“Going Through Hell with the People You Love”: An Interview with CARAVAN’s Tau Zaman

The Whisperforge’s newest audio fiction, CARAVAN, is a Weird West adventure where Samir (Sushant Adlankha) falls into a huge, deep canyon while camping with his best friend and ends up embroiled with bounty hunters and the supernatural. Created by Tau Zaman, CARAVAN continues to embody the network’s mission of lifting up marginalized and underrepresented voices in audio, both behind the scenes and in the cast. CARAVAN is captivating, through its deep, intimate look at Samir in the way he thinks and speaks, and through larger-than-life world-building in echoing, vast sound design and Canyon dwellers who are just the right shade of unreal.

An embed RadioPublic’s direct link for the first episode of CARAVAN, which you can also find here.

INNOVATION WITH FORM

CARAVAN stands out as an innovative work in its presentation of characters and interweaving of societal issues all the way down to the audio design and performance choices. This isn’t the first time that Zaman has created something that requires out-of-the-box thinking, like their work in alternate reality gaming or even in their writing for ars Paradoxica.

I noticed that, besides ars Paradoxica, you worked as a writer for this thing called Liminus, an alternate reality game that was in Boston during a festival. Please tell me more about that.

At Emerson College, myself and my friend, Nick Medvescek, were big on trying to create something innovative beyond what we saw presented on stage. We thought it boring, like “I just come in and sit down in the theater and pay like $45 to watch 30 Irishmen do a Shakespeare play.” It was just exhausting. So we asked, what can we do differently? Nick and I are passionate about making the arts more accessible, and I’m also a hardcore gamer: what if we combined live performance with gaming?

We teamed up with this small Canadian startup called Motive and they were, at the time, putting out this augmented reality technology, where you could design your own augmented reality games through a drag and drop system for smartphones, but without necessarily needing as much coding experience as you would need to develop a full platform. The game was built kind of like Pokémon Go, in that you have a map open up on your screen and it leads you to different points around the city and at these different locations around the city, one of two things can happen.

One, you can go to a location and download a dead drop, which is an audio recording that tells some kind of story or mystery you’re trying to unravel. Or, two, you can run into and interact with actual actors having a scene on the streets or in a cafe or at a restaurant, just interacting with each other, living in the real world. You might download missions about things you have to say to those characters or information you have to get from them before you advance in the story. It was really this wild choose your own adventure thing that we did a couple of test runs for before launching it at the MIT Hacking Arts Festival and it crashed because so many people downloaded it the first day. I really feel proud of that work and at the same time it was so hard.

I hired Eli Barraza and Danielle Shemaiah as writers and that was where I got to see what they’re made of; they’re incredible team members and work on such a high level. Every day I was coming to them with, “well, this feature in the software broke so we need to rewrite this whole scene to not use it”. And they would just do it. They basically rewrote the entire show with me day after day after day until the launch.

AN INNOVATIVE AND HONEST CODE-SWITCH

CARAVAN’s charm lies in Samir, its protagonist and the telescope through which listeners experience the world of the Canyon. Samir is a character voice we have not yet witnessed much of in audio fiction, even though they are everywhere in reality–an immigrant who has modified their accent to fit and assimilate to a white, Western environment, but still showing their native accent in his internal monologue. The accent plays an important dual role in this way, a practical one to help distinguish external dialogue from internal thoughts, and a characterization one to help flesh out Samir’s personality and identity.

headshot of Tau Zaman creator of CARAVAN. They are wearing a nice dark blue suit with a contrasting pastel yellow tie, and a matching yellow flower in their buttonhole, against a colorful background.CARAVAN, unlike the other three podcasts from The Whisperforge, includes narration. What was coming to that decision like, when you decided that CARAVAN need to be told not just through dialogue or with a recording framework, but with an internal and external distinction?

You know, it was a controversial decision. The week before the teaser came out, people were sharing an article about the dogma of audio fiction, including ‘no narration’ and ‘show, don’t tell’. What nonsense! I think it was absolutely necessary to have an internal and external narration because I cannot imagine, even from the first couple of episodes, the show being what it is if it only had one or the other. For one thing, it was important to me to be able to play to my strengths. This is terrifying! This is my first show and I want to be able to write what I know. I was coming from a background in creative fiction writing and in novel writing, and I wanted to be able to include these lush descriptions of the Canyon and what it looks like and what it feels like and what the sensations are like there. It would just be disingenuous to only have the characters remark on those things, like if Samir just stopped and was like, “Hey, did you take a look at that ‘spectral ghostly hand of lightning going into the golden canyon below?’”

