LONTAR #10 Interview 3 of 3: Dean Francis Alfar

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    To celebrate the tenth and final, double-sized issue of LONTAR, we have three exclusive short interviews conducted by founding editor Jason Erik Lundberg. The third is with Dean Francis Alfar, whose novel Salamanca has been serialised in the journal in three parts, with the concluding instalment anchoring this issue. Alfar is considered the godfather of Philippine speculative fiction, and his writing has won numerous awards, including the Palanca Award Grand Prize for the Novel (the Philippines’ version of the Pulitzer Prize).

    Jason Erik Lundberg: Salamanca celebrated its 10th anniversary last year, with a reissue in the Philippines by Anvil Publishing and serialisation in LONTAR. What does the novel mean to you a decade on? Has your attitude to it changed in those ten years?

    Dean Francis Alfar: Salamanca is very special because it came at a point in my writing life when I didn’t know if I had it in me to write a novel. I had written plays and short fiction but the prospect of tackling the novelistic space was daunting. Because I was able to write it—then have it win a prize, then get published, then still have legs ten years later—is very meaningful to me: it shows that fear, when conquered, has the potential to transform into something truly magical. It showed me that I shouldn’t be intimidated by something new, and this is a life lesson I have taken to heart.

    Because the book has become required reading in some universities, I get notes from readers who are surprised that a novel written by one of their own countrymen could be moving and resonant. I’m always moved when new readers who’ve discovered the book reach out, inspired that if I could do something, then they could do something as well.

     

    JEL: In the first two parts of Salamanca (published in LONTAR #8 & 9), you employ techniques of magic realism, for example the house of Jacinta Cordova turning to glass; in this instalment, our ostensible protagonist Gaudencio Rivera is inexplicably struck blind. What is it about the presence of the fantastical in the everyday that keeps you returning to it as a storytelling method?

     

    DFA: Like Latin America, the Philippines is an archipelago that is steeped in stories of the supernatural, the absurd and the magical. An evening spent in conversation in any small town will lead to storytelling about local strangeness—and this is part and parcel of how we deal with our circumstances. We tell each other scary stories, we make jokes out of the horror of daily living, and we embrace how superstition rubs elbows with science and technology and modern life. We are currently living during very trying times and one of the ways we make sense of things is to spin narratives that give hope, or explore possibilities, or offer escape, or take our minds off of politics, or take on societal issues with a different magical angle.

    Magic, for me, is a way to tell a more impactful and beautiful story. Magic’s dramatic gestures and the gentle flourishes helped Salamanca soar, and underscored the quiet moments when magic was not present.

     

    JEL: The speculative fiction scene in the Philippines seems to be stronger than ever; I just ran the numbers, and almost exactly one-quarter of all LONTAR’s contributors over ten issues are Pinoys! What are some of the literary developments happening there right now that the rest of the world should know about?

     

    DFA: I’m happy to hear that Filipinos contributed mightily to LONTAR!

    Speculative fiction has grown over here in the Philippines in the past 15 years. Apart from anthology series such as Philippine Speculative Fiction, there continue to be novels in both English (such as work by Eliza Victoria) and Filipino (such as the Janus Silang series of YA books by Egay Samar). SF appears regularly in university press publications as well as in magazines (such as Philippines Graphic). Graphic novels and comics are also very strong. SF by Filipinos has won awards and recognition both in our country and internationally.

    SF is now present in textbooks and readings for grade school and high school. It is part of some university curricula, with entire classes devoted to the genre. National-level writing workshops (such as the UP Writing Workshop and the Silliman University Workshop) devote time and space for literary analysis of SF.

     

    But most importantly for me, SF has inspired new generations of young authors—as well as new readers.

     

    JEL: You are known more as a short story writer than a novelist, but Salamanca is a phenomenal achievement. I find it hard to describe the book without resorting to hyperbole; I read it in 2014, and it was easily the best book I read that year. Will you be returning to the novel form in the future?

