The SEA is Ours is a steampunk anthology focusing on steampunk coming from South East Asia. A Rosarium project, the fundraiser campaign for this project surpassed its original goal and funded at 126% on the 29th of October this year.
I asked four authors who participated in this project to join me on the blog for a conversation focusing on the challenges South East Asian writers face. Joining me in this conversation are Paolo Chikiamco of Rocket Kapre, Dean Alfaro (also known as the father of Philippine Speculative Fiction), Kate Osias (Filipina writer), and Alessa Hinlo.
Here is the first part of our conversation. Please keep an eye out for the next part in this conversation series.
I love that while we are writers with Filipino roots, we all have come to genre from different walks of life and through different pathways. Would you like to share some of your backstory, how did you come into genre and specifically how did you become aware of publishing as a science fiction and fantasy writer? Would you like to share/talk about some of your gateway authors into genre.
Growing up, almost every story I read was either a science fiction or fantasy story, whether presented in the form of a novel or a comic, a show or a game. In the eighties and early nineties, science fiction and fantasy meant imported stories, usually from the West, with the notable exception of games and anime from Japan. The first novel I ever finished was part of a series (“The Guardians of the Flame” by the late Joel Rosenberg) and I quickly devoured that and moved on to my next series (The “Belgariad” and “Mallorean” quintets from the late David Eddings)… I actually don’t think I read a stand-alone novel until I’d devoured at least nine multi-book series from the likes of Terry Brooks, Piers Anthony, and the (now sadly out of canon) Star Wars Expanded Universe. I don’t think I’ve ever lost my preference for long stories and exhaustive world building as a reader and a writer both… I think my editors will attest to that.
The first time I ever read a genre work by a Filipino author was Arnold Arre’s “The Mythology Class” and it really opened my eyes, not only with regard to Philippine Mythology (which has become a passion of mine) but also to the idea that it was possible for people like me to write and publish the kinds of stories I loved to read. Of course, at the time I thought this was just comics, and while I dabbled in illustration, I knew I didn’t have the drive to develop that talent to the point I could make my own comics.
I was always fairly decent at writing though (or so I thought to myself). There wasn’t much of a local genre industry for me to aspire to, at least that I was aware of, but luckily the Internet became readily available in Manila soon after I became interested in writing my own stories — or maybe having the Internet would have inevitably led me to the realization that I could make my own stories. I cut my genre-writing teeth on online roleplaying games (both the play-by-post and play-by-email varieties) and fanfiction, particularly those fandoms with a healthy environment of critical feedback (that was the Evangelion fandom at the time).
I first became aware that there were Filipinos writing and publishing (prose) speculative fiction when I ran across two calls for submission: one for “A Time for Dragons” (edited by Vin Simbulan) and one for “The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories” (edited by Kenneth Yu). I was in Law School at the time, but the chance to be able to be a part of a Philippine genre publication was too enticing to pass up. My stories were accepted, and in the process of dealing with the editors, I discovered the Metro Manila based community of spec fic writers, particularly Dean and Niiki and the LitCritters, and the annual Philippine Speculative Fiction anthology (which was already on the fourth volume by then, and which had slipped under my radar entirely — one of the banes of the Filipiniana ghetto). They were very welcoming, and encouraged me even when my ambitions outstripped my resume. When I started up Rocket Kapre I had, what, three published stories at the time, and zero editing experience, but the community was very supportive: a few of the more experienced writers took me out to dinner and told me what I should expect as a new editor, how to deal with any pushback from self-proclaimed gatekeepers, and basically just to say that they had my back.
My mother opened the trapdoor under feet by providing a diet of fairy tales and mythology books when I was learning how to read. I fell happily into other worlds, and so fantasy was my first and greatest love among the genres. Later, that expanded to include horror, scifi, whodunits, and more as I grew older: comics, AD&D rulebooks and novels, and finally magical realism when I was in college. I remember when I was young being frustrated by the selections at the local bookstore and vowing that one day I’d write my stories. There were few Filipino authored works of interest to me (no high fantasy!), but Philippine mythology and especially folklore were things I cherished when I came upon them (rarely were they interestingly written). In university, I began to write – plays first, then fiction. I got stories published in local magazines, won a few prizes, and I thought that was that. I learned to write by reading and writing. I was not part of academe, though later my work would win my fellowships in various national-level writing workshops.
