Big Echo

Critical SF

Interview with Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Read “The Five Secret Truths of Demonkind”

One of the best things about waiting for a new Sriduangkaew story is the anticipation of style. I feel you are quite plastic, that the way you write shifts according to what you are writing. Contrast the cool, tightly controlled prose of “Parable of the Cocoon” with the (to me) super-heated furnace blast mystic poetry of “The Five Secret Truths of Demonkind.” Do you deliberate on how you will write a story or does it emerge from the process of writing it? And could you identify what the antecedents of your style more generally are? 

For me it’s very organic, partly because I don’t always plan out my short stories — I tend to start with a single line or paragraph, or an image, and go from there. I find it works out for short fiction; I think it was Nick Mamatas who said that short stories can be held of a piece in your head, and I find that a good approach toward the form. When there aren’t a lot of moving parts, it’s easier to let the style surface on its own. By and large though, regardless of what the story calls for, I do find the sentence level of the prose important. 

So a recent influence for me, outside of texts, is NieR: Automata — not just the specific narrative tropes or the story, but generally the mood and atmosphere and intent, a kind of cathartic, wasteland bleakness (which, as it happens, both ‘Parable’ and ‘Demonkind’ probably reflect somewhat). In terms of writers, I read a lot of China Miéville but wouldn't say my style is very much like his, and good nature writing has been a huge boon in refining my prose. A friend recommended me Helen Macdonald’s H is For Hawk, and reading Helen Oyeyemi has done a lot for me.

Perhaps related to this, I'm curious about your relation to the English language. You do seem to revel in it, you are an expansive writer, never crabbed or cloistered or small in your vision but always ambitious. I am curious about how your stories would seem in another language. Do you write in Thai? Do you write SF in Thai? How do you perceive the relation of writing in English to ongoing Anglo-American imperialism?

I don’t write in Thai, partly because English does have rather more reach — not a lot of people learn Thai, and it is a tremendously difficult, complex language. Meantime, if you want to be able to speak across diasporas, and across nationalities, by necessity you’ll have to do so in English. It’s not ideal, but there’s something interesting in considering multiple Englishes; there's Hong Kong English, closest to home, with its own nuances and slang and cadence. I think it’s more useful to conceptualize subaltern people speaking English not as merely a product of imperialism (though at root it is), but adaptation and making a new English of your own. 

You’ll probably notice I mostly write in present tense — a choice I’m sure many readers find annoying (for reasons I don’t quite understand; to me it is pure aesthetic) — and which I’ve made because in Thai, you don’t conjugate verbs to inflect chronology. Writing in present tense is as close to Thai as I can get in English, if that makes sense. 

 Your public (Twitter) persona is quite political yet I do not feel your writing to be deliberately so. Obviously your writing is utterly unapologetic, and some of your content will be perceived by some readers as political and therefore is, but to me it is the opposite of pedantic or didactic, I've always felt your stories are written to be read for pleasure; they are luxurious, and they are political only in the sense that the world has politicized that pleasure. Is that comment fair? Absurd? Stupid? Where would you locate the political in your writing?

I’ll avoid joking that everything is political! When it comes to my writing, I think that it’s crucial to have something to say, but if I want to say that thing plainly, I’d write an essay. With fiction it pays to have a little subtlety, and though some of my stories are more overt (“The Universe as Vast as Our Longings” wears its intent on its sleeve) about what they have to say, I do like to think they’re still pleasing to read. A story should fulfill stylistic as well as polemical requirements, and I do like to deliver a satisfying narrative shape. I’m very preoccupied by the trajectory of a story’s catharsis, actually, and I prioritize that a great deal.

Your NieR: Automata comment is intriguing. One of the things about your writing that made it seem so fresh to me when I first came across it was that it was post-canonical, you werent in a conversation with the SF shelf of a library in a provincial town in some white settler colony; you seemed to be engaging with sciencefictional and speculative fiction via games. And in the last few years a lot of the short form SF I've liked the most, and some of what we have published in Big Echo, is more playful and open-ended than the fiction I grew up reading, more ludic I guess. Might you have anything to say about the relation of play to your writing?