     

    DFA: Thank you for your generous words. Yes, I am currently working on two novel projects. One of them is in the vein of light novel, set in a secondary world. The other is a prequel to Salamanca. Both are coming along at a painfully slow pace (because of short fiction!), but I’ll get there one day.

     

    JEL: Shameless self-promotion time: what is next on the publication horizon for Dean Francis Alfar?

     

    DFA: My daughter Sage and I just released a collection of speculative fiction from Adarna House earlier this year—Stars in Jars: Strange and Fantastic Stories. I also have an anthology coming out from UP Press this year—Fantasy: Filipino Fiction for Young Adults (co-edited with Kenneth Yu). Along with a couple of other anthologies, I am currently at work completing my fourth collection of short fiction. Hopefully that will be out next year. I am also in talks with film and TV producers for something that should be quite interesting. We’ll see.

    Once again, thank you for LONTAR, for providing an amazing space for the diverse voices and stories in our neck of the woods. It will be missed but never forgotten.

     

    LONTAR #10 Interviews: Drewscape

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    To celebrate the tenth and final, double-sized issue of LONTAR, we have three exclusive short interviews conducted by founding editor Jason Erik Lundberg. The second is with Andrew Tan (who goes under the nom de plume of Drewscape), whose short comic “Rewire” is the first in the journal’s history to be published in full colour. Drew is the author of Monsters, Miracles & Mayonnaise, which garnered a nomination for the Eisner Award, and The Ollie Comics: Diary of a First-Time Dad.

    Jason Erik Lundberg: “Rewire” uses as its premise the transformation of an android into a “real” woman who soon outgrows her creator’s programming, harkening back to My Fair Lady and even farther back to the myth of Pygmalion. What was it about this type of story that inspired you to put your science-fictional spin on it?

    Drewscape: I usually get my inspiration from things I myself experience and also from trying to understand how others think. For this story, I wanted to tackle the issue of how, in a romantic relationship, we often try to change another person to suit our requirements, only to find that they really can’t change. However, in the end, I suspect that there is still some change that happens to us after going through that relationship.

    JEL: You made the conscious choice to eschew spoken language in this comic, and in fact, the only text present at all is on a banner for the Inventor Awards and on a mobile phone as a SMS message. What was your thinking behind presenting all thought-bubble speech using pictograms?

    D: This comic was originally commissioned by a publisher in France, and we were toying with the idea of doing a wordless comic so we wouldn’t have to bother with translating from English to French. I found that it made the conversational parts a lot breezier because it used fewer frames, but I also had to communicate more with body language to convey the point clearly. Some things were hard to get around, like the text message and the awards banners; the characters did live in a world where printed text existed, after all. So I left those in. It was fun trying it out, but this is the only comic I’ve done in this format. I still prefer speech balloons with text. Oh, and in the end, the French publication was cancelled, so this is the comic’s first appearance.

    JEL: You’ve created other comics that could be rightly qualified as non-realist (particularly in your collection Monsters, Miracles & Mayonnaise), but many of your comics recently have taken a more realist approach, especially in exploring fatherhood. Will you be returning to science-fictional or fantastical stories in the future?

    D: Yes, I’m working on more sci-fi/fantastical stories now. I find they are a lot more flexible when it comes to presenting themes, and one can also disguise real-life stories into them to make them richer. “The Giggly Floating Fish” in Monsters, Miracles & Mayonnaise was one such story that was based in real life and disguised as sci-fi.

    JEL: Which comics creators from Southeast Asia do you enjoy reading? Could you give examples of particular works?

    D: I don’t read that many comics these days. But the ones I’ve enjoyed are The Resident Tourist series by Troy Chin and, more recently, Kungfu Dough by Don Low and Terumbu by Cheah Sinann. I also admire the quality of work in the graphic novels of Sonny Liew.

    JEL: Shameless self-promotion time: what is next on the publication horizon for Drewscape?

