Yesterday I reviewed Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s latest novella Scale-Bright, which I loved. This wasn’t that big of a surprise as I’ve sort of fallen in love with Benjanun’s writing over the past few months. She’s also my number one vote for the Not-a-Hugo Campbell Award for Best New Writer. So when Benjanun sent me my review copy I quickly asked her for an interview and she graciously agreed. So I hope you enjoy her answers as much as I did and go check out her wonderful fiction, most of which is available online!
Let’s start with the basics. Who is Benjanun Sriduangkaew?
Hello! I’m a writer with a thing for bugs, far-future things, cities, and travel literature. If by remote chance you have heard of me, it’s probably because I’ve been shortlisted for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, a ballot I’m entirely proud to share with the charming Max Gladstone, the sophisticated Sofia Samatar, the witty Wesley Chu, and the very smart Ramez Naam. All fantastic writers, too.
How would you introduce readers to the world of Scale-Bright?
It’s a world of myth existing under the thin skin of the contemporary: partly literally with the interstitial city where gods and demons openly live, partly figuratively with the natural mystery of the metropolis. This isn’t necessarily a place where all myths are true – some are, some aren’t – but it’s more magical than what we know, colorful, and dangerous. I’d draw comparison, a little, to Spirited Away. Chihiro didn’t directly inspire the character of Julienne (who’s much older and has more grown-up troubles), but there’s a pinch of influence.
In reading your work I found you are clearly often inspired by ancient mythology and folklore. What draws you to these old stories?
Mythology and folklore are, often, like archeological dig sites. They directly reflect the cultural norms of their time; the way they get ‘updated’ and recast – like Marvel’s Thor and the character’s recent change to a woman – likewise reflects how societal values shift, progress, culminate. It’s potent, built to resonate. I took to the mythologies behind Scale-Bright for similar reasons: I wanted cultural staples that would ignite the spark of familiarity, but in a manner many readers might wish old stories could have been (Houyi as a woman; the romantic inclinations of many of the characters), to match their sense of self.
You’re Thai and have lived in Indonesia and are currently a resident of Hong Kong. How have these different culture and locales influenced your writing?
I’ve always been very mobile! I was born in Pattani, southern Thailand – we neighbor Malaysia; my early food was influenced a lot by that, among other things – then went to Bangkok for university, where nearly everything was different; an internship after graduation saw me briefly in Manila, and for a while my career took me between Jakarta and Hong Kong.
It’s hard to isolate cultural inspiration, I’m more inclined to say that my imagination’s been fueled by the spirit of urbanness, if that makes sense? Cities are a little scary, a little magical; it’s dense and there are so many layers to it, a result of a million different factors brought to bear by economy, cultures. Exploring this is both fascinating and interesting, but city-ness is one of the primary things that went into Scale-Bright, and fittingly in it one city literally hides another underneath, sideways.
What is your favourite traditional folk tale or myth?
Apart from the ones I picked to work with here, I’m very fond of bits from Journey to the West – there are episodes from it which are more challenging to tradition than one might think, and it’s hard to not like trickster monkeys. I’ve also done some work with the story of Mae Nak, a tragic ghost woman who’s fascinated many (thus her continual popularity in movies and TV shows, even recently, some comedic and some serious).
One of your themes seems to be finding yourself and following your heart and in the process breaking away from societal expectations and gender roles. Is that an accidental recurring theme or is it something you consciously chose to explore?
It’s quite accidental, and possibly part of it is that it’s not uncommon: most main characters in fiction are one step or two outside the system they inhabit, which is what sets them apart – and to paraphrase Kameron Hurley, all stories are about gender, whether in breaking away from or conforming to prescribed notions. In some of my fantasy, and in Scale-Bright, they break away from those; in my far-future SF, they tend to conform to them exactly (within their cultures).
In your Hegemony universe memory is uploaded into the cloud and as such changes every time you synchronise, leaving people open to manipulation and erasure. It’s a fascinating concept and not a little frightening. What inspired this concept?
