On August 2012, Expanded Horizons published Chang’e Dashes from the Moon. It was Benjanun Sriduangkaew‘s first publication and since then she’s gone on to publish stories in a variety of places including Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld Magazine, Giganotasaurus and the highly praised Clockwork Phoenix 4. Chang’e Dashes to the Moon was included in the Heiresses of Russ anthology (released in 2013). Other places where her work can be found include the postcolonial sff anthology, We See a Different Frontier and the upcoming The End of the Road anthology edited by Jonathan Oliver (Solaris).
In 2014, Benjanun will be up for the Campbell Award. Here, we talk about her work, influences and her impression of genre in Thailand.
How long have you been writing SFF and what was your first exposure to the genre?
I’m a very late bloomer – I only started writing at all in 2011, in my early thirties, making that nearly three years now. Up until 2010 I was a reader of magic realism and contemporary lit – though arguably magic realism is speculative! Several of my favorite writers always blurred the line, Murakami and A. S. Byatt… and Jan Morris’ accounts of Hav, a fictional city. Making forays into SFF felt like a logical progression. I would say Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake was one of the first ‘proper’ SFF novels I ever read. Thai romance novels are often heavy with fantasy elements too, reincarnated lovers, time travel, spiritual encounters. I’ve been reading those forever and continue to, they make wonderful comfort reading.
You mentioned that romance novels in Thailand are heavy with fantastic elements. What about literature in general? Is there a divide between what is “literary” and what isn’t? Is the boundary between genres more fluid/relaxed than the boundaries in the West (for instance)?
There is a divide – tongue in cheek I’d say it lies between works that are likely to win the S.E.A. Write and works that aren’t likely to… but one of my most admired writers, Win Lyovarin, has been a S.E.A. Write winner: twice! He’s a huge proponent of science fiction and doesn’t shy away from calling himself a science fiction writer, though he writes a lot of other things too, if I recall right it was a political novella that earned him one of his S.E.A. Writes. Wuthichat Choomsanit, another S.E.A. Write winner, won with a fabulist short story collection.
I’ll add that science fiction is not thought of as un-literary – when I tell anyone from home I read and write science fiction I’m likelier to get admiring looks than not. Science fiction’s thought of as intellectual, a little inaccessible in that you ‘need’ some background in science to appreciate it. I’ve tried to explain that this isn’t the case, to little avail! I’m absolutely terrible with technology and yet here I am, telling stories of cyborgs and artificial intelligence.
The largest divide would be between serious literature and Japanese-inspired titles very much like ‘light novels’, which have stylized cartoon covers and are aimed at teenagers. They are thick on romance, fantasy elements, and are written in simple language.
Your reply makes me wonder what the market is like for genre in Thailand. Are there publications/magazines that publish sf/f from local writers?
I don’t know of any genre-specific publishers and while many widely circulated magazines include serials or short stories, I don’t believe any is purely fiction-based and none (again to my knowledge) is geared toward any single genre. I recall a serial published in Image, one of the most-read magazines in Thailand, that was speculative in nature… it involved a body or identity switch? The title and author, unfortunately, escape me at the moment.
But owing to science fiction being considered educational – not always true, but not an impression I’m pressed to disprove! – there are initiatives to encourage young readers to try more of it. Win Lyovarin has been known to say that it could motivate young readers to pursue studies and careers in the sciences.
On a more personal note, would you like to share with us the reasons behind your decision to write in English and to publish outside of Thailand?
My decision to write and publish in English was born of not being sure where to get started if I wanted to publish in Thai. The submission process for English-language speculative zines is much more transparent, with clear guidelines. I like instructions that are laid out nicely and easy to follow! Language was a barrier initially and I had to struggle with not being sure that my English is 100% good enough.
Of the stories you’ve had published (or accepted for publication) which one are you proudest of and why? Would you like to talk about that story?
Ohh, that’s a really tough question, it’s like picking your favorite baby. I’ll narrow it down to this year and say ‘The Bees Her Heart, the Hive Her Belly’, which appears in Mike Allen’s Clockwork Phoenix 4. For one, I got to write bees! *g*
I wrote it with Mike in mind, and when I sent it out had my stomach absolutely in knots. Happily he liked it! One review invoked Alice in Wonderland to compare it to, which is wonderfully flattering. I wrote it with an eye for a magic realist angle to science fiction while staying true to both, so there are AIs and cyborgs and space travel, but there are also people with bees and porpoises for hearts. Picking the animals was good fun too! C:
Your story, Chang’e Dashes to the Moon has been included in the Heiresses of Russ anthology. What was the inspiration for that story and how does it feel to know that it’s being so well-received?
I don’t think there was a specific inspiration beyond that I wanted to write more of the characters, Chang’e and Houyi from my very long novelette ‘Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon’ (published, appropriately, at GigaNotoSaurus). Contemporary Hong Kong struck me as the perfect choice for it. It’s one of my less complicated stories but I’m really fond of it – so much so I wrote a whole novella to follow it up. I’m glad other people liked it too, and grateful to editors Tenea D. Johnson and Steve Berman for including it in this year’s Heiresses of Russ
Are there Thai writers whose work you wish could be translated into English?
I’d love to see Nick and Pim by Her Royal Highness Princess Vipavadeerangsit translated, though it’s not speculative. It’s one of the sweetest books I’ve ever read, a romantic epistolary written with the conceit of two dogs, Nick the boxer and Pim the poodle, communicating with each other. Erm – not a romance between the dogs, it’s their master and mistress who are in love. But yes, it’s incredibly heartwarming, engaging, and written with wonderful sensitivity.
What are you working on right now? Are you working on a novel or a novella? Would you like to tell us a little bit about it?
I’m working on my second novella! My first one will, very hopefully, see the light of day next year though it’s not all settled yet: it’s a direct sequel to ‘Chang’e’ set in contemporary Hong Kong. The other one is a sprawling sci-fi in the same universe as ‘Courtship’, ‘Bees’ and ‘Annex’; this one has been touched in part by Kameron Hurley’s visceral, brilliant fiction.
What do you hope people will take away from the stories you’ve written and published?
I think of short stories as presenting a question, even if it’s something as simple as ‘how will the characters get what they want?’ It’s my hope that readers will be engaged by that question even if the story isn’t presenting a direct answer – so that’s what I hope they take away: a question. But I also hope to excite a sense of wonder and a sympathetic interest, when possible.
Your work has also been included in We See a Different Frontier and speaks to the experience of loss and the erasure of cultural identity. Would you like to tell us a bit more about the background of your story?
I’m leery of saying anything much about any story since I feel fiction should stand alone, but I’ll say that the story is meant to be near-future. Erm, I can’t say anything specific inspired it since that’s not how I write generally, but seeing the shape and atmosphere of a major city change does inform the story a lot.
Finally, can you tell us where we can expect to see your work in soon?
I’ll have a story in Scigentasy soon as well as in Jonathan Oliver’s The End of the Road. Coincidentally, both are historical fantasy taking place in pre-industrial Thailand.
Where can we find you on the internet?
*Note: Since the publication of this interview, Sriduangkaew has been outed as the vicious rage/hate blogger Winterfox/RequiresHate. A complete report by Laura J. Mixon can be read here: A Report on Damage Done by One Individual Under Several Names.