Interview with Vina Jie-Min Prasad by J. Pilapil Jacobo
J. PILAPIL JACOBO: When did you start writing? What were the circumstances surrounding this event? Can you name certain figures whom you consider as sources? Why short fiction? Was there a point of writing to resist this influence? Such form? How did that go? How is it going? How did/does writing in your chosen genre make the resistance both fortuitous and difficult?
VINA JIE-MIN PRASAD: I started seriously writing when I was nineteen, as I got very irritated with the profound lack of amusing fiction in my life. I soon realised that writing fiction that I wanted to read was quite different from reading fiction that I wanted to read (and much more painful), but I persevered anyway.
My main inspirations are not short fiction. They are Matthew Lewis's The Monk (a Gothic novel) and Hirohiko Araki's Jojo's Bizarre Adventure (a manga series). I admire the authors' ability to put their weird and unfiltered imagination onto the page without holding back. There hasn't been a point of writing to resist their influence, as I aspire to be more like them.
I enjoy writing short stories which are self-contained and go off like bullets. I find that the form of short fiction allows for a compact way of saying a lot, and is a good ground for experimentation. My background is in historical research, so I particularly like writing stories where disparate sections click into place to seem like a single narrative. So far, it's going all right.
J.PJ: What does it mean to write in the context of Southeast Asia? Singapore? How does queerness alter your participation in such a context? What are the challenges to this pursuit?
VJP: I couldn't help feeling that I was a slow starter when I began writing. By the time I started, quite a few of my schoolmates had already been through creative arts programmes with mentorship by local authors who had been through the same programmes. The Singaporean literary scene also places emphasis on poetry, and it was difficult for me to find local sources of inspiration for short stories.
I would say the main challenge was overcoming my feelings of illegitimacy as a short story writer, due to the above factors. However, the fact that I was flying solo also meant that I had no preconceived notions about writing. It also made it much easier to write whatever I felt like without feeling self-conscious.
J.PJ: Your stories "Different Ways to Burn" and "The Spy Who Loved Wanton Mee" deal with queerness and Southeast Asia by way of a tangent: queer boys/men in Singapore. The first piece intensifies the tangent through the trope of desire embodied by the chilli fruit; the second pursues the erotic within a parody of espionage. Can you tell us more about this tangent? How does your bending of genre relate to your proximity/intimacy with its subjects, how they also turn to/into something else in the course of your narratives about them?
VJP: I like writing stories which are matter-of-fact about queer characters, and treat queerness as a fact of the narrative without making it the focal point. I suppose this could be considered "normalising.”
But sure, I'll talk about the stories. "Different Ways to Burn" was written for an anthology call with the theme of “heat,” and admittedly, part of my objective for that story was to fit in as many heat-related puns and references as I could work in. It is also a love story between two idiots, which is a theme I never get tired of writing about regardless of the gender of the characters.
"The Spy Who Loved Wanton Mee" is my angle on the espionage genre (with a tiny smidgen of postcolonial commentary, and again, some puns). I don't really view it as a parody, and I don't view it as a tangent—the queerness of the characters is an unassailable fact of the story. I don't feel like I'm bending genres. If the genre is too narrow to have my story as a legitimate entrant, it should expand to accommodate it.
J.PJ: There is another fascinating story, "Flesh and Bone." It is not queer per se, but the fine employment of science unto this fiction that complicates post-human and post-animal notions of life does point to a way of living that can only be queer. I was wondering if you could walk us through your procedure when you wrote it. Were you consciously queering science in the writing process? If not, on hindsight, how do you feel about queerness extending the interpretive paradigm that the story encloses upon itself?
V.JP: That was a fun story to research—it was written for the 2014 James White Award, which focuses on science fiction. My favourite SF stories are ones which go into detail about how a new paradigm affects people's everyday lives, such as Alfred Bester's treatment of telepathy in The Demolished Man. I like tackling the complex relationship between appearance and reality, as well as issues of human perception, and science fiction's a really good vessel for that.
For that story, I read a lot of news articles about 3D printing and tried to extrapolate cultural implications if it became widespread, and used those as the jumping-off point. It was quite a research-centric approach since I wanted the world I created to be grounded in fact. The story came quite fast after the research—I created characters and a plot that would make the most of the world I'd created. I wasn't consciously queering anything while writing it, but I'm cool with queer interpretations of my story.
J.PJ: What modes of writing engage you these days? How are these texts steering your stories into more exhilarating considerations of future queerness?
V.JP: I'm currently working on a short story, which I hope to submit to a journal when it's done.
It's a story about two girls from the same school going on a date. I'm playing around with non-linear structure and points of view as a means of showing the different ways the same events can play out. It's a bit difficult to structure and draft, but I hope to be able to pull it off. I want it to have the first-date kind of feel—the nervous anticipation of finding out more of each other, the fear of embarrassing yourself, that sort of emotion. I would also like this story to be a story where girls can like girls without it being a matter of life-and-death emotional turmoil and self-doubt, but rather, just a thing that happens. A safe space.
I'm not very sure how I see my work evolving, but I can tell you my hopes. I hope to be able to push more limits in terms of subject matter and form, and see if that can translate to longer fiction as well. I also hope to write more stories about people loving other people, because I am a huge sucker for that.
J.PJ: What a lovely, lovely way to punctuate this conversation, Vina! I can’t wait to get hold of your first short story collection! Maraming salamat!
Vina Jie-Min Prasad. ‘Interview with Vina Jie-Min Prasad by J. Pilapil Jacobo’. Queer Southeast Asia: a literary journal of transgressive art Vol. 1. no. 1, October 2016.