    D: I like to keep things secret until I have something good to show. That gives me more freedom and less pressure to create. But I hope to get something out by end this year or next year. That’s if I manage to discipline myself to just sit down every day, not get distracted and finish longer stories, page by page. That can be hard.

    LONTAR #10 Interviews: Manish Melwani

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    To celebrate the tenth and final, double-sized issue of LONTAR, we have three exclusive short interviews conducted by founding editor Jason Erik Lundberg. The first is with Manish Melwani, whose “Sejarah Larangan; or, The Forbidden History of Old Singapura” is the lead-off story. Melwani is a rising star in Singaporean speculative fiction; his first published story appeared in LONTAR #7.

    Jason Erik Lundberg: “Sejarah Larangan; or, The Forbidden History of Old Singapura” is a reimagining of a long-mythologised nation-building narrative in Singapore: how Sang Nila Utama, a Srivijaya prince from the Sumatran city of Palembang, named the country Singapura (or “Lion City”) after spotting what many now cite as a tiger upon making landfall. What was it about this myth that made you want to tell a “secret history” of the encounter?

    Manish Melwani: Like most Singaporeans, I first learned that myth in primary school. It’s been fascinating to revisit it. The story is part of the Sejarah Melayu, or Malay Annals, which is a collection of regional legends. It contains some fantastic stories, including the tale of Badang, who is sort of a Malayan Hercules and a character in my version too.

    After reading around the myth in books like Singapore: A Biography by Mark Ravinder Frost and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea by John Miksic, and Between Two Oceans: A Military History of Singapore, edited by Malcolm Murfett, I was struck by a couple of things about Singapore’s ancient history.

    Firstly, the archaeological evidence seems to suggest that Singapore was a trading port as far back as the 13th century. There’s a narrative that this only happened recently, or that it only happened when the British came, but Singapore’s location has always been well-placed for various local and regional maritime powers.

    Secondly, the accounts are full of blanks and contradictions. There are multiple versions of the Sejarah Melayu, revised by king after king in order to legitimise their own rule. There are also interesting ways in which these legitimating stories tie into regional and global myths and histories. For example, various rulers in South and Southeast Asia claimed descent from Alexander the Great—including Sang Nila Utama.

    I wanted to convey this palimpsest-sense of unreliable history and also to examine the relationship of fables and myths to power, while posing a new origin story or “secret history” of my own, one that incorporated the regional historical context. Weretigers show up a ton in the region’s mythology, and it seemed to come together into an elegant and compelling story premise: Sang Nila Utama lands on the island of Temasek, but it’s not a tiger he mistakes for a lion, it’s a weretiger.

    JEL: You establish in the story that Singapore was actually the domain of weretigers (called the harimau jadi-jadian) before humans arrived in the 13th century. It is mentioned that “the bite of the harimau jadi-jadian does not transform the victim, not unless you count being killed as a transformation. No, becoming a harimau jadi-jadian is a matter of magic, not of infection.” Why did you feel the need to subvert the common idea of therianthropy propagation in this way, when we’re so used to seeing in media someone transforming into a werewolf after being bitten by one, for example?

    MM: This actually came entirely from the stuff I was reading about weretigers in the Malay Archipelago. Many shamans or otherwise spiritually powerful people apparently have the ability to take on tiger forms. There are also stories about regions where the inhabitants are tigers who can take on human forms—I really like the idea that there are versions where the weretigers are primarily tigers, and others in which they are primarily humans.

    JEL: Are there any plans to write more stories about these characters or within this premise?

    MM: I’d like to write some little pieces of flash fiction set after the fall of ancient Singapura at the end of this story and before the British arrive. But before I do that, I need to do a lot more research about the Orang Laut, who would be the main characters of that story. Also, a character from this tale may or may not be in my short story “The Tigers of Bengal”, published in LONTAR #7.

    JEL: Which authors either from Southeast Asia or writing about Southeast Asia do you enjoy reading? Could you give examples of particular works?

