Filipino origin myth and high school ghost story to food-tech dystopia and manga-style series—the breadth of your work is inspiring. You always introduce readers to new and often disturbing worlds. What have been the biggest influences on your writing?
My writing is definitely reflective of the media I immersed myself in, growing up. I loved middle grade books, especially relationship-heavy stories like those by Sharon Creech, Jacqueline Wilson, and Anne Fine. I loved fairytales and myths and their retellings – Gregory Maguire and Angela Carter’s fiction were incredibly formative. I also loved anime and videogames, particularly JRPGs – the pacing of Japanese stories is a lot more natural to me than Western comics or cartoons. In terms of tone and style, fanfiction has definitely been a major influence – I spent a lot of my early writing years reading amazing fanfic, trying to replicate the emotional resonance and style of writers I admired. Of course, I draw a lot from life – from the characters, situations, feelings I know to be true.
Your stories (i.e. ‘An Ocean the Colour of Bruises’ and ‘Sink’) often have a specific turn: a moment where the world we thought familiar turns out not to be at all. Are there any genres or modes of storytelling that you’ve struggled with? Does the story always come first or do you let the style/genre shape the tale?
I struggle with all kinds of storytelling! I’m never particularly confident – but the flip side is I’m not particularly afraid, either. If something seems interesting, then I’m willing to try it. The story tends to lead for me, in that usually there’s a central idea I’m exploring – let’s say k-pop girl groups – but the specific genre isn’t necessarily set in stone.
In terms of genre, I tend more towards contemporary fantasy, and have more inhibitions about writing science fiction. I sometimes feel this pressure to have more knowledge of the existing sci-fi canon before I can write it. For example: I haven’t read Dune, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or any novels by Asimov. Part of me feels like I should, but a different part tells me it’s not necessary. What’s more important is that I read the sci-fi stories I want to read – like those by Seth Dickinson or Aliette de Bodard or Sam J. Miller.
Your fantasy stories, ‘A Cup of Salt Tears’ and ‘The Oiran’s Song,’ have a delicious darkness to them. It’s a different type of darkness to the more visceral horror of stories like ‘Good Girls’ and ‘An Ocean the Colour of Bruises’— yet all of these feature mythical or supernatural creatures, often humanized overtly. What attracts you to a specific mythical being or ‘monster’? How much research goes into culturally rich stories like Oiran’s Song and Grass Cradle, Grass Lullaby?
Growing up in the Philippines, supernatural creatures and occurrences were always part of my general awareness. Ghosts and monsters are threaded into our existence, as Filipinos – they’re not just tales for us. I love writing monster stories because I feel like they say so much about human nature, human existence. That juxtaposition between what is monstrous, and what humans are capable of – that’s a really exciting space to play in, as an author.
My research process depends on the story. Philippine mythology unfortunately doesn’t have a ton of readily available sources – for those interested, I’d recommend the Aswang Project. The lack of sources is both good and bad – I don’t fall into research rabbit holes too long, but my view is less wholistic than ideal. I lean heavily on the internet, and sometimes people I know IRL – for example, to write Milagroso, I interviewed friends who had actually attended the Pahiyas festival.
The Oiran’s Song made me more nervous, because I’m writing a culture that’s not my own – so I did quite a bit more research. I feel like creators are always expected to ‘show receipts’ when they’re writing about a different culture. I’ve been a student of Japanese culture and language for a long time, and I’ve consumed lots of Japanese media, but I’m still constantly asking myself: can I be writing this story about oiran and oni? Which I think is healthy, if consistently nerve-wracking. Most of the research didn’t make its way into the actual piece, but my goal was to try and render the story as believably as possible. It’s not meant to be historically accurate. But my hope is that I made it historically and culturally respectful.
What appeals to you more – tangible horror (creatures, monsters, a physical threat) or intangible horror of the psychological variety?
Both! I enjoy how a good speculative fiction story can intertwine the two. I’m down for whatever works in a story. As a reader, I like uncertainty – when the horror isn’t overt. I just finished reading Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox; it’s the creepiest thing I’ve read in a long time – full of tension, dark humor. A lot of writers I admire do this incredibly well: Kelly Link, Karen Joy Fowler, Alice Sola Kim, Carmen Maria Machado.
