Sofia Samatar interviewed me and Crawford Award co-winner Stephanie Feldman about fantasy, family, history and diaspora over at Electric Lit. We did the interview in a Google Doc, and it was really interesting to me how Stephanie’s answers and mine reflected each other, often unintentionally. Here’s an extract!
Samatar: Spirits Abroad and The Angel of Losses are such different books: Spirits is a short story collection, Angel a novel; Spirits uses quite a bit of humor, while Angel is written in a more melancholy mode. Yet they share an interest in fantasy and diaspora. What’s going on there? How does the fantastic relate to diasporic experiences?
Cho: As with many Malaysian writers in English, it actually took me a while to figure out how to populate the sort of fantasy stories I liked with the sort of people I knew in life. So there wasn’t an immediate connection between culture and fantasy, for me.
But I think there is something there. Diaspora involves such a huge disruption, an interruption in continuity. Fantasy or mythology or folk stories, the stories of the improbable that everyone tells, are one means of maintaining continuity, and also of reinforcing connection. As a Chinese person, what claim can I lay to being Malaysian except that I was born there, I absorbed the stories of the local hantu, the English I speak is a Malaysian English? As a Malaysian, what claim do I have to being Chinese, except that I grew up on stories of monkey gods and magpie bridges and rabbits on the moon?
So maybe magic — the fantastic — is the thing that survives all that travel from the original point, that loosening of ties to land and people and languages. …
Feldman: Fantasy was my way of talking about one aspect of diaspora: displacement, whether it results from immigration, war, or even one generation unable (or unwilling) to communicate with the next. In each of these cases, there’s a gap, something missing. In my case—personally, and in The Angel of Losses—what’s missing is Jewish Eastern Europe.
The novel uses fairy tales to recreate that world and its legacy. It never occurred to me to use strict realism. Magical realism comes easily to me, and here it gave me the freedom to follow emotional truth, instead of adhering entirely to research. It also reminds the reader that my Europe is an invention; it’s a huge responsibility, after all, to tell another person’s story, and I want the reader to be mindful of where my voice begins and ends.
But most important: Fantasy let me explore how the stories we choose to tell are as much about us—our questions, our needs—as they are about our subjects.
Read the rest here: Fantasies that Bind: a conversation with Zen Cho & Stephanie Feldman.