Until I was inspired by Christopher Barzak’s “Plenty” in the Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror. I loved it and saw it was published in Strange Horizons, an online venue that seemed less impossible to submit to than the print magazines. I submitted “The Kite of Stars” and made my first professional sale in 2003. Later, it was reprinted in YBF&H – which rocked my world. It showed me that it was possible for someone like me – a maverick, non-academic, non-white person to get published abroad. And if it was possible for me, then it was therefore possible for other Filipinos.
From there, I began the Philippine Speculative Fiction annuals, which are meant to help create space for speculative fiction in our country. I paid for everything out of pocket, as an independent print publisher, finally making the switch to digital format with Volume 6 of the series. I learned the ropes by doing things mtself. I began as the sole editor of the series, then was later joined by Nikki Alfar, and later (after we instituted rotating editors to prevent only a particular aesthetics or poetics from determining what was published) by Kate Osias, Alexander Osias, Vincent Simbulan, Andrew Drilon, and Charles Tan. I’m happy to share the fact that we have published many first time authors, as well as authors who would later write more and more and get published in other venues. Since 2005, we have published 11 volumes (10 annuals plus a “Best of Philippine Speculative Fiction”).
We also founded the LitCritters, which functioned as a form of workshop for speculative fiction authors. We have always been open and supportive of the writers of our genres, though this workshop has not been held with regularity in the past couple of years.
Oh – and as a spec fic author, my modern gateway authors into the kind of fiction I like to read and write include Chris Barzak, Jeffrey Ford, Kelly Link, Ted Kosmatka, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
I was fortunate to grow up in a family who had a healthy respect for fiction. (As an aside, my father chose my nickname from his favorite Sydney Sheldon book, Master of the Game.) To top it off, I went to a school that believed passionately in literature. Between my family and school, I had access to Sidney Sheldon, Robert Ludlum, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Shakespeare, Nick Joaquin and Ayn Rand, just to name a few. And because my family believed reading was important regardless of genre or topic, they also allowed me to buy all the Nancy Drews, and Sweet Valley Twins/Highs, Goosebumps, and fantasy novels that caught my fancy. I never actively labelled my choices as ‘genre’ or not ‘genre’ and, and the authority figures in my life never really made me feel bad about any of my choices. (Although I do know that one of my [Catholic] Lit teachers was mildly distressed that I had read Judith Krantz’s Princess Daisy even before sex was discussed in class.)
I lost ‘literature’ when I got to college, which is my overly dramatic way of saying that there just wasn’t time to indulge in it. Literature wasn’t a pre-requisite for the accountancy course I was taking, and between trying not to fail my major, rebelling, falling in love, and having my heart broken, it was hard to make book browsing a priority.
Fast forward to several years later. My then boyfriend (now husband), Alex Osias, introduced me to several of his friends. His friends became our friends and we all became so close that, a decade and some odd years later, we still see each other every week. Out of this friendship, the LitCritters was born.
Nearly everything I know about writing and publishing I learned from the LitCritters. The group was led by Dean Alfar, who was already an established writer then. Along with his wife Nikki, two other friends Vincent Simbulan and Andrew Drilon, and of course my husband Alex, we strove to learn the writing craft by reading. Dean took on the huge task of selecting three to four stories every week based on a theme, designing lectures, providing parameters for the occasional writing challenges and moderating the discussions. We had the responsibility of reading the stories, writing critiques (not academic ones, mind you) and essentially stay critically aware even if the story bored us to death.
I can’t emphasize enough how significant the LitCritters was for someone like me, who never really took a formal class on writing or literature, aside from the ones provided by my high school. For one thing, it was really the first time I was immersed in the short story form. For another, this was my formal introduction to Speculative Fiction. Every week for several years, we read stories we liked and hated, and loved, and completely abhorred or were bored with, all while being forced to think critically of what made stories work and what didn’t. Sometimes, we all agreed. Most of the time, we argued and pleaded and got annoyed with each other for obviously not seeing how good/how bad the story was. These discussions, along with Dean’s lectures, are where I learned and defined my own poetics.
Apart from the reading, we also of course did writing challenges. The story I have in The SEA is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia, The Unmaking of the Cuadro Amoros, was actually written because of the steampunk challenge two years ago.
