Yukimi Ogawa lives in a small town in Tokyo where she writes in English but never speaks the language. She still wonders why it works that way.
Roshani Chokshi lives in the South but possesses no Southern twang. She likes to spin fairytales into uncomfortable or unfamiliar shapes and sizes with a new set of teeth and an unfamiliar tongue. Her debut Young Adult fantasy, The Star Touched Queen, is forthcoming from St. Martin's Griffin in Spring/Summer 2016.
Both writers have contributed stories to our annual fund drive bonus issue. Read Yukimi Ogawa's "Hundred Eye" here, and Roshani Chokshi's "The Wives of Azhar" here. You can also read other work by Ogawa in our archives.
Strange Horizons: What sorts of stories did you have exposure to, growing up? How does this relate to the cultural context of the stories you’ve written?
Roshani Chokshi: Growing up in a mixed-race home, my parents supplied me and my siblings with books on world mythology. We always had a vast amount of fairytales lying about the house! All the Andrew Lang stories, illustrated One Thousand and One Nights, Filipino folktales, Amar Chitra Katha comics (which were based on Hindu myths, legends, and deities).
The stories I grew up with are the bones of the stories I write now. They were more than just exposures to my heritage, they were the first seeds of magic. So often, we see the same threads in tales across the world (the rash boon, the neglected daughter, the evil wearing a sweet smile, etc . . .). For me, it made me feel like the stories I wanted to write, as opposed to the stories I saw all around me, could find a home. After all, I was telling the same tale, just giving them new clothes.
Yukimi Ogawa: My interests in fiction when I was younger were a bit different from those I have today. Growing up, I mainly read a bunch of manga influenced by my mother, and while I enjoyed a lot of SFF comics, I don't remember reading novels or stories (no-picture books as we call them) in the genre. For no-picture books I tended to choose adventure/mystery, but also, as I was a card-game player which involved a set of cards of short ancient poems, I enjoyed reading old fairytales and myths.
I don't remember when I started reading about yokai, though I think it was at some point after I moved to Tokyo. Children today are exposed to yokai because of Yokai Watch game, and people older than me read and watched Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro, but my generation was in the trough of those times, so to speak. I sometimes do wonder what would have happened if I was among one of these yokai-loving generations.
SH: How do you see global cultural awareness evolving—or not evolving—in the English-language SFF canon?
Roshani Chokshi: I love how the SFF community has become a champion for diverse voices and authors. It’s a wonderful feeling when you realize that your work is not something people are “willing to take a chance on” but work that they are "eagerly looking for" and excited to showcase. That said, it isn’t all roses. A point of contention that often comes up when I speak to diverse SFF authors is how we often feel like we are competing for the same spot in an editor’s table of contents. Sometimes, it seems as though the editor is willing to take only one or two pieces from diverse SFF authors and we are fighting against one another, which is ridiculous since each of us has a unique voice and something worth telling. We are not something to satisfy a checklist.
Yukimi Ogawa: To be honest, when I'd just started, I really didn't imagine anyone would want to read my stories. Why did I persist? I truly don't know. I just wanted to write them, I guess. So it was a very nice surprise that I managed to get published at all, and also, that people seemed interested! And I believe SFF is quite the right genre when it comes to drawing cultural differences into—our myths and folklore are really different from each other's and yet, just like Roshani-san said, there are "the same threads in tales across the world," which makes it so interesting to tell stories based on these things.
SH: Is the game today more about translating works, or finding authors who write in English but draw from non-English traditions?
Roshani Chokshi: From what I’ve seen (and I admit I only see a slice), I feel like the game is to find those who write in English from non-English traditions. There is so much we lose in translation. We lose the visual aspect of the language, its cadences and inside jokes. With authors drawing from non-English traditions but writing in English, at least we have their unabridged/unmuddied translation of a feeling or situation. That said, translations are critical even when they miss nuances. I think access to a story that might not otherwise be heard is far more critical than getting its pacing just right.
Yukimi Ogawa: These days I do see more stories with Japanese elements, written by authors who write in English, but it seems like translations are never enough. I was quite surprised to find out that one of the most popular Japanese SF novels, Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights—soon to be featured in Strange Horizons Book Club—hadn't been translated into English until very recently (though I have to admit that I hadn't known about this book until very, very recently . . . like I said, I didn't read many SFF novels back when I was reading in Japanese).
Roshani-san, may I ask, [regarding] how we often feel like we are competing for the same spot in an editor’s table of contents,
Have you ever felt that your being from outside the traditional SFF sphere had resulted in your story being turned down?
Roshani Chokshi: Thankfully, no! My experience in the short fiction realm has been very inclusive, so far.
Yukimi Ogawa: Or has anyone said that your story's rejected because of the "diversity" issues?
Roshani Chokshi: Again, no one has ever explicitly stated that's the reason why a story has been rejected. If they did, I don't know how I'd muster the courage to write down another sentence!
Yukimi Ogawa: I'm just being curious here—no one has told me that my story was rejected just because I am Japanese, but back when I had just started, I often wondered if the rejection was because of my inadequate English, of the story simply [being] not well-enough written, or just because of my name.
Roshani Chokshi: This is a concern I've had too. I remember receiving a rejection that cut my heart to the quick because the editor said she just "didn't know where the story would live." And I couldn't tell whether that referred to the writing and the editor's belief that it didn't fit the genre or whether the diverse content made the story a jarring choice compared to the pieces she acquired.
Do you share your stories with your family? If so, what do they think of your treatment of Japanese elements in your writing?
Yukimi Ogawa: Unfortunately, no one in my family understands English. A few friends from college (English linguistics majors) read my stories, and they say they like how it's written in English and yet feels like Japanese. I'm not sure if that's just my language, or also the things and landscapes I depict in the stories--things that they know and that they often see.