I think it also speaks to how our internal monologues can be more poetic than the things we’re able to say, and how there’s such a gap between the things we say and the things we mean. If you look at that first episode with the interaction between Samir and Carlyle, there are so many things that Samir is feeling that he’s not saying. I have a love-hate relationship with French cinema, for instance, which thinks that everything can be told through withholding information and everything can be subtle and understated and that will somehow reflect the gravity or intensity of emotion. And I think that’s horse shit. I could just have Samir only say his lines to Carlyle, and say nothing about what he’s feeling internally, but that’s not accessible to people.

When you think about accessibility, not everybody is trained to pick up on the exact same social cues and subtleties and it’s so culturally, contextually specific. You and I speak a certain way that not everybody in the world does. Instead of having CARAVAN be this understated, puzzle-mystery of saying one thing and meaning another, why don’t I just say what this character is thinking? So another part of it was just making it accessible to people and explicitly stating what Samir is thinking.

But then came the challenge of how we do that. One of the pieces of feedback we’ve gotten from the first couple of episodes is that it’s harder to tell when Samir is moving from internal to external thought processes and we are still working on ways that we can engineer it to be a little more distinct. One of the ways that I worked out with Sushant is code-switching. A lot of people of color code-switch; we have an internal monologue of how we process the world and then we have the way that we assimilate into the society around us. We’ve tried to make that distinction here: if Samir talks to Carlyle, he does that like he would with any one of his best friends growing up in Western society, but his internal monologue still has his Desi accent. Sushant naturally has that accent and knows all about code-switching because he’s had to deal with that in the world, and as an actor. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s another way to address that challenge that I’m really happy with.

Did anything else guide you to cement that decision, other than being able to be more explicit about the difference between internal and external speech?

It’s a more honest representation of that experience, particularly in the first episode when Samir is talking about his anxieties, about feeling out of place and feeling unsafe. You know, he looks at Carlyle and says, “you look like you belong in this canyon, like a modern day Davy Crockett and I just don’t.” I think this is one of the ways he has to assimilate in order to adjust to this world.

In fact, it’s more honest to my experience. English is my second language, and there are so many turns of phrase and things that you don’t necessarily pick up on and it makes you feel like you’re behind or you’re just dumb, until you’re around enough people to identify, ‘oh, that’s what that means.’ The other thing is, because we were colonized in Bangladesh, a lot of our English came from British missionaries, a lot of my foundation of English was British English. So, for example, I would be in first grade asking for a rubber if I ever made a mistake because that was my understanding of a pencil eraser, but everyone else found that hilarious. I don’t want Samir to be a 100% analog self-insert of me, but I do want him to feel wholly realized and representative of an experience that I think a lot of folks will identify with.

I think having the code-switching in CARAVAN was a beautiful decision.

Oh goodness, thank you! I really appreciate that.

DESIRABILITY AT THE CROSSROADS OF REPRESENTATION

pullquote: "I wanted to show that a portly brown person could be a hero."CARAVAN highlights how visuals impact everything, from character relationships to power dynamics to the way listeners interact with fiction. Samir is, as I’ve noted, the listener’s lens, and that means we get to hear Samir talk effusively, descriptively, and sexually about the people he meets in the Canyon, and himself. This is critical to all of CARAVAN’s design; we would not be connecting as deeply with Samir as we are if we were not also privy to his thoughts and impressions from visual experience, nor also to his commentary about himself.

Of course, there’s also just the point that there aren’t a lot of fat POC protagonists in general in media; CARAVAN, in this way, upholds their commitment to representing those who have gone unnoticed.

Samir has specifically stated what he looks like in his own voice and word choice, not by other people, and then also using his internal narration to describe the people he sees. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the necessity and value of having visually specified characters in audio.