    MM: Now that I’m done with my graduate degree, which had me mostly reading early science fiction and doing historical research, I really want to read more Southeast Asian fiction. I just finished Cassandra Khaw’s Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef series, which is set in Kuala Lumpur and is horrific, hilarious and amazing. I’ve also been reading a couple of short story collections, one of which is Alfian Sa’at’s Malay Sketches, a collection of beautiful, insightful, complex little stories about various characters in Singapore’s Malay community. Finally, I literally just started reading Eka Kurniawan’s celebrated novel Man Tiger, and so far, it’s incredible; it’s also a weretiger story, but of a completely different set of stripes.

    JEL: Shameless self-promotion time: what is next on the publication horizon for Manish Melwani?

    MM: “Sejarah Larangan” is one of several historical Singapore supernatural stories that I wrote as part of my master’s thesis. I’m going to be revising and publishing the rest of those stories, and hopefully putting them out as a collection soon. I’ve also got a couple novellas that I’m working on. One is a space opera: a mummy’s tomb story set in the distant future on a dying planet. The other is a near-future science fiction cosmic horror story about an expedition to the Antarctic: it’s my homage to The Thing and At the Mountains of Madness.

    Lontar 7 Interview: Zen Cho

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    LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction – Issue 7 cover - click to view full sizeTo celebrate the seventh issue of LONTAR, we have an exclusive short interview by editor Jason Erik Lundberg with Zen Cho, whose “七星鼓 (Seven Star Drum)” is the lead-off story. Cho is the award-winning author of Sorcerer to the Crown and Spirits Abroad, and editor of Cyberpunk: Malaysia.

    Jason Erik Lundberg: Your story “七星鼓 (Seven Star Drum)” is a companion piece to “起狮,行礼 (Rising Lion–The Lion Bows)”, which was published by Strange Horizons and also features lion dancers who bust ghosts. What is the cultural importance of lion dancers in Malaysia and other parts of Asia?

    Zen Cho: The kind of lion dance that’s most common in Malaysia is the Chinese Southern Lion style. You see it most at Chinese New Year, but also when a new Chinese business opens. It’s meant to bring good luck, and I think maybe the lion chases away bad spirits as well. I might be mixing that up with fireworks, though. I never thought too much about the cultural importance of lion dance when I was growing up; I just liked watching it. There’s something really exciting and special about seeing a lion dance—I tried to capture some of that feeling in these two stories.

    Q. You’ve mentioned that you were a member of the Cambridge University Lion Dance Troupe from 2006 to 2008. How did your experiences there inform the conceit of this story? And what role did you have in the troupe?

    We performed at a hotel once for a company Christmas party they were hosting, and because it was quite a new hotel the owners, who were Chinese, had us bless some of the rooms while we were at it. There weren’t any ghosts, but that was the experience that inspired “起狮,行礼(Rising Lion–The Lion Bows)”. I wrote “七星鼓 (Seven Star Drum)” while I was chewing over that story, to explain how the ghost-busting lion dance troupe had been founded.

    When I was in CULDT I was mostly on the cymbals, which are a really easy job you can give a rank beginner. I think I only played the drum in a public performance once, and I never did the lion—you have to hold that kungfu horse stance the whole time, which is really tiring! I was also the secretary of the troupe, which meant I managed the emails.

    Q. Before Boris encounters lion dancers as a child, he is terrified of the spiritual world, which he can sense because of the “extra membrane around his brain that filtered in things other people didn’t see”. How integral is the everyday relationship with the supernatural to ordinary Malaysians?

    I can’t answer questions on behalf of ordinary Malaysians! I can only speak for myself. I do have a friend who has an extra membrane around their brain which gives them supernatural powers. I stole their membrane for the story.

    Q. Are there any plans to write more stories about these characters or within this premise?

    No. I wrote the stories mainly because I thought it would be a shame not to use all this useful jargon I’d learnt from being in a lion dance troupe. Now I feel I’ve made good use of that life experience.

    Q. Which authors either from Southeast Asia or writing about Southeast Asia do you enjoy reading? Could you give examples of particular works?