How about you, Roshani-san?
Roshani Chokshi: My immediate family takes the time to read my stories, and I’m very grateful for that! Sometimes, it’s a little awkward . .&nbps;. . I am so tempted to give them redacted versions because there are some tales I want to tell and they are not in any way PG. O_O. So far, they seem happy with my treatment of our heritage. I know, however, that I can’t please everyone and I’m ready for that conversation if/when it happens.
SH: Roshani, can you discuss the French (mostly) tale of Bluebeard and the setting you chose for the retelling?
Roshani Chokshi: When I started researching for the story, I came across a lovely illustration by Harry Clarke, which romanticized Bluebeard as a character from the Ottoman Empire. The image stayed with me, but I was disenchanted with Bluebeard as the only POC in the retellings. It felt too much like the Othello archetype of the "black beast and innocent white woman." So, I decided to set the entire story in a non-Western place and make all the characters POCs. As a POC, this setting for the retelling also felt more true to me.
Yukimi Ogawa: And I have to ask, why Bluebeard? Because I have a horrifying image etched to mind, even after more than two decades, of a woman standing in the bloody room from an anime program I saw when I was a child. The image used to frighten me as I went to futon and turned off the light, long after I saw the program.
Roshani Chokshi: Bluebeard is no more gruesome than other fairytales, but I think what sets it apart is the lack of reason. In Hansel & Gretel, we have the child-eating witch and we don’t question her as a villain because her intrinsic nature as a witch is evil. In Snow White, we have a stepmother who envies her stepdaughter’s beauty. In Catskin, the father’s unnatural lust for his daughter is credited to his extreme grief and promise to his wife. In those stories, we don’t question the villain and why s/he commits his/her crimes. But with Bluebeard, I hadn’t found a satisfying reason. At the time when I wrote this short story, I was finishing my first year of law school and it was very stressful, especially my Criminal Law class, which I enjoyed on an intellectual level even though, emotionally, I found it difficult. There were plenty of senseless crimes I had to read and digest and analyze. For me, it was therapeutic to lend reason where I couldn’t find any, even if it was horrifying. I wanted to do that for Bluebeard.
SH: What other folkloric sources do you think have been neglected by English-language SFF writers?
Roshani Chokshi: I feel like writers have either neglected or exoticized the stories of South Asia and the Pacific Islands. So often, characters from these parts of the world are relegated to stereotypes, which is sad because they have beautiful mythological traditions that deserve to be revisited. That said, I think the trend towards more inclusivity has brought them from the shadows. Some of my favorite stories that draw from South Asia/Pacific Islands have been Usman Malik’s “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn” in Tor.com, Alyssa Wong’s “Santos de Sampaguitas” in Strange Horizons, and Shveta Thakrar’s “She Sleeps Beneath the Sea” in Faerie Magazine.
SH: Both of you have mentioned reactions to your stories, whether from family or friends. Roshani, you say you're ready for "that conversation" regarding your heritage, and Yukimi, you describe how knowledge of a place and culture inform your work. What are your thoughts on the balance between presenting a culture for an audience that may be unfamiliar with it and to an audience that knows it intimately? Is there a way to convey Japan-ness without resorting to cliché?
Yukimi Ogawa: The only thing I care about while writing is the names of the characters; if they are too long or too similar to another character's in the same story, that might confuse non-Japanese readers. But otherwise, I've never thought about the balancing. I only write what I know, what I want to write, and I'm not writing to convey Japan-ness.
I know for some of my stories, there are readers who find it hard to understand or to follow. I'm not sure this "confusing" (as people often say about my stories) issue is because of the cultural difference, or simply lack of my writing skills. I do try to make things clearer, but I cannot explain everything to every reader! So at some point, I guess I give up and present my stories just as they pop out of my head and shrink back into a dark corner. . . .
Roshani Chokshi: Yukimi makes a great point. Like her, I'm also trying to write what I know and what I want to write. I am not trying to distill a culture for foreign audiences or trying to re-invent what people of that heritage already know. On balance, I try to provide links to my source material so that readers who are interested can see how I veered from the "original." That said, I know that there are going to be readers who think what I'm writing is irreverent or even a bastardization of mythology. But I think these stories have been reincarnated so many times and in so many ways that I won't let being nervous about upsetting someone stop me. We retell and reshape stories to fit our times and reflect how we see ourselves and our place in the world. We rely on those retold stories to explain the world around us as we perceive it. I'm just following an old tradition.
Yukimi Ogawa: Even within our own culture, I see the gap between people who are familiar with myths, folklore, and traditions, and people who aren't. I chose Hundred Eye, or Dodomeki, because she was one of those rare monsters that were living humans at the start, and she had a story around that start: long arms, her habit of stealing that got the eyes on her arms. But I'm sure the way I see her and the way Yokai Watch fans see Dodomeki are very different. Many people don't even know how to pronounce her name when they see it written in kanji. Seems like a story rooted in "traditions" could be a—problem (!) to anyone alike, around the world, no matter what culture they are born to!
Which also means a story rooted in "traditions" can speak to anyone alike, if it somehow manages to avoid being "confusing," or "irreverent or even a bastardization" of our cultures and if we are ready to accept differences or to search for the familiarity, similarity in our own selves. Isn't that the best thing about SFF?
Strange Horizons: Thank you both so much for taking part in this. We've been looking forward to hearing what you have to say about science fiction and fantasy, diversity, and storytelling for a while, and you've been amazing.
Roshani Chokshi: This was such a wonderful experience, thank you all! Yukimi, it was such a joy to learn more about how you approach storytelling and what it means to you. I'm really excited for your story!
Yukimi Ogawa: Thanks so much for this opportunity. I really enjoyed doing this!