I enjoyed how the fantastical and everyday elements bled into each other with very little explanation. Indeed, one of the explanations was so casual it made me smile because it reminded me it was a fantasy story and not to worry about complex rule sets when it comes to the fantastic. Why chose this approach vs. more conventional models?
“Show, don’t tell” seems to be a very basic and conventional approach in storytelling, which is what I went with. I didn’t bother explaining much because it is a fantasy story—the pleasure of reading a SFF story, as Nalo Hopkinson reminds us in our MFA SF reading group, lies in being able to figure out the details and rules without handholding. A story set in our world doesn’t stop to give you details because the story assumes you’ll pick it up along the way. The reader only needs to be told a few things. If I had set this in a secondary world, I might have given more explanations, but this is, as you say, everyday: Death is an everyday thing; considerations of the afterlife are mundane, as far as humans go; your mother making an unwelcome visit is probably also pretty quotidian, as far as I am concerned. Cheng Beng and the Hungry Ghost Festival are annual occurrences, and my intended audience knows what they are. (And if you didn’t know, well, now ya know.)
Since the setting and most of the elements are everyday for me, even what might be called the fantastical—I don’t think I’m the only person who has considered the metaphysical logistics of the religion they were raised in—I didn’t see it as necessary to worry about how to approach the telling of the story. It’s set in our world with very commonplace relations, and the story hinges on those relations.
The presence and importance of family after death is something that many stories play for horror or laughs in genre fiction, but in Chinese culture there is a strong tradition of ancestor worship as a positive and normal part of “living” existence. What did that provide you in terms of techniques to tell this story?
“Technique” implies a complexity of thought in laying out the story, when I wrote it within four days of arriving at Clarion 2016 (and edited a few months later with feedback from my classmates and Kelly Link). I started with a premise—“Singaporean matriarch gets a fish spa coupon in the afterlife”—and worked from there, which was me mostly answering a series of basic character biography questions. Ancestor worship (which feels like such a misnomer; caring about the comfort and opinions of your family members after death isn’t really worshiping them, and not all ancestors get deified) is not necessarily a positive thing, it’s just a thing you do, like celebrating Christmas even if you don’t believe in Jesus Christ being born in December. (There’s probably a bit of Pascal’s wager involved, too.) Writing about Cheng Beng provides me no more technique than writing about Halloween would provide some technique to the average American.
Just because we have this tradition doesn’t mean we don’t play the concepts associated with them for horror or comedy, though. I’ve seen horror stories set around Hungry Ghost Festival, and comedy stories, too. While cemeteries can be creepy places, cemeteries by themselves are not intrinsically sites of horror, and going to clean cemeteries doesn’t always have comedic value. I’ve not read as many Cheng Beng stories, which is probably me not paying attention, but it’s the festival when we tend to the comfort of dead family so they won’t fuck with us, as opposed to the Hungry Ghost Festival in which we entertain and feed dead strangers so they won’t fuck with us. Either way, there are a lot of really great Hong Kong movies with dead ancestors. (My favorite is Wu Yen, about the historical bandit queen who marries an actual king. The iconic Anita Mui plays the hopeless king and his eight-generations-dead ancestor whose rest is disturbed by the presence of a mischievous gender-bending spirit in his great-great-great-great-great grandson’s home.)
Anyway, I really thought this story was going to be funnier than it actually turned out to be. But the story I ended up wanting to tell wasn’t one to play for horror or laughs.
The story demonstrates that the worries of living days carry on into Underworld, and that even in death reconciliation of a kind is possible. Why end on this note?
That would be asking me to commit to an interpretation of the story for the reader. I look forward to seeing how people read this story.
Reconciliation, to me, in its meaning of “to bring back together,” implies that all parties have openly communicated with each other to restore relations. It implies a kind of forgiveness, and releasing each other from the past. I imagine some people will see a relationship between mother and daughter worth salvaging. I do not subscribe to the notion that it is necessary, or even desirable, to tidy up one’s relationship to one’s parents according to common wisdom of what that relationship should be. People get to have complicated relationships with their families, and leave it at that. As in life, so too in death.
I finished on the note I did because it was the end that I felt to be most satisfying and realistic for the story I wanted to tell. There’s a bit of wish fulfillment and there’s a lack thereof, there’s a bit of tragedy, there’s a bit of bittersweetness, and there’s a bit of acceptance. I had to come to a logical conclusion for a relationship between a dead parent who lacked the self-awareness to understand how she was damaging her child in life and the living child who has to live with that damage, from the perspective of the parent. This was the only ending I could think of (in the four days I had to write this before my turn to workshop) that wasn’t twee and allowed for some protagonist growth.
The symbolism of change and constants (the shifting nature of hell, the creation of a roller coaster) is bridged by a mother’s love for her daughter. Did you start with a theme and build out? How was the story initiated and were there other thematic drivers for it?
Well, you are certainly getting more out of specific things in the story than I put in. (I put the roller coaster in there because I thought to myself, “if I was dead in the Underworld with nothing on my schedule to keep myself alive in a sick capitalist system, what would I like the living to send to me to occupy my now-copious spare time?” and wouldn’t it be fun if part of the answer was roller coasters.)
Imagine two writers—me and Singaporean urban fantasy writer Joyce Chng—at the Doctor Fish spa on the second floor of the Singapore Flyer, talking about writing stories set specifically in our context. (A visit to the fish spa is our tradition for when I visit Singapore.) And we decide, apropos of nothing, or perhaps in the grand tradition of Mary Shelley and her fellow nerds, that we shall each write a story featuring a fish spa. (Joyce recently published her fish spa story at Rambutan Literary!) I knew I wanted to set it in the afterlife, but I didn’t have a character: Who should she be? Why is she getting a fish spa experience in the afterlife? Why is she dead? etc., etc., etc.
Later, at an ICFA two years ago, I did a reading with the inimitable Nisi Shawl and Sam J. Miller, wherein the latter read his Clarkesworld Nebula-nominated story “When Your Child Strays From God.” He mentioned choosing to write from the perspective of people he didn’t really like, which fascinated me. So I picked a kind of person I like very little: the figure of the parent who is absolutely sure of how their children’s lives should be like, whose self-worth is tied to how they are perceived by the society of their status, and who thinks that their children are extensions and reflections of themselves, which leads to conflict with their children. I grew up with such a parent, and I have so many angry, sad questions about them. This story tries to answer a question, or two, in one way.
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