Our Friend is Here! An Interview with S. Qiouyi Lu, Author of In the Watchful City – On Exploring Diaspora Experiences, Interrogating Gender Constructs and Bio-Cyberpunk

Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.

Pride Month is a month-long event at The Quiet Pond, where during the month of June, queer authors and bookish content creators are invited to celebrate being queer, queer books, and their experiences of being a queer reader. Find the introduction post for Pride Month at The Quiet Pond here.

Have you ever read a book that challenged everything you thought you knew of a genre, and then single-handled reinvigorated your love for science-fiction? That’s how I felt after reading In the Watchful City by S. Qiouyi Lu, a stunning and evocative novella that explores diaspora and gender with several stories embedded within its wider story. Friends, I don’t say this lightly: if S., the author of In the Watchful City, is the future of science-fiction and fantasy? Then we’re in wonderful hands and we should all be very excited.

After reading In the Watchful City, I knew that I had to invite S. – I had so many questions to ask, because I was so engaged with the story’s themes. So, I am thrilled to have S. visit us at the Pond today for Pride Month, as a bespectacled deer wearing earrings and a septum ring! The interview that I did with S. may be one of my favourite interviews of all time. I love the way ae springboards from my questions and takes the opportunity to delve into the story’s themes and background to give us a richer understanding of In the Watchful City. After reading aer answers, I went back and re-read my favourite parts of the novella, and found myself appreciating and enjoying it all the more.

I’m excited to share with you today’s interview, and I hope that it gets you excited for In the Watchful City, which releases on August 31st 2021. And if you haven’t heard of In the Watchful City, then it is my delight to introduce you to S.’s novella!

In the Watchful City by S.Qiouyi Lu

In the Watchful City explores borders, power, diaspora, and transformation in an Asian-inspired mosaic novella that melds the futurism of Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station with the magical wonder of Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest.

The city of Ora uses a complex living network called the Gleaming to surveil its inhabitants and maintain harmony. Anima is one of the cloistered extrasensory humans tasked with watching over Ora’s citizens. Although ær world is restricted to what æ can see and experience through the Gleaming, Anima takes pride and comfort in keeping Ora safe from all harm.

All that changes when a mysterious visitor enters the city carrying a cabinet of curiosities from around the world, with a story attached to each item. As Anima’s world expands beyond the borders of Ora to places—and possibilities—æ never before imagined to exist, æ finds ærself asking a question that throws into doubt ær entire purpose: What good is a city if it can’t protect its people?

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Author Interview: S. Qiouyi Lu

CW: Hi S.! A huge welcome to The Quiet Pond; it is such an honour to have you visit us and I’m so excited to talk to you today. For our friends out there who might only be meeting you for the first time, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

S.: A big hello to The Quiet Pond from Los Angeles, California! I’m a writer and translator (Chinese to English) of speculative fiction, including science fiction, fantasy, and horror. I’ve also been an editor at Arsenika and microverses. My work often explores queerness, mental illness, and my Chinese-American heritage. The vast majority of my publications have been short stories and poetry. In the Watchful City is my longest publication to date. You can find out more at my website, https://s.qiouyi.lu.

CW: Your novella, In the Watchful City, was such a transcendent and wondrous experience. I was in awe while reading it, and I think you’ve written something spectacular and trailblazing. What was the initial ‘spark’ for In the Watchful City? And how did it evolve into this complex and rich story about stories and transformation?

S.: Thank you! In the Watchful City started as a story about surveillance (more on that later). I knew the city would be an important element, so, as I was developing the story, I had another book about cities in the forefront of my mind: Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities

I love the structure of Invisible Cities. It’s a dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, not unlike the frame story of 1001 Nights. In the narrative, Marco Polo describes dozens and dozens of cities to Kublai Khan, who wants to hear about the world that Marco Polo has explored. The book doesn’t concern itself with following a traditional exposition-climax-denouement structure and instead captivated me with the atmospheres it created. I wanted to tell a story that also had a fever dream feeling to it, so I created a similar dialogue setup that led into stories set all across the same secondary world.

The theme of transformation wasn’t something I consciously built. But I think it’s an interesting theme. A lot of people have been discussing conflict in stories, whether it’s a Western-centric idea, whether stories need to have conflict in order to be narratives. But I find conflict less interesting than change, which gives narratives a sense of motion. So a recurring theme of transformation grew organically out of that.

CW: Something that I really loved about In the Watchful City was how personal your stories felt. I could feel that the stories contained pieces of you, and for this reason, your stories felt so subversive yet liberating. Were there any specific memories or lived experiences that inspired your stories? If so, can you share one with us?

S.: Every character and story definitely contained pieces of me. For instance, like Anima, I grew up fairly sheltered, except it was a suburban bubble in my case. It was through leaving that bubble and hearing other people’s stories that I began to learn about and appreciate the world’s complexity.

