Asian American activist and blogger Claire Light’s new collection of short stories interspersed with flash fiction, “Slightly Behind and to the Left” is now released by Aqueduct Press, a publisher of challenging, feminist science fiction.
In this volume, a woman with the most thankless job in space will calculate a new kind of “cold equation” to get her home to port. In a fantastical place where adulthood is the biggest threat to adolescent boys, predators arise from unlikely quarters, and in a world with wonky physics and no gravity, a lone human learns the meaning of “reckless endangerment of alien life.”
Claire Light is a Bay Area fiction writer, blogger, critic, and cultural worker, working for more than a decade in nonprofit administration, particularly in arts and in the Asian American community.
Light earned an MFA in Fiction from San Francisco State University, co-founded Hyphen magazine, and is a contributing editor at Other magazine. In addition she is a contributing critic on the KQED arts Web site and has had fiction published in McSweeney’s, Farthing, and a forthcoming issue of The Encyclopedia Project.
She also teaches writing to teens, college students and adults, and says the only difference is with the attention span. She has personal blogs at “SeeLight” and “atlas(t),” and at Hyphen magazine’s blog.
You can find out more about Claire Light’s new book, Slightly Behind and to the Left at www.aqueductpress.com.
AAP: How did you get started?
Claire Light: Writing? Um … From the time I was eight years old I kept trying to start writing, but it never took. I read a lot of middle grade and YA fiction and there were a lot of books written in diary form. It was always, “Dear Diary, I had a big fight with my parents and I hate them!” in the books. So I tried many times to keep a diary, only I didn’t really have any drama in my life and didn’t fight with my parents or my sister that much. So I found it really boring and difficult.
Finally, when I was about 14 or 15 it occurred to me that I didn’t actually have to write “Dear Diary” type stuff. I could just write exactly what I was thinking, since it was mostly in words anyway. So I started a journal that was literally what was going on in my head, I wasn’t trying to tell anybody a story. That went extremely well, and I kept a pretty steady journal until about a year after I graduated from college. Funny thing was, about a year after I started writing the journal, when I was fifteen, I actually wrote a novel in “Dear Diary” form and that went swimmingly. I mean, it was terrible, but it was easy and fun to write, compulsive, even. I guess the point was that I couldn’t turn my life and thoughts into a story, but I could turn a story into a story.
AAP: What keeps you going as a writer?
CL: A combination of hunger for the high you get when things are flowing out of you like an electric current, and sheer terror that I’d be nothing without it. Also, I’m a compulsive verbalizer. If I’m not writing one thing, I’ll write something else; if not a story, then a blog, if not an email, then a grant proposal for an entirely hypothetical project. I know, the usual answer is something more shinyhappy, but that’s all I got.
AAP:What are the themes you really enjoy examining in your work?
CL: Interpersonal and institutional power dynamics. Gender dynamics. Racial dynamics. If it’s possible to be yourself without either hurting anyone else or isolating yourself from the flow of humanity. Finding, losing, and being denied a voice. Voices in general. What and where is home and is there really such a thing as belonging to a place, state, or community? Tourism, Colonialism, Imperialism, Immigration, and culture. Spaceships. All that.
AAP: What was your process like for your current book?
CL: Well, it’s a chapbook collection of short stories called “Slightly Behind and to the Left,” and there wasn’t actually much of a process of putting a book together. I’m a slow writer and I only have about five or six truly finished stories in my entire history. The four stories in “Slightly Behind” were written over the course of about six years and were all sent out to a number of markets for publication. Two were published and two – the two more difficult ones – were not. (There are also three “drabbles” or 100 word stories I wrote for Wendy Bradley at the sadly defunct FarThing, two of which she published.)
I guess I just decided that the two more difficult ones weren’t going to find a home in a traditional journal. They are special needs children. Timmi Duchamp at Aqueduct Press had asked me a few years ago to let her know when I had enough stories for a chapbook, and this spring I finally decided that I was done stewarding these stories through the journal submissions process. So I sent them on to her, thinking that she, with her unique outlook and intellectual freedom, would at least get what I was trying to do, even if she didn’t think it was genius. And she did get it, and liked it, and offered me this opportunity.
