Interview: Isabel Yap

Isabel Yap is an exciting young voice in SF/F. Her work glides seamlessly between fantasy and fairytale, weaving in mythology and, when necessary, elements of horror. As she says, her stories tend to “… fall outside Western–dominant SFF perspective” in ways that bring depth and resonance to her stories while at the same time challenging readers to look beyond self–imposed borders. “A Cup of Salt Tears,” her acclaimed dark fantasy story published by Tor in 2014, made readers sit up and take notice of a writer to be reckoned with. She is currently working on a “Hurricane Heels,” a short story series for the Book Smugglers that will be out in 2016. Her writing is thoughtful with a slight edge—she is not afraid to go for the pain! Isabel Yap writes the type of stories you want to linger over. They may not always be comfortable but they are never forgettable.

Uncanny Magazine: “The Oiran’s Song” feels universal. Anyone reading today’s headlines will recognize elements of war that remain unchanged despite the divide of years, technology and culture. The cultural elements, however, give the story depth without pulling readers unfamiliar with Japanese culture out of the tale. As a creator how do you decide where that line should fall between engaging the reader and encouraging them to delve in more deeply, to learn more about the unfamiliar in order to gain a richer reading experience?

Isabel Yap: That’s a tricky question! I don’t feel I can control that line at all, but I’m not sure I even want to. The only thing I can control is telling the story as well as possible. Because of my background, the stories I write—that I want to tell—seem to naturally fall outside of the Western–dominant SFF perspective. If a setting or narrative style I use is unfamiliar, then I do want to challenge readers with it, but I also hope the reading experience is fun and satisfying.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with my sister recently about the proliferation of “American High School AUs [Alternate Universes]” in certain fandoms. I enjoy AUs and high school settings as much as the next person, but it’s unsettling when that’s the only narrative people seem to want to explore. There are so many different perspectives, foundational stories, and story forms out there. We all have our own favorites, but it’s definitely worthwhile to read beyond these as well.

Uncanny Magazine: This is a story that ricochets through the reader’s consciousness on so many levels: the casual brutality; the culture of sex work, and sexual abuse; as well as haunting mythology and horror. Help us untangle your thought process for this story. Which element came first? What was the most important for you?

Isabel Yap: I’ve been writing variations on these characters for a long time – they’ve been lurking in my headspace for over a decade. Because Ayame is an oni and lives multiple lifetimes, her story extends both earlier and much later than this particular tale, but she’s always a part–demon, and always a trained fighter. Her mythology was the most concrete element I had.

Akira was a lot more difficult; I changed Akira’s gender multiple times trying to write this. Ultimately I decided to go with Akira being male because a girl–soldier would overcomplicate the story I wanted to tell. (But I definitely want to write a girl–soldier story sometime!) As a pair they have more chapters somewhere in my mind—ultimately, they meet again in a different lifetime—but I have no idea how to go about writing that yet.

This particular story began with the scene of them meeting in the snow, and that flash of unspeakable sadness and violence in Ayame’s eyes. I’ve had this image in mind for many years, but I never tried writing it. What finally sparked this attempt was learning about the distinction between geisha and oiran: while geisha are entertainers, oiran are very high–class courtesans. From that I was able to decide on a setting and pin down the wartime theme. The plot followed loosely from these starting factors.

What was most important for me was managing the brutal elements in the story while still making it readable. I never wanted to be gratuitous, so I tried to ensure that each dark element was necessary. One of the best revision notes I got was to delve deeper into the painful scenes, so that they were meaningful and deliberate. (Thus some of the most harrowing parts were actually late additions!) I also wanted to take care with the cultural elements, and treat them with respect. What’s shocking or completely wrong to us as modern readers may not be the same for the characters in the story. I read nonfiction about the Floating World to try and make that context more believable. (For curious readers, I would recommend Yoshiwara: Geishas, Courtesans, and the Pleasure Quarters of Old Tokyo by Stephen and Ethel Longstreet, and the manga Sakuran by Moyoco Anno.)

Uncanny Magazine: The climax of the story is wrenching, yet absolutely feels earned. Was Akira’s fate one you knew going into to this story or did it evolve during the writing?

Isabel Yap: After the murder scene in the tent, I basically let the story go on autopilot. I’m not much of a plotter, but usually I have a pretty good idea of the last line or scene. That wasn’t the case with this story. I vaguely knew it would end in a battle. I wrote several scraps to figure out scenes and tone, and in a few of them the story concludes with Akira betraying the camp, and them surviving together—cue ragged breathing! Blood! Dialogue! I mean, all these elements are still in there, but initially I suppose I wanted it to be ambiguous. This ending—which has more finality—came about when I finished the first draft. I’ll be very glad if readers feel that it’s an earned conclusion.

