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Special Needs in Strange Worlds: An Interview with Jacqueline Koyanagi, Author of ASCENSION

In the last installment of Special Needs in Strange Worlds, I talked about Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension, and how powerfully, and realistically, she covers a myriad of disabilities in her debut book. This week I am pleased to bring you an interview with the author.

Jacqueline Koyanagi was born in Ohio to a Japanese-Southern-American family, eventually moved to Georgia, and earned a degree in anthropology with a minor in religion.  Her stories feature queer women of color, folks with disabilities, neuroatypical characters, and diverse relationship styles, because she grew tired of not seeing enough of herself and the people she loves reflected in genre fiction. She now resides in Colorado where she weaves all manner of things, including stories, chainmaille jewelry, and a life with her loved ones and dog.

Q: First things first. Tell readers a little about yourself. What do you typically do when you aren’t writing?

Jacqueline Koyanagi: If I’m not spending time with a partner or metamour, then I’m probably hanging out with my dog, reading, working on chainmaille jewelry for my side business, practicing archery (I’m a novice, but it’s fun), or playing video games. I’ve also started doing community building with some of Denver’s other queer disabled folks.

Q: Your website says: Her stories feature queer women of color, folks with disabilities, neuroatypical characters, and diverse relationship styles, because she grew tired of not seeing enough of herself and the people she loves reflected in genre fiction. I read a quote once that said something along the lines of: If you don’t see the book you want to read on shelves, go write it. It seems like that is your philosophy, as well. However, that’s quite an undertaking. Is it frightening for you to fly in the face of so many genre conventions? Do you worry about how your work will be received?

JK: I think most writers worry about how their work will be received regardless of diversity. The fact is, we know people want this. We want protagonists who are queer, disabled women of color. We want a diversity of relationships. No matter how much I might worry about how my work will be received, I know I’ve done my best in contributing to an increasingly diverse genre, and that I’ll work hard to do improve my skills as a storyteller so that I can continue contributing in the future. Overall, people have responded positively.  I couldn’t ask for a more wonderful feeling than someone telling me that I wrote the book they’d been waiting to read. That’s exactly why I became an author and makes the work worthwhile.

Q: You say you got tired of not seeing enough of yourself in the books you read. What parts of your can readers see in Ascension? Did you learn anything about yourself when writing this book?

JK: Well, there are the more obvious elements like being queer, non-monogamous, neuroatypical, and chronically ill. I make no secret of any of that. Beyond these more obvious similarities, writing a book is a deeply intimate thing all the way around. Ascension reveals the way I think about personal fulfillment/eudaimonia and how I and the people I love experience relationships. It is, at its heart, a book about family far more than it’s a book about spaceships or alternate realities.

Trauma also plays a large role in the story for four of the characters, and all four characters deal with it differently. I have PTSD. While my traumatic history is far different from anything anyone in Ascension goes through, I did want to depict multiple ways of coping with trauma, regardless of whether those methods are functional or not. No two people cope in the same way.

Q: One of the interesting things I noticed right away about Ascension was that Alana, a starship engineer, is called a sky surgeon. She fixes all the broken and beautiful things. She has a passion for her career, and takes it just as seriously and personally as any doctor would. It also gives her some sort of control over those broken things in her life that she doesn’t have over herself. Was that a purposeful parallel you drew throughout your book? Was there a reason you chose to call her a “surgeon” rather than an “engineer” or “mechanic”? 

JK: Yes, it was a purposeful parallel, for the reasons you described. One of my experiences with my own chronic illness is that, in certain respects, lacking control over my own body makes me seek out ways to compensate elsewhere. That isn’t to say others experience illness and disability this way—if anything, this probably says more about my personality than what it means to be chronically ill—but I did want to reflect this coping mechanism in Alana. She feels unjustly dependent on money and medicine, so she subverts this by learning how to heal something else. Capturing a sense of autonomy is a constant motivator for her. It can’t replace the lack of control she feels over her health, but her work provides her a sense of stability. Work anchors her in the world. When developing her character, I imagined she found a comfort in the nuts and bolts of engineering in part because biology seemed capricious to her.

Q: Alana has a chronic disease that seems a lot like a mixture of Parkinson’s and Huntington’s Disease. Can you tell me what research you did to make Alana’s disability so real and believable? Did you use any diseases as an influence? And what made you create Alana with the chronic illness she struggles with?

