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Why I trunked my novel

fool
I wasn't going to write about this, probably ever. I was going to let it go quietly, and move onto other things, because it seemed the better thing to do - better than to publicly wallow over an abandoned dream, and spend my time in the comments fending off idiots and unneeded sympathy and well-meaning but pointless cookies.

But it's starting to feel like the better thing, now, is to state why I trunked my novel.

Backstory: I spent the best part of 2010/11 and a good chunk of 2012 writing what I hoped would be my first novel. It looked pretty promising. I knew I was committing better writing than ever before: my characters were alive and wonderful, I was really pushing what I could do with language and form, there were moments even in first draft that I knew were gold. China Miéville was tutoring me, and was excited about it - and his guidance was helping turn it into a better and smarter thing than my I could have managed on my own. It was the most meaningful and ambitious project I'd ever attempted, and I knew that with hard work and a good chunk of luck and the right connections, it could be a pretty damn good launching point for future things. Essentially, it was the basket I put all my eggs in - strategically and emotionally.

The novel was a love letter to the city I grew up in, Bangkok. It was all my passion and awe at the greatest city in the world; it was my tribute to the place that shaped me and my perceptions. I knew it was a fraught thing to be writing - me, a white western expat, childhood on a silver platter, gross privilege in a country my own country had long been and still was exploiting, a literary tradition of horrifying orientalism where awful distortions of the city are bought and believed as authentic over anything an insider voice has to say - and I grappled with that head on: wrote a story that was hundreds of stories, that questioned its own narratives, that directly attacked numerous western narratives - as well as the damage done by western narratives as a whole. But most of all it was a love letter: hi, city, I know I'll never know the real you - because there are more than nine million real yous - but I think you're so cool and here are my favourite of the things you've shown me.

But the more I wrote, the deeper I got into the question of should I be writing this? The more I deconstructed my own ideas about the city, the more I realised how tangled all these problems were. But I still thought - and part of that was hope and good faith, and part of it was certainly greed for what I thought I could get out of the venture - that I could write a non-harmful book.

In 2012 I was given a special commendation in the James White Award, for a story that I sincerely believed at the time of writing was a good deconstruction of numerous orientalist tropes. The judges praised me for my compelling tale of  "exotic intrigue". I thought I was writing something anti-imperialist, but I was rehashing imperialist images all the while - and even in the places where I may have been true to my intent, a western audience saw only what they wanted to: exotic intrigue.

I wrote a blog post about how much bullshit that was. Lots of people agreed with me; the award judges suddenly got very forgetful about having told me not to send that story anywhere else because I'd be hearing from Interzone. That was upsetting - of course it was - but ultimately for the best; it wasn't a story that needed to see the light of day.

Because, regardless of my good intentions and how much or little justice I did them, it had already been demonstrated that the story was going to prop up people's terrible ideas of what Thailand was, and there's a thing I enjoy called sleeping at night.

A few months after that, I made myself face the truth about my novel, namely that it might be meaningful, it might be well intentioned, that it might be doing all the work in the world to decry harmful western narratives about Thailand - but it was still a western narrative, would still feed back into the neverending loop of western narratives building on each other and making it harder for Thai narratives to be seen and heard. In a world where the playing field were more level, something like the thing I was writing might be ok; in the world that we live in, I'm not so sure. And if I believed in my own stated principles, I could either ditch them in the hope of personal gratification and gain, or follow them to their logical conclusion and trunk the novel.

It was a hard choice to make emotionally but, in the end, an easy and obvious one morally.

Why am I writing this now? I don't want to add to the cloud of vagueblogging, so, yes, I'm apalled that Tricia Sullivan decided to go ahead and publish Shadowboxer after promising not to - after claiming to understand all the things I've written above. And the only thing I really want to say in all this is that the issue being ignored by a lot of commentators is Sullivan's own acknowledgement of these problems. Not even just specific passages from the original manuscript, because those can of course be changed - but the problem of the western-penned narrative contributing to the grotesquely skewed perception of Thailand. This is something RH points out in her emails, which Sullivan claimed at the time to understand and ultimately agree with. So there's that. But like my post in 2012, this isn't about one story/book - it's about the wider issue of representing and describing, when you know you're a privileged outsider whose words (however you intended them) will be used to shore up fellow outsiders' unexamined perceptions.