Uncanny Magazine: There are many fairytale/mythological elements in “The Oiran’s Song.” You’ve travelled down this path in your other works including the acclaimed “A Cup of Salt Tears.” Were these sorts of stories part of your childhood or did you come to fairytales/mythology later in life? Do you have a favorite or one that resonates with you strongly?

Isabel Yap: Filipino culture is very spiritual and very superstitious, so I grew up constantly surrounded by folktales, fairytales, and ghost stories. I’d learn local stories from school, and from my relatives, manangs, and yayas. I read the fairytale books in my school library, we had collections at home, and we also studied various mythologies in English class. At the same time I grew up on anime, manga, and videogames (particularly JRPGs), so I was interested in Japan from a young age, and started studying Japanese language and culture.

It’s hard to pick a favorite, since I’m so weak for this whole genre. I always love a good retelling of Hansel and Gretel and Red Riding Hood. (Recommendations: Margo Lanagan’s “The Goosle,” and Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves.”) I also love Filipino legends about the origins of things—particularly the lanzones and the makahiya flower. And I do like the Philippine creation myth of the first man and woman emerging from a split bamboo—I tackled this in a short story called “All the Best of Dark and Bright,” which was included in Philippine Speculative Fiction Volume 7.

Uncanny Magazine: You’re one of many writers who acknowledge the role of fanfiction in their creative life. In your bio you state you’ve written over 100 fics in over 30 fandoms. What is it about fanfiction that is compelling to you? What impact, if any, has it had on your work?

Isabel Yap: Fanfiction has had an enormous impact on my work—it’s no overstatement to say that most of what I learned about writing, I learned through fanfic and fandom. I started writing fic was I was seven or eight years old—it was basically an impulse to take characters I loved and create more stories with them. That’s remained constant through the years. When I first started posting my stories online I was so bad—I didn’t know how to use punctuation properly—but even at my worst I would get the occasional review, and it kept me going. Having a “readership” in fandom—even just one person going “Cute! ^_^”—pushed me to keep on writing and improving my craft.

I also read a ton of amazing fic, and emulated the varied styles of my favorites: list fic, song fic, second person, present tense, alternating perspectives, etc. Just like in original fiction, there are fanfics of excellent quality where each sentence is perfectly crafted. It’s jealousy–inducing but also hugely inspiring. I learned that if you write and finish something, you might as well share it because someone just might love it—in the same way that I loved so many stories by other writers. I wrote many one–shots, which are standalone short stories, and that helped me understand the short story form. Oddly enough my most popular fanfics tend to be the ones dripping with angst—this pattern seems to hold true for my original writing as well. (H–hey, I can also do fun things! Just wait! Haha.)

Uncanny Magazine: Poetry and prose require language to be wielded in different ways. How do you decide which idea, which notion, fits a particular genre? How do you feel your use of language is different between the two genres?

Isabel Yap: Choosing between whether an idea works better for prose or poetry isn’t something I do deliberately—usually the idea presents itself to me with the form already attached. I do let the two genres influence each other. When I write a poem, I try to make it more specific and situational, so that I’m telling a cohesive story. And when I write prose, I pay attention to how the sentences sound, and keep in mind that the words should be in the best possible order. But I’m definitely happy to re–use themes; for example, in addition to my short story, I explored the Philippine creation myth in a poem called “Before the Peck.”

Poetry is much less a conscious act for me—I basically put my pen to paper (I always write poems longhand) and let one line follow the next. I find it a lot easier to trust my ear and instincts when it comes to poetry. That doesn’t mean I don’t revise, but when drafting a poem I’m much better at letting the words carry me through.

Prose usually requires a lot more background thinking. I can kick an idea around for months or even years before it coheres into a story that works. Even when I have a general idea, sometimes it’s impossible to get the tone right without several false starts. If you pick two of my stories at random, they’ll probably be quite different language–wise. Some stories tend to fall more on the poetic side, whereas others are pretty colloquial. For me, language can’t be divorced from the story—it’s a critical element just like plot, characters, and setting.

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you so much for your thoughtful, and though provoking, responses.

Isabel Yap: Thank you for the excellent questions!


Deborah Stanish

Deborah Stanish is the co–editor of the Hugo Award–nominated Chicks Unravel Time: Women Journey Through Every Season of Doctor Who and Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon by the Women Who Love Them. She’s had essays published in Chicks Dig Time Lords; Time, Unincorporated Volumes II and III; Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers; Famous Monsters of Filmland; Apex Magazine, and The Liverpool University Journal of Science Fiction, Film, and Television. Deborah is also the moderator of the Hugo Award–nominated podcast Verity! where six women from around the globe debate and discuss Doctor Who.

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