    I like Farish Noor’s essays on Malaysian and Southeast Asian history—they’re academic but really accessible—and I’m really excited about Komik Maple’s comics. I’ve only read Mimi Mashud’s Kuala Terengganu in Seven Days and Amir Hafizi’s Scenes of the Father so far, but I’m looking forward to picking up the collection they’ve done of the webcomic Komik Ronyok, as well as Stephanie Soejono’s Tale of the Bidadari. When it comes to novels, I’m looking forward to reading Selina Siak Chin Yoke’s The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds, a historical novel about the life of a Peranakan woman in Malaya, and I admire Preeta Samarasan’s work—she’s got such a mastery of language. I’m really interested to see how she’ll follow Evening is the Whole Day.

    Q. Shameless self-promotion time: what is next on the publication horizon for Zen Cho?

    I’m working on my next novel! I can’t talk about it too much as it’s still at a fairly protean stage. I’m hoping it’ll be a worthy follow-up to Sorcerer to the Crown!

    Just Added: LONTAR subscriptions

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    Hey, we just added a new subscription: LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction. It is indeed the world’s “only biannual literary journal focusing on Southeast Asian speculative fiction.” Previous issues have presented speculative writing from and about Singapore, the Philippines, Taiwan, Korea, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia, and contributors have won major literary awards in Singapore, USA, the UK, Japan, and the Philippines.

    Curious? Read a couple of interviews!

    LONTAR Special: Interview with Dean Francis and Nikki Alfar

    E. C. Myers

    Subscribe!

    LONTAR Special; Interview with Dean Francis and Nikki Alfar

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    lontar-the-journal-of-southeast-asian-speculative-fiction-issue-3-coverTo celebrate the third issue of LONTAR, we have two things: 1) a special week-long promotion bundling issues #1 and #2 for free when you buy #3, and 2) an exclusive interview by editor Jason Lundberg with the husband-and-wife team of Dean Francis Alfar and Nikki Alfar, whom one could make the case are the current godparents of Filipino fiction of the fantastic. The Alfars have each edited (some together) many volumes of the landmark Philippine Speculative Fiction anthology series, and can often be found on panel discussions about mythology, fantasy, and science fiction. Between them, they’ve won a slew of awards for their writing, including thirteen Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature.

    Q. Both of your stories in LONTAR #3 employ roadways as an essential trope: as a confusing and misdirecting force in Nikki’s story, and as beings with sentience in Dean’s story. How important are roads in the current Filipino literary psyche?

    DEAN: Roads continue to function as spaces to be traversed from one point to another, permitting reflection en route to an epiphany, as markers on a personal journey, or as obstacles (sometimes small, sometimes vast) to be conquered. Roads bring us together, but also make our world smaller. Their duality is this: roads signify escape, but also bind us to specific paths. In my story, some of the famous roads in Manila gain thought and emotion and reflect the history of the people around them. There is an intimation of their own society within the context of Philippine society. The roads themselves cannot escape being part of something bigger.

    lontar-the-journal-of-southeast-asian-speculative-fiction-issue-1-coverNIKKI: When Filipinos visiting other countries receive apologies from the locals about “the terrible traffic,” we just smile at them indulgently, because you probably have no idea what traffic is until you’ve been to Manila. Once on a bad day, it took a car the better part of an hour to make it from one end of the street Dean and I live on to the other; I’m not kidding. So while I’m not sure about the Filipino literary psyche specifically, I can say that roads are pretty damn significant to the Manila-dweller’s psyche—sometimes roads simply fail to get you where you want to go, which more or less nails down what my story is all about.

    Another way to look at it is through a lens I like to use in a lot of my other writing—from a folkloric point of view, Leaving the Path always has consequences, often dangerous ones, but sometimes also reveals unexpected avenues to growth and fortune. This is something ingrained in all of our psyches, virtually all across the world, I think, from childhood—and what is a road, if not a gussied-up path?

