Born in Singapore but a global citizen, Joyce Chng writes mainly science fiction and YA. She likes steampunk and tales of transformation/transfiguration. Her fiction has appeared in Crossed Genres, The Apex Book of World SF II, We See A Different Frontier, Cranky Ladies of History, and Accessing The Future. Her YA science fiction trilogy is published by Singapore publisher, Math Paper Press.
Joyce is heading to Perth for Swancon in April, and Steph recently spoke with her about food, privileging experiences, and haunted makanan.
Steph: Hi Joyce, thanks for chatting with me at No Award today.
Joyce: Hi Stephanie, thank you.
Steph: You’re coming to Australia to be Guest of Honour at Swancon in a few weeks; many of the Aussies you’ll be mingling with might not be familiar with your work. Can you give us a quick run down of highlights and the themes you like to explore?
Joyce: I write mostly science fiction and YA… and things in between. I also like wolves a lot… so I tend to write about werewolves. So, I explore urban/contemporary fantasy set in Singapore (where I was born and grew up) with Chinese werewolves, because I wanted to challenge the all-white worlds typical of urban fantasy. Likewise, I like steampunk and the idea of using alternative technology – and how we can challenge the dominance of Victorian England in the current narrative. That was the basis of how Jaymee Goh and I came up with The Sea Is Ours, a Southeast Asian steampunk anthology. Both of us hail from Malaysia and Singapore respectively – and we were Crown Colonies and part of the Straits Settlements. Malaysia and Singapore are also part of the immense and immensely complex maritime history that shaped the world. As people who came from colonized states/islands/countries, how do we view steampunk then?
For YA, I tend to write a lot about girls searching for their identity and how they manage to achieve their goals. Oysters, Pearls & Magic and its sequel Path of Kindness are set on a farflung Earth colony where people have already developed their own distinct cultures. The protagonists set out on a journey to look for themselves. Xiao Xiao & The Dragon’s Pearl is a YA set in Qing China and again, we have girls as main characters. I love to see more agency for girls and by girls.
So, in short, I tend to explore themes like flight, change/transformation and liminal states. Probably because for a long time, I feel as if I am in a liminal state, in between, where I am caught between identities, that I am more like a border-straddler.
I also like to explore the concept of race and culture – a lot of my stories are firmly rooted in family. Family plays a big part in my world-building. Food too – but it also ties in with family as well. A lot of Chinese culture centers on food. We love food, definitely. But the beauty of sitting with your family around the table is also integral in our culture. A lot of food is linked to the concept of family and reunion. For example, glutinous rice balls eaten during the Winter Solstice (Dong Zhi) and Yuan Xiao (15th day of the Lunar New Year) symbolize family togetherness and reunion.
I interwove this food/culture thing in Xiao Xiao & The Dragon’s Pearl by adding recipes into it.
Steph: Do you do Yu Sheng at Lunar New Year, too?
Joyce: Yes, we do.
Steph: That’s a pretty togetherness food and action.
Joyce: Not to mention we like to pun a lot with food.
Steph: Since we take our food so seriously, do you think there should be more stuff about SEAsian food magic? Like the obvious stuff, haunted hawker centres, and the magic of the food we eat at lunar new year, etc.
Joyce: That can be an entire anthology! And yes, definitely more stuff on SEAsian food magic. I want to see stories about the magic of Lunar New Year food, Chinese witches charging their food. I like the concept of haunted hawker centres. Imagine going to a hawker centre caught in a time warp.
Steph: THAT IS FREAKY. Those poor hawker aunties and uncles!
Joyce: Yes. But what if they really love it – and exist for that time period.
Steph: Well, and maybe they don’t want to be here in the future where their kids don’t want to do such “backward” work.
Joyce: Or they have already resigned themselves to their fate, or they know that their children will not continue the family business.
Steph: So you haven’t talked about your werewolves yet! I know sometimes we think of werewolves as a bit overdone – what makes yours different, or what do you hope you bring to your werewolves that speak to people?
Joyce: My werewolves are not like the alpha male/naked torso type of werewolves you normally find in paranormal romance. I see my werewolves as human and wolf. When they change to their wolf forms, they are fully wolf. When they are human, they are fully human. And they are also Chinese. They are migrants who settled down in Nanyang when China had civil wars, famine and clan wars in the 19th century.