There is a lot of playful Sailor Moon meta in your Hurricane Heels series, yet in your author’s note you mention that you never really got into it yourself – so why Sailor Moon as the comparison? What was your own access point to manga and the ‘magical girl’? How did you find the process of writing in a genre that is traditionally visual?
I used Sailormoon as the comparison because it’s sort of the standard for magical girls – the one people ought to know. But my access point to the genre was actually this delightful, silly anime called Akazukin Chacha. Chacha is an apprentice witch who gets into all kinds of shenanigans, but when bad guys appear, she transforms – with the power of Love, Justice, and Hope! – into the brave princess Holy-Up. I’ve also read Tokyo Mew Mew, Cardcaptor Sakura, and more recently, watched Madoka and Yuki Yuna Is A Hero, both of which are dark takes on the magical girl mythos.
In writing Hurricane Heels I wanted to strike that balance between light and dark. It was difficult, because I found myself groping for a lot of cultural cues. I really wanted to keep certain elements – the transformation trinkets, the sailor-girl outfits – while creating a world and characters that were believable. Setting the series in America was another difficulty – I got stuck figuring out how to effectively handwave why no one notices the damage. For that, I drew on Power Rangers and Pretty Cure and also had a prolonged discussion about Buffy the Vampire Slayer with two dear friends.
The ‘magical girl’ is portrayed in a specific, often uniform way and you’ve previously discussed the character archetypes in Shoujo mangas. What are your thoughts on these tropes and the visual representation of female characters? Do you feel you encounter them in other genres of speculative fiction (SF)?
I think magical girls have become a lot more nuanced, recently, but there’s also something great about keeping the genre’s traditions alive. Shoujo manga has always been very broad in its subject matter and theme, but I do find a special delight in its character archetypes – it’s like YA, in a sense, where you expect a love triangle with a brooding boy and a kind boy and you have certain expectations for how things should play out. At the same time I start to lose my patience with certain repetitive storylines. I think there’s plenty of subversion, though – Ai Yazawa does a great job of this in Nana and Paradise Kiss. Another shoujo series I really like is Kodomo no Omocha.
I don’t think I see shoujo-manga type tropes played out in other genres of speculative fiction, at least not in an overt animanga way. But I do see some parallels with other contemporary short fictionists who’ve been heavily influenced by Japanese storytelling and fanfiction. It surfaces in their work, but it’s the product of multiple influences, too.
There are a lot of sub-communities in the SF world – would you say you identify as a WOC? How do you feel about the representation of WOC in SF? What are your thoughts on categories like WOC, POC, Asian SF, Southeast Asian SF?
One time last year, my sister, mother, and I were all riding in a car together. And my sister and I were having a conversation where we referred to ourselves as women of color, and my mom was shocked. “Why are you calling yourselves women of color?” she asked.
“That’s what we are in America, mom,” I explained. “It’s just a helpful…demarcation.”
“I don’t like that,” she said. “White’s a color too!”
I don’t actually know when I started referring to myself as a POC or WOC. It happened sometime after we moved to the US, and was further driven by the (mostly online) genre community I was starting to be part of. A few months after that talk my mom said she understood, why we referred to ourselves that way, here. But in Manila I’d never really think of myself as “a POC.” It is, as others have pointed out, a very Western-centric view of identity.
Diversity is very important to me, but I confess I don’t think about it that consciously – I have that luxury, because I grew up abroad, and I had primarily my own culture to contend with. Moving to America changed that immensely. I’m way more aware of sexism and racism; of how people view immigrants, and the LGBTQ+ community. I am energized by the growing number of WOC who are both writing and being written into narratives in SF. The categories seem useful as…an indicator, but I don’t like it when they get too stifling. It’s important to have that conversation, but not to let people get boxed in – that just kills growth.
You often weave in non-English phrasing into your stories, particularly drawing from your Filipino background. Do you ever write, or want to write, completely in Filipino (or another language)? What do you think of the current state of Filipino SF and its audience?
I would love to write in Filipino, but unfortunately my language skills aren’t up to scratch. Even if Tagalog is my native language, I have yet to reach a point where I can find the appropriate word for things. I think I’d need to read way more prose in Tagalog to get there – it’s primarily a spoken language for me. The same goes for Japanese…I’ve studied it for a long time, but I’ve never really gotten past intermediate proficiency. It’s a beautiful language and I’d do more with it if I had the time. I’d love to attempt translations in both these languages someday.
