This week we had author Isabel Yap join us! After reading two of her stories, Milagroso at Tor.com and The Oiran's Song at Uncanny Magazine, I was quite surprised by a comment that she'd made to me when we spoke privately about her worldbuilding. So I started by asking her how she defined worldbuilding, and wasn't surprised when she said that she thought mainly about secondary worlds. She noted that worldbuilding panels at conventions very often feature secondary worlds. She describes herself as comfortable with contemporary fantasy, using a modern setting with a few changes. She has tried to come up with new worlds.
I explained the definition of worldbuilding that I use in my hangout series, that worldbuilding has to do with the creation of a world on a blank page. She said she appreciated the more expansive definition. She likes to go about presenting our world in a different way.
She told us that she has a background in fan fiction. The fun part there is that you get to use canon. Other people have done the heavy lifting of creating the world, she says, and thus words and character names evoke a whole lot. Working in original fiction, the task is different. "They are coming to my world completely cold," she says. "How can I get them to care?"
With fan fiction there is a kind of co-creation between the fan and the work. Isabel likes to ask "what ifs" about a story, and do character sketches and backstories, etc., for example: what would happen 10 years after the Hunger Games? She always asks herself if this would make sense in the context of canon.
She says even during this time she was always writing original stories, too. She notes that as a reader growing up, you don't see much short fiction. She says she wasn't aware that such things get published, and wasn't conscious of any need to publish them. She remarks that in short fiction, every sentence really matters.
Isabel told us that she wrote "Milagroso" during her stint at Clarion in 2013. In week 1 she'd written a story about two hackers traveling around the world, but had received feedback that there was no sense of setting in it. She decided, "I'm going to show my class that I can write setting." That, she says, was the first driving factor behind the story, while the second was instructor Nalo Hopkinson. Isabel told us, "I wanted to write a very Filipino story." This was important, she says, because she grew up with the perception that "no one will really get it if I write about my life." However, Nalo made her feel safe because they were both writers of color.
She described the research she did for the story, which features a festival she hadn't attended herself, but which several of her friends had attended. She spoke to high school friends and watched YouTube videos about the festival in general and about how to make kiping, which features prominently. She was very happy when the story was well received by her classmates. She describes the setting as almost like a magical setting, but taking place in a near future which is very like the present.
Glenda asked if it mattered whether the description featured things that were "real" or not. Isabel responded by describing the difference between the reactions of Filipinos to the story vs. non-Filipinos. She said that the Filipinos were more likely to say "I know exactly what you're talking about," while non-Filipinos unfamiliar with the festival were more likely to remark on the emotional impressions of the description. Isabel said she was thrilled when her sister really "got" the story.
The second story we discussed was The Oiran's Song. Isabel told us that it also involved a lot of research because it is historical fiction, even though its not set at a specific historical period. She had always wanted to write about a soldier and a courtesan, but the story didn't really start coming together until she learned about the difference between an oiran (whose duties include sexual ones) and a geisha (more of an entertainer). Studying the history of the role of the oiran helped her pick the approximate historical period, and she then had to decide roughly which war she was depicting. She read a whole book on the Floating World (the world of artists and courtesans in Japanese history). She also got some inspiration from a couple of manga series. She wanted to show the oiran breaking down and feeling her life was hard... but "Spoilers!" she said, she is also an assassin and a demon! She describes the story as personal and triggery.
Pat asked if the oiran were still around, but to our knowledge they are not - the geisha and the maiko remain, however.
I asked if she had a particular world she preferred to work in, but her preference is for discovering new things, and writing in our own world, which feels quite natural. We discussed how difficult it is to write about people whose experience is not the same as ours. She feels nervous, she says, not writing about Filipinos. "I'm going to mess up this American..."
She mentioned the critical question that many writers face, where they can't travel everywhere in the world and wonder if that should stop them from writing about something. She says it shouldn't, but that one must make sure to be careful and do research. She is comfortable working in Japanese settings because she consumed a lot of Japanese media growing up, and studied Japanese starting in the 6th grade. She also spent 3 months studying abroad in Tokyo, which gave her an interesting perspective on the relation between the narratives featured in media and the reality. In the case of shojo manga, she says, it's remarkably close.
She urges us all to check out Filipino Speculative Fiction, which is a strong anthology series, and also The SEA is ours.
Isabel is currently working on a project called The Hurricane Heals series, taking the story of 5 magical girls, but instead of setting them at the typical age for maho shojo stories, they are 25 and dealing with the reality of adult lives in the US. Apparently one of the stories features a monster showing up at a strip club in the middle of a bachelorette party. She wanted to work with the magical girls trope, but make it more realistic.
We briefly discussed how authors consider different kinds of things "realistic." Isabel told us about looking at things like Power Rangers and asking "but how would that actually work?" When does it hurt? When is it tiring? Pat added, "Who gets to wash out all the bloodstains?" These works (like Power Rangers) have a narrative format so familiar it becomes invisible. It is interesting to ask what happens when those elements become visible.
Isabel says, "I do have a perverse love of the painful stuff."
Another thing she is working on features two handsome young men (bishonen) in space. She also is working on a secondary world fantasy that draws on Filipino myth, complete with some interesting gender flipping.
Isabel, thanks so much for joining us and talking about your work! We'll be looking out for it. I hope you will all enjoy the video below. Join us next Wednesday at 10am to talk about Inheritance!