Diasporic Fantasies That Bind

A conversation with Zen Cho & Stephanie Feldman, co-winners of the William L. Crawford Award

This year, for the first time in the thirty year history of the William L. Crawford Award, there were two winners of the prize for best fantasy debut: Zen Cho and Stephanie Feldman. As a member of this year’s award jury, I was fascinated both by how different these books are and how much common ground they share.

Cho’s Spirits Abroad is a collection of short fiction set in Malaysia and among Malaysian students in England, in which ghosts, witches, and supernatural creatures interact with ordinary mortals in quirky, unexpected and often poignant ways. Feldman’s The Angel of Losses uses a mixture of history, theology, and real and imagined Jewish folklore to tell the story of a pair of estranged sisters, revealing the secrets of an American family’s troubled European past.

I decided to start up a conversation with Cho and Feldman, hoping to get a deeper look into the connections between them and the power of the fantastic to link generations, diasporas, and histories.

Sofia Samatar: Spirits Abroad and The Angel of Losses are such different books: Spirits is a short story collection, Angel a novel; Spirits uses quite a bit of humor, while Angel is written in a more melancholy mode. Yet they share an interest in fantasy and diaspora. What’s going on there? How does the fantastic relate to diasporic experiences?

Cho: As with many Malaysian writers in English, it actually took me a while to figure out how to populate the sort of fantasy stories I liked with the sort of people I knew in life. So there wasn’t an immediate connection between culture and fantasy, for me.

But I think there is something there. Diaspora involves such a huge disruption, an interruption in continuity. Fantasy or mythology or folk stories—the stories of the improbable that everyone tells—are one means of maintaining continuity, and also of reinforcing connection. As a Chinese person, what claim can I lay to being Malaysian except that I was born there, I absorbed the stories of the local hantu, the English I speak is a Malaysian English? As a Malaysian, what claim do I have to being Chinese, except that I grew up on stories of monkey gods and magpie bridges and rabbits on the moon?

So maybe magic — the fantastic — is the thing that survives all that travel from the original point, that loosening of ties to land and people and languages.

So maybe magic — the fantastic — is the thing that survives all that travel from the original point, that loosening of ties to land and people and languages.

Also, while I’ve classified several of my stories as fantasy because they feature dead people, that doesn’t actually make them fantasy on some views. Ghosts are more real back home than they are in the West.

Feldman: Fantasy was my way of talking about one aspect of diaspora: displacement, whether it results from immigration, war, or even one generation unable (or unwilling) to communicate with the next. In each of these cases, there’s a gap, something missing. In my case — personally, and in The Angel of Losses — what’s missing is Jewish Eastern Europe.

The novel uses fairy tales to recreate that world and its legacy. It never occurred to me to use strict realism. Magical realism comes easily to me, and here it gave me the freedom to follow emotional truth, instead of adhering entirely to research. It also reminds the reader that my Europe is an invention; it’s a huge responsibility, after all, to tell another person’s story, and I want the reader to be mindful of where my voice begins and ends.

But most important: Fantasy let me explore how the stories we choose to tell are as much about us — our questions, our needs — as they are about our subjects.

I suppose, while writing, I thought less about fantasy and more about storytelling, and it occurs to me now that stories must be one of the major things that binds a diaspora. We may live in different places and speak different languages, but many of our stories are the same.

Samatar: I love the idea that stories bind, that magic survives all these crossings and displacements. And it’s also interesting how you’ve both raised the question of belief. Zen, you say that “Ghosts are more real back home than they are in the West.” And Stephanie, you’ve used the term “magic realism,” which often suggests not fantasy but its opposite: a spiritual reality. How do you see your own work? Is it fantasy or realism or both? What sorts of designations satisfy you and which ones make you uncomfortable?

Cho: I definitely think of my stories as fantasy, because dragons … and I don’t actually think dragons exist, though I’m reserving judgment on gods and ghosts. A lot of the time when I write, it’s in conversation with the tropes of Western SFF, though the Malaysian setting might sometimes obscure the connections. It’s partly a practical decision as well — even smallish SFF zines tend to pay for short fiction, whereas literary journals don’t seem to, except for the really big ones.

Fantasy let me explore how the stories we choose to tell are as much about us — our questions, our needs — as they are about our subjects.

Feldman: I’ve been puzzling over genre terminology a lot lately. I tend to fall back on the term magical realism because in my first writing classes realism was the only acceptable literary mode. We could study magical realism, though, and that literature sent me on my way. Fantasy, fabulism, and speculative fiction are all good descriptors for this book and my work in general.

Genre labels are helpful for talking about books, and none of them makes me uncomfortable. Readers have even described the novel as historical fiction, which never occurred to me when I was writing — most of the action takes place in the present — but I see how it’s useful in describing the book. As a writer, though, I put labels aside. I’ve come to think of genres as non-exclusive sets of tools. When I was writing The Angel of Losses, the genre on my mind was 18th-century British gothic. I don’t know how evident that is in the finished book, but those are the conventions that informed a lot of my decisions. Mostly, when I write, I like to follow every strange and exciting idea and worry about the packaging later.