I think I should start by explaining the opposite argument first. For the most part, in a lot of audio fiction, I’ve noticed people stay away from visually describing the characters, and I think it’s because creators want it to be open to interpretation and they obviously want people to be able to identify with any characters that they see and make fan art without necessarily a canonized archetype of what the character looks like. I felt that I had to describe how I envision these characters because so many of the power dynamics are based on how the characters visually interact with each other.

It was absolutely necessary to me that Carlyle be canonically white and be like this representation of idealized male masculinity because this is something that Samir has a complicated relationship with. If I just left Carlyle as “here’s my best pal dude!”, that loses a lot of the necessary nuance that isn’t talked about. People could project it onto it, but that’s a lot to ask of them. I felt like making it explicit almost gives us more freedom to talk about issues that we don’t normally do. We have Samir’s anxieties about himself because Samir is canonically overweight, which is important to me because I feel like everybody in every podcast is visualized as thin, even in fan art; even when someone makes fan art of characters that aren’t thin, the reaction is “wow, it’s so brave that you fatted up this character, how radical.”

I wanted to show that a portly brown person can be a hero.

I didn’t want it to be one of those things where he never remarks on it because there are so many adjustments that I have to make, body-conscious neuroses that I’ve had to develop in order to move through the world. I want a character who gets dropped into this canyon and sees all of these larger than life characters and has to reconcile with wanting to keep up with them.

As far as introducing Argeaux in the second episode, I explicitly wrote it where Samir described all of his features and the very last feature he described was Argeaux’s long, flat nose. I wanted to play with it, right? Picture this super hot, all-American cowboy — what image do you have in your head? And then I ask you at the end, “Is that what you pictured?” I wanted these characters to still be attractive and desirable without being white, or coded as white. I hope it gives at least a couple of people the opportunity to feel more represented than I did in any form of media because I’ve never seen myself in anything.

Something else I love about CARAVAN is the way that it’s very in your face about its dark and sexual humor, and about being horny in particular. You and Mischa [Stanton] have jokingly said that CARAVAN is the answer to this question of “do enbies fuck?” I would love to talk about what that question and its answer means to you, to your audience, and to Samir and CARAVAN.

I love Twitter as a platform, but it will never capture the nuances of what I’m actually trying to say; “do enbies fuck” is a fun, flippant way to address what else CARAVAN does.

It was important to me to have it be dark and sexual humor because the characters and the demographics that we’re portraying with them are very often desexualized in our culture. In particular, every time I see South Asian men or masculine-leaning people in movies or in plays, they’re always these ancillary characters who are dinky engineers or bookish and studious—which I think is very sexy, but it’s not seen as desirable. I wanted to show these people aren’t just a homogeneous, monolithic set of brown people who don’t have internal thoughts and feelings and exist only to prop up your white hero fantasy! These people also have internal lives that are complex and are informed by the oppressive systems that they live in, and they also have complicated relationships with their oppressors, including finding them desirable, but also trying to break free of that colonized mindset. I think that Samir’s bisexuality or pansexuality is a way of adding that identity to people who aren’t seen that way. When we talk about bisexuality or pansexuality and its representation, it’s very much in the context of white sexual liberation as seen by, like, Ruby Rose or the latest white thin celebrity who comes out as bi.

The other reason why we did this comes from a million conversations that I’ve had in therapy. I’ve found that, particularly in the time period that we’re living in right now, it’s hard for any compassionate person to get off while we are holding children in concentration camps. How can we possibly experience joy? How can we experience joy or intimacy or vulnerability or connection and feel like we deserve to have any of those things when we’re complicit in systems that take those away from people who don’t deserve that?

For me, CARAVAN‘s dark and sexy humor was kind of a way to reconcile that and show, you know, if we put these characters in literal hell and face them with the worst parts of human nature and also the nature of supernatural creatures, how do they find that joy? How did they find that intimacy and connection and how do they make themselves feel worthy of it?

The third reason is that everybody in the Canyon all has their own individual abilities or superpowers. When I look at the things that holds us back, as far as marginalized identities go, I always ask the question: what if the things that held you back are instead the things that made you powerful? What if Samir’s sexuality, as something that makes him an ‘other,’ becomes, instead, a superpower? I think you will find that his fascination with strangers, and always seeing the best in them, and always wanting to learn from them really does become a superpower in its own right and becomes something that the entire Canyon hasn’t seen before and will need if they want to survive.

