I read the wonderful "Courtship in the Country of Machine Gods" about a year ago. I was completely blown away. Since, Benjanun Sriduangkaew has published many more excellent stories, several of which will be reprinted in forthcoming anthologies such as Strahan's and Horton's "Best of the year" and Horton's Space Opera. It is clear that this Thai author is one of the most interesting new voices to appear in the SFF field in the recent years, and thus it is a honor and pleasure for me to have her today answering some questions about her work. Hope you enjoy the interview!
Odo: In your stories you use mythological elements together with advanced scientific concepts and you write science fiction as well as fantasy. Do you think that the boundaries between genres are blurring? Do you approach a story differently when you intend to write SF instead of fantasy? Or you just don't care about that kind of labels?
Benjanun Sriduangkaew: I do approach writing them differently. You could have events which affect an entire continent or cosmos in fantasy but there's something delightful about the possibilities of the space opera - as many planets as you like, as many cultures as you want, a vast potential for variety! This isn't to say SF can't be about individual, personal stories or even a mix of the personal and cosmological - Aliette's [de Bodard] works concern both, Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice is both a personal story and one which affects an entire galactic empire; when I can I absolutely love to blend universe-altering effects with personal stories. When I write fantasy though, I seem to not work with galaxy- or even continent-spanning consequences as much, tending toward the personal and quiet. This is down to my idiosyncrasies as an author, not intrinsic qualities of the genres.
Another interest for me is the ubiquity of technology in SF and its implications - being connected and online, access to health and education, the speed of communication. I could write fantasy where people are joined to a global telepathic network as a stand-in for being online, but that'd need finessing and exposition whereas in SF having the Internet or equivalent is taken for granted.
Yes, I think the boundaries between these two genres blur often - the existence of science fantasy as a category alone is evidence! I often introduce technology in my SF that is a little fabulist, a little impossible. There's a point where setting up a line of demarcation may not be useful or serve the writing. However! I don't object to labels - cyberpunk, military SF or space opera are all useful descriptors, and if I feel one sets up the right expectations for the reader that's what I will go for first, as a quick summary. It's not a rigid thing, that's all.
Odo: In your work you explore topics such as gender, identity, cultural heritage... and what they mean for societies and individuals. Why do you think it is important to write about these topics? Do you think that genre fiction is especially suitable for exploring these ideas?
BS: The simple answer, I think, would be that these topics are universal. C: Everyone has a heritage, an identity, and a complex relationship to navigate between the self and society.
My view is that SFF in all its forms has a lot to offer when it comes to exploring these ideas owing to its permissible nature. I came to the genre in a sideways approach, having discovered it late in adulthood rather than growing up with it, so while I love the aliens and spaceships I also take a deep interest in the human factors - how SFF opens up a playground for all sorts of thought experiments, speculation in anthropology, history, or even physics. It frees you from having to work with existing histories if you don't want to literally frame our story in our world, and it also lets you consider alternate history if that is more to your liking.
Odo: What is the state of genre literature in Thailand? Why did you decide to begin writing in English?
BS: Science fiction in Thailand occupies this oddly respected position, as there's an assumption that if you write it then you must be good at science. I've tried to explain this isn't the case, but I'm not going to complain when they decide I must be quite smart to be able to write SF! Elements of spirituality, horror, and magic realism touch a lot of our literature across genre boundaries, so there's a bit of the fantastic in everything.
I started writing about three years ago and short fiction seemed like the obvious thing to try my hand at - anything longer looked (and mostly still looks) incredibly intimidating. But trying to sell short fiction to Thai magazines involves arcane procedures; one is hard pressed to locate a sensible guideline! English-language zines tend to have clear submission guidelines as to what they want, how they want it. Besides I wanted to practice my English and it's hard to deny the advantage of reaching a wider audience.
Odo: Do you think that the authors from non-English speaking countries are more prominent right now in science fiction and fantasy than they were a few years ago?
BS: I'm afraid that I wasn't too familiar with genre a few years ago - by the time I got into it in 2012, writers like Aliette de Bodard and Lavie Tidhar were well established and (rightly!) celebrated; Ken Liu was already translating Chinese writers and Nick Mamatas's Haikasoru imprint was already going strong. Haruki Murakami and Sergey Lukyanenko have been stunning successes for a long time.
Odo: What authors have influenced you the most? Is there any current writer that you especially admire?
