Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.
Asian Heritage Month Edition is a month-long event at The Quiet Pond, where Asian authors and bookish content creators are invited to celebrate being Asian, Asian books, and the experiences of being an Asian reader. (Note: Here is an explanation of why we are calling this guest series ‘Asian Heritage Month’.)
One of the best things that a reader can do for themselves is to read with curiosity and openness. When I started to diversify my reading and explore books by Asian authors that portrayed experiences outside my own, I was blown away by the beauty and wonder of their stories. In particular, I started to fall in love with retellings of Asian folklore and mythology. My first introduction to Asian mythology in young adult literature was A Thousand Beginnings and Endings edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman, which only made me crave even more retellings.
Early last year, I read A Spark of White Fire by Sangu Mandanna, a space opera retelling of the Mahābhārata, which is Sanskit epic from ancient India and is described to be the longest poem ever written! I had never read Mahābhārata, but I loved that A Spark of White Fire made me incredibly curious – and I went on a long adventure across the internet to learn more about the Mahābhārata! And I think that’s a part of why I love retellings – I don’t need to be familiar with the original work to appreciate its beauty and richness and I just love the idea of taking something that is so integral and important to culture, history, storytelling, and history, and retelling it to a more contemporary audience.
It is with so much pleasure and excitement that I have the author who ignited my love for retellings, Sangu Mandanna herself, visiting us at the Pond today! Her pond-sona is a deer playing a Nintendo Switch – probably Animal Crossing: New Horizons! – and we are so happy to have here visiting us for Asian Heritage Month.
But before I share with you all the lovely interview that I did with her, allow me to properly introduce you to her book!
A Spark of White Fire by Sangu Mandanna
In a universe of capricious gods, dark moons, and kingdoms built on the backs of spaceships, a cursed queen sends her infant daughter away, a jealous uncle steals the throne of Kali from his nephew, and an exiled prince vows to take his crown back.
Raised alone and far away from her home on Kali, Esmae longs to return to her family. When the King of Wychstar offers to gift the unbeatable, sentient warship Titania to a warrior that can win his competition, she sees her way home: she’ll enter the competition, reveal her true identity to the world, and help her famous brother win back the crown of Kali.
It’s a great plan. Until it falls apart.
Inspired by the Mahabharata and other ancient Indian stories, A Spark of White Fire is a lush, sweeping space opera about family, curses, and the endless battle between jealousy and love.
Do you know that feeling, when you realise that the book that you have just finished is your newest favourite book and it felt like you had been waiting for that book for a long time? Because that’s how finishing A Spark of White Fire felt for me. It has the most stunning universe, most compelling story with plenty of political intrigue and sibling rivalry, meddling goddesses and gods who played favourites, and battles with enemies and fate. If you haven’t read this stunning book, then please do yourself a favour and read it!
Author Interview: Sangu Mandanna
Xiaolong: Hello Sangu! A big and warm welcome to The Quiet Pond! It’s such a pleasure to have you visit us today. For any of our friends out there who may be only meeting you for the first time, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sangu: Thanks so much for having me here! My name is Sangu, and I write YA and MG fantasy and sci fi. My most recent book was A House of Rage and Sorrow, which is the second book in my Celestial Trilogy. I’m British-Indian, was once almost eaten by a leopard, and I would die for (most of) my Animal Crossing villagers.
Xiaolong: I’m personally a huge fan of your The Celestial Trilogy – I was blown away by the imagery, the ideas, and the political intrigue. For those who may not be familiar with the series though, can you tell us what A Spark of White Fire – and the series as a whole – is about?
Sangu: Thank you! A Spark of White Fire and its sequels is a space opera inspired by the Mahabharata, one of the two great Indian epics. In my version, which is set on spaceship kingdoms, a lost princess fights to reclaim the throne that was stolen from her twin brother, only to realise that it’s not so easy to tell friend from foe. Space battles, meddling gods, a jealous prince and a sentient spaceship all play a big part in the story.
Xiaolong: I was enamoured while reading A Spark of White Fire — a prominent character was a sentient warship who hates fighting, that there were gods and goddesses that play favourites, and kingdoms built on spaceships – all these wonderful pieces of the story that just pushes the boundary of the reader’s imagination. What inspired you to write a Mahābhārata retelling with science-fiction and fantasy elements?
Sangu: The setting came from my son, funnily enough. He was three years old at the time and absolutely obsessed with space, planets and the solar system. And when your kid becomes obsessed with something, it’s all you ever hear about! It was pure coincidence that I also happened to be thinking about writing a Mahabharata retelling at the time. The two things collided and, weird as the combination seemed, A Spark of White Fire was born!
Xiaolong: A significant theme in A Spark of White Fire is the duality of ‘free will versus fate’, specifically how the main character, Esmae, fights against her fate. (After reading the book, I remember discussing this at length with fellow readers who had read it, and we talked at length about whether the duality isn’t as mutually exclusive as we may believe.) What are your thoughts behind the ‘free will versus fate’ theme, particularly in the context of A Spark of White Fire?
