Awareness Week: Author Spotlight – Jako Malan

Welcome to the second FWG Awareness Week! This is a bi-monthly event, run by the moderators in the FWG Slack group (Searska GreyRaven, ritter_reiter, and George Squares) as a way to bring focus to minority culture and writers in furry literature. Through features such as interviews, reading lists, and author AMAs, we hope to provide ample material and a safe, respectful setting for inter-cultural dialogue within our diverse community.

Our focus this month is on authors from post-colonial nations, and for our second interview we’d like to present Jako Malan! Born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa, Jako is a computer programmer by trade who has a recurring fascination with the furry fandom. He considers himself a casual furry, enjoying the added aesthetic quality and versatility of working with non-human characters. After a delightful episode of globetrotting—which included an extended stay in the US and England—he now lives with his wife and two young children in Bellville, nestled comfortably behind the Boerewors Curtain. Jako is the author of the post-human anthro novel reWritten, and his anthro stories can also be found in Passing Through and Symbol of a Nation. A member of the Furry Writer’s Guild, he can be found there and on Twitter under the alias Erdwolf_TVL.

Disclaimer: While the Awareness Week project seeks to amplify underrepresented voices and perspectives, please bear in mind that our interviewees comprise one opinion out of many, and do not represent everyone within their demographic.

Tell us briefly about yourself as an author. How long have you been writing?

I see myself as a creator in a more general sense, rather than an author. I allow my imagination to run amok; mashing together ideas that seem completely unrelated and (sometimes) outright ludicrous. I tend to latch onto a specific theme or idea and become completely obsessed by it. I tend to move on to the next theme or idea rather abruptly, though. If I had the time, talent and resources, I would probably make movies. Writing is a quick and economical alternative, though, so it has been my tool of choice.

As a hobbyist writer, I don’t force myself to write a specific quota of words per day. I often go months (sometimes years) without writing a single word of fiction. When the bug bites, however, I tend to be very productive. I wrote large parts of reWritten in the mornings before work and during lunch breaks, checking in well over 2000 words on a good day.

The oldest piece I have in my archives dates from around 1992. It is essentially a piece of fan fiction loosely based on my favorite TV show at the time – Ovide and the Gang.

Creative writing was one of my favorite subjects, though I didn’t produce much work outside of what was expected of me in school. I spent most of my free time being a computer nerd – creating and playing DOOM mods and writing computer programs.

The writing bug bit me in my senior year at high-school. I wrote three fairly long fan fictions based on the Star Wars prequels – Gungan lore with a host of original characters. It was fun, but being fan fiction, it would never be published. I started toying with the idea of creating something original around this time.

Throughout, most of my writing was done in English, despite it not being my mother tongue. Afrikaans is a truly beautiful language, but it takes a lot of work to do really well. It involves a lot more typing (because of accent marks and double-negatives). The potential audience size is also a lot bigger when sticking to English.

After finding inspiration in the Furry fandom in the early 2000s, I started working on an early version of what was to become reWritten. This first incantation – Shadows and Reflections – was written as a script for a graphic novel. It was mostly complete in 2006, though I only managed to get the first 25-odd pages illustrated before funds (and motivation) ran out. I might revive this one day, though.

I took a lengthy break between 2008 and 2016, during which I wrote (mostly terrible) poetry whilst building my career, traveling the world. My wife and I got married in 2013. Our daughter was born in 2015 and our son in 2016.

Despite many sleepless nights during this time, 2017 was my most productive year to date. I was accepted into the Furry Writer’s Guild. My debut novel and two shorts were published.

Right now, I’m stewing over a novel-length furry piece, three or four short stories, and the script for my visual novel, Project Greenfields (the latter being most active). I’d really like to have something done by the South Afrifur Convention in July, but so far this year has been more about fighting fires than stopping to smell the flowers.

How did you encounter the furry fandom, and why did you start contributing to it?

I think that most of us start out as furries. The characters on cereal boxes, sport mascots, cartoons, movies… We literally grow up surrounded by anthropomorphic animals. It is our “normal” as kids.

I remember a particular despair when my father told me that cartoon animals didn’t “live” like we do – I could not meet them nor visit them in their hometowns. I guess we all have that watershed moment where we can choose to continue believing in cartoon animals or not. (Clearly, I chose the former.)

Though I kept my interest in animal people, I spent my young days oblivious to the existence of the furry fandom. These were pre-Internet days, so ideas travelled more slowly.

In the early days of dial-up internet, my sister and I joined the Jar Jar Binks Fan Club Message Board. (I believe this still exists.) Amongst others, I met a dragon scalie from Pennsylvania who introduced me to the furry fandom. I managed to visit him during my first trip to the USA and we are still in contact to this day. I am not sure if he still considers himself a furry, though.