BS: Junot Díaz, Jan Morris and A.S. Byatt have long been influencing me - unconsciously, even before I thought of writing. Closer to home (or my chosen field, anyway!) the influences have been more immediate: Kameron Hurley has affected how I write women and brutality, Yoon Ha Lee inspires me to strive for better in my fiction, and Ann Leckie has made me consider gender in SFF through new lenses. Aliette has been a guiding light in innumerable ways.
Odo: I find your writing very visual. For instance, when reading "The Bees Her Heart, The Hive Her Belly" I couldn't help thinking about Dali's famous painting "Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening" and of one of Julie Dillon's covers for Clarkesworld. Was any of these paintings in your mind while writing the story? And, in general, where do you draw inspiration from?
BS: Goodness! Those are absolutely gorgeous (tigers!) and the Dillon is enchanting, a perfect mix of SFnal and fabulism I aimed for with that story... but no, I wasn't aware of these works of art. Synchronicity can be so magical, though I think a lot of people just like bees (E. Lily Yu's 'The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees' comes to mind). In general my inspiration comes from odd places, sometimes from a mistyped phrase producing a mismatch between figurative and literal, sometimes from a photograph with warped perspective. Really, just about anything could turn into a story! I'd love to say inspiration comes in a moment of the numinous while I walk down the Victoria Harbor or something similar, but that sadly doesn't happen much - my sources tend to be mundane.
Odo: On your blog you state that "Benjanun Sriduangkaew is a bee", your Twitter handle is @bees_ja, you've written the aforementioned "The Bees Her Heart, The Hive Her Belly"... Seriously, what's with all the bees?
BS: My nickname is really Bee! In Thai that doesn't mean anything, but in English it becomes a bilingual pun, which pleases me no end. Beyond that bees are cute (when they aren't chasing you!) and I like the idea of them representing collective strength. Bzzt!
Odo: You are also interested in photography and in makeup, which you consider a form of art. What is similar and what is different between literature and other forms of artistic expression?
BS: Hooray! Getting to talk about makeup during an author interview has been one of my highest aspirations - it is a thing to celebrate and thank you for giving me the chance! Makeup is a hands-on thing with the face as a canvas; constructing a look - picking the shades of eyeshadow, considering the shape of eyes or angle of cheekbones - is very like putting together a prose sentence. The perfect gradient eyelid to go with a complementary lipstick satisfy me in the same way as a phrase turned well, or fitting together characters and plot. I do other people's makeup when I can, changing how someone looks (within their comfort zone, of course) can be fascinating, both from my viewpoint and theirs. Perhaps literature can do something similar to the reader's perspective? Pulling a makeover on preconceptions, so to speak.
More generally visual arts are - I think - more immediately gratifying? There might be more details to notice at closer examination, but you can tell whether a painting or photograph appeals to you at a glance, less so with a book or even a short story. Between photography and writing though, I feel that language offers a more flexible medium... though photographers with better technique and equipment than I would almost definitely disagree. C:
Odo: What are you working on at the moment? Can you give us a sneak peek of your future projects?
BS: I'm working on a longer space opera piece that may become linked novellas or a proper novel - it's hard to tell at the moment, though I do know that it takes place in the setting of 'Silent Bridge, Pale Cascade' featuring the same main character, General Lunha. I'm excited about it and hope I'll be able to spend most of this year working on that. It'll have a lot in common with 'Silent Bridge' but will also incorporate the weird fabulist aspects of 'Bees'. Longer form gives me so much more room to play!
This year I'm looking at seven new stories out across zines and anthologies (Solaris Rising 3 and The Mammoth Book of Steampunk Adventures for two) along with some reprints. And since everyone's always been after me to make longer things, a novella called Scale-Bright, a contemporary fantasy set in Hong Kong. It's my love letter to the city, interweaving myth with the now, about a young woman with goddesses for aunts being drawn into an ancient feud between Chinese gods, snake demons, and a demon-hunting monk. This will be out about middle of the year from a rather lovely publisher.
Odo: Where can we learn more about you and your work?
BS: I can be found blogging at beekian.wordpress.com where I alternate between makeup blogging and writing blogging! My bibliography's here.
Odo: Any other thing you would like to add?
BS: I've probably prattled on at too great a length already! Thank you so much for having me over. It's been a real pleasure.
Odo: Thank you very much for your kind answers and for your time!