Good morning and welcome back to my new interview series, Imitating Order. This weekend I’m super excited about my guest, it’s someone whose work I’ve admired for a while. They’re an awesome storyteller and author, recently of the most excellent science-fantasy WINTERGLASS: Benjanun Sriduangkaew.
Matt: Let’s get the writer stuff out of the way first. We know you’re a writer. You’ve got your name on more than a few books. But what’s behind them, the stories? Where do they come from? What influences the themes and archetypes you present in your work?
Benjanun: My work’s influenced by a lot of things; I like Nier: Automata and I like Silent Hill 2 (and 3, yes); I like literary fiction, I like nature and science writing. Consuming widely, regardless of genres or media format, is important to me. But primarily I come back a lot to themes of transformation; shapeshifters turn up a lot in my fiction. Usually tigers and snakes. One of my most basal influences is probably Chinese epics—Journey to the West, Fengshen Yanyi—Thai and Japanese folklore, which are where the tigers and snakes and snow-women all come from.
M: Related, you’re quite passionate about writing itself. Where does that come from? What drives you to tell the stories you tell, and why did you choose the literary medium?
B: I like to joke that my fiction’s about lesbians who hate colonialism. But beyond that, the most important thing for me is that a story has something to say. I’m not that interested in stories that are thinly-veiled world-building notes, and I’m not interested in stories that are written so the author can reproduce all the ‘cool moments’ they saw in films or what have you. So it’s this desire to say something that motivates me to write. As for why prose, I’d say it’s because it’s the medium I’m best at, rather than anything visual or code-related.
M: On to the real stuff: anime. You’re passionate about writing, sure, but you have a deep and obvious love of anime. Where does that come from? Have you always been a fan? If you had to pick three anime (OVAs, series, movies) that you would consider “required viewing” for someone just stepping into the medium, what would they be, and why?
B: Oh, anime’s always been available in most of Asia, long before it became widely distributed in the west, so I grew up with it.
Psycho-Pass, Re:CREATORS and Kara no Kyoukai: Garden of Sinners, for very different reasons. Psycho-Pass has one of the most effective looks at dystopia and authoritarianism I’ve seen in any media, and takes a very different tack than most. While most contemporary dystopias—especially written for and by westerners—are obsessed with a “chosen one” who leads a resistance movement, Psycho-Pass has a protagonist who stays within the system out of her sense of obligation to her society and who works to mitigate the worst of its excesses—like trying to colonize parts of Southeast Asia. Of course it’s a very different dystopia from what you see in The Hunger Games, The Selection and others. It’s smart, political, and unrelenting. Kara no Kyoukai is fantastically atmospheric with an unconventional narrative, and has a pretty unique female protagonist for anime (and, to be fair, for most forms of media). Re:CREATORS is just really, really good at what it does, the way it tackles art and artistic jealousy, the relationship between creator and creation and audience.
M: You write action and conflict so well. I can “see” some of the scenes you write, as if they were animated. I have to know, how do you tie your love of anime and writing together? How does the anime influence the writing, where does it fit into the stories you tell?
B: When people think of fiction influenced by anime, they think that means it’s full of catgirls jumping all over a—usually clueless, transported from real life—protagonist or superpowered fights ripped off from Boku no Hero Academia or similar. Some prose work by western writers I’ve come across does follow that line; they’re more interested in trying to (unsuccessfully) reproduce fast-paced action, flashy combat sequences and, occasionally, unsavory tropes.
What I personally aim for isn’t really a straight replication of content. What I chase is creating specific effects, like when the animation slows down and the audio cuts, and something devastating happens; I chase the efficiency of narrative that the visual form—and shorthands—of anime is capable of. It’s about learning to tell stories through implication rather than exposition, it’s about economy that can be reproduced in prose. How to capture an atmosphere, how to capture the tone you want for your story.
M: What’s something, beyond writing and anime, that’s integral to you? That’s intrinsic to who Bee the person is?
B: Skincare! It seems frivolous, but self-care is something I value a lot.
M: What’s a story (a book or show or movie) that’s intrinsic to who you are? That if you had just one story you could recommend to someone else, what would it be?
B: Hm, I wouldn’t call anything I’ve consumed intrinsic to who I am—better to say that it’s left an impression in recent years. Adichie’s HALF OF A YELLOW SUN definitely did that.
M: Personally, I come from a small town in the middle of nowhere and it influences a lot of my work. What about you? Your stories, their settings, are so wondrous and vibrant and alive. How much of where you’re from, literally and ephemerally, do you put into your stories?
B: A good amount of my fiction is set in cities based on Southeast Asia—not direct analogues, but influenced certainly. I do have a strong preference for cities over any other kind of settings.
M: Just a couple more. You get just one thing of yours to plug. Something that, if you had to tell someone else “This is the work of mine you just have to read,” what would it be? And on the other side, plug something of someone else’s. Something you’ve read or seen recently, or something that you’ve held near and dear to yourself for years.
B: MIRRORSTRIKE, the sequel to my Snow Queen retelling WINTERGLASS, will be out this November and it’s both the longest thing I’ve ever written as well as the best thing I’ve written to date. As for plugging someone else’s work, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s PRIME MERIDIAN was fantastic and very different from mainstream science fiction (in a good way).