I do think of this story as real. The characters, their relationships, their struggles — all of that is real. I don’t believe in angels, but the forces my Angel embodies — loneliness, yearning, arrogance — are real. But then, the best of all genres captures something real, so I’m back to the beginning again.

Samatar: The stories that bind diasporas together across space also bind across time, across generations. Both of you write about forms of life after death: ghosts, angels, magical beings. And you also write about multi-generational and extended families (I’m thinking specifically of “The House of Aunts” in your case, Zen). How would you describe the way your work addresses family concerns — and what’s the connection between the familial and the fantastic?

Cho: It’s funny you mention writing about dead people, because my mom really hates that about my stories — all the vampire grandmas and levity about death.

It’s not meant to be disrespectful, though. I wrote “The House of Aunts” in particular because I was thinking about “Twilight” and how it’s a fantasy, and I don’t mean the werewolves and vampires so much as the sparkly boys who adore you, and your main personality flaw being clumsy, but in a really attractive way. So I thought, what would “Twilight” be like if it was realistic? For me, that didn’t mean removing the vampires. It meant adding bossy relatives with no respect for your personal space, because bossy relatives were my #1 problem when I was 16 years old.

So it ended up being a story about a teenage vampire and her six vampire aunties. And I think what you say about stories reaching across time and generations is my fantasy, in the “Twilight” sense. The fact that the main character of “The House of Aunts” can meet her great-grandmother and speak to her, and hear her stories directly from her — that is the fantasy. I don’t really speak any of the languages my grandparents spoke. There is so much distance between them and me, so much I don’t know about them.

I guess “The House of Aunts” is partly 16-year-old me being like, “Get out of my space! Aargh!”, and partly grown-up me, living in another country, looking over the distance that separates me and my family and history, and wishing there was a way to close it.

Feldman: Yes, in both books, the characters are literally speaking to their dead ancestors! I just realized how literal that is…

I’m troubled by the unreliability of family stories. In a history class long ago, I realized one of my family legends is very unlikely to be true, and that made me look at all my family stories in a new light. They have this distilled, simplistic feel — they’re fables. As a writer, I get it — they carry so much meaning, what does it matter if they’re not factual? As a daughter, granddaughter, great-granddaughter, though, it bothers me. It’s a cliché, but all human knowledge is available on the smart phone in my pocket, yet I’ll never really know what incident convinced my great-grandfather to travel halfway across the world. The Angel of Losses is wish fulfillment for me. My characters have the opportunity to ask and receive answers.

Samatar: The Angel of Losses really validates both kinds of knowledge, I think — the deep truth of the unreliable family story, and the verifiable facts of research. One of my favorite moments in the novel is when Marjorie’s research on the Wandering Jew dovetails with her family mythology, resulting in an academic mystery that reminds me a bit of A.S. Byatt’s Possession. Academic references and settings figure in Spirits Abroad, too — I’m thinking of “One-Day Travelcard for Fairyland” and “The Mystery of the Suet Swain,” both of which deal with the lives of Malaysian university students in England, and also, of course, the marvelous story “The First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia.” Can you talk about the relationship of research and/or academic life to your work?

Cho: My reason for featuring academic settings was mostly laziness! I drew on stuff from my life because it minimised research. “One-Day Travelcard” is set in a UK school attended by Malaysian students because I attended a school of that kind. “The Mystery of the Suet Swain” is set in Cambridge because I went to Cambridge, and “First National Forum” was inspired by my brief stint with a Malaysian NGO.

But I also chose those settings because I’ve always loved stories that examine the dynamics within small communities with their own rules and conventions — Jane Austen’s two inches of ivory, Enid Blyton’s school stories, L. M. Montgomery’s Canadian villages, Star Trek’s starships. Schools and universities are a great canvas for fiction, because they’re a bubble that feels like the entire world when you’re in it. Everything can be very high-stakes and intense, while still being small-scale and human.

I’m troubled by the unreliability of family stories.

Feldman: I very carefully considered getting a Ph.D. in English. I wanted to study eighteenth-century literature, like my narrator, Marjorie. In the end, I wrote this novel instead. The university is where I first got the idea for this story, and it felt like a natural setting for a book about people who love books.

When I was preparing to write The Angel of Losses, I read tons of folklore and theology and history, and with every text I found a new piece of the story. (You should see my cutting room floor — all of the ideas and legends and people that didn’t make the final draft.) Marjorie is doing the same, but as a reader. That’s what research and criticism are all about: finding new meaning in — or between — books.

