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[EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW] Jason Erik Lundberg on His New Collection ‘Red Dot Irreal’

Jason Erik Lundberg is a USian now living in Singapore, and the author of several books of the fantastic — The Alchemy of Happiness (2012), Embracing the Strange (2012), Red Dot Irreal (2011), The Time Traveler’s Son (2008), and Four Seasons in One Day (with Janet Chui, 2003) — one children’s book — A New Home For Jia Jia and Kai Kai A New Home For Bo Bo and Cha Cha (2012) — and more than a hundred short stories, articles, and book reviews. He is also the the founding editor of LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction, series editor of Best New Singaporean Short Stories, and editor of Fish Eats Lion (2012), A Field Guide to Surreal Botany (2008), and Scattered Covered Smothered (2004). His writing has appeared in venues such as Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, the Raleigh News & Observer, Qarrtsiluni, Sybil’s Garage, Strange Horizons, Subterranean Magazine, The Third Alternative, Electric Velocipede, and many other places.

His short fiction has been nominated for the SLF Fountain Award, shortlisted for the Brenda L. Smart Award for Short Fiction, and honorably mentioned in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. From 2005-2008, he facilitated an occasional podcast called Lies and Little Deaths: A Virtual Anthology. With his wife, artist-writer Janet Chui, he runs Two Cranes Press, a critically-acclaimed independent publishing atelier established in 2003. He is a graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop and holds a degree in creative writing from North Carolina State University, and is an active member in Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America and PEN American Center.

Jaym Gates: Jason, thanks for taking the time to discuss Red Dot Irreal your new collection from Math Paper Press. “Bogeyman,” the first story in the collection, is an action-packed steampunkish tale of magic, romance and adventure. Was this story inspired by any historical tales?

Jason Erik Lundberg: Not from any specific tales per se, but I was inspired by legends of the Bugis, who were a seafaring ethnic group in the mid-1800s and were known to be quite fearsome throughout the Indonesian archipelago. I’ve lived in Singapore for the past five and a half years, and I love the idea that such a squeaky clean paternalistic country was once a popular haven for regional pirates (although quite likely different from the ones presented in the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie). I also found it fascinating that the stories brought back by British sailors about the ruthlessness of the Bugis led to the more generic term “bogeyman” as a way to frighten children into behaving themselves.

I initially wrote this story as a challenge for a pirate-themed anthology edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer called Fast Ships, Black Sails. And they quite rightly rejected it; the pirates are largely off-stage for most of the story, only making an appearance near the end. However, to my surprise, Bill Schafer bought it for Subterranean Magazine right afterward, and I was honored that it was published in the magazine’s final print issue.

JG: I think “Wise Fish” was my favorite in the collection. The hominess of a good curry contrasts with the inevitable ending of the story. Food is an art form, passed down through families, influencing memories and offering insights into culture. Do you have a particular meal or dish that has special significance to you?

JEL: Chicken curry dwan, which is a dish that my mother has been cooking since I was a kid. Actually, I think she may have invented it, since a Google search only turns up my own blog entries on it. But the ingredients are chicken breasts, broccoli spears, Cream of Chicken soup, mayonnaise, evaporated milk, grated American cheese, lemon juice, bread crumbs, butter, and curry powder. Definitely not something to eat if you’re watching your weight, which is why we only ever have it on special occasions.

But there’s something about the way my mother cooks it that 1) makes me want to eat until I’m absolutely stuffed, and 2) takes me back to every other occasion in which she has cooked it. Through all the five senses, the dish evokes nothing but positive memories and associations, a sense of home and family and contentment.

JG: You recently became a book editor at Epigram Books, a publisher specializing in Singaporean fiction, and the editor of LONTAR, a new literary journal. What are some of the defining themes and characteristics of the fiction coming out of Singapore and surrounding areas, and how does it differ from what comes out in American publications?

JEL: Much of Southeast Asia is still dealing with the aftermath of colonialism, and all the hang-ups that come with systemic cultural inferiorization by the British, Dutch, and other Western powers. Because of this, the feeling is that local literature is automatically not as good as that from the UK and USA. In Singapore, this mindset, along with the overarching soft authoritarianism that pervades the culture, leads to authorial insecurity and self-censorship especially in young writers, so that they feel that they need permission to write, and then still hold themselves back from certain topics or issues because they might “get in trouble.”

Of the fiction published in Singapore, much of it is quite introspective and psychological, and wrestles with all of these post-colonial notions in various ways. Drama and poetry are still the favored literary genres here, and so prose doesn’t have as much of a footprint in the landscape yet. But the most exciting fiction-writing coming out of the country today is from the under-45 crowd, those who were born after Singapore’s independence, and who are not as preoccupied with the country’s obsession with nation-building. These writers are the beneficiaries and challengers of globalization, and have a cosmopolitan maturity and sense of connectedness that make their fiction more accessible and outward-looking. This can be seen in the fiction of established writers such as Dave Chua, Alvin Pang, Alfian Sa’at, Jeffrey Lim, and Cyril Wong, as well as newer writers I’m particularly excited about, such as Stephanie Ye, Wei Fen Lee, J.Y. Yang, O Thiam Chin, Amanda Lee, and Daryl Yam.

JG: Can you talk about LONTAR and what you’re hoping to do with that?

JEL: LONTAR is a new quarterly literary journal focusing on non-realist writing from and about Southeast Asia. The journal is published and distributed by Math Paper Press in Singapore, and the first issue will be released in March 2013.

