Your stories seem preoccupied with metamorphosis and bodily transformations, peopled by characters swapping skin, hiding their identities, taking on the mantle of something else, changing their physiology with technological enhancements, moving from life to death – physical boundaries are always slipping. What draws you to the idea of transformation? Is there a particular transformation or bodily change that consistently preoccupies you?
I wish there was a more profound answer to this. I suspect my preoccupation with the topic stems from two things: John Carpenter’s The Thing and the fact I missed my calling as a forensic specialist.
When I was a lot younger, my father would make me watch a lot of horror movies. John Carpenter’s The Thing stands out most in my memory, but I also grew up on a diet of Nightmare on Elm Street, Aliens, Critters. Gory, grim stuff. Especially for a pre-adolescent child. (I don’t actually understand why he did that, but he did.)
Now, clearly they’ve done something to influence my creative direction. I’m all body horror all the time, baby. But they also share a certain thematic similarity. They’re always some element of transformation, always some aspect of metamorphosis, regardless of the creature.
And that kind of led to the second part of this answer: the obsession with forensics. I grew up wanting to be a coroner or a mortician. The only reason I ended up in computer engineering originally was because my mom just went, ‘NOPE’ at the thought of me rooting through corpses.
Nonetheless, I never lost that fascination with bodies. Peter Watts’ The Thing explains this sentiment more cleverly than I can; we’re just heaps of pulsating viscera, all functioning in unison. Every day, our bodies are dying, growing, changing beneath the surface. There are parasites and malignant tumours. There are colonies of healthy bacteria. And yet, we all just kind of waddle along, rarely thinking about the putrescent glories that power us. Even the thing that we love so much: our brains; it’s just curds of grey tissue, flickering with electricity.
Every day, we change. Every day, we alter in some way. And I think about that all the damn time.
‘Degrees of Bone’ is a scathing and disturbing look at the impossible pressures placed on women regarding beauty and fashion, and the irrecoverable impact it can have on their mental health. You pitch the story a century into the future and imagine a cutthroat society with unprecedented means of surgery. Did you imagine this story as a prediction or a warning? It reads as an overtly feminist work. Do you think fiction is an effective medium to engage with the political, and comment on the state of the world?
I’m just going to answer this out of order because I’m terrible.
So, I don’t think fiction is necessarily an effective medium for engaging with world events. But narrative does play a terrifying role in shaping our society. We see this all the time with news stories. Although every journalistic write-up is ostensibly neutral, it’s not impossible for an author to subtly alter the reader’s perspective. Just by word choice and positioning. Narrative is frightening and staggeringly powerful, and those who control the narrative control what the world sees.
(Now I feel like a conspiracy theorist.)
As for the story itself? I imagine this is more of a prediction than a warning. Our societies have always been youth-centered, obsessed about beauty. Women starve themselves to knife-cuts, praying eternally to be more attractive. We shuttle the old behind curtains. We exalt the exotic. And every day, there are people encouraging us to look like someone different.
If the technology was more accessible, more affordable, more socially palatable, we’d all be rushing off to make minor changes all the time. And who knows where that’d take us?
‘And In Our Daughters We Find a Voice’ is one of the most compelling retellings of The Little Mermaid I’ve read. Why did you choose to retell this particular fairytale in such a manner? Your other stories and novellas also draw on myths from around the world. There’s a particularly interesting mish-mash of Chinese and Greek mythos in Gods and Monsters. When did your interest in myths and folktales begin? How do they inspire your stories?
Hah! Okay. That’s a funny story.
The inspiration for that story in particular actually isn’t anything terribly high-brow. It was a College Humor comic, which poked fun at the idea of The Little Mermaid laying thousands of little eggs.
The image stuck.
But as such things go, my thoughts slowly percolated, building onto the original idea. I’d seen pictures of anglerfish mermaids, wondered about them. I thought about things with teeth. How would you keep something like that captive? You take away access to its power. How do you neuter a dangerous animal? You take its teeth, its nails. And what happens to someone when they’ve cause to be angry, cause to quietly seethe in impotent rage.
If the sins of the father are paid for by their sons, are the fury of mothers fulfilled by their daughters?
Regarding the mish-mash of mythos, that one’s kinda easy. I grew up in Malaysia, land of multiculturalism, a melting pot of festivals and traditions. Did you know we have the most public holidays in the world? Because we do. It’s awesome.
So that. That’s where it comes from. I grew up in a world that’d couldn’t imagine not being a fusion of a thousand different things. Needless to say, I embraced it with both arms.
Hammers on Bone is a delightful mix of horror, detective noir and urban grit, teeming with monsters. The ‘monsters’ wear human faces, and it’s particularly chilling to see how the line between human darkness blurs with physical darkness. McKinsey’s abuse of Abel and Jimmy comes from within him rather than from external darker forces. Are the monsters and non-humans intended to be metaphors or characters in their own right? Why the eyes?
Because eyes are creepy.
Squishy, creepy, wobbly things. So delicate too. If you look closely at the irises, it’s nothing but crenellations of wrinkled tissue. Just, brrr.
But more seriously, the monsters and non-humans are, I guess, intended to be literalizations of the idea of human monsters. I came into Hammers of Bone, frustrated by how easily domestic abusers get away with things. We look at them. We shrug. We decide they’re normal because they give us a normal face. And when all you see is that, it’s just so … easy to forget.