    Q. The fantastic is used in each of your stories in different ways: in “A Field Guide to the Roads of Manila,” it is employed in the service of a revenge tale; in “An Unexpected Stop,” to heighten the sense of dread and unease during a domestic spat. Is the Philippines an inherently fantastical place, in that it is best represented using these non-realist techniques in literature?

    lontar-the-journal-of-southeast-asian-speculative-fiction-issue-2-coverDEAN: The fantastic is embedded in our bones. We exist day-to-day and cheek-by-jowl with the absurd—newspaper reports of supernatural occurrences and senseless slaughter. There is the magical and the mundane. Philippine literature deploys both realism (social and domestic) as well as the fantastical (speculative fiction) to help articulate how we negotiate our lives.

    NIKKI: Oh my goodness, yes, the Philippines is an inherently fantastical place! Listen: there is a Philippine island called Siquijor, where lightning flashes in the sky on absolutely clear, storm-free nights; and we are modern people, so we know witches don’t really live there, except you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who is 100% positively sure they don’t. My mother-in-law, who is as sophisticated an urbanite as you could possibly meet, will tell you with utter certainty about the time she saw tiny men, the height of her finger, moving around beneath her house. In fact, my story is dedicated to my friend Carlos Piocos, a Filipino writer currently taking postgraduate studies at the University of Hong Kong, because he told me the real-life tale that I built the piece around.

    Q. Dean launched the Philippine Speculative Fiction anthology series ten years ago, and the two of you have collaborated on editing several of the volumes; you’re teaming up once again for this year’s tenth annual installment. What have been some of the most interesting, fulfilling, or surprising things you have seen within the Philippine speculative fiction scene in the last decade?

    DEAN: First and biggest for me was the reception of the anthology by writers, readers, and critics. I was floored by the number of submissions at the beginning, which proved to me that there were writers—new as well as established—who felt the same way I did: that there were other stories to tell, and other ways to tell stories. That fantasy, horror, and science fiction mattered. Then the readers, who bought and read the books and shared them, and wrote back. They showed us there was a market that cared for these stories. Then the critics and educators, who wrestled with what was then new to them, and helped bring speculative fiction into the larger conversation in terms of Philippine literature. Speculative fiction is now studied and written about in universities.

    NIKKI: Pretty much everything Dean has said, and additionally this: I’m constantly startled by the openness of readers and especially writers, by their willingness to learn and experiment, most especially the younger ones. When I was a young person, I was an arrogant shit who thought I knew everything I needed to know. (People who knew us then think this was true of Dean, not me—I was just more discreet about it.) So I’m humbled by people’s humility—and also somewhat troubled by it, because people often ask us why we don’t put together an anthology of speculative fiction in the Filipino language. The answer is that we are writers in English, and we are aware that our skills in Filipino are not sufficient to really evaluate literary execution. So we always say, “Please do it; we would love for someone to do it.” But no one has, so thanks for giving me an opportunity to say this again: Guys, you don’t need our permission. We don’t own spec-fic in the Philippines. Just go ahead and do it!

    Q. Where can readers go to find other examples of Philippine speculative fiction? Which authors would you recommend?

    DEAN: There are anthologies, collections, and novels from publishers such as Anvil, Visprint, and the university presses such as University of the Philippines Press. Eliza Victoria is one of the most prolific and gifted Filipino fictionists—check out Dwellers and Project 17 [ETA: her story “Fade” will appear in LONTAR #4]. Joseph Nacino has a number of anthologies out, such as Diaspora Ad Strata, Demons of the New Year, and The Farthest Shore, covering sci-fi, horror, and fantasy, respectively. Speculative fiction also appears in publications like Philippines Graphic, curated by Joel Pablo Salud and Alma Anonas Carpio.