Yerf!, VCL, IRC, and various awful websites hosted on AngelFire became my staples. I did some personal furry-themed illustrations and paintings. It dawned on me that Furry would be a good platform to tell my stories in. Apart from being a genre that piqued my interest, it would also give me an audience to target – one that I considered myself a part of and understood fairly well.

The rest is history, I guess!

Who are your favorite authors? How about furry authors?

As far as mainstream fiction goes, I liked reading Arthur C. Clarke, PJ O’Rourke, Neil Gaiman, and local veteran author Leon Rosseau. Furry authors I like reading include Tempe O’Kun, Watts Martin, Patrick Rochefort, and Mary E Lowd.

I must confess, however, I’m not a big consumer of fiction. (I’d probably be a more prolific writer if I were.) I do consume a lot of poetry, non-fiction, and music with strong lyrical content, though. I adore the work of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Justin Hayward, and Jacques Brel. Local poets and songwriters whose work I enjoy include Amanda Strydom, Koos du Plessis, Anton Goosen, and Randall Wicomb.

I try to appease my lack of reading by convincing myself that programs are novels for computers. And that writing fiction is programming for the human mind.

By that measure, I guess, I am a prolific writer after all.

You’ve lived in the US and the UK for an extended period, before returning to South Africa. How did life abroad compare to life back in South Africa?

After finishing high school, I spent four months working as a telephone operator at a New England ski resort. This was pre-9/11 – the USA was still the place we knew from watching television as kids. The fabled land of opportunity, yellow school buses, red fire hydrants and Mickey Mouse. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to the USA again hereafter. It is telling how things have changed since then (and, I think, not for the better). I’d love to visit the USA again, this time with my wife – though I’d be hard-pressed to live there long-term. The strong consumerist culture of America is very different from the more conservative norms / austere circumstances most South Africans grew up with. What I do like about the USA, however, is how easy it is to get hold of “cool stuff” and that you never have to travel very far to find that rare record, piece of electronics, or… furry convention?

I lived in Kew Gardens (South East London) between June 2005 and July 2006. I was on a working holiday visa, though I did manage to cement the first of a good nine-year-long career at a large multinational. I really enjoyed my stay in London and really wished I could stay a bit longer. It is not without its share of social ills, but it is a well organised and charming old place.

What I miss most about London is the public transport. The ability to walk around town at just about any time of day, not being bored and being reasonably assured of your personal safety. London is great if you are young and single. Not the ideal place to raise a family, though. London kids are… strange. I also have fond memories of hanging out with the London Furs during this time.

As of today, I am back in Cape Town’s northern suburbs, where I was born and grew up. With my wife and kids, it is convenient to be close to my parents and in-laws. Cape Town is a beautiful and pleasant place. Not as vibrant as Johannesburg. Not as accessible as London and not as ambitious as Boston. It does offer a very decent standard of living and has good amenities.

You once mentioned South Africa as “a setting with unique stories that’s woefully underrepresented in the sci-fi community”. Aside from the distinct choice of species you show in your stories, what would you personally want to see in South African furry or sci-fi fiction?

Little things can make the difference between a narrative that feels tired and done – and something that feels fresh and innovative. There is hardly such a thing as a new story. As writers, we have been pretty good at repackaging these old ideas and distracting the audience with fancy new decor.

Take the movie District 9, for example. It is not African per se. The plot could have worked just as well in another international city. But little nuanced things gave it a distinct local flavour. And I think audiences appreciate this. The animated piece Khumba is also a good example (although in my opinion, it tries a bit too hard to appeal to international audiences).

Many popular period pieces have local equivalents (or local perspectives) that allow a writer to make great use of the local scenery. We had a revolutionary war against Imperial Britain. (Two, in fact!) We had an age of pioneers, which includes a lot of conflict with the indigenous peoples. We had our unpopular war (the Angolan Border War). We had our civil rights movement (against apartheid). The list goes on.

In terms of furry, obviously we have incredible biodiversity. We are spoilt for choice when it comes to species. Our relationship with animals is different to that in other parts of the world. Human influence is still big, but since land is not at such a premium (such as in Europe), animals have less contact with humans and can “be themselves” to a larger extent.

On a grander scale, what I would really love to see is more pre-colonial African folklore, superstition, and culture woven into our stories. I think the emphasis thus far has been too focused on recent history (Nelson Mandela, the fight against apartheid, etc.) I don’t claim to be an expert in African culture, but I DO know enough to know that I haven’t even scratched the surface.

South Africa has had a long history of tension and conflict – examples which come to mind are the Boer Wars and the struggle against apartheid, echoes of which still remain today. Do these conflicts influence your writing, and if so, how?

I always say that my indoctrination program was interrupted at a very critical point. Until the age of 13, I experienced a very different “normal” than I did thereafter. Some of the mind-shifts my generation had to make were rather dramatic. People who were national heroes before were now suddenly the villains. Things that you took for granted before were suddenly gone.

An example of this would be the role of Afrikaans (my home language) in society. Before apartheid ended, you would see both Afrikaans and English on just about every product you buy at the store. Appliances and cars would have Afrikaans manuals and labels. Most things are exclusively English nowadays. There is also a move towards English-only in academic circles, as students believe they will be more employable in the global economy.

Overall, though, I am grateful for a very privileged upbringing, comparable in many regards to that I might have had, were I born in Europe or the USA around the same time.

I think the conflict that has the biggest influence on my writing was the border war with Angola and possibly the Rhodesian bush war. These are recent conflicts where the distinction between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” isn’t as clear cut. These were messy, politically complex wars. Many who died were ignorant to what was really going on.

To say these things do not influence my writing would be ignorant on my part. reWritten doesn’t deal with the above mentioned conflicts in any direct way, however. It is more of a statement on post-humanity (more on this later).

The search for cultural identity is an involved process for furry species created by humankind, as in your novel reWritten. Did growing up in a nation with an analogous background (i.e. a colony created by a powerful nation) affect the way you portrayed this aspect of furry identity?

As a white Afrikaner, the search for identity is very topical. People have very strong opinions about who we ought to be. A pseudo-identity was manufactured for us by the nationalist government. For better or worse, it was forced down our throats. It is probably the closest we’ve had to a true identity, but it is neither authentic nor sustainable.

Ultimately, I think we are heading towards self-discovery, but we are not there yet. Other groupings in South Africa are in a similar process of self-realization: the Lost Generation, the Born Free generation and those I consider to be the “True Millennials” (born after the Internet).

Each of us have a story to tell and a destiny to fulfill. And we also have to figure out how to live together in harmony.

Though there may be undertones of this seeking in reWritten, the Mammalæ world is more post-human than anything else. The sons of man look at the wreckage of the world we left behind for them. They try to make sense of what they see. And try to survive at the same time.

I think we are pretty bad tenants in this world, but Mammalæ have a different perspective on this.

Their society is built in the ruins of our own. They were created in our image, to live amongst us. It is therefore inevitable that they would imitate us in many respects. In other aspects, however, their society is much more complex. With many different species of different shapes and sizes, created for different purposes and with different natural tendencies. Their society inevitably operates differently.

This is a challenge, but it also enables many things that would be difficult to portray in a homogenous society. I alluded to the inner working of their society in reWritten, but I hope to explore this in much more detail in Greenfields.

For non-native writers looking to use South Africa as a setting, is there anything you would like to see them portray more of? Are there also any stereotypes or misrepresentations you would like to draw attention to?

There are parts of South Africa that can be used as a plug-in replacement for other parts of the world, without too much inner knowledge. To make a story truly South African, subtle details will need to be considered. To make a story both South African and one that appeals to an international audience… I think this still needs to be done well.

With regards to Africa as a whole, I’d like to echo something that is often said. People need to realise that Africa is a continent and not a country. Africa has many languages, many cultures. Many histories. There is room for The Lion King and derivatives. But to think that Africa is just about savannahs with animals running around is like thinking that London is the entire United Kingdom. Or that New York City is the be-all and end-all of the USA. Or that Germany is one big year-long Oktoberfest.

Which of your works are you proudest of?

Naturally, I am very proud of reWritten. It has been a long and exciting journey to get my work in print. However, the piece I had the most fun writing and re-reading (to date) is “The Savage Caravan” (Passing Through anthology by Weasel Press). It sets the tone for a spicier kind of story that works well in the furry market. The Gentler Times canon which it belongs to is also a lot more accessible than that of Artisans and Opportunists (the universe of reWritten). It is more Zootopia-like, in that it uses the existing world we live in, but where humans are replaced with anthropomorphic animals.

Any parting words of advice for aspiring writers in the fandom?

As an author, you have a duty to explore. Expose yourself to new ideas. Learn to absorb without feeling an obligation to change yourself (or the others). If you only expose yourself to that which you are comfortable with, your writing will be boring and predictable.

Furthermore, I encourage you to find your own measure of success. Not everyone who writes a piece will get published. Not everyone who gets published will sell a million copies (or make any money to speak of). Unless you are a professional writer, write for yourself first, everyone else second.

When the time comes to show your work to the world, take the time to polish your work and make it accessible. Get an editor. Have your stuff beta-read. Be willing to make changes you don’t necessarily agree with, if they will make your work more accessible.

Make use of all the wonderful free resources that are available online. Visit tvtropes.org. Join the Furry Writers’ Guild. It is a small community with many folks willing to help. Often for free.

Lastly, play nice. Don’t be a primadonna. It is a small community and hardly anything nowadays happens without everyone knowing about it.

 

Discuss this article on the Guild forums, or check out Jako’s page on Goodreads.

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Awareness Week: Author Spotlight – Erkhyan

Welcome to the second FWG Awareness Week! This is a bi-monthly event, run by the moderators in the FWG Slack group (Searska GreyRaven, ritter_reiter, and George Squares) as a way to bring focus to minority culture and writers in furry literature. Through features such as interviews, reading lists, and author AMAs, we hope to provide ample material and a safe, respectful setting for inter-cultural dialogue within our diverse community.

This month, we wanted to highlight authors and creators from post-colonial nations. Here to kick off the March edition is Erkhyan! Erkhyan was born, grew up, and still lives in the central highlands of Madagascar. He has held jobs such as illustrator, translator, and various one-shot DIY projects, while his usual hobbies include reading, attempting to write, drawing, spending way too much time on Wikipedia, and video games. He goes around learning to be a fosa — please note the correct spelling! Erkhyan can be found on Twitter under the same handle (@Erkhyan).

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Disclaimer: While the Awareness Week project seeks to amplify underrepresented voices and perspectives, please bear in mind that our interviewees comprise one opinion out of many, and do not represent everyone within their demographic.

Tell us briefly about yourself as a creative person – you’re both an author and an artist. How long have you been doing either of them? What are your favorite themes to cover?

I’ve dabbled in both writing and drawing since the mid-to-late 1990s. I got to the point of being able to show my drawings publicly in 2000, and my writing in 2005.

My favorite things to draw are natural landscapes and, unsurprisingly, furry characters. I mostly draw pinups of characters, but when I feel technically able to do so, I like drawing pictures of characters being affectionate with each other.

In writing, a theme I find myself often coming back to is finding your own place to belong in society when said society never made you feel like you had one.

You’ve been around the furry fandom for several years. When did you first enter the furry writing scene, and what drew you to it?

I’ve been aware of the furry writing scene since 2006 (in the days of Yiffstar), but didn’t quite join until 2010 through the late FurRag. At the time it was mostly just a combination of my love of reading and my interest in anthropomorphic animals, but the old urge to write my own stuff quickly resurfaced after that.

Who are your literary and artistic influences, both in furry and in general?

Writing-wise, my biggest non-furry influences are Timothy Zahn and Aaron Allston. On the furry side, there’s maybe too many to count so I’ll only mention a few. Kyell Gold and Kevin Frane were among my earliest influences. Rukis and Ryan Campbell are more recent ones. But the fact is, if I’ve read your writings in the last ten years, chances are I count you as one of my influences.

On the drawing side, Disney movies are obviously my earliest influence. Then came Claire Wendling and Juanjo Guarnido. Then, in no particular order: Chelsea Kenna, Rukis, Nesskain, Kenket, Teagan Gavet, and Kamui, to name a few…

In both cases, I admit I have far many more influences within the furry fandom that outside of it. I have no formal literary or artistic training, and it shows in my choice of inspirations.

You’ve lived in Madagascar practically all your life. Can you tell us some aspects of your culture that you think define Madagascar the most?

If I were to summarize contemporary Malagasy culture in a few words, it would be: heavy reliance oral traditions, the pervasive influence of the spiritual on daily life, a strong preference for DIY solutions and repairs over replacement, and a strong accent on respecting one’s place in both clan and tribe.

Madagascar used to be part of the vast colonial empire that France once boasted. Personally, how do you think the Malagasy culture and identity have developed since gaining independence? Does French influence still make itself felt in everyday life?

French influence is still very heavy on Malagasy everyday life. The French language is ever-present in commerce, education, and the media. People will often switch to French when Malagasy vocabulary fails them. Or when communicating with someone who speaks a dialect of Malagasy that sounds too different to be easily understood. Or, in general, when communicating with members of the various expatriate communities (mostly South Asians, Chinese, and French).

My personal take on the evolution of post-independence Malagasy culture is that a lot of it has had to be rebuilt from shaky foundations. Most of the Malagasy ethnic groups relied almost entirely on oral traditions before, and very little of that was committed to writing before the missionaries, then the colonial authorities either rewrote it to suit their purposes, or outright tried to suppress it. Malagasy literature barely had time to be born before it found itself bound to colonial rules.

Nowadays, very few traditions have survived intact. Most are more or less heavily bastardized, a few (like the fitampoha) had to be resurrected or even reinvented almost from scratch. Malagasy history as the common people know it is often fragmentary and heavily tinted by tribal tensions, and sometimes differs quite significantly from history as academic historians know it.

Much of your art and writing revolves around Madagascan species, as well as Malagasy history. Can you tell us more about these themes, and how you bring them out in your work?

My switch to using Madagascan species and Malagasy themes is actually relatively recent, coinciding with my personal struggles. Being the grandson of a Frenchman and raised as a French-speaker, I grew up severely at odds with the both the tribalism of Malagasy culture, and its painful history with France. It wasn’t until these last few years that I finally started to work on the fact that, regardless of my limited French heritage, I am still mostly Malagasy by blood and have lived almost all my life in Madagascar.

All of that leads to the themes I use the most: the pros and cons of Malagasy tribalism, and the fact that so much of our history beyond the last couple of centuries is throughly mixed with myth. I usually tackle these themes by having characters who are trying to find their place in society despite being (or having become) outcasts. Whenever supernatural elements exist in my settings, I now try to base them on elements that do exist in Malagasy folklore: nature spirits, lingering ghosts, and the taboos enforced by their presence.

Are there any stereotypes or misrepresentations that you’d like to draw attention to?

So many misconceptions about Madagascar wouldn’t exist if not for Pandemic 2 and the Dreamworks cartoon franchise… In particular, how many ports and airports we have and how easy it would be to lock down the coutnry’s borders, how many people actually live here, whether we actually like to “move it move it”, whther or not we’re safe from the plague (ironically, Madagascar is the world capital of plague cases) … Whether one reacts to these with humor or annoyance tends to depend on how often these misrepresentations come up.

If there are misrepresentations I’d like to address, it’s Madagascar as a small island (it’s actually the size of mainland France, one and a half the size of California), and our relationship with Africa. Madagascar is geographically and politically an African country, but our history and culture have been isolated from the mainland for so long that for most people there is just no feeling of sharing much with even our closest mainland neighbors.

As a speaker of Malagasy, French, and English, you’ve been in a unique position to make linguistic observations, such as of place-names and folk etymology common or individual to each language. Do you make use of this when writing stories about Malagasy characters? If so, how do you go about “translating” idioms or other figures of speech?

I tend to stay away from untranslatable idioms and concepts, but otherwise I like to play with language. For example, the etymology of Malagasy names is often much closer to everyday language than in Western cultures. Until the relatively recent adoption of the first-middle-last name system, many people used to have names that said a lot about them: their past achievements, their ambitions, etc. I often make use of that while naming my Malagasy characters, giving them meaningful names that might not always be obvious unless one speaks Malagasy.

In the end, I wouldn’t mind using local idioms if giving them context doesn’t come in the way of a story’s pacing.

Which of your works are you proudest of? Feel free to include any upcoming stories or pieces.

That’s a rather difficult question. I do not have enough finished written works for me to feel proud of them, but I admit I can’t wait to finish my first stories set in Madagascar.

As for my drawing, it’s a hard choice, but recent favorites include “Dazzle the Stage”, “Tsingy Mena”, and “Lefona sy Ampinga”.

Any parting words of advice for aspiring writers or artists in the fandom?

Honestly, I can’t think of any advice other than: just do it. The furry fandom is so centered on creative activities, it would be a shame not to contribute to it if you wish to. You can always learn on the way—exchanging ideas and tips with other artists and writers is a good way to do that. Keep in mind that, even though you will always have something to learn from others, there’s a chance that you will have something to teach others too. If not in your skills, then in the messages your art and writing send out.

 

Discuss this article in the Guild forums, or learn more about Erkhyan on his SoFurry page

Awareness Week: Suggested reading – Southeast & East Asia

Welcome once again to the FWG Awareness Week! To help us in our goal of highlighting minority culture and writers in furry literature, we’ve reached out to editors, authors, and publishers in the fandom to bring you a short reading list of works both from and about our region in focus: Southeast and East Asia. While this is by no means an exhaustive list of titles, we hope it serves as a good jumping-off point and gives a rough starting view of the cultures and people from this area.

From the region:

Allison Thai (who we interviewed earlier this week) is a Vietnamese-American husky who has been published in several furry anthologies, including Symbol of a Nation, ROAR 8, and Arcana – Tarot. Readers may be interested in her story, “A Time For Giving“, from Arcana, about an injured, stranded Russian wolf who is given hospitality by a family of Mongolian horses, despite her deeds as a treacherous NKVD agent. Her entry for ROAR 8, “Hope for the Harbingers“, sees God lift up damned souls from Hell to appoint them as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, while Death finds a glimpse of redemption in doing his duty.

Al Song, a Laotian-American kangaroo with a degree in German literature from University of Washington, writes in “Serenity in Blue” (from FANG 8) about a fresh college graduate unhappy with his employment as a security officer, and his attempt to seek out a better future for himself. In “Tempus Imperfectum“, to be published in Tales from the Guild – World Tour 2, a young Italian otter newly immigrated to Germany finds friendship and romance through his high-school orchestra.

Singaporean artist and writer MikasiWolf writes in “Adversary’s Fall“, from Gods With Fur, about the mythical Monkey King, who, with the help of a drunk merlion and an old comrade, seeks vengeance against the most powerful demon of all. His story, “Fathers and Sons“, found in Dogs of War, talks about a young recruit who, despite his disastrous first day in military service, eventually learns the experience gained by generations of servicemen.

About the region:

Faolan provides “Instinct“, the closing entry to the Species: WOLVES anthology – an account of a lupine K-Pop idol pack of the same name, as they attempt to maintain group cohesion despite their individual egos and feelings for one another.

Takaa Silvermane‘s story collection, Closer Than Brothers, examines gay relationships throughout history. “Sparring Session” follows fox Gichoi and cat Daejung in in 667 CE South Korea. Following Korean funeral rites of the time, the two soldiers take a respite from battle and find intimate comfort in each other despite the knowledge it is forbidden love. In “Kamogawa“, three-tailed fox Akio abandons his guard post in Sekigahara, Japan (1600 CE) to find his childhood playmate, white cat Hideki, in a nearby stream. Not your typical “Romeo and Juliet” story, the two are now on opposite sides of the war. What will they do to preserve themselves – or sacrifice for love of the other?

In Kyell Gold‘s “Unfinished Business“, from Heat #13, as private investigator Jae Kim visits supernatural Wolftown Detroit, he runs into his former boyfriend and some issues from his Korean family.

Edited by Fred Patten, the Symbol of a Nation anthology consists of eleven short stories and novelettes featuring the anthropomorphized animal symbols of nations, and exploring their significance and the ideas they represent in their cultures.

Though himself not a furry author, the origami animals in Ken Liu‘s short story “The Paper Menagerie” (read) come to life as magically as our own furry characters do. This poignant story, about a young Connecticut boy, his Chinese mother, and the cultural tension of immigration, is the first work of fiction to win the Nebula, the Hugo, and the World Fantasy Awards.

Special thanks go out to Ocean Tigrox, Thurston Howl, Makyo, and Dark End for their suggestions and assistance in putting this list together.

Discuss this article on the Guild forums, or check out the profiles of our FWG members.

Awareness Week: Author Spotlight – Allison Thai

Welcome to the first FWG Awareness Week! This is a bi-monthly event, run by the moderators in the FWG Slack group (Searska GreyRaven, ritter_reiter, and George Squares) as a way to bring focus to minority culture and writers in furry literature. Through features such as interviews, reading lists, and author AMAs, we hope to provide ample material and a safe, respectful setting for inter-cultural dialogue within our diverse community.

The highlight for January 2018 is Southeast and East Asia, as well as their respective diaspora/immigrant cultures. To launch Awareness Week, we’re happy to present this spotlight interview with Allison Thai! A Vietnamese-American husky with the heart of a dragon, when Allison is not studying for medical school or delighting in all things science, she likes to bury her nose in a good book, scribble in a sketch pad, learn her target languages, swim laps, or spend 99% of her writing time pressing paws to her head trying to think of words to put down. Her anthro stories can be found in Symbol of A NationROAR 8Arcana – Tarot, and Infurno: The Nine Circles of Hell. She has dug out a den for herself on Twitter as @ThaiSibir.

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Author disclaimer: While I am happy and honored to be involved in the awareness project through this interview, I am just one voice. I am just one face on a sociological polyhedron. I don’t claim to represent each and every opinion within my demographic. What it means to be me may not be so for someone else, simply because they are not me.

Tell us briefly about yourself as an author. How long have you been writing? What made you want to start and eventually pursue writing seriously?

I have been writing for as long as I can remember. I remember my first complete work, in third grade, was a comic shamelessly ripping off Treasure Island and Treasure Planet (a movie I still love dearly), only with bugs. I had called it “Treasure Grasslands.” It wasn’t good at all, of course. The doodles were bad. The handwriting was even worse. In middle school I ventured into fanfiction, and enjoyed entertaining readers without pay for the next 10 years. This provided an important foundation and built up my confidence to take the craft and my ambitions to the next level; in 2016 I began to write and get paid for original fiction.

How did you encounter the furry fandom, and what spurred you to contribute to it?

I grew up on Warriors and Redwall books. When I was young I had a hard time making friends and getting along with others, so I turned to books, tales of feral cat clans and brave mice swinging swords. I also grew up on Pokemon and Digimon. These worlds entranced and swept me away beyond the point of return, so my love for talking animals and monsters continues to be a huge influence in my work. Twitter provided me a proper encounter with the term “furry,” as well as the community who pours their love, creativity, and effort into this genre. I wanted to be a part of that community.

According to the creation myth, Vietnamese people are descended from a dragon lord and a fairy queen, and call themselves “children of the dragon.” That makes you/your fursona a dragon, right?

Indeed. I may have the (online) face of a husky, but I am a dragon by blood and heart!

Who are your favorite authors in general? How about your favorite furry authors?

In general, my favorites are C.S Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ken Liu, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Khaled Hosseini, Octavia Butler, George R. R. Martin, Ursula Le Guin, Elizabeth Bear, and Anthony Marra. Within the furry genre (or, at least, what I interpret to be furry), I would say Brian Jacques, Erin Hunter, Richard Adams, David Clement-Davies, and have recently enjoyed reading stories by Ursula Vernon/T. Kingfisher and Mary Lowd.

Your fiction covers many settings and genres, from fantasy to sci-fi to historical fiction, but you often return to Eastern locations in your stories: Russia, Mongolia, China, and of course Vietnam. Have you encountered any challenges in conveying these cultures to an audience which is largely better-versed in Western themes?

Being a diasporic Asian puts me in somewhat of a dilemma. I feel like I am both in and out of the culture I was born into and raised on. There’s always that nagging doubt telling me that being diasporic Asian means I’m not “Asian enough,” or a “real Asian.” Some Asians in Asia, believe it or not, voice that accusation. These mental, internal struggles may be invisible to the reader, perhaps not relatable to someone who’s not an immigrant or a child of one, but they are very real to me.

Regarding Russian and Mongolian history and culture, I’ve been fascinated with them partly because they’re so different from my own. I face the challenge of pulling off a compelling and believable story with this setting, and worry if I did it right. That’s why hearing good feedback from Slavic and Central Asian acquaintances, telling me that they can believe and relate to what the characters are doing, is very satisfying.

As a genre with strong foundations in sci-fi and fantasy (SF/F), furry fiction is well-equipped to explore situations and cultures beyond the norm. Like SF/F, furry fiction can also deal well with stories about diversity and cultural, as well as personal, identity. What has your experience been like writing for a furry audience?

Animals have served very important roles not only as sustenance for our physical and emotional health, but as sustenance for our tales throughout history. Giving animals human-like qualities, making them talk, think, and feel as we do, and making them the stars of their own stories, gives me the opportunity to immerse them in the history and culture that had defined us humans. In these stories, they’re more than beasts of burden or for slaughter. They are the warriors, the heroes, the villains, masters of their fate. I like that the furry audience can accept this without reservation or judgment, and I write freely and have fun knowing that.

You’ve written several historical fiction stories in a furry universe. How was it, integrating historical/cultural themes with anthropomorphic themes? Were there drastic similarities or differences?

When you write about anthropomorphic animals, you take species identity into account. This is what I love most about furry fiction. I love determining what species my characters will be during the outline stage. I love making those traits play a part in their stories, how they perceive events and the world around them. You take body language to a whole new level when you need to consider how the paws, claws, fangs, tails, and fur reflect how the characters think and feel—an editor once offered me to revise and resubmit my piece with this advice in mind, so I can’t stress the importance of the worldbuilding enough. If you don’t put this into effect, make it matter, then you might as well write a story about humans instead. I find this thought process remarkably similar to constructing cultural identity that strongly and plausibly weaves into a story. A furry story works for me when the plot and worldbuilding answers the question “why animals, and not humans?” In the same way, a non-furry story works when it answers “why this voice, and not someone else’s?”

You describe yourself as an “aspiring polyglot,” and you’ve learned Russian, Mandarin Chinese, and Spanish. How has learning these languages enriched your understanding of these cultures and their literature/folklore? How does it influence the stories that you tell?

I’ve always had an interest and passion in learning foreign languages. I took on Spanish because it would be very useful, Russian simply because I love the sound of it, and learned them together when I found many striking similarities between the two. Because of my foundation in Vietnamese, spoken Mandarin was more intuitive to me and, contrary to the opinion of many Westerners, somewhat easy to pick up. The challenge is making sure I don’t mix up the pitches and words of these very similar languages! I say “aspiring” because I still have some ways to go. Of the three I’m learning, Russian is the most challenging. If I ever get to master these three, maybe I’ll pick up French or Korean.

Living in a bustling, ethnically diverse city, and with my goal to be a physician, I want to use my language proficiency to break down barriers and provide better, efficient care for patients who can’t speak English. Interpreters can be used, yes, but translating can be cumbersome, and I’ve seen that patients tend to trust and comply more readily with a provider who can speak their language. In terms of literature and storytelling: though I can read Spanish, Cyrillic and pinyin (Romanized Chinese), I have not gotten to the point of understanding original classic texts, though I very much look forward to the day I can. I already know from reading in Vietnamese that you can pick up beautiful prose, rhythm, and nuances that would be lost in English translation.

I don’t factor in languages every time I write a story, though I can think of one I did. I’m working on a short sci-fi that revolves around the way Russians use grammatical rules and different words to talk about animate/living and inanimate/nonliving nouns. The protagonist is a girl who hears voices from her hands and feet, and she talks to them as if they’re animate, but the Russian language dictates that they are inanimate. She (correctly, yet unknowingly) talks to the aliens in her hands and feet as if addressing people, not just body parts.

You often draw on your cultural heritage when writing stories. How has your personal experience as a minority in the US influenced your fiction?

Culture and setting is a core element in my work, whether I’m drawing from my own identity or not. Characters are a product of the people and environment that surround and shape them. I try to keep this in mind as I take them on a journey. Identity doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I don’t just make a fleeting mention of a character’s background and never mention it again, or never have it contribute in some way to the story. That’s not how people in real life think, especially POC. Even as I live in a country no longer bound by laws of segregation, I am constantly aware that I am a POC, for better or worse.

You must have read stories which inaccurately portray Vietnamese culture, or Southeast Asian/East Asian culture in general. Are there any points you’d like to draw attention to for fellow writers to be more aware when portraying these cultures?

I don’t think the problem is so much inaccurate portrayal, but rather not enough portrayal. I just don’t see enough southeast Asian stories as I’d like, and certainly have not seen enough growing up. I feel that southeast Asian culture is often shunted to the side, overshadowed and overlooked compared to the the more prevalent and popular east Asian narrative, cultures and settings, or the white lens. With Vietnam in particular, too often I’ve seen it reduced to some exotic, hostile, degenerate backdrop for Vietnam War stories. I keep seeing in these stories, told from the American perspective, how strange and ugly Vietnam is and how they’re aching to finally get home after blasting those Vietcong scum to kingdom come. Honestly, reading about any departure from this would be welcoming.

I can’t speak for the huge spectrum of Asian culture, but I can speak with more confidence regarding Vietnamese culture: people are constantly relating to themselves and addressing others according to age. Perhaps you know about Japanese honorifics. Vietnamese’s complex pronoun system is somewhat like that. In Vietnamese, there’s no single word for “I” or “you.” The use varies based on who you’re talking to, if they’re older or younger than you or your parents. As my parents get older it’s getting harder to tell which adults are their senior, and wrongly addressing them by accident have made for several funny bouts of embarrassment. It’s like the military, where you almost always end your sentences in some form of address to be proper and respectful. Definitely take age dynamics and respect for that hierarchy into account.

Also, if you want to try your hand at diasporic culture: consider disparities in language and attitude between the overseas and mainland communities. Language and attitudes change over time, right? Sometimes they’re preserved. My mom told me that the Vietnamese-American community, many of them refugees who fled Vietnam in the 70s-80s, continue to speak Vietnamese used before the fall of Saigon. They pass that way of speaking to their children, and so on. Meanwhile in the mainland, standardized Vietnamese continues to change and evolve, with some words falling out of fashion and others coming into popular use. Northern dialect prevails in the mainland, while the southern dialect stubbornly persists among the refugees. We on the other side of the world aren’t really “keeping up with the times.” Geographic distance maintained this difference. If my family were to visit Vietnam now, we likely wouldn’t understand half of what the mainlanders are saying.

Which of your works are you proudest of?

As of this interview I’m quite proud of writing “Malebolge,” a short story about a female Vietnamese-American pathologist who can hear microorganisms talk. They speak on behalf of Death, who takes advantage of the protagonist’s depression and grief for her dead brother and tries seducing her to its side permanently via suicide. It’s probably my weirdest, experimental, and most personal story to date, combining microbiology, Dante’s Inferno, and American Pie. Submitting this story got me accepted into Viable Paradise, a science fiction + fantasy writing workshop akin to Clarion and Odyssey with the rigorous selection process, curriculum, and how it fosters a sense of community among writers.

“Solongo,” a story about a Mongolian wolf, also has a special place in my heart. It won first place for fiction in my university’s writing contest. Winners presented their entries at the English Honors Society induction ceremony, so I got to read my story loud. Then it went on to get published in Wolf Warriors III.

Any parting words of advice for other aspiring writers, especially minority writers, in the fandom?

If I may borrow the invaluable insight Ken Liu had shared with me: don’t get confused between goals and milestones. A goal might be, among endless possibilities: “x words a day,” “complete NaNoWriMo,” or “at least one short story per month.” A milestone could be winning an award, or getting accepted and published in your dream venue, or signing up with your dream agent. If the milestone happens, great! But that’s not where you should focus your energy and sights on. Milestones are not within your control. Awards often have voting committees. Editors and agents are, well, not you, the author. Work on your goals: something you can reasonably achieve within your power. It doesn’t have to be big. And don’t make it too ambitious. You’ll set yourself up for disappointment that way.

For the marginalized and the minorities: Be true to yourself, believe in yourself, and have the confidence that you know yourself best. Listen carefully, appreciate, and learn from valid thoughtful criticism regarding craft, but don’t let others police the imprint of your identity in your work. Don’t let others say that your characters and setting “aren’t x enough,” or “if you did this and this, that will satisfy my idea of your background” or “it’s too y for the x audience to relate to.” Furthermore, you will get criticism even from those who share your background. That can hurt. But be ready for that, and keep in mind that there’s no one-size-fits-all voice for a community defined by ethnicity, faith, clinical condition, gender, or sexual orientation. You can never please everybody. Might as well stay true to your vision and how you want to make your voice heard.

 

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