My family immigrated to the United States when I was a toddler and during those early years, my grandmother lived with us. She used to be a teacher in the Philippines, so she thought it was very important to instill a love of reading and writing in me. She was my biggest fan. She’d read all the stories I wrote for school and pointed out bits of description and pieces of dialogue she loved. That encouragement was great to have early in life, because neither of my parents are big fiction readers. They approved of my reading habit since it was an “intellectual” hobby and kept me out of trouble, but it wasn’t something they did themselves. As for the writing, they meant well but they just didn’t get it. Writing for school assignments made sense because it was an academic requirement, but writing just because I had a story in my head I wanted to tell? That was harder to understand.
Even though I’ve been devouring books for about as long as I can remember, I’d say that my first introduction to SFF as a genre were the Choose Your Adventure books. I used to eat those books up and whenever I’d see a new one at the library, I’d immediately check it out. They don’t immediately seem like SFF in the traditional sense but if you stop to think about some of those endings — you get turned into a cat, a monster appears and eats you, you walk through a portal into the past — they’re 100% speculative. Maybe only the bad endings were, but since I always ended up choosing those routes, that’s what it ultimately looked like to me. In terms of formative novels, my first true exposure was through teen horror and thrillers via Christopher Pike and Lois Duncan. From there, I’d move on to L.J. Smith — and let me tell you, it was a trip to see Vampire Diaries become a hit TV show when I read those books 20 years ago! Fantasy-wise, a friend introduced me to Mercedes Lackey in middle school and her Valdemar series carried me through my high school years. Those books really captured the angst of a misunderstood, alienated teenager, telepathic white horses and all.
The funny thing about my writing is that although I’ve written stories for a good chunk of my life, I never really considered publishing as a viable thing for the longest time. That’s not something you do as an Asian-American immigrant, and especially not as the child of one. You’re supposed to get a “practical” job. Writing? Publishing? That was for other people, not me. I even say this as someone who wrote her first novel in high school (it was an epic fantasy that was heavily inspired by David Eddings and anime) and had multiple friends who, after having read said novel, asked me if I’d ever thought about pursuing publication. My answer inevitably would be: No, why?
Seeing oneself clearly can pretty hard sometimes.
I made some initial attempts at submitting a few short stories in my 20s. Even wrote a couple novels, but I went through a rough patch and took a break from writing. But things eventually got better, and I tentatively took up writing again about 4 years ago. My short story in The SEA Is Ours is the first short story I’d written and submitted during this “new” time.
From your position now, how do you see SFF and the conversations going on in SFF? What are the things that you are most concerned about and what are the particular challenges you face as a Filipino writer? Would you like to talk about how you approach these challenges and deal with them?
That’s a bit of a tough one. I try to keep up to date with things that are happening in the genre, because I do learn a lot from most any discussion (partly because I know the places/people to go to for precise articulations of opinion) and because I care about what happens in SFF as a whole and to specific people in SFF… but to be honest, I view most of the discussions as happening “over there.” Most of the SFF discussions that receive a lot of traction in the worldwide community have to do with issues of the West, focused on creators who live in the West or who are names in the West. That’s not something I find fault with, as it’s a simple fact that I can only follow English SFF news, and the locus of English SFF production is in the West. But it also means that even when the discussion turns to matters that I care about — diversity in fiction, self-publishing, the representation of women — in practical terms those discussions and any actions that spring from those actions have little immediate effect on me as an author based in Manila who primarily publishes in the Philippines. They are important discussions, and will play a role in hopefully laying a foundation of attitude and paradigm shifts that will help SFF on a global scale, but right now they are “over there.”
Take the diversity in fiction discussion — I’m sure that it has led to more eyeballs on non-Western SFF stories. But from the parts of that discussion that I’ve seen, the focus is on diversity in Western stories, from diverse authors who live in the West or have a presence in the West. And that’s fine — it could be otherwise, but I’m not saying it should be, and that’s because it’s a conversation that originated from the West. Of course that’s where the focus will be. But it’s why, while I try to follow and learn from those discussions, and try to contribute when I can… I’m an outsider looking in. And right now, I’m fine with that, though there are definitely times where I wish we had more of a voice, particularly when these issues impact friends directly.