I think the embedded story that drew the most from personal experience, though, was probably “As Dark As Hunger,” which follows Ellen and her decision about whether or not to hunt mermaids for profit, given that she herself is descended from mermaids.

The initial spark for the story was actually shark fin soup. I’ve had it before as a child, and only at weddings, which was pretty much the only place where you’d see the dish, since it has such an elevated status. But I later learned about the way shark fins are harvested. Rather than using the entire animal, which I feel would make the hunting more acceptable and justified, the sharks are just thrown back into the water after the fin is collected. 

I think there’s a lot of pressure on Chinese Americans to condemn Chinese practices that people see as barbaric. It took me some time to not play into anti-Chinese sentiment or overwrought animal rights sentiment to instead find a position where I understood the importance of the dish to my culture while simultaneously having a tenable ethical opposition to it. 

“As Dark As Hunger” shows some of that ethical conflict, but in a fantasy context. I further expanded the conflict to create an allegory of how people oppress and marginalize. Eating mermaid tail is only acceptable in the world because people have marginalized mermaids to the point that they aren’t even seen as sentient, or as having their own language and culture. 

Ultimately, “As Dark As Hunger” a story about genocide, and also about diaspora—in the story, the two are tied together, because it’s the genocide, the dehumanization, that prevents people in the diaspora from accessing their culture, community, and language. In fact, the mermaid language used in the story is Manchu, which currently only has ten fluent speakers worldwide. Language loss is one of the most poignant parts of the piece for me because it reflects a deep pain that so many in the diaspora and so many survivors of genocide have experienced.

CW: The city of Ora in In the Watchful City is described as ‘bio-cyberpunk’ and I really enjoyed the imagery that came with that. I also enjoyed how the city explores this duality of freedom and limitation. What were your inspirations when crafting the world or aesthetic of Ora? What does the city and what it represents mean to you personally?

S.: In 2017, I went as part of a group of Western and Chinese writers to Hangzhou, where we were invited to see some of the technology developed by Ant Group, an affiliate group of Alibaba and creator of the Alipay system. Not only has Alipay rendered much of the Chinese economy as cashless, but there are also other advanced features, such as using your face to pay with your digital wallet at places like fast food restaurant kiosks. Chinese facial recognition software is extremely advanced, and the cultural attitudes toward it and toward surveillance are so wildly different from attitudes in the US about surveillance and facial recognition. In the US, the vast majority of people probably find such technology invasive, a huge contrast to the indifference I saw in a lot of Chinese people.

In the Watchful City is an exploration of the technology I was able to see on that trip. I knew I wanted to write something that reflected how advanced the technology was and that incorporated other biometrics (pheromones, for example) that are still too science fictional to use in our world. I was thinking about stories like Minority Report and The Matrix while coming up with the city’s surveillance system, and I wanted to explore the ethics of what it might look like for a city to use surveillance for good, in a benevolent rather than oppressive way. But, of course, what may be benevolent to one person can be oppressive to another. The main character realizes the ethics of being part of that surveillance system may be more complicated than initially thought.

As for the actual aesthetics of the city, a huge inspiration was the manga Clover by CLAMP. There are a lot of cyberpunk elements, but also imagery of birds and plants. I’d also read a story ages ago in The SEA is Ours: Tales from Steampunk Southeast Asia edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng, “Spider Here” by Robert Liow, that was about, essentially, robot battles, except the robots are created with organic material like muscle and tendon. After learning about the “wood wide web” and how fungal mycorrhiza facilitates complex communication between trees, I was like, that’s it! That’s how I want to combine technology and nature. Nature has some of the most complex technology that humans haven’t yet been able to replicate. Why not use that as the basis for cyberpunk instead of computer chips and other artificial technology?

CW: This Form I Hold Now was a story that stood out for me, because we follow a trans woman who binds her feet and competes in a sporting tournament that reminded me of diablo (and brought back so many memories of diablo club in high school)! I loved how you explored the intersection of oppression, gender and disability, and made it into a story where she claims and holds steadfast to her agency. What was your thought process when writing this story? Why feet-binding in particular?

S.: The game of skycups is indeed based on diabolos, in particular the one-sided variation, the monobolo. You can find videos I used for inspiration here: https://s.qiouyi.lu/codex/combat-skycups/

I’ve been wanting to explore a story about footbinding for a long time. The initial seed was probably planted all the way back in 2009, when I was studying abroad in Singapore. My class had gone as part of the programmed events to one of the few shops that still made shoes for bound feet. I was the only Chinese person in the group, and I remember feeling an incredibly strong sense of being Othered—with a tiny shoe in the palm of his hand, the tour guide framed the item as a bizarre antiquity that represented exotic, and even depraved, ideas of sexuality, femininity, and subservience. Everyone nodded along while I felt deep discomfort. I knew at that point I wanted to write something that was about footbinding, but that didn’t appeal to Orientalist ideas as seen through a Western gaze.

