Right from the start, “Secondhand Bodies” hits the reader with issues of fat shaming, hurtful body image, and family tensions, very real issues for many young men and women today. Can you tell us a little about what inspired the story?
I’ve had the idea for a body-swapping SF story in my head for quite a number of years, I think; it’s just one of those things that occupies my attention every now and then, possibly to a far unhealthier extent than it should. The human body simultaneously fascinates and repulses me, and I’ve had a lot of thoughts about the body as object in terms of state-slash-medical control. All of that was sort of swirling around the idea of a world where people have the ability to exchange their bodies by surgical means. Over the years there were several attempts to tackle this idea, but none of them made it out of gestation. What finally pulled a story out of the primordial soup and into being was the realization that of course, this was going to be a story about body policing and how it intersects with race/class/gender. Once I had that baby spine, that neural tube to coalesce things around, everything else fell into place: the deeply dislikeable protagonist, the obsession of the upper class with appearance, the tension between desire and exotification, fetish.
This story is also an exploration of privilege: wealth; race; appearance. What spoke to me was how you turned the stereotype of the rich, controlling man on its ear. As a writer, how do you continue to challenge yourself in your exploration of new ideas?
I’ll admit that writing this story wasn’t easy, I ran into more than my fair share of bumps, but I didn’t specifically set out to challenge myself with this story, or indeed with any new instance of writing I commit! I work on ideas that catch my imagination, and I think the challenges present themselves as I start to pin idea-bits down to the story map. The hard part in writing this story, in particular, was how I might take the POV of an extremely unpleasant person, someone who’s not just racist but also arrogant and manipulative, and go into her head and write from her sort of worldview, but not have the story wind up racist and body-shaming, which would be exactly the opposite of what I wanted. In particular, I didn’t want redemption for Agatha. I didn’t want her to come to some realization of the error of her ways, I didn’t want people to be like “oh, she’s all right after all.” She had to be horrible throughout. So I had to find some other way of expressing authorial displeasure with her way of thinking. Predictably, for me, that path led me to a place of death and ruin. I’m just surprised I didn’t set anything on fire this time.
The near-future setting resonates throughout the story, familiar enough to make the reader comfortable, different enough to encourage the imagination. When crafting a story, how much thought do you give the setting, building the world the characters inhabit?
Honestly, I’m terrible at worldbuilding. I’ll sit down and work out a world and think I’ve got it all mapped out, then halfway through writing the story I’ll trip over a pothole I didn’t realize was there and get stalled because I’ll have no idea what to fill it up with. And I’ll agonise over it for ages because worldbuilding is something I take fairly seriously. I’m of the opinion that setting shapes character as much as anything else, so I have to make sure all the pieces I put into place make sense from a narrative point of view. This is the disease of the meticulous planner, I think.
How much of your own life, experiences, and dreams went into “Secondhand Bodies”?
I think you might have misspelled “life, experiences, and insecurities”! I wouldn’t say I particularly identify with Agatha, but a lot of her body-image issues are emotionally drawn from my own struggles with the same. I’ve definitely done the thing where I stand in front of the mirror and poke my belly-fat with a mixture of disgust and resignation, so that’s the part of me that’s gone into the story. Definitely I wanted to show a different side to her ugliness, that despite all her privileges and abuse thereof, she in turn is also a victim of this social pressure on women to be unattainably perfect.
Everything else, though, is largely drawn from my experiences with interacting with the upper class in Singapore, the bankers and dentists and business owners. When I was young, I got into a program that transferred me into one of the nation’s elite primary schools for girls. Singapore’s enrollment system gives preference to children who already have a sibling in the school, so my younger sister eventually managed to enroll there as well. Neither of us had a good time at this school—we both agree on this. My mother, though, joined the Parent Volunteer Group, and that’s how she, a working-class housewife, ended up in a social circle full of wealthy socialites. In local parlance we call them tai-tais, and the fact that the phrase is a Chinese one is no coincidence. There would be all these social events, Christmases and drive-up trips to Malaysia, and we hived off into tribes—the kids oblivious and frolicking, the dads off to one side, and the mums gossiping. I enjoyed these trips—social inequality hardly matters when you’re twelve and having a great time playing Marco Polo in a swimming pool. But my mother came back with stories from the ladies’ table, and those were horrifying: shame at having to buy themselves a medium-sized pair of pants, frank judgement of their daughters’ bodies, and discussion of plastic surgery to fix the areas they thought were “not so nice.” We were all twelve and below! It’s a problem, I think, when children become seen as extensions of their parents’ social status.
You have a strong digital presence, whether posting on Twitter, maintaining your website, or promoting the accomplishments of others. How do you see the ever-changing face of the Internet influencing the works and ideas of future writers?
That’s a hefty question! I honestly don’t think I’m in a position to predict how the Internet of the future will affect the craft of these unnamed and unformed putative future writers. What I can talk about is how the Internet has influenced the development of my work. There are people that I’ve met, and schools of thought that I’ve encountered, that have shaped the kinds of stories I want to tell. A major thread that runs through “Secondhand Bodies,” for example, is the (often unexamined) racial privilege that Chinese people have in Chinese-controlled Singapore. That’s something I definitely credit friends and activists I met online for having hammered into my thickly privileged skull in the last few years. I’m still learning, I’m always learning, and the Internet is a great place for learning.
What’s next for JY Yang? Are there any upcoming projects eager readers can look forward to?
I’m contributing to a few anthology projects that are in the works, and I can’t talk about most of them yet, although I will when I can! One that I can mention, and that I’m incredibly excited about, is the Elements anthology (www.elementsanthology.com). It’s a comics anthology written and illustrated by creators of colour, and I’ll be contributing a story to it. I’ve been paired with a wonderfully talented artist, Yasmin Liang, and I’ve probably already said how excited I am about this, but I’ll say it again: I am immensely excited by this.
Otherwise, I’m working on a novel as part of my Creative Writing MA/MFA at the University of East Anglia, which is a ton of fun because I’ve never worked on something of that length before. It’s set in near-future alternate Singapore, in a world boiled from the bones of a short story I had (“Mothers’ Day,” in LONTAR #3—bit.ly/lontar3), it’s got four POV protagonists, and I’m going to completely mess it up. I know. I’ve started to blog about the process, which I hope might be illuminating to other short story writers who might be thinking of tackling a novel project for the first time.
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