will be equally wonderful in her immediate future.

A family photo from northeastern India, c.1880's

A family photo from northeastern India, c.1880’s

It is clear that Temple’s future “wonderful” India was predicated on the persistence of British rule, but by 1880 social reform was in the air. The Hindu middle class had become less tolerant of racism and more aware of India’s history as a great civilization, one that could, and would, flourish again on its own terms. On the other hand, the recalcitrant Muslim population of Bengal had only just begun to come to terms with the Raj and all it had to offer — education, employment, and infrastructure.

In this year of tea and turmoil, a girl is born in the village of Pairabondh in Bengal, in what is present-day Bangladesh. Her name is Rokheya Khatun, and she is Muslim. She will be raised in seclusion and denied formal education, though she will study Bengali and English at home. At the age of sixteen she will marry, but she will not sit still. In 1909 she will open a school for girls in Bhagalpur, Bihar and later moved to Kolkata, where it became the Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ High School, which still operates today. She is a feminist, a writer, a social worker, and she is one of the grandmothers of science fiction.

She wrote two feminist utopias: Sultana’s Dream, published in The Indian Ladies’ Magazine in 1905, and Padmarag, published in 1924. It is Sultana’s Dream, with its shift from one world into another — a world of solar heat, atmospheric adjustments, laser beams, and air-cars! — that is one of the early examples of science fiction. Sultana’s Dream is gloriously, unabashedly, feminist, as are all of her works. The Sultana, uncomfortable at being out among the crowds unveiled in this strange world, is reassured by her companion:

This is Ladyland, free from sin and harm. Virtue herself reigns here.

Sultana’s Dream was not the beginning of Begum Roquia’s literary career. Her first published piece, “Pipasha”, appeared in 1902 in the journal Nabaprabha. In 1903, “Alankar na” appeared in Mahila. She went on to publish articles, novellas, essays, and poetry, ending with Abarodhbasini in 1931. She also founded the Islamic Women’s Association, establishing herself as one of the first Islamic feminists, and was recognized as one of the leading writers of her time.

During her lifetime she witnessed the failed partition of Bengal, the creation of the All India Muslim League, the rise of Mahatma Gandhi, the death of Lala Lajpat Rai, and the Purna Swaraj, the Declaration of the Independence of India. She witnessed, and she did not sit still. She, and others like her, helped pave the way for the Indian Independence Movement, which in 1947 achieved its goal of complete self-rule.

Roquia Sakhawat Hussain died in 1932 on the 9th of December, a date now celebrated in Bangladesh as Rokeya Day.

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Author spotlight: Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins

Pauline HopkinsPauline Hopkins is someone we should know. Granted, the body of her work was not science fiction nor fantasy. Her legacy to us is one title, Of One Blood: Or, The Hidden Self, first published as a serial novel in the November 1902-January 1903 issues of The Colored American Magazine. Born in Maine in 1959, Pauline eventually became the editor-in-chief of that same magazine, as well as being a shareholder on the board. She was replaced in 1904 by John C. Freund and Booker T. Washington, in what is described as a “hostile takeover”.

We claim her novel, Of One Blood: Or, The Hidden Self, as proto-science fiction, as “the first Lost Race novel by an African-American author”. In it we meet Reuel Briggs, whose “place in the world would soon be filled; no vacuum remained empty; the eternal movement of all things onward closed up the gaps, and the wail of the newly-born augmented the great army of mortals pressing the vitals of mother Earth with hurrying tread. So he had tormented himself for months, but the courage was yet wanting for strength to rend the veil.”

“Oh Poverty, Ostracism! have I not drained the bitter cup to the dregs!” he later says, and then he goes on to have an adventure, and Pauline (after far too many years in obscurity) goes on to be one of the many mothers of science fiction.

But let’s stop for a moment and reflect on this “hostile takeover”, because that is also relevant to our work here. In this, I think we should let Pauline speak for herself:

As I am not a woman who attracts the attention of the opposite sex in any way, Mr. Freund’s philanthropy with regard to myself puzzled me, but knowing that he was aware of my burdens at home, I thought that he was trying to help me in his way. I was so dense that I did not for a moment suspect that I was being politely bribed to give up my race work and principles and adopt the plans of the South for the domination of the Blacks.

[Taken from Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins: Black Daughter of the Revolution, Lois Brown, 2008]

If you read this Wikipedia article on The Colored American Magazine, you will find that “Hopkins sensed that Freund had conspired with Booker T. Washington to replace her as editor — to quell her outspokenness on racial matters, which in that era, was a prevailing taboo in the minds of many whites.” The problem appears to be that Pauline wanted to look back at African-American history, to encompass all that black Americans had been, as well as to look forward to all they could be. Freund, perhaps, wanted to promote what he, and his white audience, believed black Americans should be.

Of One Blood: Or, The Hidden Self, was Pauline’s last novel, and according to her bibliography it seems that her work tapered off there, although she did go on to write several articles for The Voice of the Negro and New Era Magazine, which she edited in 1916 with Walter Wallace. New Era Magazine survived for two issues. Pauline died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1930.