That was the thing that struck me the most about CARAVAN was this absolute focus on making sure that Samir’s voice is heard no matter what it is that he’s saying out loud, and that includes the fact that he’s attracted to people.

I think this is also another case of, if you had only his external dialogue, I think that would be a really irresponsible portrayal of bisexuality or pansexuality. Showing it internally shows how he contains himself to try to get through these situations and survive or how sometimes his actual desire for people can conflict with his self-preservation. ‘Do I let the hot cowboy carry me deeper into an unknown canyon?’ I think this gives a much more nuanced reflection of queer people (and how that is also complicated by race) that I just think wouldn’t happen if we didn’t include that internal monologue.

I think that the “in your face” confrontation of all of those dynamics is not favorably received by everyone. There are people who feel like it’s shoehorned in or that I have some vendetta against, like, white park rangers. I understand that concern. I understand where that concern comes from. I would encourage people to examine why that was their primary reaction to it. It’s distressing that these characters, characters like Samir and Argeaux, are only palatable if you don’t know what’s going on in their heads. Why are these characters only acceptable if they’re likable and respectful at all times?

That’s not honest. Respectability politics are not going to liberate us, particularly when you live in a country where black lives are taken every day for absolutely no reason.

a grand, red canyon, brilliantly lit -- above, a starry night sky showing all the crevices and dust and wisps of a galaxy.

WESTERNS, VIDEO GAMES, AND TRASHY TV

The world of CARAVAN is supernaturally strange, but has deep roots in the real world and lived experience. Westerns, a genre known not just for gunslinging cowboys and vast deserts, but for the mythologizing of the United States and the racism present in manifest destiny. CARAVAN’s West is inclusive and kind, while retaining that wild and incomprehensible vastness. On CARAVAN’s Twitter account, Zaman posted their response to the #mypodcastrecipe tag, meant to encourage creators to describe what sorts of media, experiences, or inspirations which, combined, create a feel for their audio.

CARAVAN‘s Weird Western universe feels like it’s its own frontier of new experiences and experimentation, especially in a core genre that’s based on telling myths about the United States. Can you talk to me about what resonated with you about Westerns, what had to go and, and how you built the weird?

The whole idea behind the Canyon is that it’s a big place that could be Dante’s version of Hell. When I think about what appealed to me about the West, I can still hear at 2:00 AM, Disney airing the black-and-white Davy Crockett, back when I was getting my sense of what American culture was like. There was always this idea of frontierism as an assertion of American exceptionalism: part of the American spirit is going out into the world and making it yours and making your way in it.

That is something that doesn’t sit well with me, but I definitely wanted to play with those ideas. However, I also found things like Indigenous people being completely erased, as though they just got up and noped out of there or worse, didn’t exist at all. If they are portrayed, we don’t get to see any of their internal world, or what it’s like to live in a land that you’ve been trying to coexist in for a long time and then have other people come in and take that away. So when I decided that had to go, it was a commitment to include Black and Indigenous actors for CARAVAN, which is something we were able to do and I’m very grateful for.

I also think there’s this element of mysticism in the Western genre that isn’t touched on nearly as much. There are always these superhuman portrayals of, like, the cowboy with the fast draw who never misses, but that’s never explicitly mentioned to be something paranormal or superhuman. It’s just a thing that they’re good at and that’s the only magical conceit in the whole story. I wanted to say, well, what if that really was a superpower? And what if all of these things we experience as tropes that we’ve always relied on are explicit abilities that have to be attained and earned? What does it mean to live in a world where you have to use that responsibly and exercise it that way?

There’s a spirit of adventure that just comes with Westerns that I wanted to capture with a caravan. These are people who need to be excited about going on an adventure together, and there needs to be this feeling of lawlessness, but also excitement in that level of danger, that I wouldn’t get if I had picked another genre. If this were purely cyberpunk or steampunk or something more contemporary, I just can’t envision these characters existing there. Like, Samir isn’t going to have much to say, just “well, I am also oppressed here and surveilled here.” A place that’s lawless and you can assert your own roles is a place where a character like Samir can really thrive.