    NIKKI: LONTAR! You’re publishing my best friend, Kate Aton-Osias, in the next issue, did you know that? [ETA: indeed I did, a story called “The Tango”.] Also, Kuwento: Lost Things, an anthology of new Philippine myths edited by Melissa Sipin and Rachelle Cruz, is being published in the States this year, so that may be more accessible for international readers who want a physical book they can get ahold of. For the more digitally-inclined, Flipside Publishing is very active in publishing Filipino work online, much of it speculative fiction.

    Q. Shameless self-promotion time: what is next on the publication horizon for Dean Francis Alfar and Nikki Alfar?

    DEAN: My third collection of short fiction, A Field Guide to the Streets of Manila, is coming from Anvil later this year. Kenneth Yu and I will be publishing Science Fiction: Fiction for Young Adults, from UP Press. Sarge Lacuesta and I also have this year’s edition of Maximum Volume: Best New Philippine Fiction, from Anvil. And of course, Nikki and I are working on the tenth annual Philippine Speculative Fiction.

    NIKKI: My second story collection, WonderLust,recently became available digitally at the Kobo ebook store: https://store.kobobooks.com/en-US/ebook/wonderlust-1. My first collection, Now, Then, and Elsewhen, isn’t online yet, which is sort of silly of me. (Writing- and publication-wise, I tend to have frenzied spurts of activity, followed by long periods of mindless iPad devotion.) So I’ll be working on that, as well as trying to eke out enough stories I don’t hate for a third collection. Dean and I are also due to put together our next Best of Speculative Fiction anthology, curating what we consider the top stories from Philippine Speculative Fiction volumes 6 to 10—although I’m always threatening to throw him off the title, because he’s so busy that he sometimes forgets what he’s working on with whom!

    Lontar: E. C. Myers interview

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    To celebrate the second issue of LONTAR, we have two things: we added mobi formats of both issues, and we have an exclusive interview by Jason Lundberg with E. C. Myers, whose novelette, “The Tiger in the Forest Between Two Worlds” is the lead-off story. Myers is the Andre Norton Award-winning author of the novels Fair Coin and Quantum Coin and he has published short fiction in a variety of print and online magazines and anthologies.

    LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction – Issue 2 cover - click to view full sizeQ. Your story takes place near the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea. What was it about this region that inspired you to write about it?

    This is a case where the story was shaped a lot by my research and ended up far richer than I first imagined. I wanted to do a contemporary version of the Korean folk tale “The Tiger-Girl,” so I started reading up on Amur tigers, also known as Siberian tigers. It was rather depressing, because there are very few of them remaining in the wild, and particularly in the wilds of Korea. They can be found in the mountains of the north, but they’re absent from the southern peninsula—a shame because the tiger is such an important part of Korean culture.

    The more I read about the DMZ, the more fascinated I became, and I decided that if a tiger could still exist in Korea, it would be there; because that territory is largely off-limits to humans, it essentially functions as a gigantic nature preserve. Many references in the story to the DMZ and the cameraman Lim Sun Nam are real, albeit a few years out of date. There’s a free film you can watch online called Tiger Spirit that documents Lim’s quest to find tigers in the DMZ.

    Q. One of the fantastical tropes in the story is that of the weretiger, although here it’s inverted, in that the tiger takes on human form. How prevalent is this creature in Korean mythology?

    When I was a kid, I loved the mascot for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea: a cartoonish tiger named Hodori. At the time, I had no idea he had a deeper meaning, as a representation of the Korean people. The culture is steeped in legends and folklore about tigers, which are considered protective spirits, so they pop up in all sorts of roles. There’s also a lot of shapeshifting! Korean mythology is incredibly interesting and hasn’t received much exposure in the Western world, so I hope to play with these stories more in the future.

    Q. A theme you employ is that of interstitialism; existing between two different worlds, yet not comfortably in either one alone. Chon-ji herself is split between the human and animal realms, as well as between North Korea (Choson) and South Korea (Hanguk). To what extent do you see this type of interstitial existence in other parts of current Korean society?

