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Interview: JY Yang

JY Yang is the author of The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune. They are also a lapsed journalist, a former practicing scientist, and a master of hermitry. A queer, non-binary, postcolonial intersectional feminist, they have over two dozen pieces of short fiction published. They live in Singapore, where they work as a science communicator, and have an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. Find out more about them and their work at jyyang.com.

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The Descent of Monsters is the third novella of your silkpunk fantasy Tensorate series. This volume is centered on an investigation into atrocities committed at Rewar Teng Institute, a classified research facility, and an experiment that got loose and left no survivors. And the government is making sure to cover it all up. How did this story come together for you?

God, writing this story was a real trip. When Descent was originally pitched, it was a book meant to focus on the backstory of Rider, who appears in The Red Threads of Heaven, and it was nothing but a series of letters written from Rider to Mokoya, the protagonist of Red Threads, as they travelled to Rewar Teng. But the more I wrote of it, the more I realized I cared less about what had happened in the past than what was happening in the fictive present of the story. When my editor, Carl, agreed with me that the first draft wasn’t working, I reworked the entire thing with a different tack. Based on what was going on in the world—I guess you could say I was partly inspired by current events—I decided to make the story about a criminal investigation where the investigator would be repeatedly stymied by the state apparatus trying to keep its secrets to its chest. It would be one more re-draft before I came up with something everybody liked. A good chunk of 2017 was spent trying to get this novella right, and I’m still not convinced that it worked.

I think it does! Now, the first two novellas of the series, The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune, are written in third-person. These books are about a pair of twins, Mokoya and Akeha, children of the Protector, supreme leader of the books’ empire. The Descent of Monsters is told in letters, personal diaries, government reports, and interrogation transcripts. How did you decide to write this one in epistolary format?

I’ve been using this novella series as a place to experiment with format. Red Threads, which I wrote first, had the most conventional, linear storytelling. Black Tides stitched together four novelettes. And then you have this one, which is told in epistolary format, and the next, which has been planned as a drunken monologue.

You’ve listed David Mitchell, Helen Oyeyemi, and William Gibson as your favorite authors and biggest influences. In what ways have their work made an impact on Descent?

I see you’ve Googled me, at least. I don’t know if I’d characterize those sentiments as accurate now. I love what Mitchell and Oyeyemi do with language and story structure, and their work was an important part of my MA year, where I slowly concretized what I wanted out of my authorial voice. I like their work a lot; I don’t know if they influenced the writing of the Tensorate series at all.

Gibson was one of the first writers I remember wanting to emulate, back in my teens. (I am now thirty-five years old.) Certainly, I had aspirations of being a writer of cyberpunk when I was just starting out, and as a result of that lingering desire, a lot of the short stories I sold early on were about the collusion of AI and abuse of state power. But I just re-read some of Gibson’s classic works in the last year (partly because I thought that kind of voice would suit another project I was doing), and I realized that as a writer, I had changed enough in terms of what I wanted out of my art that I didn’t want to write in that space and in that mode anymore. I still admire Gibson’s work immensely; it’s just not what I want to do as a writer. It’s interesting how your influences shape you at different points in your career. Ask me again in ten years and I’ll probably have a different answer.

What kind of feedback have you been getting from readers about the series so far?

I’ve been getting really good feedback about the series! I get comments from queer and non-binary people who really appreciate seeing a different gender system and non-binary pronouns on the page. Asian readers have told me how much they loved seeing familiar concepts (and Hokkien swearwords) in a fantasy book. And generally, people have loved the worldbuilding and the characters in the books. I’m glad the stories I tell are connecting with so many readers.

In one of the interrogation transcripts of Descent, Rider says, “I am not lying. Nor am I a lady, but I don’t expect you to understand.” Rider goes by the singular they gender pronoun. Are they referring to their non-binary identity, and if so, how much of Rider’s gender identity is informed by your own?

Rider is non-binary, but I didn’t identify as NB when I created their character: I just wanted to write a character who was non-binary, because I felt like the story needed one. It was the process of writing Akeha—who did not start out as a non-binary character—where I discovered that I myself was non-binary, and I was working out all my non-binary feels with this character who never had a particular inclination towards gender, but was forced to pick one to identify as because of social pressures. In Descent, Akeha now uses non-binary they/them pronouns, because they’ve finally figured out it’s a thing they can do.

By the way, I noticed that Mokoya and Akeha aren’t the only twins in the series. We find out that Rider is searching for their missing twin, and their quest emerges as one of the arcs in Descent. Where does your fascination with twins come from?

I blame Star Wars!! No, seriously though. It seemed like a fun thing to do.

Investigator Chuwan is our primary guide through the story. We get to know her through her government reports on Rewar Teng and her diary entries. She knows she’s being played by the state. I love how her world-weariness and sardonic humor come through in her personal writing. How did you come up with her character?

