Writing Sci-Fi/Fantasy from a Southeast Asian Perspective
Growing up in Singapore was a lonely journey for me, compounded by the fact that I am an only child. My ‘sibling’ was my Japanese Spitz. My solace was reading and writing stories on note paper. My imagination was my most cherished companion. I read just about everything. Encyclopedias, picture books, Enid Blyton, and – when I grew older – science fiction authors like Isaac Asimov, Anne McCaffrey, and Frank Herbert. It was not surprising that I started to write science fiction from a young age.
At first, it was just fan fiction. Of course, I didn’t know it was called fan fiction. The Internet was still in its infancy at that time. I didn’t have access to fan culture. So, I just wrote what I thought was right: I added in more color and more ‘missing’ details. I imagined protagonists who sounded like me and looked like me (and loved the same kind of things like mev) becoming queen riders. I imagined the world(s) filled out with people like me. My first reader was my best friend. She wanted more.
I dipped my toes in actual writing (wow, actual writing) when I was in my twenties and in university. I signed up for creative writing modules. I sucked. I got a B-, almost a C. I submitted my first science fiction short to a literary journal. I got a form rejection letter (print, then, kiddies). I pasted it on the wall for a while, but removed it later. Nevertheless, stories found their way into student newspapers and fan anthologies.
The YA bit of my current author biography was established when I started teaching. My students were teenagers ranging from fourteen to seventeen. It was still in the early 2000s. YA hadn’t taken off yet! I soon left teaching, to look after my baby girl. I grew depressed, found professional help, and started writing again. Writing became my life-saver. All my first books (serialized on the ‘Net) were YA. Steampunk. Science fiction. Girls finding their place in their world. Girls finding their own innate power. Girls just having fun as they grow up into their own persons.
I couldn’t find publishers. The publishing climate was at best unfriendly to a non-US/UK person like me. At worse, it was akin to hitting a hard wall. Literary agents? Publishers who only wanted the kind of fiction that could sell? How many flaming hoops do people need to jump through? By then, self-publishing looked mighty good for me. I wrote Xiao Xiao & The Dragon’s Pearl, a YA fantasy set in Qing China, and self-published it. Not giving up, I also looked at small and independent presses. I started with Rider, a YA sff set on a desert planet. Wolf At The Door, an urban fantasy novel set in Singapore, is published by Fox Spirit Books and Gerakbudaya, in both international and regional markets respectively. Dragon Dancer, a picture book about dragon dancing and Chinese New Year, was published by Lantana Publishing. There is also Sun Dragon’s Song, a MG Asian fantasy under Rosarium, an awesome diverse publisher who also published THE SEA Is Ours, a Southeast Asian steampunk anthology I co-edited with Jaymee Goh.
I wrote and am still writing. The trick is not to give up.
What has all these got to do with Southeast Asia and diversity in YA/MG fiction?
Southeast Asia is a diverse region with countries rich in traditions and cultures. Each country has its own writing communities, some writing literary fiction, some writing science fiction/fantasy/horror and some writing YA, or things in between. From Eve Shi’s The Bond in Bahasa Indonesia to Buku Fixi’s many anthologies in Malaysia, there are writers and authors writing in English and their own languages. Like me, many have difficulty trying to get into the US and UK markets and most do not have literary agents to advocate for and support them. They are also talented people with stories to tell, worlds to share. Why are diverse books by Southeast Asian writers so hard to sell? Are we that hard to understand?
These questions persist. Why are the markets not talking to each other? Why is there not enough translated literature? There are many good MG and YA books that have not been translated and are only known/read in their particular country or region. Many of us write solely in English, because it is pretty much an Anglophone world, isn’t it? Many of us do not have English as our first language. For me (diasporic Hokkien Chinese in Singapore), English is my first language and I write and speak in English. Yet, our own languages and voices are overlooked and neglected.
My challenge to readers, agents and writers from Anglophone countries is this: be aware of the traditions and cultures outside your country’s borders. Diversity not only applies to what’s happening within your country, but it is pretty much part of our lives elsewhere. We might have different struggles and perspectives. But, we live on the same diverse planet. Children should be exposed to diversity, not because it’s some fancy buzzword or an opportunity to get a diversity pass. The world they live in is composed of many ethnicities, many cultures and many traditions, not to mention different life experiences. Learning shouldn’t be limited to things within the limits of a country or a geographical region.
Let’s open communication lines, let’s build bridges and let’s understand each other better.
If you want to talk more with Joyce Chng, she’s around to answer questions and will reply to comments left on this post and to questions posed via Twitter (either directly @jolantru or to #WriteOnCon).
Born in Singapore, but a global citizen, Joyce Chng writes mainly science fiction and YA. She likes steampunk and tales of transfiguration/transformation. Her fiction has appeared in The Apex Book of World SF II, We See A Different Frontier, Cranky Ladies of History, and Accessing The Future. Her YA includes a trilogy about a desert planet and a fantasy duology in Qing China. Joyce has also co-edited a Southeast Asian steampunk anthology titled THE SEA IS OURS: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia with Jaymee Goh. Her Jan Xu Adventures series, an urban/contemporary fantasy set in Singapore, is written under the pseud. J. Damask which she will tell you it’s a play on her Chinese name.
Joyce’s bibliography, updates, rants and (occasional) photography can be found at A Wolf’s Tale and Twitter (@jolantru). If you are interested, she has also a Patreon for her medical fees. Samples of her work are posted on her Wattpad.