They care deeply for family (because, you know, Chinese). They loathe duplicity and prefer directness. The traditional werewolf form is actually a state they feel transgressing nature.
And of course, food.
I also mention food eaten during confinement (the month new mothers use to rest and bond with their babies). Even the werewolves have that.
Steph: Ahhh that sounds like fun! Does werewolf confinement differ from non-werewolf confinement? Are you using it to interrogate the concept of confinement, or is it another element of your cultural context that you’re weaving in for other reasons?
Joyce: I think werewolf confinement doesn’t differ that much from non-werewolf confinement. Only that the new mom is in wolf form, hehe.
I am using it to explore the concept of confinement. If human moms can do it, so can werewolf moms. And also I am weaving in that cultural context – in a way, the werewolves are like us but not like us.
What is odd to humans is not odd to the werewolves.
Steph: So what made you or makes you feel like you’re in a liminal state? One of my favourite things about fiction that explores this is that every liminality is different. What should readers know about your liminality? I am assuming you are not actually a werewolf.
Joyce: I grew up in Singapore, speaking English, while keenly aware that I wasn’t a native speaker (you know, English). Growing up, I had to juggle between many identities: am I Chinese? Am I not Chinese? Why am I speaking and thinking in English? Popular media was/is dominated by US, UK and Australian shows – mostly US. Then in my teens, I was a tomboy and hated being a girl. I was extremely awkward. I was a loner. I just didn’t fit in. So I stayed along the fringes, a state which I seem to be in even now. This liminality involves being in between worlds. I mean, I was aware of what was going on in all the girl cliques but I was not in them. I was an observer. As for being a werewolf… well…
Steph: Okay I’m going to cheat and go in a totally different direction. I saw you speak at the Singapore Writers’ Festival last November, where your panel discussed the role of footnotes, non-English languages, and explanations in English-language texts to people who aren’t Singaporean. Would you care to speak on that now?
Joyce: I actually have a glossary for the werewolf books… BUT… this is the age of technology and social media. Information is literally at your fingertips. Learning can be independent. Look up a word and you have the meaning there. Of course, that’s a privileged position as many people might not have access to a computer or the Internet.
But footnotes or endnotes can be clunky, because the book then becomes a sociological textbook.
What do people think about having glossaries or explanations? Are they useful?
Likewise, Singlish or Singapore English is a real thing, just as the variants of English are real things. English is not just the static Queen’s English (so exalted in Singapore). English changes, adapts, gets assimilated into other languages.
Steph: Do you have any thoughts on how Singaporean SFF, and SE Asian SFF in general, differ from that of the “western” world? And what about diversity movements which privilege American voices and experiences, and how we as non-US people can deal with that?
Joyce: To me, Singaporean SFF is still very nascent, baby steps. No doubt there are SFF writers and readers there. We have J. Y. Yang who has their novellas published by Tor. Yet, to be honest, Singaporean SFF seems tied to (or influenced by) US SFF, which is a juggernaut. We are very influenced by what they produce and as a result, influenced by their dominant standards on how SFF should look/read/sound like. Southeast Asian SFF (from Southeast Asia) is generally unknown, unless people from the West are curious and want to know more.
How we differ? Many stories I find deal with the landscape and family. We also write about the culture(s) of our countries and land. Many of us are also of the diaspora. Some of us weave in cultural context, which is a hard sell in – say – the US, because they find it so foreign to understand us. US SFF is different from the way I write, because US SFF tends to cater to their own crowd. So Clarion graduates are taught to write in that particular manner.
I feel that the diversity movements definitely privilege American voices and experiences. The rest of the world doesn’t seem to factor in their worldview, or indeed “diversity”. It is hard to talk to an American about diversity because for us, we have grown up in a place that is already diverse.
How we as non-US people deal with it? Well, let me suggest a few things. 1. We signal boost non-US voices (especially SEA, Australia etc). 2. We create a space for non-US people. 3. We buy and support non-US people.
I hasten to add that we have also to deal with our own privilege. For example, Singaporean Chinese is the dominant race in Singapore and we have to confront our own racism. Likewise, in Australia, Muslim voices, Indigenous voices have to be highlighted, heard and signal boosted.
Diversity is only BS when we pay lip service to it.