So in my SFF reading I’ve largely avoided the canon, I’ve never read Asimov or Clarke, though of course I’ve read Butler. Some of the media I consume reference the English-language canon, but in most recent memory the reference — in Psycho-Pass — was blessedly to Frantz Fanon rather than, I don’t know, Lovecraft. Which I haven’t read either, now that I think about it. Automata does some very interesting things with familiar SF motifs, partly because I think it’s not in conversation with Asimov or whatnot either. So that’s a huge draw, to engage with media that themselves didn’t arise from the American canon and which treat the American canon as irrelevant to either their process, their marketing, or their audience-seeking. 

My influences lean away from textual media partly because, very simply put, I don’t have the skills to make something like NieR: Automata or Masquerada or Transistor. These works are collaborative, a whole created by musicians, voice actors, writers, graphic artists, coders; it is easier to be awed when it looks like magic. (Not to say that it isn’t magic, because all three games are, in very different ways. But it’s not the kind of magic available to me, so to speak.) And I find that when you move away from the Call of Duty installments and such, narrative and even gaming formats become much more daring. Automata leaves a lot of mysteries unsolved, and even its most optimistic ending is an open-ended one that still asks whether tragedy is inevitable. It incorporates different modes of play into its story— platformer segments, shooter segments — that are integral to the experience rather than just switching things around for the sake of it. In a sort of adjacent way, I suppose “The Five Secret Truths of Demonkind” is as close as I could get to portraying the brutal, awful climbing of the machine towers in Automata? Albeit to a pretty different end. I’d love to experiment with style modes more in the future, preferably in a longer form, and with story-puzzles. I’m not sure what form that will take yet, but one day I will.

Another thing to like: Automata and Transistor don't just end on bleak notes — well, depends on whether you think committing suicide to enter an afterlife where all your friends and loved ones have gone is happy in the case of Transistor — but they’re both conclusive. This is it. No sequels, no series, no trilogies. At most, there’d be the same setting but completely different characters and different stories. That’s very refreshing compared to certain fantasy books that go on for ten, fifteen, even twenty-six tomes.  

Re: subaltern adaptations, nature writing, the way Thai has shaped your style in English in such a way that it discomfits some readers, everything is political! I've been haunted for a long time by a little book on Kafka by Deleuze and Guattari in which they talk about language being revolutionized by deterritorialized writing, writing by subaltern speakers that sort of sidesteps orthodox stylistic conventions, that allows a language to become disattached from the communities that like to claim it as their ownI’m not sure if that is useful, but anyway, might you say something more about the politics of your style? Or style and politics in general?

One difficulty is that, because I’ve read a great deal from white western authors, some influence inevitably leaks through: the imagination is colonized, and that’s very difficult to dispel or escape. But I find a conscious effort to decolonize important, and when choosing whose comfort to prioritize — what kind of reader you assume is your primary audience and who must be catered to — it is very much an act of intentionality. I don’t include a glossary for any non-English words in my fiction, and if a character is called in-text by their Mandarin and Cantonese names (romanized and pronounced quite differently) I’m not going to interrupt a paragraph to say, this is the same name in Cantonese, this is also that name but in Mandarin. Winterglass has a minor character who’s an allusion to a Chinese epic, you either recognize the name or you don’t. After all, when a writer names a character Artemis, nobody needs an explanation that it's the name of a Greek goddess. No glossaries, no footnotes, no concession.

On to the politics of style. An overt example: how CIA manipulated premier American workshops to produce propaganda. It’s an interesting read, and also sobering in how it’s affected writing since and publishing. 

Do you notice that a certain kind of reader — and writer — endorses Strunk and White as holy scripture? They want you to ‘omit needless words’ and to avoid using ‘ten-dollar’ words when small ones would do. It’s anti-intellectual and conformist and zombifying, but importantly deviation from such sterile requirements is primarily permitted to privileged — usually white — writers. That is, when a privileged writer turns out something stylistically unusual or which has long sentences, they’ll be praised for their daring and verve and cleverness. When marginalized writers do it, why, we’re just trying too hard ‘to impress’ (or our command of English is questioned if we’re from the global south). Very presumptuous, I think, to imagine that marginalized authors write to impress the (presumably majority, hegemonic) reader whereas privileged writers are pure artists whose work stands on its own, intellectual pillars that they are. There’s also a sense of outrage from some readers when they read work which challenges them linguistically: a clear impression that they’ve been made to feel stupid and must accordingly lash out. If someone documented these reactions, they could probably write an essay called ‘How to Suppress Marginalized Writing’.