Even when we have problems similar to those tackled in those “big” SFF discussions, ours occur in parallel with those Western-focused conversations, and not as a part of them. Most of our issues are also different from, or occur in a different context from, those of the West — by “our” here I mean for authors like me, based and published primarily in the Philippines. Training, I think, is a big issue for local authors — there’s no such thing as Clarion or Odyssey here, and while there are prestigious writers workshops such as Silliman, those aren’t really meant for beginning writers. And when I say training, I don’t just mean for authors — anyone who wants to be a developmental editor in genre fiction here is likely going to need to look for training and experience outside the country, and a lack of good editors is a blow to the development of good writers. While the SFF community here is great, it’s also not one that is easily accessible, especially if you live outside Manila. There’s a lack of… I guess you could say hubs, where local SFF writers can interact — there are no SFF-specific conventions here with a local focus, and no large, active online gathering places for local SFF writers, as opposed to, say, the local comics community. Unless you’re lucky enough to have a writing group, to be a Philippine-based SFF writer means that you train and toil largely on your own, and that’s something I wish would change.
A large part of that is because a new author may need guidance with more than just the craft. The exploitation of new authors through onerous and one-sided publishing contracts is a huge problem here, and unlike other countries, we do not have a singular Author’s Guild or equivalent organization with the reach and the clout to inform authors of their rights and fight for them. Neither are there Philippine-specific sources of information similar to “Writers Beware” or the SFWA site, where authors can do self-research — Mina Esguerra and I have tried to put up some resources on Wattpad, which is where many new authors are scouted nowadays, and I’ve worked with the National Book Development Board on some initiatives, but more can and should be done.
For more established authors, the pressing issues are largely logistical, and will be familiar to those elsewhere even if the specifics vary: discoverability, distribution, how to make a sustainable living from writing — there are very, very few writers in the Philippines who do so full time. There’s basically one major bookstore chain here, and not a lot of independent bookstores… it can be tough to just get books out, even for traditional publishers, much less self-publishers. There’s also a substantial barrier to online publishing of the paid variety in that many Filipinos don’t have credit cards or are uncomfortable with online transactions, or simply see no need to pay for content they can get an equivalent of for free.
There are plenty non-logistical issues facing writers as well, but I can’t speak to how general those are because, well, I’m one of those writers that trains and toils on my own, heh. I also didn’t come up through the usual creative writing courses or the academe, so I’m out of the loop when it comes to large swaths of the industry.Also, likely because I’m dense when it comes to those things.
Most of my concerns are local (to my country) as I felt (and still feel) like an outlier. Most of the SFF concerns are framed from a Western POV – which is not to say that I do not care about any of it, but that I tend to focus primarily on what is here. This includes/included the struggle of spec fic versus domestic/social realism, issues of Nationalism in writing (how does any of the spec fic we produce help our country/countrymen, issues of language (English versus the other languages in the Philippines), Post-Colonial concerns (the quest for what it means to a Filipino writer writing spec fic – are we required to have Filipino characters; does this exoticize us, etc).
Do we write for Filipinos? Do we write for international markets? These are conversations I have with young writers here. Part of the dream is being published. Being published here (in a magazine or by a big publisher with your own collection or novel) is one thing. Getting published abroad is another.
It’s Charles Tan who I turn to when there is some SFF conversation happening online, for clarity.
First, a caveat. I’m not really ‘on the grid’, so to speak. I’m not active in either international or local associations, and my interaction on the internet is primarily dictated by Facebook (which means that I’m out of touch with all the issues that happen on twitter or blogs, but I’m pretty up to date with all the cute cat videos.)
Thankfully, I still do have access to various writers (either through Facebook or real life) who are more active than me, and through them, I do get a glimpse of what’s happening outside. From my limited vantage point, I see that there’s a lot happening in the SFF world, a lot of which revolves around diversity and the need for various voices and stories to be heard. I also know that ‘ownership’ is a hot topic – who gets to write about what story; who gets to be more authentic; whether authenticity matters, even, in spaces where being realistic is not always a priority.
I can’t really talk about the arguments there because I’m not knowledgeable enough to even string a coherent argument. So I’ll just focus on your latter question: the challenges I personally face.
One of my biggest issues in writing is how to insert my ‘Filipino-ness’. I know it sounds silly, but I always second guess myself: does it sound Filipino without it being grammatically incorrect? did I put too many Filipino words so that I’m exoticizing my own culture? if I just say it out right, is too on the nose?
A story I’m currently writing has a Filipina as a protagonist. In the current version, the story opens with her drinking beer, in another planet, thinking in English. And here I am wondering – how would readers know she’s Filipina? Followed closely by the next question, does it matter?