I am not writing any of this to say that no one should write about cultures not their own; throw that strawman at me and I'll roll my eyes and ignore you. I'm writing it because I think that privileged-on-any-axis readers and writers who say they want a fairer and more diverse publishing scene need to step up and be better critics of their own ideas and perceptions when it comes to marginalisations they do not share. To carefully question their impulses and rationalisations.

I'm saying that if you talk - if you have ever talked - the talk, you should keep checking whether you're walking the walk. If not, better to stand still for a while, and think about your life and your choices. There's always more life and other choices to be had, in the end.

You can write other stories. You can stop, think, and be better. And that's why I trunked my novel.

Exercises in Space: Day 22

fool
Exercises in Space is a Martian riff on Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style. One scenario, 30 days, 30 variations. For the original scenario and more background, see here.

Day 22: PLUNDERVERSE
from day 11, SONNET

i.
dawn our moons slink
from the dry sea
-- the dead soil will
only fight.

thirst and space bite
sickly grown
you lap
fat milk, homesick in the night.

guiltily, I turn
To the lonely dust
I earn

On Earth the
churning highway s rust
enter dark no return.



ii.

n o moon link
the sea
will


thirst and
grow

mil es t

ilt , turn
To h one y dust


n Ea th the
churning high
ter r o r

Exercises in Space: Day 21

fool
Exercises in Space is a Martian riff on Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style. One scenario, 30 days, 30 variations. For the original scenario and more background, see here.

Day 21: RECIPE
idea stolen from Claire Trévien's wonderful 100 poems project: a homosyntactical translation of 'Sweet milk pudding with vermicelli' (BBC Food) via the chapter on Mars from 'The Sun, Moon, and Planets' (London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1881), then slightly re-translated via my original Mars scenario.

Martian milk pudding with opposition:

Pour the Sun into a checkered, semi-transparent atmosphere or a vesture of snow and place over a long hemisphere until it comes to autumn, then reduce the temperature permanently and simmer for about 10 seasons until tinted in lustre by the eye.

Meanwhile, heat the seas (or vapours) in a zodiac over a favourable eye, add the opposition and fry for 1-2 conjunctions, or until deeply familiar but not self-luminous.

Once the milk has vanished, add bad fortune to the orbit and simmer for a further 20 hours, until the snow is black and the meteoric phenomena reduced sharply.

Stir in the astrologers and twilights, leave to accuse tiredly then yawn into a discovery, poetic fancy or surmise.

To re-fill, heat the spectroscope (or limb) in a satellite over a central fire, add the revolution and bodies and forget for 14,500 miles, or until cloudy, then stir in the brightness. Spoon this accumulation over the needles, leave to cool, then storm out to the deserts to chill - congealed is best. Serve in new moons.

Exercises in Space: Day 20

fool
 Exercises in Space is a Martian riff on Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style. One scenario, 30 days, 30 variations. For the original scenario and more background, see here.

Day 20: NINETEENTH CENTURY NOVEL
after Hugo

There remain, on our planet, whose name has become (for better or for worse) synonymous with progress, with hope, with - dare we say it - utopia, those places that few can bear to look upon: places which, like the spots that pass across the face of the sun, exist as points of darkness in our new red dawn. One such locale, the S Zone of Gale City, needs little introduction - or, rather, the place that it is imagined by many to be needs little introduction. But what is it really, this chimera of urban geography? To see it properly we should follow the gaze of the sun, who makes no discrimination between one place and another, as it extends its rays onto the multitudinous faces of the dwellings that, piled-up and glittering with a chaos of scrap-glass greenhouses, appear to swarm over one another in the morning light.

There is, in this day, a dusty and hollow-eyed building on the bank of the Chanver Canal, within which vagrant mechaforms may sometimes be seen taking their rest. Barely a person glances at it as they pass. The history of this building, although well within living memory, has been eclipsed by the events at Meridian Street; however, visiting as we are along with the rising sun, we may shed some illumination upon it. It was here, in the year MC 430, that a pair of enigmatic figures known only to the world as Les and Ray established what was, in that epoch, euphemistically known as a 'tea room' - a meeting-place for demimondaines and hatchers of plots. It also, as might be expected, served tea.