There are these longstanding arguments against academic literary criticism: that it’s completely out of touch with how readers and writers operate, or that postmodernism has robbed texts of meaning. But I loved studying theory. It taught me how to think in new ways — sometimes very strange ways, that I came to reject, but reading should bend your mind a little bit.

Samatar: High-stakes and intense, yet small-scale and human — a great description of fantasy at its best.

Zen, your mention of Jane Austen and Enid Blyton reminds me of one of your blog posts — the one about “postcolonial fluff for booknerds.” This is a genre you made up, and it’s about having fun, but it’s also deeply serious — it’s confronting imperialism with merry, romping stories, which seems like a necessary project. Can you say more about it? I think the concept really harmonizes with Stephanie’s effort to rewrite the story of the Wandering Jew. Stephanie, you’ve mentioned being fascinated by the legend, but also hating the fact that it’s rooted in bigotry, and trying to produce a new version from within the context of Jewish tradition. How do you both reflect on your literary revisions? Can you save a trope?

Feldman: The Wandering Jew legend is such a funny thing. Most people don’t know it’s an anti-Semitic myth, and many Jewish people have adopted it as their own. (At least, this is what I’ve experience and observed.) When I discovered the true origin of the story, I thought, “I want to take this back.” But it was never “ours” to begin with.

The trope was saved in an organic way. The old meaning fell away, and the people it once demonized gave it a new meaning. So my answer is yes, I do think old devices and figures can be saved, or at least declawed. Maybe not every time, and maybe not to everyone’s satisfaction, but it’s worth trying.

Here’s a common piece of writing advice that bugs me: first figure out your characters, then plot, then theme and symbolism. Sometimes the list is longer, or arranged differently, but theme and symbolism always come last. I prefer to think holistically instead of hierarchically. I don’t wait until I’m done writing and then look for a theme to punch up here and there. Throughout the process, I think about the issues I want to explore, and if the choices I’m making are conventional or challenging. All stories comment on society, and I try to be conscious of what my stories are arguing.

I started imagining The Angel of Losses because the elements were so fun: an immortal wanderer, family secrets, mysterious books, magic and mysticism. But I couldn’t write without asking, What makes a family? What makes an ethnic group or a nation? What do we owe each other today, and what responsibilities (or sins) do we inherit from our ancestors? My characters would each give different answers, and I haven’t settled on any answers either. Maybe I’ll come back to them again, and I’m sure I’ll continue to grapple with the past. (That’s the gothic novelist in me — the past is never past.)

Cho: I forgot this myself when I was writing that blog post, but the original term I devised was actually “fluff for postcolonial booknerds”, because a lot of the fluff I grew up reading was written and set at times when colonialism was still going strong. Enid Blyton, Jane Austen — the fluff I write that draws from that well is an attempt to reclaim their stories for myself, to assert that someone like me can be a main character in settings that, frankly, are incredibly hostile to people like me.

I feel like challenging the dominant paradigm through the medium of brain candy is hugely important, and it’s because you are what you read, right — you absorb ideas and ways of seeing from books. If the perspectives you get from books are narrow or just plain wrong, that can shape your mind in a bad way, especially if you encounter those perspectives at an impressionable age. And reading outside the mainstream, in terms of the cultures and the types of people you see in books, is challenging.

There’s a certain kind of story that matches the Third World in the Western mind and that gets published in the West, and it often involves this colourful poverty porn, lots of suffering and tragedy.

It’s challenging for people who fit the dominant paradigm, because they aren’t used to being forced to see the world through others’ eyes in the way that marginalised people are, and that can be uncomfortable. But it’s challenging for people who don’t fit that paradigm too, because they’re equally unused to seeing themselves put front and centre. And it might be badly done — so often it’s bad! — or it might be totally fine, but it could rub you the wrong way for reasons that aren’t to do with its being bad. Like maybe it’s a book for people who are really into the traditions of your underrepresented culture and are deeply connected to that community, but to you those traditions and that community are all mixed up with your mean parents, so it’s unpleasant to read. That’s not a problem if there are a lot of different kinds of books out there for people like you, but it is a problem when there are too few.

So it’s harder, and because it’s harder people often have a bit of a mental block about reading “diverse” books. I know so many people who are so hungry for more representation and pluralism in their fiction, but when they have a cold or they’re feeling depressed they just read a ton of Georgette Heyers because it’s easy. I love Heyer, but there needs to be something equivalent where you don’t have to wade through a load of anti-Semitism and classism to get to the fun, you know?

All these other things come together to reinforce the mental block, too. There’s a certain kind of story that matches the Third World in the Western mind and that gets published in the West, and it often involves this colourful poverty porn, lots of suffering and tragedy. You feel virtuous for reading it, like you’re cosmopolitan, you’re serious-minded, you care about the world.

There is absolutely a place for sad, hard stories, don’t get me wrong. But stories about robots punching each other or elf spies in flapper dresses, stories that light up the pleasure centres of the brain without being dismissive of huge groups of people, are also vital.

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