Yudhanjaya Wijeratne On Books And Writing

07/10/2017 12:14 pm ET

Yudhanjaya Wijeratne is a writer based in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

This interview has been edited lightly.

Your book, Numbercaste, is expected to be published in July. Would you tell us a little bit about it?

Numbercaste is about a company that, sometime in the 2030s, creates a way of measuring the worth of every human being. They tap into some of the most powerful sources of human data in the world – social media – to compute what they call a fairer alternative to credit scoring. Instead of just judging you by a bizarre and complicated credit structure, NumberCorp looks at who you talk to, who you influence, who you check in with, where you check in with. Then it measures you against the social standards for your country and puts a Number on you that says: "This is how much this human is worth. To society. To the human race." And it's about how it creates a caste structure, algorithmically enforced, where who you talk to, where you live, what opportunities you're given all depend on this Number.

It's a story. It's partly an exploration of what happens when our algorithm-driven social media is taken to an extreme, integrated with life itself. What happens when the quality of your life depends on how popular you are online? And at the same time, it's a story of people pushing their ideas of a perfect world on one another, and all the underhand things that get done when the end justifies the means. Media manipulation. Political thuggery. The capitalist machine at its best and worst. And at the same time, it's not a 'new' story. These are dynamics that already exist in the world. Instagram fame. Bought politicians. Fake news. And it's about the extraordinary man who sets this new world order in motion.

All of this is told through the eyes of Patrick Udo, a marketer who comes to work there, falls in love with the Silicon Valley machine, and ends up doing quite a lot of the dirty work himself. Some things are gray. There's no Evil Corp: just people with different ideas of how the world should work, and people with the ability to execute on that.

What struck me most, as I was writing this, was that China is actually doing this. For years now the government of China has been looking at national 'scoring' – a number for each citizen based on both your credit and, if the reports are true, on where you fall on the political line. It's been making waves for a couple of years now: even longer if you read local media. So, what I set out to imagine, as an Orwellian work of speculative fiction, isn't all that speculative after all: It's true. It's reality.

How long did it take to write? Do you have a writing routine?

Starting from the top, I'd say two years, almost on the dot; I started in July, 2015, when I had just joined WSO2 [a technology company].

In practice, of course, I did not actually sit down and work for two years only on this. Few people actually get to write full-time. I'd finish work, or at least pause it for the day at 5pm, and write and research until 7pm. By the time I was done the sun would have disappeared, the mad post-work Colombo traffic would have died down and I could take the bus to the train station. The 720pm train would take me home. Thirty minutes: enough to run over what I'd written in my head and plan out what I had to do tomorrow. I'd do this like clockwork over the weekdays.

Every so often I would write something I was really proud of and post that to my Facebook. Before long, there were a few hundred people who knew I was writing something and wanted to see it. Research took a long time. The system had to be plausible. It had to be based on an algorithm I could describe, it had to have a business plan, it had to be marketed like a real company. It wouldn't just appear out of nowhere. This is, after all, a growth story.

By December 2016, I had my first draft. I was very pleased with it, especially because I'd set myself a deadline of December and met it with a few days to spare. And then Nayomi Munaweera, who'd been incredibly encouraging through all this, gave me the writerly talking-to and told me my work wasn't done yet. She told me to take a break, look at the manuscript with fresher eyes, and do the next draft.

She was right. There are books than can be completed in one go, and there are books that can't. I cut out a lot of fat, pruned a lot of those random stories that grow out of the main one like branches from a tree — the writer's equivalent of gardening, I suppose. Neil Gaiman says the first draft is you telling the story to yourself, and there's a lot of truth in that.

Do you have any literary influences?

I haven't settled on a style enough to sit and analyze where it came from. My first book, The Slow Sad Suicide of Rohan Wijeratne, is most often compared by reviewers to Douglas Adams. I've looked through it and I can't for the life of me find Adams there: All I can see is me, partly inspired by James Joyce, trying to strip away the boundary between action and narration and cast that in the frame of an interstellar suicide. I see bits of Christopher Nolan there, bits of Dan Simmons and Margaret Atwood. I don't see The Hitchhiker.

Numbercaste is completely different. First person, closer to the bone, in the style I've always written my features and my blogs in. If you put a gun to my head I'd think Iain Banks; The Crow Road always stuck with me, for some reason. There's definitely Dave Eggers in there. Perhaps Cory Doctorow. These are people in the genre, people I follow, whose toolkits I occasionally pilfer for technique.

I admire Terry Pratchett for his bittersweet humanity. I admire Philip Pullman for his vision and William Gibson for his prophecies and Diana Wynne Jones for her raw, quirky magic. But to claim influence from them means having to measure up to their work, and that, I think, is the task of a lifetime.

What do you read for fun?

Everything except romance. I just spent two weeks in Thailand with the Atlas Obscura (which you absolutely need if you want to see the stranger things in the world), Catherynne Valente's Deathless (a modern Russian fairytale), and A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge, which is hard sci-fi. I buy and read indiscriminately.

What’s the best book you’ve read this year?

A toss-up between We Are Legion (We Are Bob), a delightful indie sci-fi book that explores life as an AI [Artificial Intelligence] colonizing the universe, and A Fire Upon the Deep, which is one of those books that blow your mind so many times that you close the book and sit there feeling like a minefield.

In Colombo, where are some of your favorite places to read?

Mintage and Waters Edge. Mintage is a bar: I was introduced to it by a very good friend of mine, and I find it a fantastic place to sit in a corner and read. It's not particularly hip or expensive, and so the loud crowd doesn't come there often.

The other place is Waters Edge in Battaramulla. It's a great place for a walk, quite close by to my home, and I love to sit and read by the water. There's a place nearby that does strawberry stuff – waffles and the like – and there’s few things I like more than a mild sugar overdose with a good book. If there's people at either place, I move up and out.

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