Epigraph Interview with Nicole Tan

Nicole Tan is an on-and-off writer, Malaysian immigrant and single parent living in Tāmaki Makaurau. They write mostly speculative fiction in cramped pockets of space and time, which sadly are few and far between anomalies in their everyday life. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in Anathema: Spec from the Margins, Translunar Travelers’ Lounge, and Umbel & Panicle. They can be found skulking around on Twitter @moxieturbine.

Read their work on Hainamana now, published as part of Epigraph Project, introducing readers to new and emerging Asian New Zealand writers.

Amy Weng: In Fission, Ellis undergoes a radical transformation, wherein her binary identity splits apart forming two separate bodies. The narrator Ellis, xe, is indecisive and seems caught in a state of inertia, while Ellis number two, she, becomes a free agent where her actions have meaning and currency in the world. Can you unpack this a bit for me?

Nicole Tan: The whole story started off as a bit of a mindless pun cooked up by my tired brain (binary fission / nonbinary and binary gender). Then I tried to get a bit serious and make a story out of it and found myself thinking, what if you could step out of your body and leave all your problems behind? Or what if you had a way to unlock what you think is plenty of potential in you, and become who you think you could be? Make something meaningful of your life?

That kind of happens to Ellis, except not really. Ellis #2 becomes her own person, makes her own choices – her life isn’t even that special, but to Ellis #1 it’s everything xe is unable to achieve, a kind of marker for success, even if xe never really wanted any of that to begin with. Ellis (#1?#2?#??) is a messy person and the idea of #1 and #2 being a binary pair of each other is somewhat absurd, yet E#1 has this kind of weird possessiveness – this feeling of resentment that #2’s path shouldn’t diverge so much from xirs. Maybe because #1 feels xe is the original and #2 is the copy. Maybe because of E#1’s more complicated experience with xir own gender identity. If all of this sounds like a headache, maybe it’s because nobody can really get a clean break from themselves.

AW: I’m interested in the science fiction elements of your work. It seems like an exciting space to foreground broader concerns about gender, politics, ethics and information. What drew you to this genre? Is it something you want to keep exploring through your writing?

NT: I only started exploring speculative fic last year when I started writing complete original short fiction again. I’m really just dipping my toes into sci-fi, though someday it would be great to write confidently within the genre. What I really enjoy is character-driven spec fic. Plot is great, but what really attracts me is the same as lit fic – characters that carry the narrative along, but in a novel environment or setting, in a world that is much bigger than them.

Also, there’s so much to explore about imagined futures – we can speculate what the world would be like, or what other worlds would be like based on our histories, and on current issues and our response to them and how we live our lives now. The crises that dominate our lives now – the pandemic, the climate emergency, capitalism and all its damage, the effects of ongoing imperialism, rampant social inequality etc. I mean, look at 2020 – nobody expected the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic and the huge effect it would have on the world, not in this day and age with our advanced medical tech and info systems; that’s the stuff of tropey sci-fi – deadly viruses and zombies etc.  Yet here we are. Not too far away from the speculative. But hopefully a long way away from zombies.

Genre fiction is also dominated by tropes; tropes can be subverted, and the subversion can be political. It’s much easier to get overtly political in sci-fi, and I think that’s what drew me to this. How we can crack open existing structures in our current society – which exist only because we say they do – and reinvent realities that rewrites our known concepts of gender, race, political systems, beliefs – cultural, religious etc. Maybe we can imagine the what-ifs – what would a future led by indigenous people never subjected to colonialism look like? Of course you’d have to be careful and remember that what you’re writing does not exist in a vacuum, and that writing is always political.

So yes, I do like science fiction, and I do want to keep exploring it, because I’m interested in what truths it reflects back to us about ourselves

AW: Who are the writers that you draw inspiration from? And what are you reading now? 

NT: I’ve adored Helen Oyeyemi’s work for years. She gets more chaotic and weirder in a fairytale sense with each new book and I love it. Also, big fan of Carmen Maria Machado. Her short stories never fail to shatter me in some way, her inventiveness of form and just devastatingly great writing. Recently, I read her memoir In the Dream House, which was such a harrowing read about queer domestic abuse, but also partly a brilliant interrogation of the memoir form and its limitations. I’ve also been devouring Kelly Link’s genre-denying short stories – amazing and completely bewildering, most of them leave you thinking, I don’t know wtf just happened but it was great. I’m so into stories that resist genres, that weave between realism and the fantastical.

And then there are other books that I still think about time to time: Preeta Samarasan’s Evening is the Whole Day, Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox, Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John. A few others.

Since last year I also started reading quite a few short stories and novelettes on online speculative fiction journals, just to understand spec and genre fiction better, and hopefully be able to learn from them and others. There’s so much great SFF short fiction out there!