A lot of this novella was fuelled by my experience as a civil servant and a journalist in Singapore, and my friends’ experiences pushing against the establishment as activists. In the beginning, I struggled with finding the right voice for Chuwan, but once I’d discovered this angry, sarcastic, and sweary person, everything just went down right. I think that when you’re working against something as powerful and all-encompassing as the state, humor and sarcasm are sometimes the only coping mechanisms you have against existential despair.

Speaking of pushing against the establishment, Descent reads like social commentary on authoritarian regimes, one of the key themes. The monsters in the title seem to refer to the government officials eager to conceal information about their experiments as much as it refers to the creatures spawned from those experiments.

Titles are weird; for Descent in particular, I came up with a placeholder when the book was no more than a one-paragraph synopsis, and we just never found anything better. The title was meant to be a meditation on what we consider human vs. what we consider monstrous, but the novella changed a lot from when I first conceived of it to what we actually put to print. You’re right in that I often make social commentary on authoritarian regimes in my stories. Write what you know, and all that.

At one point in the novella, Rider imagines Mokoya saying, “Cruel as the fates might be, they cannot match the cruelty of humans.” I feel like this line sums up another one of the major themes of this novella, which is in line with the cruelty of authoritarian regimes.

It’s always interesting to see what people get out of a work thematically. I mentioned this at a panel I spoke at recently, but I’m a deep pessimist about human nature. The question was about victory conditions, and I said I didn’t see one for humanity. People are assholes, have been and always will be. The best we can do is to recognize this and mitigate that assholic nature when we can. I think, ultimately, that’s what most of my stories end up being about. There are always going to be people being assholes, and there are going to people trying to stop people being assholes. The best we can hope for is that the side of the anti-assholes wins.

In the worldbuilding of Descent, you devised a magic system called Slackcraft, which can be learned by anyone, but the training is difficult and requires years of mastery. What’s the story behind calling it Slackcraft?

It’s just nomenclature! I picked it because it sounded cool, and I was playing with ideas of tension/slack. There’s nothing more to it, really.

In your great Twitter thread about worldbuilding (bit.ly/2GXXyne), you wrote that you didn’t do any historical research for the series. You also mentioned that #OwnVoices authors are under a lot of pressure when drawing from their own cultures for a work of fiction. I was wondering if you could go more into this and talk about how this pressure affects #OwnVoices authors.

I said what I wanted to in that thread. A perhaps unintended side effect of the #OwnVoices movement is the immense pressure on marginalized writers for their works to be authentic, or at least the arbiters of authenticity, without deeper examination as to what this authenticity is. I think there’s a conflation between authenticity and accuracy as pushed by the majority in which only marginalized writers can write authentically (accurately) about their marginalizations, which turns into “marginalized writers must write authentically (accurately) about their marginalizations,” which slides into policing how marginalized writers write. I’ve seen people getting dinged for not representing cultural practices accurately, when in fact what it meant was “this does not line up with the precise way I do this cultural practice.”

The truth is that no one marginalized creator can accurately speak for their entire community, because marginalized communities are not a monolith. This is particularly true when you talk about cultural diasporas, which are differently affected by the long, grasping fingers of colonialism. Authenticity, to me, is a matter of feeling, not fact—which is to say, a marginalized writer can write authentically about their culture without it being accurate. I think the mainstream puts a lot of worth on accuracy, because they treat #OwnVoices stuff as cultural tourism—they expect to learn something about the creator’s marginalizations from reading their work. But we’re not here to teach outsiders about our culture. Our art is an expression of the self, it’s about our feelings, it’s about what we want to put into the world. To me, an #OwnVoices work of art is always authentic, whether or not it passes whatever bar of accuracy put to it.

(I have a whole other tangent about how authenticity itself is not above reproach, but that’s a conversation for another day.)

When can we expect to see the next installment of the Tensorate novellas? And what can you tell us about it?

Well, Descent comes out on the 31st of July. The novella due after that (tentatively titled The Ascent To Heaven) is due on the shelves sometime in the fall of next year, I do believe. I owe the first draft in September. It’s going to be yet another experimental piece, the Protector’s backstory told as a drunken monologue, by her one-time lover turned nemesis, Lady Han. It ought to be fun! Maybe I’ll have more angry, stabby baby Sanao twins. More Sonami as she grows up. Maybe!

What’s the next project you’re working on that you can tell us about?

Ooh. My next big thing is going to be a novel! I have a couple of projects bubbling in the kitchen, but the first one I’m going to finish is space adventure. It’s Joan of Arc in space. My agent loves the outline I’ve sent him, and I’m pretty excited about it. That’s all I’m going to say!

Is there anything else you’d like your readers to know?

I really appreciate all the support and love the series has been getting so far! When I first sent Red Threads to my editor, I had no idea if the book would even sell, and I could not have imagined the kind of reception it would eventually get. So thank you all so much.

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Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.