As for Filipino SF – I think it’s doing well, in terms of things being produced. There’s a solid community of speculative fiction writers based in the Philippines, and they’re amazing: Eliza Victoria, Dean Alfar, Nikki Alfar, Vida Cruz, to name a few. We produce our own anthologies and the stories are of very good quality and extremely unique.
The question of audience is pretty tricky. Because it begs the follow-up – who are we writing for? Even in the Philippines, works by foreign authors (regardless of genre) tend to get more exposure than works by local authors. The genre community is very US and UK centric, because the pro publications, major cons, major workshops, publishers – they’re all based here. I notice that a lot of the authors that get attention are immigrants – myself included. I also get the sense that our stories are more difficult for non-Southeast Asians to understand. For example: my most widely read story is A Cup of Salt Tears, and I think that’s because Japanese culture is more accessible to Western audiences, because they see it more in media. I hope it evens out someday, but I think it’s going to take a long time!
You mention writing for fandoms in your bio – it’s not something that is often given much attention in literary or ‘serious’ spaces, and real life authors who have admitted to writing fanfic have been judged unkindly. In a previous interview you’ve talked about how instrumental reading fanfic was for your own craft – what fandom first drew you in? Have there been any SF fandoms which had a lasting impact on your work and style? Any embarrassing pairings you shipped?
I share my fanfic past because I want to remove that stigma you described. So much fanfic is of amazing quality. I’ve reached a point where I’m comfortable sharing my ao3 handle if asked – if I trust the person asking is well-meaning, anyway. The very first fandom I wrote for was Aqua, the 90’s pop band of Barbie Girl fame. Then I moved on to Disney’s Mulan. So – really early days! The fandoms I’ve spent the most time in are Final Fantasy, Death Note, and Black Butler – but I was pretty fandom agnostic, to be honest. I bounced around a lot.
I’ve never been immersed in classic Western SF fandoms…I’ve never watched Star Trek or Dr. Who. I do like Star Wars and I enjoyed The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, but never got into those fandoms. Though I am weak for Sirius/Lupin – I’ll always be weak for Sirius/Lupin. I don’t think they’re an embarrassing pairing at all, though! There’s no shame in liking whatever pairings you like – just be respectful towards others.
What do you hope to see more of in speculative fiction? What’s on your reading wish list?
Beautiful, lyrical stories that take place in unusual, unfamiliar landscapes. I always want more of those. I read Sofia Samatar’s Winged Histories earlier this year and was blown away – on nearly every page I asked myself, how can someone write like this? The music of her sentences, and the emotional resonance, are amazing. I also like stories that have lightness and humor even as they tackle dangerous things. Two authors that do this really well are Charlie Jane Anders and Tamsyn Muir. I always love a good fairytale retelling, too. And more Southeast Asian authors – Zen Cho’s collection Spirits Abroad is one of my favorites, and I’d love to read more work from Malaysian, Thai, Singaporean, and of course Filipino authors.
Tell us what you’re excited about at the moment, and what we can expect to see from you.
2017 hasn’t been a good year for writing writing, but I like to think the ideas are cheerfully percolating. I’ve been chipping away at certain stories for years now. One is a fantasy novella about a runaway princess and an outcast sorceress hunting a mythical bird with a healing song – it’s a riff on the Philippine legend Ang Ibong Adarna. Another is about a space pirate crew, where the members have weapons known as Triggers embedded into their bodies. Then there’s one about k-pop girl groups, and another about the bakunawa, a moon-swallowing beast. I’ve just come from the Alpha Young Writers Workshop, so all these ideas are rattling around in my head. I’ve got some day job and grad school stuff to contend with first, but if life plans work out I’ll hopefully have these to share at some point.
Final frivolous question! Scariest thing you’ve written, read or seen?
I was 10 when I saw The Ring and it had me swearing off horror movies pretty much permanently. It wasn’t even the Japanese version, which I’m told is much scarier! But I couldn’t sleep properly for weeks. I get nervous about ghosts (they’re not just tales, as I said). I’ll probably always be jumpy about girls with long hair and white dresses. Sigh.