Steph: You touched on The Sea is Ours, the Southeast Asian Steampunk Anthology, and that seems like a good next topic since we’re talking about diversity. What was it like going from author to editor? Can you speak at all to that process? You wanted the book to be really representative, how do you think that went?
Joyce: It was a total learning process/experience going from author to editor. We both learnt that liking a story is subjective. We did quibble on certain stories! Likewise, copyediting/line-editing/developmental editing is not easy, especially developmental editing. Being writers ourselves, we know how hard it is to dish out critique. Also spreadsheets help … a LOT. Kudos to Jaymee who did all the spreadsheeting.
As for it being representative of SEA, we were pleased how it turned, but we also wanted Laotian and Cambodian voices. Not to say that certain nationalities were over-represented, but, perhaps for the next anthology, we would prefer to see SEA voices that are not heard much in lit, much less SFF lit. There were many women contributors, which is a good thing.
Steph: Was it difficult to do content editing, since that’s breaking into someone else’s vibe?
Joyce: It was daunting, especially in the beginning, when you read the story and think “this has to go” or “this can be expanded further”. Not easy… because writers become upset or unhappy because we don’t understand their vibe.
Steph: You actually went to uni in Perth, you were at UWA and you’ve been to a Swancon before, right? So what are you expecting? How do you think Perth and Aussie fandom might have changed in the 15 over years since then?
Joyce: Yep, yep, I went to uni in Perth. I was at UWA and attended Swancon many times. People might remember me at the masquerade night as Not Your Typical Anime Girl, with wooden staff and glossy purple shirt.
I think that was either 1998/1999. But I had attended Swancon. I sat beside Robin Hobb!
I have heard from friends that Perth has become more expensive, a bit scary (thanks to One Nation and people’s tendency to fear the Other). I was there when Hanson pulled the same trick she did recently by making Asians the bogey-man. Now, it’s Muslims and Islamophobia. It has been more than 15 years, I think. 17.
People might have changed. I certainly did. But I hope fans are basically still hopeful, still accepting, still open to new things. We are SFF fans!
I definitely miss UWA which I guess has probably changed a lot. I want to visit Fremantle Market. And King’s Park. I would like to visit King’s Park!
Steph: So, do you have some favourite authors and artists you’d like to recommend?
Joyce: My cover artist for Wolf At The Door, Dhiyanah. I would also recommend Shing Yin Kor who did the cover for The Sea Is Ours. Also Shelley, who did the cover for Xiao Xiao & The Dragon’s Pearl. And Kim Miranda! Definitely recc’ing Kim – she is an awesome illustrator for my MG story Sun Dragon’s Song.
Authors and writers? Eve Shi (Indonesian). She writes in Bahasa Indonesia and English. Cassandra Khaw (Malaysian) – also invite her if possible to the Aussie cons!
Steph: Where should people new to your work go to find one or two things they can read before Swancon in four weeks?
If they would like to get an idea of what I have written, they can check out my website.
And of course, The Sea Is Ours: Tales from Steampunk Southeast Asia
If they want to have samples or tasters, check out my wattpad.
Steph: What are your con needs? Like, can people come up to you, do you want hand shakes or hugs? Do you want people to take you to lunch? What should they talk to you about?
Joyce: People can definitely come up to me to talk or chat. They can ask first if they would like to hug me. People can of course take me out to lunch, if time permits. I will also be meeting with some of the Perth people I know for a drink (well, coffee etc). Talk to me about things. Life. Bread making. Knitting. Writing. Cats (lol). If they are curious as to how I started writing, they can ask that too.
Steph: Finally, will you share a recipe with us?
Joyce: Well, ABC soup is fairly standard, I often use this one.
I use chicken in this case.
Two chicken thighs (skin removed) or chicken breast bone (fresh). Two large potato (skln removed, cut in half). One large white onion. Two large carrots. This is fairly standard – cooks can add things like ginger or garlic or celery or radish.
Boil the chicken first, remove the scum, before adding the ingredients in. Salt for taste. Boil for about 30-40 mins, removing the scum (because my mom insisted I do so, because it tastes better).
Then, simmer for 20 mins before turning off the fire/heat. If you want best results, use a thermal warmer. 2 hours in it before serving it hot with rice.
Some people I know use slow cookers.
Steph: Thank you for joining us today, Joyce! You can catch Joyce at Swancon, over the Easter long weekend.