Sangu: It’s funny you should say that because I did very much want to suggest that free will and fate aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. One of the things I try to explore in this trilogy is the idea that our choices are our own to make, but those choices will have repercussions that may be felt for generations. We have free will, but that doesn’t mean we get to avoid the inevitable. In Esmae’s case, she fights very hard against a fate that’s been laid out for her by the choices made by her mother, her grandmother, her great-grandmother, but, as is always the case with self-fulfilling prophecies, it’s the very act of fighting her fate that in some ways makes that fate come about.
Xiaolong:A Spark of White Fire has such intriguing and fleshed out characters, and I genuinely enjoyed meeting them all and learning about their underlying motivations! Who was your favourite character to write, and who do you feel is most ‘like you’?
Sangu: I do love Esmae (which is just as well, because I spend so much time in her head!) and I also love writing Max, Sybilla and Rama, but I think Titania is probably my favourite. She’s funny and snarky and loyal and simply too pure for this world! That said, the one I think is probably most like me is Rama’s sister Radha, who we get to see a lot more of in A House of Rage and Sorrow. She’s bookish and sensible and has absolutely no battle skills whatsoever, so I feel like we’re pretty alike (though it has to be said that she’s way more sensible than I am!)
Xiaolong: I want to steer the discussion towards your short story, Rain, which was the opening story in Hungry Hearts (one of my favourite anthologies, ever)! Rain has such an emotional impact and I really loved how you explore grief and love through food and cooking. Is there a story behind this story?
Sangu: When I was fifteen years old, I lost a much-loved member of my family in abrupt, terrible circumstances. While the memory of her is still raw, and still hurts when I think about it, the other thing I think about is how it’s often food that reminds me of her. Things like the hunan chicken from a particular Chinese restaurant in Bangalore, where I grew up, or a cold coconut coffee, or cup noodles. Food gives us such a strong connection to both good and bad memories, so when Elsie and Caroline approached me to write a story in their anthology about food and family, I knew I wanted to use grief and love in Rain. As for the choice of food, pandhi curry is a very specific and popular dish in Coorg, which is the region of south India where my father’s from. I knew as soon as I started writing Rain that I wanted to include it!
Xiaolong: I love your stories and I cannot wait to read more of whatever you read! If you’re allowed to share, what are you writing next?
Sangu: Thank you so much! My next book will be A War of Swallowed Stars, the third and final book in the Celestial Trilogy. After that, I’ll be back to work on my first middle-grade novel. It’s called Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom and it’s inspired by South Indian folklore. It’s about a young girl who copes with her OCD and anxiety through art, only to discover that a demon king has brought the world inside her sketchbook to life. It’ll be out in the latter half of next year!
Xiaolong: I also want to ask you about the anthology that you edited, Color Outside the Lines! As someone who is in an interracial relationship and has grappled with a lot of interesting experiences and relationship dynamics that I had never previously seen in literature, the anthology meant a lot to me! What is the story behind the conception of Color Outside the Lines, and what does the anthology mean to you?
Sangu: I talk a little bit about this in the introduction to Color Outside the Lines, but what first kicked off the concept for the anthology was this time my husband, two of our kids, and I went out to lunch (in the Before Times when such things were possible!) When the waiter came over at the end of the meal, he said, totally friendly and casual, “Will you be paying separately?” And I guess it threw me, that even though we were there together, with our children, his first assumption was not that we were a couple but that we were… friends? I’m not sure. But I was pretty sure he would have assumed we were a family if we’d both been of the same ethnicity.
To be clear, I don’t think he meant any harm! We all make assumptions based on what we’re used to and what we see most often, but it did make me feel like I really wanted to read more stories about couples, families and relationships with interracial dynamics. And so Color Outside the Lines was born!
Xiaolong: Last question – a question I’ve really enjoyed asking all our Asian Heritage Month guests! What is a food that reminds you of home – wherever and whoever that may be?
Sangu: Ha! I think I may have already answered that. Although, thinking about it some more, there are a lot of different foods that remind of different homes I’ve had and different parts of my life. Pandhi curry and hunan chicken will always remind me of the home of my childhood, and carbonara pasta will always remind me of being at university and becoming an adult, and lumpy (but delicious!) mashed potato will always remind me of my husband, who is my home now. That’s probably a longer answer than you were hoping for, though!
About the Author
Sangu Mandanna was four years old when an elephant chased her down a forest road and she decided to write her first story about it. Seventeen years and many, many manuscripts later, she signed her first book deal. Sangu now lives in Norwich, a city in the east of England, with her husband and kids. She is the author of the Celestial Trilogy, Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom, and more.
I want to extend a huge thank you to Sangu for visiting us at the Pond for Asian Heritage Month today! A Spark of White Fire is one of those books that I’ll always enthusiastically and excited scream about given any opportunity, so it was such an honour to have Sangu here to talk about her wonderful books.
Don’t forget to add A Spark of White Fire to your Goodreads list – it is a stunning book and you will love it!