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Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Jaymee Goh

It was a pleasure to have Jaymee Goh on the show after seeing her at SF in SF last month! If you'd like to learn about SF in SF (Science Fiction in San Francisco), go here. At that event, Jaymee read a horror story called "When the Bough Breaks," so we started out by talking about that story.

Jaymee explained that she arrived at that story via a process of several years. It started out with a dream of fear and anxiety associated with a strong sensation Jaymee had of pins and needles in her back, which her brain interpreted as a ghost. She gets quite a bit of inspiration from dreams. She took the idea of spirits hanging around us all the time, and added to it an image of a little boy lying dead in a puddle - he was electrocuted, but everyone knows that he was killed by spirits.

The story treats with the theme of kids not being taken seriously by adults.

In 1992 or 1993 there was a luxury condominium building that collapsed because it had been built on the side of a hill, and there was a landslide. The building hadn't been able to handle the runoff, and had been undermined. Jaymee put it together with her other ideas and asked, "What if this disaster had been caused by ghosts?"

"When the Bough Breaks" is set in Malaysia, and has a condominium building that is similar to the one in the real world collapse. There are many buildings designed with a courtyard in the middle so kids can play. In her story, the courtyard is between the condos and the face of the hill, and it's called "The Cradle."

I was really fascinated by the way Jaymee used language in her story. She explained to us that this is exactly how Malaysians talk. She described it as the country having several major languages, and people having a basolect - one main language - to which they would add grammar and vocabulary from others. Maybe the base would be Malay, with Chinese and English added. Maybe if the person was middle class it might be English with Malay and Chinese added. In the story, it's very clear that this is not an exclusively English-speaking community. When she was hanging with friends there would be various groups with different accents.

I asked Jaymee if she found it at all hard to balance the authenticity of the speech with the need for the audience to understand it. She said it's not too hard to balance because there's high compatibility, with a lot of vocabulary and grammar coming from English.

"This is literally how my family talks," she explains. There are degrees of difference from family to family. She compares her work to the short fiction of Zen Cho, who uses more Hokkien in the text.

We then talked about Jaymee's Steampunk work. She has an ongoing series looking at colonization of maritime Southeast Asia, including Kalimantan, Borneo, and the Straits of Malacca. The Portuguese were in Malacca and Singapore, and the Dutch, English, and Portuguese fought over the area.

In her work, steampunk technology is used to oppose colonization. The current racial dynamics in Asia are a direct result of colonization, so she is looking at what happens to the concept of Malaysian identity using a multiracial cast of characters with different cultural backgrounds. There are many turns of phrase she uses which are specific to the local geography.

Jaymee wrote the first story in this series almost ten years ago. She's had three stories published in this setting. She says it's hard for it to stand alone. Finding pre-colonial research resources from the region is hard, and sometimes it's hard to know how to start.

Sometimes it's hard to know how to tell a story if the technology involved is very cool but very visual.

Jaymee keeps files on stories she wants to tell. One story of this kind is based on another historical event of the 1960's. She saw a documentary about Chinese dock workers between the 1930s and 1960s, where the workers organized themselves by clan name or family name, and one of the clans was "mixed." She really liked the idea of all the clans, and the odd-one-out people banding together with each other. These clans competed for work by trying to make their teams the cheapest, fastest, and most available, but this led to tragedy. A shipment came in, and all the groups were trying to do the job right now. It was raining. They were supposed to throw a chicken in and see if it was safe to go in, and if the chicken died, they had to air the hold out first. This time they didn't use a chicken. Rotting onions in the hold had filled the air with poisonous gas, and this made the workers sick, and many fell into the sea as they came off the ship. Jaymee told us the story idea is that the only survivor of such an accident has survivor guilt and one day will tell the story of the actual accident.

Jaymee assured us, though, that she doesn't always focus on disasters or horrors. She is writing a story about a girl and an airship, and romance and matchmaking with nonbinary gender. The girl's family owns a crocodile farm. One of the messages in the story is "you can be as nonbinary as you want but people will still try to marry you off."

I asked Jaymee about her work in progress. She has been working on a fantasy romance for the last year. There are old stories about immortals performing miracles, but then one of the immortals refuses to perform miracles and disappears. Many religious philosophies ask you to distance yourself from worldliness, to be selfless, or to give up your desire for power. If you define yourself by the things you own, or by your authority, you go down a garden path of suffering. You end up losing the thing that defines you. But this is not how government or politics work. If immortals start disappearing, how do you deal with it? What happens if the influence of ancestral spirits were empirically indentifiable?

This is a love story, but lots of other things happen in it. The hero is an immortal who wanted to divest from the world, but falls in love instead. What happens when he comes to be invested? Does he gain mortality? Jaymee told us she had a whole argument with herself about this. The heroine is a woman who can speak to spirits.

There are interesting things about using immortals. Theoretically, an immortal would have long term knowledge about how things used to be. We become used to a lot of terrible things today, but who can remember useful systems that are now obsolete? The immortal who disappears goes away for a long time, but comes back looking for a bowl of noodles.

I really want to find out more about this story when it's finished!

I opened up the discussion to questions at this point. Kate expressed her appreciation of the story about the chicken in the hold, and compared it to the canary in the coal mine. Kat suggested it would be very interesting to compile a lateral wiki of global myths that showed their similarities. We also wanted to see an anthology of bird stories!

We also talked about a chicken marriage custom where the best man has to throw a rooster over the marriage bed. "Throwing the cock over the bed" is supposed to be a method of getting aboy child first. There is a similar custom where you have a rooster and hen in a cage, and open the cage and see which one comes out first in an attempt to divine the sex of your next child. There are a great many chicken-related traditions.

Jaymee, thank you so much for coming on the show! It was lovely to have you, and you are welcome back again any time. Thank you also to everyone who attended the discussion.

This week, Dive into Worldbuilding meets on Thursday, June 13th at 4pm Pacific to discuss What Deserves a Name? I hope you can join us!


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