You also posted on the CARAVAN Twitter for the #mypodcastrecipe. When considering all of these things about Westerns that you wanted to change or work within–the mysticism, the erasure of Black and Indigenous peoples–what sorts of ideas or concepts did you pull from each of these parts to build the Weird West of CARAVAN and the Canyon?

I agonized way more over that post than I should have! I don’t endorse the Red Dead Redemption games because I think they’re kind of a mess, but I wanted to have that sense of freedom, how it’s an expansive, almost overwhelmingly expansive, space where you can decide what you want to do. Plus, I wanted the feeling of pursuing bounties; these caravans are also enforcers of an unwritten law.

True Blood is my trash, guilty pleasure show. It appeals to all of my fantasies of, like, getting bitten by hot Southern vampires, hot werewolves, and part of that dark sexual humor comes from this. True Blood is one of those shows that tells a compelling story, but has no problem taking long asides to promenade in the land of ribaldry. I’m totally okay with CARAVAN being called a trashy show, by the way; it’s like a soap opera to me, and with the way the opening episodes are structured, I feel as though it hasn’t yet reached the level of sexy that’s present in later episodes.

I wanted to have that freak of the week style, like you see in Torchwood and Buffy. I loved all of the adult dynamics, and that their sexual relationships with each other informed how they were going to deal with the monster of the week. It’s so much more realistic to me by employing all these hyper-unrealistic scenarios. And of course, you still love all of those characters and want to go on this adventure with them. I hope that, despite being deeply flawed people, these are people that listeners would want to, like, go on an adventure with and it would feel like they’d have your back.

As far as Bastion and Pyre go, they’re such beautiful subversions of the genre in their own right. They’re not Westerns, but I think Bastion in particular has that gorgeous retrospective storytelling aspect of Westerns. When we were working with Evan Cunningham to make the theme music, I just said, “Hey, I basically want something Weird Western, but also like Southern Gothic and a banshee has to scream it at the end of it, and here’s a playlist of songs by Darren Korb”.

The first draft of the theme was very Bastion-esque,  but we wanted it to have more of a recognizable melody. So I told Evan, “Go balls to the wall with it, go crazy, don’t hesitate to throw in weird instruments, do what you want.” The second draft comes back and it is weird. I started laughing during it, because it was brilliant, but it sounded like Nightmare Before Christmas with its wacky timbre. So we wanted to do something in between the two drafts–I loved the banshee scream in the second one, I loved the southern Gothic stomp in the first one, and he made this third draft that captures the mystical vibe and the danger vibe, but doesn’t sound wholly alien.

Full credit also to Mischa, who made those brilliant in-between scene interludes, which is them just strumming on a guitar and every one of them sounded great so I used all of them.

With the Pyre wagon, I just love that all of these people are squeezing into this TARDIS-ass wagon. I see myself as someone deeply and unmovingly misanthropic. Part of that is trauma informed; I have a difficult time trusting people and letting them into my life, but my life has only ever improved by doing so. The whole concept of the caravan being made up of all these people who need to be tight-knit to survive—and need to keep taking on more people, but are only enriched for it—is a concept that was important to me.

And if people don’t like the Gay SJW Shit, well… there’s more of it.

CARAVAN's logo -- a watercolor painting of a canyon cliffside shaped like a crescent moon, against a lightning filled sky. All in shades of red.

Tell me something important you want everyone to know about CARAVAN.

People ask, “Oh, what’s CARAVAN about?”

I think that the shortest answer I give people is that it’s a show about going through hell with the people you love, which is basically what I’m doing with The Whisperforge every day. I adore them so much, they’re so brilliant. My biggest hope for what people get out of the show is, if they start listening to it feeling something bad in them that day, that they feel that they aren’t the only person having a crappy time right now by the end. I want them to feel, “There’s a living, breathing world out there full of people who want to meet me and want to hear about me.”


CARAVAN’s website has freely available transcripts for each episode.

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Support: Patreon

OUTTAKE

In what world can I convincingly say “later, sluts” as an exit line to my minions?

I think saying “later, sluts” is very much like wearing the fresh-cut flowers as part of your outfit. If you’ve got the confidence to do so, no one will question you about it. But if you have even the slightest doubt about it, everyone can sense that anxiety and be like, oh, this person is trying too hard. I would say just deliver it with all the confidence in the world.