    As a half-Korean living in America, I still have an outsider’s view of current society in South Korea, but I think there’s a real struggle there to hold onto tradition in a contemporary world. The gaeryong hanbok that Chon-ji wears is one example of that, as a modernized version of the more elaborate traditional clothing, which some (mostly older) people do still wear daily. I also think there’s a conflict between traditional expectations from parents and the personal desires of their children, as with Bong-hwa trying to fulfill the role of a dutiful son. That’s something I can relate to even in the U.S., and many others of my generation have probably had some of the same issues—but these are universal problems no matter the place or period, aren’t they? And there’s always difficulty in balancing a national identity against a global one, especially with the immediacy and influence of the internet.

    Q. Where can readers go to find other examples of Korean fantastic fiction?

    I am really out of touch with any contemporary fiction being published in Korea now, particularly in translation. Some films and comics are imported, either officially or online, and there’s a growing following for Korean comedies and dramas. But fantastic fiction? The University of Hawaii Press is publishing a journal called Azalea which is much like LONTAR. Their May 2013 issue was devoted to science fiction.

    If you’re looking to read some Korean fables in translation, the book I read for research is Folk Tales from Korea by In-Sob Zong. Appropriately, it has a tiger on the cover! One I haven’t read yet is Korean Myths and Folk Legends by Pae-Gang Hwang, translated by Young-Hie Han.

    Q. Shameless self-promotion time: what is next on the publication horizon for E.C. Myers?

    I have a book coming out in the fall of 2014 about teenage hackers, currently titled The Silence of Six, to be published by Adaptive. I also have a couple of forthcoming short stories: “Lost in Natalie,” co-written with Mercurio D. Rivera, in the summer issue of Space & Time magazine; and “Kiss and Kiss and Kiss and Tell” in Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories, published by Twelfth Planet Press and coming later this year.

    The View is Different From Here: Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction

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    37784-coverI hadn’t expected to find a horror story in the first issue of Lontar: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction, but there it was. In “The Yellow River” by Elka Ray Nguyen, a young Vietnamese serviceman travels to a haunted part of the jungle. More than anything, this Lontar story sticks with me, perhaps because the rather innocent characters in it are compelled to complete military service in a setting very different from their normal lives. I didn’t know military service is compulsory in Vietnam. Maybe the bit about the ghost is true, too.

    Learning real things about a region of the world relatively unknown to me is an unexpected bonus of the great stories in Lontar. With each tale, I was allowed a view through the eyes of someone whose experiences and orientation are so far separated from my own and yet so similar that the journey is wondrous.

    In “Philippine Magic: A Course Catalogue,” Paolo Chikiamco offers a proposed line of academic study that includes FLK 401, a semester about Barang Barang, “a type of magic where the sorcerer sends insects or animals to appear inside the body of the victim.” In RLC 103, the mythology and iconography of anting-anting will be discussed, including “the letters ‘AEIOU’ to represent the secret names of Atardar, the whale-like dragon that is a symbol of evil.” The thrust of Philippine magic had been unknown to me, but I thought I was familiar with the name “Becca.” I was wrong. In RLC 403, the prospective student can learn about “symbols associated with Becca (Lucifer) and other evils.”

    “The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi was my favorite story in Lontar’s first issue. Nominated in 2009 for both a Nebula and a Hugo Award, “The Gambler” tells of a Laotian refugee, Ong, in the near future. Ong’s having trouble adjusting to life in the U.S.A. He’s landed a good job as a journalist for an online paper similar to others that grew up in “the smoking remains of the New York Times Company,” but Ong’s compelled to write stories about the failures of government. No one wants to read his stories. “I am drawn to them, as though poking at the tiger of the American government will somehow make up for not being able to poke at the little cub of New Divine Monarch Khamsing.” To me, “The Gambler” was about communication. For the Laotian protagonist, “Real news was too valuable to risk in public.” Ong struggles with this particular conviction, especially when his career as a journalist is given a public chance for success in the company of a world-famous starlet.

    Lontar’s first issue is filled with interesting and thought-provoking stories. It’s worth a read, and it’s available DRM-free from Weightless Books.