In terms of what I’m currently reading: just started Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi and Helen Macdonald’s memoir H is for Hawk. And I’m also going to start looking for more spec fic by writers of Aotearoa.

AW: You moved to Aotearoa 16 years ago – how has that had an impact upon you? Upon your creative and everyday life?

NT: Coming up to 17 now. I immigrated here from Malaysia with the fam when I was a teen, and the whole change came as a bit of a shock to the system. I mean, it was like we were on holiday at first; it was like a dream. Like I’d got to the airport and never left. Then it was also like waking up but a cold water in your face kind of waking-up. Incidents of experienced casual racism just exacerbated this whole sense of alienation. I think this feeling of displacement comes through quite a bit in my writing.

My characters more often than not seem to be in some state of perpetual transition. They’re almost always intrinsically disloyal.

Setting is also a difficult thing to decide in stories – sometimes (like in Fission) I only include vague setting details, but other times I can have a very detailed sense of setting because you know just exactly which point in space and reality your characters are inhabiting? A lot of times it’s me getting stressed thinking, are my characters in Aotearoa or Malaysia or somewhere else…? Where are you guys? I seem to like writing characters hanging around in train stations, bus stops, airports….etc….public transport hubs and other liminal spaces…. [I] should really change things up huh. Or not.

I suppose I’m also part of the diaspora writer category, something that I have to actively accept all the time.  I always have to think, what makes me a diaspora writer? I follow political, social and cultural issues in Malaysia very closely, as closely as I follow those in Aotearoa. I still have family in Malaysia. I still speak the language. I still keep close ties with the sourceland. But would Malaysian writers in Malaysia count me as one of them or would they dismiss me as an overseas writer who is out of touch with sourceland issues and whose work is possibly saturated with exotic nostalgia about the monsoon and the mysterious, mystic life in the kampung? (I swear I don’t write about the monsoon that much…)

Diaspora cultures are cultures in their own right – just sometimes it’s hard to tell where it begins. I guess you got to create that distinction and identity for yourself.

Recently, I read an article by Malaysian novelist Preeta Samarasan in The Culture Review Mag, and her words very painfully sum up how I feel about being a diaspora writer:

“…no matter how much I wanted not to care, I would always care about Malaysia. I would always feel a painful unrequited love, always feel that I had a stake in Malaysia’s destiny. That fierce connection is still there, twenty-eight years on: no other place’s failures and successes elicit as passionate a reaction in me as those of the country of my birth. There is no other place about which I want to write in my fiction, and no other place I think about so much.”

Good old diaspora blues.

AW: You describe yourself as writing “in cramped pockets of space and time, which sadly are few and far between anomalies in [your] everyday life.” Many writers I know do not have the luxury or financial security to write as much as they would like. What drives you to keep seeking these cramped moments to write?

NT: I’ve always been an on and off writer (but more consistently ‘on’ in the last few years). I wrote fanfic in my early teen years, then miserable poetry in my mid-teen years, then less miserable poetry in my late teens, then stopped, then struggled with trying to finish uni studies and also look after a new baby at the same time, and was a single parent throughout the weird shadowy time of my 20s. You really didn’t have much time or energy for yourself, except perhaps at the end of the day, when your child was finally in bed, but then your brain has turned to porridge and it’s too difficult to do anything else except binge watch lots of mediocre TV series. Over time you start to get dissatisfied with all those TV story arcs and character arcs, and you start thinking, how about you do the showrunners (and everyone else in the world) a favour and fix all their flaws…and thus I fell back into the world of fandom and fanfic.

It was fic that made me write with a kind of madcap joyful energy. With original fiction I’m always wracked with self-doubt and I’m always writing with a lot of anxiety and it can get exhausting and far too lonely, but with fanfic – no strings attached, no expectations – every unrealistic thing I wanted to write, hey I did. Best thing about it all was the reward system that comes with fic, and that is validation when other online souls read your work and leave you comments. As a writer you don’t realise just how much validation you crave until someone comes along and says your writing really struck a chord with them, or ruined their whole lives, and so on. And that makes you want to write more, and complete stuff, and write longer things, and most importantly I learnt how to finish things. Maybe it’s this high that kept me going long after I left behind fic and reverted to original writing. And I’m still here, just tentatively writing more original fiction, racking up a respectable tally of rejections and yet still hoping to get somewhere someday.

So I don’t know. To answer your question, writing is just something to do. Sometimes it gives you a lot of energy; other times it just drains you. Good and bad for my mental health. I’ve kept at it even though I’ve never thought I could ever earn a living from it. Maybe someday when my son is a lot older (actually, he’s near a teenager now lol) I might be able to muster up the time, money, courage and energy to apply for some writing courses and properly develop my writing.