Funny, I always thought that when you became a writer, you became someone who could communicate to everyone. Instead, I’ve found that I want to write what I want to write, and have to hope for an audience that actually gets me. There is no universality in art. And I never would have thought that I’d be so grateful to find an editor who could really understand what I’m trying to do.
AAP: Where in your new book do you feel you are you really trying to push yourself?
CL: In the two “difficult” stories, most of all.
The first, “Vacation,” takes place in the few months following the mysterious disappearance of all men from the world. There are still boys, but once they cross over some undefined threshold of manhood, they vanish too. In this new world, women become sexually predatory. When I’m writing a story, I’m looking for the heat source, the place where the story hits a sore spot, something that will make me – and hopefully the reader – really feel something.
The hotspot here turned out to be examining this sexually predatory dynamic between women and young teenaged boys. It’s very taboo, and it was difficult and a little scary for me to go there, to get into the headspace of a woman who could become something violent and intrusive. And it was even more scary to make this story public after I had written it. Because at that point, the only other story I’d published (“Pigs in Space,” which is also in the collection) also included a woman being violent. But I did it anyway.
The story got extremely positive – even exhilarated – responses from women. And I got a lot of confusion and veiled hostility from men, even close friends. (The most common comment or suggestion from male readers was to ask me to explore the absence of men more, to justify it.) And only then did I notice that most of the editors I was sending the story to, most of the journal fiction editors, were men.
The other story, “Abducted by Aliens!” is an experiment in exploring a difficult historical incident without actually referring to the incident. I wrote a story about a Japanese American family interned during WWII, but did it through a very controlled, goofy, episodic cycle of stories about a young man who is abducted by aliens and taken around the galaxy. There are hints throughout that the abducted by aliens story is a sort of metaphor for being interned, but it’s never stated explicitly.
I also gave myself some severe formal constraints in that each episode had to be exactly 100 words, introductory and explanatory texts had to be exactly 500 words, and the whole had to be a pleasing, round number (5000 words.) It was a bit like writing formal poetry, only I’m not a poet. Pretty much every aspect of writing this story was challenging, but perhaps the biggest challenge was having to realize that nobody was going to get the story if I didn’t explain it – either in the text or outside of the text. So for the chapbook, I included an afterward that explains what I was trying to get at. That was hard to do, hard to let go of that dream of the perfect audience who can read your mind across time and publication schedules.
AAP: What’s your next project you’d like to take on?
CL: I’m already in the middle of three novel projects. The first one is a huge, epistolary, alternate history/SF novel that takes place on the US gold mining colony on Mars starting in 1899. It centers around a Chinese feng shui master who is there as an indentured servant, using his divining skills to find new gold mines. I originally wanted to write a story in which the hero is an ugly, old Asian dude who can’t speak English and doesn’t know any martial arts but is the hero because he has inner strength. Also, I wanted him to get the girl. I ended up compromising: he can do tai chi, but that’s it. And the girl he gets is a hard-ass, spinsterish, missionary lady with a secret past. Plus, there’s a gay pulp fiction writer who’s like a cross between Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, and H.G. Wells. I’m on the third draft of this monster right now and don’t hope to finish it any time soon.
The second is a YA fantasy novel taking place in a secondary world in which fuel come from fossilized magical animals and plants. The pollution from these fuels is itself magical, and it drives magicians insane. There’s a boy and a girl and … yeah, I’m not gonna go into it, it’s too complicated ;). I’m about halfway through the first draft. The third is an Asian American superhero story that takes place in the San Francisco AA arts scene. I only have a few chapters started here. Once the first novel is done, I’m probably going to tackle the superhero thing next. Not sure. We’ll see.
Argh. And I have a novella underway too, and notes for another three novels. It’s not a lack of compelling ideas, but rather a lack of discipline and know-how that keeps these things inside.
AAP: Asian American journalism and activism. It seems we see projects rise and fall each year for want of readers and advertisers. Is there anything holding us back? Or, what are we really doing right?
