Saturday, February 7, 2015

THE SEA IS OURS Roundtable: Pear Nuallak #SteampunkHands

Pear Nuallak's story finishes off the anthology, a fine, crisp, clear, queer wine. They write to us from the seat of steampunk, England, and from there deliver this finely-crafted story of chittering clockwork bugs, lady spies, and ambitious village girls caught in the whirl of political upheaval. 

Give a one or two sentence summary of your story.

Two girls reach an age where their lives change utterly: Kaew is a girl in rural Khorat who secretly dreams of making machines, while her mother, Amphon, makes a living out of secrets; her past was re-made by the command of a singular Lady Mo, the necessity of war, and the quiet whirr of certain insects.

Why did you choose this particular theme?

I wanted to fit a story into the gaps between existing narratives. I’d been reading Lavinia by Ursula Le Guin where war which is as much as part of the cycle of life as peace. Within the peace, however, there's complex domesticity which constantly moves between comforting routine and terrible emotional abuse.

The story of Ya Mo's 1826 resistance is familiar to many Thai people, particularly those in Khorat. Ya Mo and her daughter, Boonluea, have been transformed into protective goddess figures. My mother’s side of the family is from the province, though the family moved to Bangkok when they were young. The Thai and Khorat narrative is that Ya Mo's cunning and courage defeated Lao troops; all other narratives point out her role is more likely a story spun by Khorat to convince Siam of their loyalties. 

'We all know Khorat folk have no taste--they can't decide whether they're Isan or Thai,' an Isan friend said on our most recent visit. It's a meme: the Khorat language is casually described as being “inbetween” Thai and Lao. The impression I get, though, is that they are their own people. When they do historical re-enactments of the event in question, it's all using Khorat language, proclaiming their pride specifically as Khorat people.

I peered at all of these worthy, clashing stories and knew I wanted to speak from a young girl's point of view. Those without structurally-enforced power who persist in nurturing their flickering, individual brightness interest me most.

Did you do a lot of research for this story? If you did, found anything interesting?

I became the most dreadful of armchair historians: it was mostly internet research, dozens of tabs worth, though this did mean access to a Khorat newspaper clipping about Ya Mo and a snippet from English-language books on Lao history otherwise unavailable to me.

An important bilingual source was a book gifted to me by a family friend, E-Sarn Mural Paintings /Jittakam phaap phanung Isan by Pairote Samosorn, published by E-Sarn Cultural Centre and Khon Kaen University. Before (and eventually adjacent to) photography, representations of normal daily life were recorded within mural scenes (Isan: hoop tam) on temples (Isan: sim). I wanted to understand daily life, everything from potential for social mobility to how people entertained themselves of an evening.

I was amused to find that the traditional call-and-response singing essentially comprised negging—the usual, 'Women are changeable and lie all the time!' stuff. I decided to make that as true as possible in my story with a nascent all-woman spy network, so there's that.

Tell us a bit about where you've set your story.

19th century Nong Ngu Saeng Athit (Sunbeam Snake Marsh) is a fictional counterpart to the real and tiny Nong Ngu Lueam (Python Marsh), which I visited several months before I wrote the story. It's the area my mother's family live in. They share the remoteness, the barely-connectedness, the lulling countryside rhythms. While tucked away, they're certainly not in stasis.

The larger world is a Siam with the same socio-political frameworks (encroaching Western imperialism sharpening tensions within extant Siamese city-states; corvee labour and proto-capitalism) where magic is larger and even more real, so it is a tool within these power dynamics.

There's already a series of ancient, syncretic Brahmanic-Buddhist rituals deeply embedded in real-world Thai statehood and little gestures in everyday life. We don't necessarily go around spouting superstitions every single day, obviously; it's simply there. I wanted to bring it the fore, particularly in contrast to a lot of Western steampunk-tech narratives which rely on being (destructively) superior to nature. In this world, nature is not to be bested, but petitioned and partnered with.

What was the hardest part about writing this story?

Understanding that full authenticity is impossible. I share heritage with the protagonist(s), but not time or lifestyle or even language (I only speak Central Thai). Letting certain details go for the sake of story writing was surprisingly painful. I didn't want to be just like every other Westerner who goes, 'Well, I tried, but there are always gonna be Cultural Issues!' and is unaware they've faithfully followed tradition in writing yet another Orientalist load of balls, for which they will be endlessly praised for their contributions to diversity in genre.

It was very hard to believe my story was worth writing (and submitting) if that's still the kind of thing SFF readers lap up. I get sad and quiet sometimes. But I also get angry, the sort of anger which grips a lighter in one hand and a can of knowledge in the other--a valid, informed response to a hostile world. I salted the earth and built a new one in my head.

What also pushed me through was the fact that I wouldn't be alone. Although a past and present regional power, Thai narratives are disenfranchised on a global scale. Even if my Thai-ness is awkward, displaced, it still comes from lived experience, so my wish is to add my voice to a growing SEAsian chorus. We are here, no matter what. 

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