JK: Frankly I just wanted a story in which a character is deeply impacted by her illness, but keeps pushing forward as best she can, not because she wants to, but because she has to if she’s to survive. Illness is a constant pressure. I wanted to depict the pain and stress of being unable to obtain prohibitively expensive medical treatments. I even wanted the unobtainable treatment itself to be a bit of inexplicable handwavium to represent how distant life-saving treatments can seem—like they’re bits of magic belonging to some other, alternate world of which those of us in poverty can’t fathom.

Her illness isn’t modeled after any real life illness in particular, but I did draw some inspiration from my own chronic pain. Her situation diverges significantly from mine; fibromyalgia certainly isn’t a potentially terminal illness like Alana’s.

Q: You really nailed Alana’s fear regarding her medication, and managed to make her panic about treatment very relatable and emotional. That being said, it’s a sensitive topic to a lot of people. Not many people out there want to admit that they are dependent on medication each day. What kind of research did you do to make sure you portrayed that fear and nagging worry Alana would feel so realistically?

JK: Oh sure, I think a lot of authors worry about the way they’re portraying some aspect of the human experience that’s rife with pain. Research-wise, I took from my own experiences and listened to many, many others. One clear pattern emerged: anxiety about the intersection of medication and money.

Q: In contrast to Alana, you have Marre, the ship’s pilot, where parts of her body disappear. She’s a more mysterious character, but you do a great job at showing how Marre’s pain and suffering causes those who love her to feel helpless. Many diseases and disabilities are conditions that the entire family will suffer from, and through Marre you really bring this point home. Marre’s condition is also as psychological as it is physical. Can you tell readers a bit about the research that went into creating Marre, and why, as an author, you chose to have such an important character with a mysterious and absolutely unique disability?

JK: Essentially, Marre’s condition is a picture of how trauma can affect a person. That wasn’t the original intention, but as I wrote the novel I realized my own experience with post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as the experiences of several people I’ve known who have had PTSD, were working their way into Marre. I’d love to talk more about the ways that manifested in her character, but that would spoil some of the novel. Suffice it to say, Marre’s struggle is one of functionality—she has to figure out a way to exist in a fractured state and figure out what integrating that new reality looks like for herself.

Q: Despite the fact that most everyone in the book is struggling from some mental or physical disability, you portray them all as incredibly strong individuals. You’ve made it a point to show that flaws don’t define these characters, but make them stronger. I found that to be very empowering. Is that a message you set out to tell your readers? Was it hard for you to balance all of their capabilities and strengths with the disabilities that each character endures?

JK: I don’t think it’s hard to balance capabilities and strengths if you’re thinking about your characters as people. I don’t mean that in the, “Oh, I’m not a label, I’m a person!” sense that can dismiss disability as an often-critical aspect of a person’s reality, but rather that these characters are people who have to find a way to live. They have to find a way to eat, to survive. That’s a powerful motivator. None of them conceptualize their own strengths as strengths. They work because they must.

Q: Ascension deals with growing pains, but they are altered somewhat with each character learning their own limitations and strengths in new settings and situations, adjusting to new technologies, and learning how they all function in relation to each other with the added dimension of disability thrown in. Did the chronic illness aspect of Alana make character development surprise you in any way? If so, how?

JK: Character development always surprises me. At this point, I’ve realized the picture I have of any given character during the development phase of writing a novel is going to change dramatically by the time I have a finished book ready to be sent out. I don’t know that the chronic illness led to any surprises in particular, but I do think I was surprised by the depth of the relationship between Alana and her sister. Nova wasn’t originally such an integral part of the story. I’m glad she is; she grew on me.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers? Any final thoughts regarding Ascension that I haven’t covered?

JK: Only that while the e-book has been out since the summer, the trade paperback releases in early December. I’m very excited and I hope readers will love it!

4 Comments on Special Needs in Strange Worlds: An Interview with Jacqueline Koyanagi, Author of ASCENSION

  1. Thanks, Sarah! I highly enjoyed Ascension and was pleased to have multiple queer, female, and disabled characters living fully in the science fictional environment that Koyanagi created.

    • Koyanagi struck a great balance with having so many “unique” aspects of her book without making any of them overbearing. I loved it. I really hope other people read her book an enjoy it, as well.

  2. Dino Mascolo // November 13, 2013 at 10:55 pm //

    Thank you for this article. I ordered the paperback edition from an independent bookstore and should receive it sometime next month. Looking forward to it and others by Jacqueline.

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