As I sat down to come up with the short stories interspersed in In the Watchful City, I thought it would be a good time to revisit the idea of a story about footbinding and transplant it into a secondary world where I could freely manipulate social practices and norms. I did a brief poll on Twitter to see if people knew about footbinding to get an idea of how much I might need to contextualize. To my surprise, the vast majority of people had heard of the practice, even if they knew nothing else about Chinese history. Again, I found that the practice had been presented as barbaric and as an example of Chinese backwardness. The results reaffirmed my desire to add more complexity to the narratives that people had been fed.

All these ideas were on my mind when I stumbled across the book Cinderella’s Sisters A Revisionist History of Footbinding by Dorothy Ko (available here: https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520253902/cinderellas-sisters). Finally, something that explored footbinding not from the perspective of the gawking outsider, but from the perspectives of the women who’d bound their feet! I found it refreshing how Ko set aside moral and ethical judgments of footbinding to instead focus on women’s agency around the practice, outside of a patriarchal gaze. The idea of a wholesale feminist rejection of footbinding had always seemed a bit oversimplified to me, and I discovered that even that was partly an imposition from Western influence, in particular Christianity. Cinderella’s Sisters was the final tool I needed to conceptualize a narrative around agency rather than moralizing.

I chose to make my protagonist a trans girl to explore the idea of gender being constructed. There’s often an obsession with transition and sex characteristics when it comes to trans people, and I had no interest in replicating that fixation in my story. I thought it would be interesting instead to explore footbinding as an example of gendered body modification that had absolutely nothing to do with primary or secondary sex characteristics, and that was entirely opt-in. By choosing to modify her body in that way, the protagonist reaffirms that, yes, she has claim to womanhood, in a way that has everything to do with choice rather than expectation.

While in our world we might call the protagonist “disabled,” I don’t know if she’d identify that way herself—disability, too, is socially constructed. Giving her an assistive device that didn’t erase her body modification, but rather worked with it and highlighted it, was another part of exploring a society where footbinding is simply accepted as a practice instead of stigmatized. Plus, with all our real-world fixation on the body for athletes, the biggest example being the invasive treatment of Caster Semenya, I wanted to create an athletic competition that was accommodating of body difference in a way that reflected understanding rather than restriction.

I’m glad you highlighted this story in particular, as it’s been building for a long time, and there’s so much backstory to it. There’s a lot I was trying to do with it, and I’m glad that came across.

CW: In the Watchful City is thoroughly and wholly queer, which I absolutely loved. How does your own journey with queerness intertwine or shape your storytelling?

S.: When it comes to writing, queerness for me is about questioning expectations and defaults. How much of a narrative changes if it’s about a sapphic relationship between two women, versus a straight relationship between a woman and a man? What changes if a character is trans instead of cis? To take “This Form I Hold Now” as an example, I felt like making the protagonist trans allowed me to address gender more deeply than if I had taken everything for granted with a cis protagonist.

As another example, my story “Spilling Salt Into the Sea” (https://corvidqueen.com/stories/spilling-salt-into-the-sea-s-qiouyi-lu) was initially about a female narrator and a male love interest, but when I changed the male love interest into a woman, I found myself wondering whether I should change descriptions I saw as masculine (gruff, rugged, etc.) to be more feminine. Yet there was nothing that required that change other than societal expectations of womanhood and femininity. So I left in the masculinity.

Sometimes the most interesting narratives come out of a deconstruction of something we feel is contradictory, only to find that it was our assumptions that put artificial constraints on the narrative. So, queerness for me is an expansion of horizons and an exploration of exactly how varied human experiences can be when we lift those artificial constraints.

CW: I’m really excited to read whatever you may write next. Can you give us a clue on what you’re working on? (Any hints?!)

S.: I’ve got a short story coming out in Asimov’s September/October issue that is superficially about controlling werewolf transformation with rope bondage, but on a deeper level is about unlearning toxic masculinity. The subtext is also that it’s an aromantic asexual relationship between a man and a woman, which I feel is an underexplored manifestation of queerness.

I’ve also got another novella I’m writing for Tordotcom Publishing, though I don’t have many details about that one yet. Hopefully soon!

CW: Thank you so much for visiting us today! My last question is one I ask all of our guests: What is a food that reminds you of ‘home’ – wherever or whoever that may be?

S.: Definitely 生煎包 (shēngjiānbāo). It’s a hearty comfort food that I don’t think I’d ever get tired of.

About the Author

S. Qiouyi Lu writes, translates, and edits between two coasts of the Pacific. Ær work has appeared in several award-winning venues. Æ edits the magazine Arsenika and runs microverses, a hub for tiny narratives. You can find out more about S. at ær website s.qiouyi.lu or on Twitter @sqiouyilu.

Find S. on: Website | Twitter | Instagram

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