The changing face of journalism, for one – there was a time when we got most of our news from newspapers and the television, and those were considered authoritative (I understand some people still look to them that way, but at a risk of sounding old I’d say journalistic fact-checking was better once), but now a lot of us get news online, and that’s where news media also tends to source theirs. When something urgent or by-the-minute happens – like the anti-mainland protest in March this year – Twitter’s one of the first places I check. While this makes dissemination of information more pluralistic, it does strike me as a little scary we trust what we see online fairly easily, as so many Internet hoaxes (and Snopes) have attested. So I made this more literal as well as mostly state-controlled, and we get the Hegemonic public sync: editorial access to memory. It’s a present, contemporary concern, I think.
You seem to have two extended story universes, one set in the world of Scale-Bright and one centred on the Hegemony. Will you be writing more in either of these universes?
Yes! I was concerned folks would be sick of Hegemony stories already, but I’ve been told that’s not the case, so I expect to be doing a lot more with that. I toyed with the idea of writing a sequel to Scale-Bright and think I have a small draft floating around, but that’s probably not a priority at this time.
What’s next for you? Are you working on more short fiction, a novella, or an even longer work? Any exciting con appearances coming up?
I’ve got a fair number of forthcoming stories, one of them a Hegemony tale on Tor.com. There’s an SF novella on the backburner, and I’m always in a whirlwind of very many short stories (I have to be – they have deadlines!). I will have stories in Phantasm Japan, Solaris Rising 3, Upgraded and Dangerous Games. All delight me very much, not because I’m part of them but due to the company. They contain some of my absolute favorite writers like Aliette de Bodard, Seth J. Dickinson, and Rachel Swirsky.
Sadly, when it comes to cons I have a lot less to report; I’d love to make it one day, but for the moment, outside my budget and time. Dutch cons sound like a lot of fun, though!
Is there something else you’re passionate about other than writing and books?
Makeup, photography, and food – in that order! Makeup I’m most confident with, since it goes on my face, and it’s fascinating to me to be able to modify a face so much without surgery; you can open up your eyes, sharpen your cheekbones, experiment with eyebrows (which, like a haircut, can hugely affect how your face looks). Photography I don’t have the right equipment for and haven’t been serious enough to invest, but given more free time I’d love to take it up more seriously. When it comes to food I’m more on the eating end than the cooking, and I’ve a wide appreciation for all sorts. Hong Kong is one of the best places for food, so I’m well blessed.
As a book reviewer, I’m all about the book enabling; I can’t help but want to make people read all the good books out there. But I can always use help. What are your top recommendations of books we should look out for in the coming months?
Ancillary Sword (Orbit) of course, everyone must be looking forward to that so much; I’m dizzily excited for Ann Leckie. Next is The Mirror Empire (Angry Robots) from Kameron Hurley looks set to be challenging and complicated. Lavie Tidhar has A Man Lies Dreaming (Hodder) coming up in October, and it promises to be both intelligent and wrenching. Somewhat in advance, I’m super, super looking forward to a 2015 epic fantasy novel The Traitor Baru Cormorant (Tor) from Seth J. Dickinson, billed as a ruthless geopolitical tragedy. This both excites and scares me – I’m a wibbling wimp when it comes to brutal sadness.
For anthologies, Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets (Solaris Books) looks like a lot of fun.
Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?
Oh eep, no, I have no sort of system at all. I shelve books from the same series together, but that’s rare as I tend to prefer standalones. Otherwise book sizes dictate their shelving, as I have limited space. I do have a single shelf devoted to contributor copies, which are growing to an alarming degree – some of the anthologies are the size of phone books, to my delight as a writer and to my consternation with concerns of physical space.
Thank you so much for having me!
Bio: Benjanun Sriduangkaew (@bees_ja on Twitter) writes fantasy, space opera, and loves pretty bugs. Her short fiction can be found in Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and year’s best collections. She is a finalist for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer.