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.

 

Discuss this article on the Guild forums, or learn more about Allison on her website.

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