Friday, January 9, 2015

Joyce Chng/J. Damask: a Dive into Worldbuilding! hangout summary with VIDEO

We were joined on December 18 by Joyce Chng, who was with us all the way from Singapore! Thanks for being with us, Joyce. She writes both as Joyce Chng and as J. Damask.

I started by asking about her werewolf books, the first of which is entitled Wolf at the Door. These books are fascinating because they feature werewolves in Singapore - a truly unusual milieu! She explained that she did a lot of research on werewolves, and also worked hard to integrate them into the Singaporean culture and history. In her world, the werewolves are of Chinese extraction, and settled in Singapore in the 19th century. This scenario enables her to ask questions about being Other in the Singaporean cultural context.

Her main character, Jan Xu, is a married mother of two girls and one boy, the eldest daughter of a  powerful werewolf clan. It deals with her relationship with her sister Marianne, who is unable to transform, exploring the love and hate in sisterly relationships. In the second book, Jan Xu becomes alpha of the clan. The books also feature vampires, were-tigers, and elves.

Singapore prides itself as an island country of migrants, built on the blood of all who came to settle there. This means it features a lot of regional mythologies: Malaysian were-tigers, Malay elves, phoenixes and kitsune, etc. There is an incredible diversity of cultures, stories and legends. The region is very complex. People live in the larger society while maintaining their culture and traditions.

Joyce's grandparents came from Shanghai and Canton, migrating from China to Singapore in the 19th century. She is 3rd generation Chinese. This puts her in an excellent position to explore complexities. The world is modern - including things like cell phones, which no one ever wants to part with! Joyce says that when she is teaching, she has to ask her students not to use technology.

She mentions that people often say Singapore looks like a science fiction city.

Her work often deals with the pull between nature and technology. Joyce believes one should be close to nature. Parks are special places to her. There are very few wild places left in Singapore, as most have been cut down. Animals don't have much of a chance to be wild. In her novel, the werewolves and other creatures struggle between nature and technology. The werewolves travel to hunt deer in Malaysia. Joyce feels the yearning for the ancestral forest is strong in all of us, as it is in her characters.

Family plays an important role in her work. Chinese culture values very close-knit families, and her werewolves also have close family connections. They gather for meals and to hunt, and for many holidays and occasions. "Family forms our identity. Surnames tell us where we are from."

While the novels focus mostly the werewolf clan, her short stories explore other groups like the phoenix families etc.

Wolf at the Door deals specifically with an outsider coming into the clan, and the resulting cultural clash. Initially the family is quite suspicious. She looks closely at what happens when someone brings in a new boyfriend/girlfriend, but in this case it's a foreign werewolf. Everyone has strong feelings about it. Wolves would normally chase off non-members - should we chase this person or not?

Joyce writes all her work in English, because she's found that writing in Chinese doesn't work for her. However, she hopes one day perhaps to translate her work into Chinese.

She told us a bit about the education system in Singapore, which is British from colonial times. The system gets people thinking in English, and it becomes a mental shift to work in Chinese since more value is placed on English. Young people apparently find Mandarin difficult or uninteresting. On the other hand, many have dialects from their own regions, such as Cantonese etc. There are many different dialects of Chinese, but these are banned and not taught in schools. She explained how she has difficulty understanding her grandmother who speaks Hokkien. There is a great deal of linguistic complexity even within families, and the importance of dialect is only just now being recognized. She likes to bring in dialect in some of her other science fiction.

She has a story of a Eurasian half-drake, half-luong were-dragon. These stories take place in the same universe as Wolf at the Door; Dark Claw is available on Kindle.

She teaches humanities - history, geography, literature, social studies, and sociology, all of which enter into her worldbuilding. She studied Medieval history and has studied in Australia. She likes history books, and has written a story set in the late 19th century about how local groups in Singapore dealt with the werewolves coming in - paralleling the influx of Chinese immigrants to Singapore.

She has another universe she's also working in now, which features a desert planet inspired in part by Dune. The Rider trilogy has three books: Rider, Speaker, and Chaser. The planet was terraformed to be more friendly to human habitation, but the terraforming was not entirley successful. "The desert is trying to take back what belongs to her." People are trying to exist and live there anyway, trying to keep the sand out of their houses. The planet has some sentience. The desert is a metaphor for struggle between humans and nature.

People on this planet ride huge pterosaurs. Being a rider is prestigious. The pterosaurs are sentient, intelligent beings, and come in two branches: watchers, who work with humans, and hunters, who are wild and want no contact with humans. The main character, Li Fang, rides a hunter named Mung ("dream") who is an outcast form his own people. Relationships are very important, and the relationship between Li Fang and Mung grows out of bullying and conflict that actually leads to Mung injuring Li Fang and paralyzing her.

Thanks again to Joyce for joining us and telling us about her visions! I hope you enjoy the video. Also, please join us on Monday, January 12 on Google+ when we will be talking to N. K. Jemisin!


No comments:

Post a Comment