Friday 8 December 2017

Interview with Benjanun Sriduangkaew

We are joined by Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Campbell- and BSFA-nominated author of many postcolonial cyberpunk and South-East Asian fantasy short stories (among which “Courtship in the Country of Machine-Gods,” “Vector,” “We Are All Wasteland on the Inside” and “Mermaid Teeth, Witch-Honed” in TFF publications), who is celebrating the release of her new novella, Winterglass from Apex Publications.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew writes love letters to strange cities, beautiful bugs, and the future. Her work has appeared on, in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, and year's best collections. She has been shortlisted for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and her debut novella Scale-Bright has been nominated for the British SF Association Award.

She agreed to answer a few of our questions (after the Winterglass blurb below):

The city-state Sirapirat once knew only warmth and monsoon. When the Winter Queen conquered it, she remade the land in her image, turning Sirapirat into a country of snow and unending frost. But an empire is not her only goal. In secret, she seeks the fragments of a mirror whose power will grant her deepest desire.

At her right hand is General Lussadh, who bears a mirror shard in her heart, as loyal to winter as she is plagued by her past as a traitor to her country. Tasked with locating other glass-bearers, she finds one in Nuawa, an insurgent who’s forged herself into a weapon that will strike down the queen.

To earn her place in the queen’s army, Nuawa must enter a deadly tournament where the losers’ souls are given in service to winter. To free Sirapirat, she is prepared to make sacrifices: those she loves, herself, and the complicated bond slowly forming between her and Lussadh.

If the splinter of glass in Nuawa's heart doesn't destroy her first.

“A fairy tale, beautiful like an ice crystal, and razor sharp.”

“Winterglass is rich with diamondine prose, a scintillant retelling of the Ice Queen that challenges Occidental aesthetics, colonial mentality, and personal identity.”

The Future Fire: Winterglass isn’t the first subverted fairy tale retelling that you have written. What is it about this genre that appeals to you?

Lusadh, illustrated by Mumi
Benjanun Sriduangkaew: The obvious one for me is to queer it all up: most fairytales and mythological stories are depressingly heteronormative, even ones that purport to center a woman rescuing a boy are stuck in this quagmire (since when are boys worth risking your life for? Exactly). My hope is that by retelling and reconfiguring these stories there's something we can reclaim for ourselves and for our places in the world. Stories are a powerful thing, the human subconscious looks for narrative patterns. I like to think that by engaging with stories with origins in our cultural bedrock we can reconfigure our minds a little, shift our default assumptions of what love stories are supposed to be like, of who gets to have power and who gets to speak.

TFF: Do you have any plans to collect your fairy tale stories into a single project of some kind?

BS: At first I thought I hadn't written that many, but as it turns out—aside from full-length novellas like Scale-Bright and Winterglass (which are too thematically different)—I have actually written a fair number of stories that fit the bill. 'Paya-Nak' is a lesbian take on a Thai folktake, 'Mermaid Teeth, Witch-Honed' [in TFF-X, ed.] is a Lovecraftian lesbian retelling of The Little Mermaid, 'The Beast at the End of Time' is a post-singularity lesbian Beauty and the Beast, and so on. At the moment there is probably not quite enough volume, but it's very much a possibility to put them together into a mini-collection (plus a new story or two), and I expect there would be interest. It will have to wait a while, as I'll have a collaboration out next year, Methods Devour Themselves (Zero Books), that's partly a mini-collection.

TFF: Why did you choose a tale from the European tradition to talk, among other things, about colonialism and cultural assimilation?

BS: Andersen lived in a culturally homogeneous region, and his entire body of work is culturally/racially homogeneous. His fairytales, like many western fairytales and European narratives, are part and parcel with cultural imperialism. It seems as apt as any to regard his fairytales as a symbol of that hegemony. ‘The Snow Queen’ in particular struck me as a useful allegory—not because the original put in any such work or even pauses to think about it (Andersen was no doubt about as familiar with post-colonialism as he was with having a fulfilled romantic life, which is to say not at all), but because the idea of imposing an unfamiliar climate is essentially what colonization is. It changes ways of life, makes the colonizer's technology seem suddenly 'necessary', and demands total submission into the new order. Having said that, the colonizer in Winterglass—the Winter Queen—is neither white nor European.

TFF: Is there a particular pleasure in remodelling stories that have been told and retold for centuries and yet being able to use them to say something completely new?

BS: Yes! Structurally Winterglass has very little in common with the Andersen story, and eschews the bildungsroman entirely (Gerda and Kay are children; Nuawa and Lussadh are respectively in their thirties and forties). What I was interested in doing wasn't a literal retelling so much as referential, so I treated ‘The Snow Queen’ as material to mine rather than a framework to replicate.

While I don't think I'm saying something entirely new I do find that most retellings—being by white authors—more interested in the gender politics of fairytales (usually the agency and role and activity of female characters; somewhat more rarely, in queering up the stories) or in grimdarking it all up (by emphasizing or adding, sometimes to excess, the violence and sexual assault). The questions of empire and culture come up somewhat less. Either way I like to think that I'm bringing something to the table that, say, Disney very much hasn't.

TFF: As a reader/viewer, do you enjoy retellings of classic stories? Is there one that taught you something you found useful in your own writing of Winterglass?

BS: Joan D. Vinge's The Snow Queen was very interesting for its time, even if on reread now it doesn't hold up, partly because it depicts an improbable white-guilt fantasy: here's a planet inhabited entirely by white pagans, here's a bunch of brown people who colonized and exploited them. Unfortunate implications, as they say. I don't think it necessarily taught me a concrete lesson, but it does show that you can really put a fairytale in unexpected settings, clones and supercomputers and all.

TFF: Why do you think mirrors make such good symbols of our deepest desires?

BS: Reflection is potent, and reflection that can distort—such as in concave or convex glass—unnerves. There's a reason doppelgangers are creepy, because it can be either a very harsh teller of truth or a version of you that's not quite right, and sometimes it can be both. Mirrors can represent so much dream logic, the subconscious, suggesting that what it brings out can be something about ourselves we don't even know (or want to know). And physically glass is an attractive material, it does interesting, intriguing things with light. There's a lot of room for metaphor there.

Thank you so much for talking to us about Winterglass, Benjanun. I look forward to reading it!