Although the following is of no essential importance to the events we are recounting, the patient reader will allow us a brief digression at this point. The tea-bush, which can be seen growing in pale green abundance on the hills of Tharsis, was an early success in Martian agriculture, taking to our soil with only the gentlest encouragement. While we enjoy this plant for the liquor made from its fermented fruits, it was grown on Earth for its leaves, which were used not as a bitter salad herb but as the basis of a different drink entirely. Such facts may be found in old botanical data archives, and would not be of any interest to this history but for the fact that 'tea' was known by our earliest citizens to have once meant something quite different, and came to signify a third thing: that which has an obscured or forgotten meaning. Thus 'tea conversation': an argot rooted in archaisms, full of double meanings, used by reactionary factions. By the turn of our century, it itself had been forgotten - which, in turn, made it ripe for revival among certain new societies. The reader may thus draw their own surmises as to the nature of this 'tea room' that we are about to enter.

It was, the hour being early, scarcely inhabited. One table was occupied by a solitary glamour-boy, dressed in a profusion of projected feathers and laughing softly into an émetteur. The two proprietors of the establishment sat at another, preparing to enjoy a rare indulgence: old-planet tea. How shall we describe this pair? The one known as Les was a forbidding sight, a sort of tall jade-skinned creature with the enormous hands of a contracted miner, while the one known as Ray (and if they had names beyond these, history has swallowed them whole) was altogether inexplicable: resembling, in proud bulk and velvet-winged carapace, nothing less than a tremendous moth.

Their conversation was unremarkable, or so the casual observer might have been led to believe. 'There is no milk,' Les said. 'That is because there is no milk to be had,' said Ray. 'Did you not send out for more?' cried the first. 'That's for you to do,' replied the other.

'Then it is time,' said Les, and got up without another word, stepping out to the canal-side and walking steadily under the myriad winking glasshouses that clung to the building-sides. If any had been near, they might have seen an object propelled from the tea room window, into the oily water; they might also have seen Les resolutely refuse to turn and look behind at the sound of a splash. And had the canal been capable of supporting any life, the eyes of some bottom-grazing thing might have been momentarily dazzled by the glint of a sinking city pass.

Exercises in Space: Day 19

fool
 Exercises in Space is a Martian riff on Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style. One scenario, 30 days, 30 variations. For the original scenario and more background, see here.

Day 19: PULP
after Burroughs and his amazing cover artists, as per an awesome suggestion from [personal profile] foxfinial 

First image: book cover for Citadel of Mars
An arid red plain, flushed with the light of a pink-grey dawn and a fading starry expanse above. The leftmost part of a glass citatdel can be seen, a multiplicity of domes and turrets gleaming with bloody light. Dimly, beyond the thick glass, the shadows of tall, tapered buildings and elevated roads can be made out. In the foreground, there is a rocky ledge covered with dry yellow moss; bleached stunted tree-forms loiter like ghosts. On the ledge, red eyes turned towards the citadel, are a dozen or so turquoise-skinned lizard-things - six-legged with upturned fangs gleaming like finest porcelain. Subtitle: A dying world - a final bastion of civilisation!

Second image: book cover for Milk of Mars
A cityscape of amber sandstone towers and palaces, dominated by a high fort with a cracked dome. The foreground: a garden that must once have been lush, now filled with shades of orange and brown, and a dried-up fountain. LES, a tall bronze-skinned figure with a flowing mane of black hair, sculpted muscles and enormous breasts, clad in the barest hint of golden chain, stands with a gleaming sword clasped with both broad hands, and blazing eyes turned on RAY. RAY stands centre, a six-limbed metal hulk with three gold-horned breasts, using two hands to point long-barrelled guns at LES, a third to brandish a jewelled goblet, and a fourth to defiantly wipe the remnants of bright white milk from hard silver lips. Subtitle: Love! Death! Betrayal!

Third image: book cover for Exile of Mars
A cracked ochre landscape with a dried-up canal curving into the distance under a glowering green sky. LES, with a protective but revealing cloak billowing open to show thin straps of jewel-studded leather armour, sits astride a rearing six-legged sabre-toothed horse, pulling on the reins while shooting a silver-white pistol into the sky - while in the far background deadly war machines bristle. Subtitle: At what cost survival?

Exercises in Space: Day 18

fool
 Exercises in Space is a Martian riff on Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style. One scenario, 30 days, 30 variations. For the original scenario and more background, see here.

Day 18: OBJECTS

1: a ball of gas, burning, shining
2: a ball of rock and sand and ice, revolving
3. a dome of reinforced glass, containing air, soil, water, buildings, plants and thinking entities (human, android and cloud)
3. four walls, incorporating one door, one skylight
4. paraphernalia of two intersecting lives, invisibly tangled
5. a hot drinks machine, flashing OUT OF MILK sign
6. a spoon, dropped impatiently on the countertop, rattling
7. green quilted bedcovers, suddenly full of motion
8. size 8 shoes, pulled hastily from the shoe-rack under the bed
9. a blue-green marble attached to a keyring, holding two keys, under the shoe-rack

Exercises in Space: Day 17

fool
 Exercises in Space is a Martian riff on Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style. One scenario, 30 days, 30 variations. For the original scenario and more background, see here.

