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Podthoughts: The Subaltern

Vital stats:
Format: one young writer interviewing others
Episode duration: 30-50m
Frequency: weekly, in series of ten episodes

If you’ve passed through an institution of higher learning in the last twenty years, you twitch, almost imperceptibly, when you hear a word like “subaltern.” You do the same when upon hearing the terms “hegemony,” “rearticulation,” or “(dis)loc[a/u]tion.” You twitch because you remember feeling plunged into insoluble confusion, right where you sat in the lecture hall: you didn’t know whether to believe your professor was feeding you these whole verbal grapefruits in the good-faith service of important points, or whether they were just screwing with you. Maybe, as certain high-profile academics argue, their complicated arguments could only find honest expression in a vocabulary whose very comprehension demanded a mental struggle. But maybe, having themselves started out as wide-eyed undergraduates with an unquenchable love for novels or a pang in their hearts over the world’s injustices, these professors ultimately found themselves marooned in an academic hellscape of fear, insecurity, and obfuscatory self-justification. Maybe they knew only one way to rattle the bars of their cage: to make you share their painful bewilderment.

Imagine my relief, then, to find that The Subaltern Podcast [RSS] [iTunes] comes not from a haunted-eyed lecturer but from a hard-tweeting novelist. This novelist, a certain Nikesh Shukla, seems to have written a book called Coconut Unlimited, about some young British Indians who form a collectively inept hip-hop trio. I would like to read this book, just as I would like to read the many hundreds of other books that new writers all over the Anglosphere (and, in translation, beyond) are putting out as we speak. But how to choose where to begin? Even the most dedicated readers suffer under the burden of many, many thousands of exciting novels they could never hope to live long enough to crack, and that doesn’t even include the countless undoubtedly brilliant ones to be published over the rest of their lifetimes. This problem surely weighs even heavier on Shukla and his Subaltern interviewees, all reasonably young writers who must compete against every novel ever written for vanishingly scarce readerly attention.

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