The last couple of years have seen a blooming of SF anthologies from Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore (including my own Fish Eats Lion, launching at the 2012 Singapore Writers Festival), and although one-off anthologies and anthology series are great for accruing a representative sample of works in a given year, it is even more important to keep the conversation going all-year round. By providing a continual venue for this particular flavor of writing concentrating on this particular part of the world, it is hoped that 1) SEA writers working in the English language will have an ongoing platform for which to express their cultures, traditions, mythologies, folk religions, and/or daily lives, and 2) non-SEA writers will see Southeast Asia as a fertile ground for speculative storytelling and move beyond the touristy exoticism that frequently pervades the minds of those unfamiliar with the region. Above all, LONTAR is engaged with publishing speculative fiction, non-fiction articles, poetry, and sequential art from both SEA and non-SEA writers, in order to spread awareness of this literature to readers who might not normally be exposed to it, and to celebrate its existence and diversity within the region.

The premiere issue of LONTAR will present speculative writing from and about the Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia, Singapore, Laos, and Vietnam. Showcased are a post-apocalyptic Manila from Kate Osias, a utopian Kuala Lumpur from Zen Cho, a haunting military excursion down the Yellow River from Elka Ray Nguyen, and a reprinted novelette about a young Laotian journalist’s place in the sensationalist future of news reporting from award-winner Paolo Bacigalupi; speculative poetry from Chris Mooney-Singh, Ang Si Min, and Bryan Thao Worra; and an unusual exploration of Philippine magic systems from Paolo Chikiamco.

We’re currently still assembling the contents for issue #2; prospective contributors can find the complete submission guidelines on our website.

JG: Your bio states that you are a Buddhist lay practitioner. Do you see this reflecting in your stories and themes, or has there not been much effect?

JEL: I think it absolutely has filtered down through all aspects of my writing, although I try not to be preachy about it. Because I’m naturally a skeptic, I approach Buddhism more as a life philosophy than a religion. Its central tenets are compassion, interconnectedness, and consequence, and I’ve examined all three of these themes in my short stories, and especially in the novel that I just recently finished writing. Some are a bit more obvious (karma and reincarnation in my story Complications of the Flesh, which was published in Bull Spec and has just been released as an individual ebook on Smashwords), while some are much more subtle (the poisonous effects of holding onto hate in my yet-unpublished short story King of Hearts).

I’ve slipped a bit as of late, and wish that I would spend more time meditating and reading the various Buddhist texts such as The Dhammapada and the more practical contemporary books by monastics such as Cultivating a Compassionate Heart by Venerable Thubten Chodron (who is my guru). I feel like I’m starting to get to the point in my career where things are beginning to take off, and unfortunately a casualty of this has been my spiritual practice; I need to do a better job of reincorporating this into my life.

JG: What projects are you working on now, and what can we expect from you in the near future?

JEL: I’ve just recently finished a 120,000-word novel called A Fickle and Restless Weapon that, in all, took me six and a half years to complete. Here’s my elevator pitch for the book: “A Calvino-esque psychological novel about transnational characters using varied art forms to cope in a Southeast Asian surveillance state. With explosions.”

I’m sending the manuscript around now to my first readers, which is a terrifying prospect. No one else has seen this work but me for the last 78 months; I’ve put all of myself into it, and it’s a bit like baring my soul to the world, so to speak. Once I get their feedback, I’ll go through another round of revisions, and then hopefully submit it to agents in the US starting in early 2013.

But as for the next several months, I’ve got quite a lot of things coming out. *deep breath*

In October, I will release a revised edition of my 2001 limited-edition chapbook The Curragh of Kildaire as a free ebook, with a brand-new 3,000-word afterword written especially for this edition. I’m doubly excited because I’ll be reproducing the “electronic woodcut” illustrations that Jamie Bishop created for the original chapbook. All of the profits from the sale of this ebook will be donated to charity: 50% to the Jamie Bishop Scholarship in Art & Design at LaGrange College, and 50% to the The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

In November, Math Paper Press (who published Red Dot Irreal) will launch an anthology that I edited, Fish Eats Lion: New Singaporean Speculative Fiction. They will also be releasing my hybrid-essay in chapbook form called Embracing the Strange: The Transformative Impact of Speculative Fiction, which began life as a plenary lecture cum memoir delivered to Singapore’s best and brightest young creative writers earlier this year.

In December, Infinity Plus Books will be releasing two ebook collections: a second edition reissue of Red Dot Irreal, with three additional stories, including one written especially for the new edition, called Occupy: An Exhibition; and The Alchemy of Happiness, which will feature two previously-published stories, a brand-new novelette called Always a Risk, an electronic reprint of Embracing the Strange, and an interview with Singaporean writer and editor Wei Fen Lee.

And then in March 2013, Math Paper Press will release issue #1 of LONTAR, and Epigram Books will launch the first volume of Best New Singaporean Short Stories, a new biennial anthology series I am in charge of curating. Short stories are my first love, and I’m so glad to be able to spread this love with my new editorial duties.

Red Dot Irreal is now available from Books Actually.

1 Comment on [EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW] Jason Erik Lundberg on His New Collection ‘Red Dot Irreal’

  1. Jaym Gates // November 12, 2012 at 9:26 pm //

    Posting a quick (if rather late) correction to the introduction: The title of the children’s book will now be “A New Home For Bo Bo and Cha Cha”, due to trademarks.

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