With Hammers on Bone, I needed people to think about that. I needed them to think about how easily a monster could go to the bar with them, have a pint, chat about football, and then go home to be nightmares. And I wanted to drive them home so I decided, just to be sure, to use a goddamned sledgehammer.
… and in the instance of the foreman, well. I guess there was also the desire to make a point. What is the use of eyes when you refuse to see?
Most of your stories have a visually drawn locale. You evoke Croydon very vividly in Hammers on Bone, and Kuala Lampur in Gods and Monsters. How much do you draw on your own experiences to create a sense of place? You don’t limit yourself to urban settings, exploring the depths of otherworldly oceans, interstellar orbits, towns characterised by a meld of myth and modernity. How much research goes into your settings and worldbuilding?
A lot. I don’t think I’ve ever really written about a real world place without having lived there at some point. I draw a lot from my experiences as a traveller. (Been basically on the road for eight years now? Sheesh.) And with worlds set in other planets and different futures, they still draw from my own experiences. It’s easy to see the world as a domesticated place, but when you’re a lone woman, walking through unfamiliar territory, that isn’t necessarily true. Suddenly, you realize that every new location has its own set of physics, its own rules, and if you’re not smart enough about things, they may cost you dearly.
Also regarding research, uhm. I research a lot. Even obsessively, you could say. For one project, I once trawled through academics documents and treatises to ensure historical accuracy.
In your work, we find moments of meta and authorial awareness – the mermaid of ‘And In Our Daughters We Find a Voice’ references the many versions of the tale that exist, Persons in Hammers on Bone refers to the noir genre, Rupert Wong is constantly referring to the reader, specifically ‘ang moh’ an assumed white reader from what I understand. Can you speak a little about these moments where you break the ‘fourth wall’?
I like stories that jump into an awareness of their surroundings. Like, that recent Preacher episode? Which references characters from our world? Or the Supernatural episode where they crossover and become aware of the actors playing them. Meta is fun. On some level, my fascination with the fourth wall is nothing but pure play. I love those instances when I find them so I’m going to work them into my fiction.
On a more esoteric level, I’ve always believed that stories are alive. Stories whisper and hiss, seethe and grow, change as the world’s interpretation of them alter. Why not narratives that reflect that? But also, I guess a lot of this has to do with the first time I read Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild And Other Stories. There were essays interspaced with the stories; Octavia speaking to the reader. I remember finishing the book and immediately wanting to hunt her down on Twitter to say thank you.
And then I found out that she’d passed away.
It sent a jolt through me. I felt like I’d be having a dialogue with a ghost, and it haunted me for months. She had felt present in her words. She had seemed right there. She had spoken to me. And from that day on, I wanted to hold onto that. I wanted people to forget for an instant that a character might not be alive, might be fictional. I wanted to interrogate readers’ responses to being directly challenged.
Gods and Monsters especially has a fun, irreverent tone. What role do you see humour playing in your work? Do you consciously write humour into the narrative or do some characters come fully formed with their own sarcastic commentaries?
A little bit of both. I’d internalized a lot of the books that came before the Rupert Wong titles, and they all had sardonic protagonists. I also love snarky urban fantasy heroes. Also, also, a former boss of mine told me that comedy was impossibly hard to read. “Lots of people think they’re funny, but they’re not.”
Obviously, I ended up wanting to prove him wrong.
In ‘Speak’, the unacknowledged, unsung victims are women. Yet our protagonist, haunted by his inability to speak for them, is a man. Why did you choose Maurice to be the voice of the victims, to document the undocumented? Your two novellas both feature male protagonists as the lead. Do you consciously choose your narrators for the situation and plot or do the characters ‘speak’ to you first?
Hah. Rupert Wong was almost Regina Wong, but I balked at the idea of putting another WoC through the tortures that were awaiting Rupert. Southeast Asian women see a lot of shit. Even if Regina was nothing but a construct of my imagination, I wouldn’t be accomplice to her torment. So, Regina Wong became Rupert Wong, who is a nod towards all the Hong Kong movie film stars who are badass enough to do their own stunts.
Maurice is an interesting one. I worked in journalism for a long time, still write reviews for people. By and large, the faces that you see in the most prominent websites are white and male. I believe in a world where the defranchised can save each other, but I also want those in privilege to come up to the bat for those who have been marginalized. Maurice is the weird consequence of all those thoughts. He’s biracial but white-passing, someone in a reasonably good space. He has reasons to be afraid of changing the world, but he needs to. Those with privilege need to be brave enough to take a step forward, defend those who don’t yet have a voice.
What do you hope to see more of in speculative fiction? What’s on your reading wish list?
More aunties! More older people being badass! More exquisitely written middle-grade fiction! More experiments with narrative and craft! I’m desperately waiting on An Unkindness of Magicians, A Skinful of Shadows, whatever Indrapramit Das is putting out next; I don’t know what it is but I want it. And more Stephen Graham Jones. Give. Me.
And finally – do tell us what you are working on and what you are excited about!
I am semi-writing the third Persons non Grata book between all my commissioned work, and it’s going to be my craziest experiment with craft yet.
Also, I have a post-apocalyptic fairytale retelling of The Little Mermaid in progress, which follows the events of ‘And in Our Daughters, We Find a Voice.’ It’s a bit of John Carpenter’s The Thing, a bit of The Lord of the Flies, and a lot of ‘what the hell is Cass smoking.’