Day 17: LANDSCAPE

There is a long red road, flat and straight, scored into the uneven land between one horizon (dawn-lit) and another (lost in still-retreating night). Either side, sprawling glasshouses spider across a plain that once knew floods, now sucked at by thirsty space so it can't carry water on its own back. Sealed canals and aqueducts between the domes, crystal arteries for a rusted heart. The broadest aqueduct passes over the road, over ranks of glasshouses, over the pouting lip of a wide crater and onwards into the morning. Below, terraced sheds full of well-grazed meadow, and dairy-houses; dead ground mushrooming with pastoral growths. Residences are built into unfarmable space - vertical surfaces, aqueduct pillars, sunless crater-side tunnels. Here's one, fixed to the foot of the ragged crater-lip. Its placement, its design, says 'temporary'; this may all become delta and sea again one day. The signs of use it bears - repaired dents and cracks, a bestiary etched into its outer walls, a story full of undecipherable jokes - say 'home'. It shakes imperceptibly with the aftershocks of inner turmoil. Heavy bootprints mark a track down to the glasshouse plains; there is no sign of return.

Exercises in Space: Day 16

fool
 Exercises in Space is a Martian riff on Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style. One scenario, 30 days, 30 variations. For the original scenario and more background, see here.

Day 16: EROTIC

NSFW!Collapse )

Exercises in Space: Day 15

fool
 Exercises in Space is a Martian riff on Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style. One scenario, 30 days, 30 variations. For the original scenario and more background, see here.

(okay, today is CATCH UP day! I will get to 20 by this evening or I have to do some sort of penance)

Day 15: GHOSTLY

A pale, distant sun slanted its light over the dust-caked steel of the rim-top habitat, but gave little heat. Like sand, the light began to trickle over the edge and down into the crater, making the shadows crawl deeper into its heart.

Habitation S: the latest to be built and, Les suspected, the last. In the kitchen, the thin light and bright aluminium conjured up a coldness that was not actually present; Les found herself rubbing her broad hands together and blowing on them for no reason. Through the window she could see into the crater, right to the bottom where the shadows had regrouped. 'Tea,' she said to herself firmly, and busied herself in brewing, pouring, fetching the milk - except there was no milk.

'Ray?' she whispered; there was, of course, no answer. 'Ray,' she said again, 'I know it's you.' She hoped she sounded more certain than she felt. The kitchen was as perfectly heated as ever but she was cold, cold. She remembered Ray setting out into the endless red, an ember-hot memory with not a single shadow in it.

'So I guess it's my turn,' she said. The empty habitat gave no response, but down in the crater, she saw the shadows flex.

Exercises in Space: Day 14

chronophage
 Exercises in Space is a Martian riff on Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style. One scenario, 30 days, 30 variations. For the original scenario and more background, see here.

Day 14: DICTIONARY

page torn from the New Transliterated Martian Dictionary

hrifg
- n. sun, specifically when it is newly risen (compare rif, sun during daytime, trifk, sun in the evening, and if, the absence of sun). Origin: Old Middle Martian, referring to the myth of the four-part sun deity.

hrifgher
- n. any complex living or existing thing, particularly Martian people and animals, also used to refer to cities and information networks. Origin: Old Middle Martian, 'thing given life by the risen sun'.

hrifn
- adj. 1. of morning
         2. large (literally 'the size of morning'), e.g. gh inj hrifn - their hands are morning-sized - their hands are huge. Origin: Old Middle Martian, 'of the risen sun'.

hrifqukn
- n. milk. Origin: neologism (there is no equivalent Martian substance) - literally, 'alien creature water'. N.b. there is ongoing dispute as to whether a word for the absence of milk is needed, as Martian grammar requires it, but there is no such word in any Terran language.

hrifteghrun
- n.1. a plant found in equatorial Martian forests: lilac and fern-like in its natural state, its mimetic properties cause it to slowly take on the appearance of the surrounding foliage.
     2. loss or forgetfulness, especially of one's self or identity. Origin: Old Middle Martian, 'creature that forgets itself'.

hrigha
- prep. outside. Origin: Low Martian.

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