The answer to the second question is: of course it does. It does to me. But whether it should matter, I don’t know. I always get the feeling (not proven) that people are looking for markers so that they can evaluate a story with a given framework. Without clearly identifiable markers, people will assume a wrong framework which could make the character in the story sound less realistic. So I go around and around in circles, questioning my own authenticity, while wondering why it is so important when, intellectually, characters don’t always have to carry their cultural markers with them, as not all stories revolve around it.
So how do I handle these challenges? I just write. Which means that many of my issues are really unresolved and I struggle with them on a daily basis. But I keep on writing and so far, I’ve seen that I’m beginning to write more and more stories with characters that reflect a more modern Filipino sensibility – one that is somewhat Malay, somewhat Latin American, somewhat its own thing, really. And I just hope that through craft and determination the stories I write will resonate with other people regardless of race.
Unlike Dean, Paolo & Kate, the current conversations in SFF (along with the overlapping ones in YA) are in my yard, so to speak. I’m not the outsider looking in. These are conversations that directly affect me as both as POC reader and writer in the U.S. And having followed them for a long time — I was there when Racefail began, you guys — I can definitely say that change is happening. It’sslow, glacial really, but that’s not a surprise. Western traditional publishing is not exactly known for its lightning fast speed.
As these conversations have evolved over the 6-7 years, my main concerns right now deal with whose stories are being told and how. I think this push for diversity is great because looking back, whiteness pervaded the books I read growing up. It would have been nice to encounter a character or two like me growing up in some of those teen thrillers and fantasy novels (that wasn’t a villain). But as more diverse stories get published, the more uneasy I get — especially with novels. In those cases, many of the writers aren’t actually members of the marginalized populations being written about. The SFF genre, in particular, has a history of this with Asian culture. Asian fantasy novels, for example, have been written for a very long time but usually by white authors. Leaving aside the othering and fetishizing that can arise from that, I think this has contributed to existing difficulties for Asian writers trying to publish Asian fantasies. When Asian culture has been written from an outsider POV for literally decades, how can someone writing from an insider POV break through the wall that’s formed unconsciously or not?
Actually, I had a recent experience related to this. My writers group was workshopping a dark fantasy story of mine that draws upon some Filipino folklore, and the other members were pretty polarized. Some people wanted me to spell out every single cultural detail because it didn’t use the standard faux-European setting of your average fantasy story and they felt like “a regular reader would have no context to understand the world” while others thought the story was perfectly fine in that aspect and that lacking pre-existing knowledge of Filipino folklore didn’t preclude their comprehension and enjoyment of the story. (To be clear, none of the other members of my writers group are Filipino and only one of them is remotely familiar with the folklore I was using.) And that goes to the heart of the challenges a POC writer in the West will face. Some people will get what you’re trying to do and be fine with the unfamiliar elements, and others will not. And I, as a writer, must decide whether I care about pursuing the audience that wants every tidbit of cultural knowledge spelled out, even to the detriment of the story’s voice and narrative, or do I instead focus on the readers who will grasp those aspects of the story without prompting — even though it may limit my audience.
There are no easy answers. Every writer is different, but those are things they have to make peace with or else lose their unique voice. I know I personally struggle with issues of authenticity and whether I have any right to use Filipino folklore in my work. Which sounds ridiculous, because that has clearly never stopped white American writers from raiding other cultures for their writing and I am at least Filipino-American, but I want to be respectful. I don’t want to contribute to harmful ideas or tropes. That’s not good either. But I also come at it from the direction of “These are influences, these are inspirations,” so I’m also keenly aware my interpretations may not be 100% “right.” The irony of all this is that the burden wouldn’t be so heavy if there were more widely available English-language stories that draw upon Filipino culture and lore. There are a thousand different interpretations of the Fae in Western SFF. No one points at one and says, “That’s wrong.” But as a Filipino writer who uses Filipino culture and lore in her work, I am constantly worried that someone will point at me and say, “You’re wrong. Sit down.”
In the end, I deal with these doubts and struggles the same way I deal with most everything else in my life. I just say, “Fuck it, let’s do this.” and live with the consequences whatever they may be. Hopefully, my writing will find its audience. If not, well, the only thing left to do is try again.
Is that the way you should do it? I don’t know. But it helps me.