Asian Horror Month: Interview With Writer Grace Chan

Interview by Angela Yuriko Smith

Grace Chan (gracechanwrites.com) is a speculative fiction writer and doctor. Her family migrated from Malaysia to Australia before her first birthday. Her writing explores brains, minds, technology, and narrative identity.

Her debut novel, Every Version of You, will be published by Affirm Press in 2022.

Her short fiction can be found in Clarkesworld, Going Down Swinging, Aurealis, Andromeda Spaceways Magazine, Verge: Uncanny, and other places. She was shortlisted for Viva la Novella VII. Her short story, The Mark, was nominated for the 2019 Aurealis Award for Best Horror Short Story and the 2020 Norma K Hemming Award.

Her other interests include salt-and-vinegar anything and secretly filming her friends’ post-NYE karaoke highlights. She is terrible at conveying sarcasm. In a decaffeinated state, she may cease to exist.

Grace, thank you so much for spending time with us today. Of Hunger and Fury and The Mark, both have such strong messages built into the story structure. What are some of your favorite themes to explore in your work?

This is still something I’m figuring out, which is part of the fun.

I’m fascinated by both the expanse of the universe and the expanse of our minds. I like writing about the unconscious—that can often take a dark, horrifying turn. I like writing about how technology, especially medical technology, might impact identity, relationships, and culture. I’m excited about works that centre more characters and narratives that aren’t so often centred, and I hope I can contribute to that in some small way.

You have a lot of work published from the likes of Clarkesworld and Aurealis. Which of your stories/characters best represents you?

I think I put a kernel of myself into every story…and then I craft a new character around that. Emma Kavanagh, from The Mark, is a character whose perspective and pain is silenced by society. I drew on the experience of women of colour, of being unheard and unseen, because your voice isn’t the right one for the room. 

With Fiona/Fen Fang, from Of Hunger and Fury, I wanted to explore how an individual can be compressed between two cultures. I’m an amalgamation of my Australian upbringing and my Malaysian Chinese heritage, and I’ve gained a lot of strengths from both. But there are also restrictive, sexist pressures from both cultures—in different ways. As diasporic women, it can be especially exhausting. I’ve also put a bit of myself into Lian, the rational, ambitious main character from my novelette, Jigsaw Children, and a bit of myself into Tao Yi, the protagonist of my upcoming novel, Every Version of You. I think writing allows us to explore parts of ourselves that don’t often see the light: weaknesses, strengths, dreams, fears, and so on.

I think the state of being culturally split is something that often gets overlooked as characters are often a single race in fiction. What are some of your experience of ‘otherness.’ Has this influenced what you write?

My heritage is filled with movement. I was born in Malaysia. So were my parents and most of my grandparents. My great-grandparents migrated to Malaysia from Guangdong. My parents and I migrated to Australia when I was a baby—my father came first, like a scout, and my mother came with me a few months later.

Although my parents are both tertiary educated, displacement and hardships made things difficult. I went to the local suburban primary school, where you could count the number of Asian kids on one hand. At the time, I didn’t think much of the fact that I looked different. But in hindsight, there was always a sense of being an outsider, and needing to prove my place by being a model citizen.

Like many other writers, I fell in love with the local library as a child. I devoured the YA section, but hardly ever found people like me in stories. When I first started to write, my characters were white Australian girls: Emma Smith, Hannah Brown. I remember my dad joking, “Why don’t you call her Emma Tan, or Hannah Chong!” I thought he was silly. I disliked my boring, common, Chinese name, and thought I could never be a writer unless I changed my name to a Western one.

As I’ve ventured into the workforce, I’ve become disillusioned to the myth that dominated my childhood: that compliance to the model minority mould leads to success. My eyes are gradually opening to systemic inequalities in our workplaces and society. It’s a personal and broader journey, fraught with complicated emotions.

I don’t think I purposely set out to write characters who are ‘other’. I don’t purposely make my characters ‘Asian’, or ‘different from the norm’ in any specific way. I just want to write characters that I’m interested in, who have compelling stories. I often find that the loudest voices in the room aren’t the most interesting ones. Many of the best stories are hidden in the quieter minds, in dark corners and buried places.

Wonderful points beautifully said. What has your experience been as an Asian writer? As a writer of dark fiction? How has this changed over time, or not?

I’ve only started to publish in the last couple of years, so I’m very much still in the process of finding my voice. I do feel that being part of a diaspora gives you perspective and power in writing. You’ve always lived with a sense of travelling, of not belonging, and you get rather good at putting yourself into other people’s shoes…or into alternate timelines entirely! 

I’ve gravitated towards darker themes in a lot of my writing. I think it can be a way to acknowledge the darker, more difficult aspects of existence—and perhaps to find commonality and catharsis. It’s also just feels really good to be able to challenge people’s preconceptions and to throw out stereotypes. Asian and women characters are so frequently flattened into two-dimensionality. It’s exhilarating to be able to write slippery, multifaceted, three-dimensional characters that terrify, rage, grieve, crack dry jokes and dreadful puns, and forge their own paths, fiercely.

What do you think of common depictions of Asian women in dark fiction? What, if anything, would you like to see done differently?

I don’t think I have enough knowledge to comment on dark fiction specifically, but I certainly feel that Asian women in fiction are exoticized, sexualised, stereotyped and/or silenced, which is reflective of society. In White Tears/Brown Scars, Ruby Hamad describes the archetypes of Dragon Ladies and Exotic Orientals. Asian women as perceived by the dominant culture are either controlling and unpleasant, or passive, supportive, and decorative.

I want stories about Asian women who are both good and bad, who drive their own narratives, and make up their own minds. I want stories about Asian women who get to adventure, fight, run away, fall in love, not fall in love, destroy their enemies, plot wicked plots, exact revenge, save the world, or be wonderfully ordinary. There are a lot of such stories in SFFH (and, of course, in Black Cranes!). I hope they continue to receive more attention.

I do as well! On that note, do you have any recommendations for works that have resonated for you as an Asian horror writer?

Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling was a reading experience like none other. It took me fifty or so pages to get stuck in, but I became utterly immersed in a world of fox spirits, ghosts, ghost-sex, scholars, trickery, and monsters. It’s playful, eerie, and whimsical, with laugh-out-loud humour alongside horror.

I’ve also enjoyed: The Vegetarian, by Han Kang. Her Body & Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado. Mother of Invention, edited by Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts. Elizabeth Tan’s short story collections, Rubik and Smart Ovens for Lonely People.

All those just went on my list. How about your last project and what you’re working on next? Can you tell us about these projects?

My tentacled, symbiotic, monster story, Mother of the Trenches, will appear in Unnatural Order published by the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild. I had a lot of twisty fun with that one, and I’m excited for it to venture out into the world.

I’m also delighted to share that my novel, Every Version of You, will be published in early 2022 by Affirm Press, an independent Melbourne-based publisher! It’s a near-future science fiction novel with a Malaysian Chinese Australian protagonist, and it uses virtual reality and mind uploading to explore themes of identity, change, migration, love, and loss. 

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