CL: I don’t think we’re doing anything right in a moment when the Nichibei Times just announced its closing, the same year Asian Week did. Thing is, Asian America technically has enough numbers to support an English-language magazine and a newspaper, but the majority of those numbers are immigrants with a non-English mother tongue. In this global era, they can get their US national and international news from local English-language papers and magazines, they can get their mother-country news more easily nowadays because international papers are more accessible … and they can get everything on the internet. The gap to fill has always been local community news, which has historically been filled by ethnic American mother tongue publications. Different mother tongues, by the way. I’m not sure why these are declining – I suspect a combination of factors: the increasing level of education of Asian immigrants; increasing access to a variety of international media both on and off the internet; overall decrease in desire to read a print publication; decrease in advertising dollars to print … ? I really don’t know.
On the other side, the dream of a comprehensive and definitive national As Am English publication seems achievable only as long as no one expects the publication to make money …. or even to break even. The desire comes from two generations (Gens X and Y) of 1.5s and 2nd/3rd generation Asian Americans who are very well educated, very liberal and socially conscious, and who have constructed their identities around an Asian American Movement-based idea of what “Asian American” means.
Although publications such as a. Magazine, AsianWeek, and Hyphen insist that that identity is fluid, it really isn’t. It’s a Chinese-dominated, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Vietnamese, Indian-assisted vision of a third-state, racial-cultural bloc that accepts itself universally, and can vote and mobilize together like the NAACP. This bloc has never existed and never will, and representing that bloc in print is an exercise in magical realism.
It’s a necessary exercise, mind you.
Without the “Asian American” aegis (which ossifies as much as it protects) all of these people would have no representation at all. And I think, in my incredibly biased way (I’m a Hyphen founder), that Hyphen usually manages to let specific features follow their own stories and contexts, rather than warping the articles to fit into a specific world view. But you’ll never be able to make a resonant argument for potential readers to even read into this world, much less spend money on it.
The target audience is the single most wired and Internet savvy group in the U.S. These are folks who don’t necessarily identify with this Movement-based idea of who they are. They might be more Chinese American or Indian American than they are Asian American. And they can find the news and stories they want to hear on the internet all by themselves. They have no large-scale As Am vectors of information; instead they’re using multiple small-scale vectors: blogs, popular facebook pages and youtube channels, organizational newsletters, list-servs and discussion boards, etc.
Waiting for a magazine to show up in the mail three or four times a year, (or in AsianWeek’s case, going to find the decreasingly available newsstands once a week) is not attractive, nor is the stale information in those pages by the time it reaches you. And more than half of the content of each magazine won’t be interesting to each reader. They don’t need to be interested; they have aggregators.
The success of mags like Giant Robot lie in the fact that they cater very openly and specifically to fetishists: people who fetishize j-pop, manga and anime, anime-inflected art, emo-inflected indie pop, and anything else that’s hipster and cool on the boobies-bunnies-‘n’-kung-fu end of the spectrum. The magazine itself then becomes a fetish object. It’s no coincidence that GR has had some success in a chain of stores: they can offer more fetish objects that way, which in turn get folded back into the GR brand. Because the ethos of the a. Magazine/AsianWeek/Hyphen continuum is a community-based, political one, it necessarily throws off any external objectification and fetishization. (Note that the liveliest arguments for the last four years on Hyphen’s blog have always centered around sexual fetishization of Asians.) Hyphen can’t even get any traction selling t-shirts. And there’s no way to make the “national As Am print publication” mission more fetish-friendly. The two ideas are antithetical.
And that might well be the bottom line. A print publication – even an online publication as a single entity – is a fetish object, designed nowadays to appeal to the senses. People want to hold it in their hands, see the bright ink colors, smell that hot-off-the-presses smell, feel the glossiness of the pages. And inside they’re getting material that tells them to detach themselves from the reality of their physical beings, and subscribe to a theoretical identity that brings them no immediate or convincing future advantage or pleasure?
Yeah, I don’t think we’re doing anything right.