Monday, February 27, 2012

Southeast Asian speculative art anthologies

With the recent release of Alternative Alamat from the Filipino community a few months ago, and with my own work with Saymoukda Vongsay to develop the Lao American Speculative Arts Anthology (catchy name still to be determined...) I've wondered a lot about the challenges in putting together an anthology.

I was heartened by a hope from one potential contributor that he'd be able to submit a piece in to the next one. Although I pointed out that we haven't had a general anthology in 11 years, the very slim SatJaDham collection, and this is the first full-length anthology in 40 years since the end of the war. I, too, was hopeful that the anthology might become a regular thing, but given the 4 decades its taken so far, regular may be a relative notion.

I often think: When other writers get involved in the mix, do we owe it to them to ease the way for them into more mainstream professionalism, or do we develop a submission, editing and engagement process that's appropriate to our community's way of doing things. (Or our counter-culture way of doing things, if we feel like being radical on the point.) I find myself at a number of points wondering, how would Alternative Alamat have done it? And are there other interesting approaches we could take?

We're at a point with the Lao American Speculative Arts Anthology where we are asking ourselves: Do we print only the best, in our opinion, or a survey of the types of styles and ideas out there? Do we encourage collaborations? Do we put out specific requests for specific types of stories? Do we include pieces that are only obliquely connected to speculative art just to show how in some cases, writers AREN'T taking on these issues.

Barbara Jane Reyes' remarks on anthologies always stick in my head regarding their politics and what they do and don't do for writers. Still, like a Whitman's Sampler of chocolates, for some readers it can be a good way to carry many of their favorite writers around in one convenient volume. There is the challenge of how do you then convince them to go beyond what's in the anthology and see the full body of a writer's work.

That was one of the issues I was considering as I looked to the Kurodahan Press anthologies for some ideas of how Asian speculative arts anthologies can be done well. Especially the ones responding to H.P. Lovecraft in Japan. It was an enjoyable series but not enough was presented to provide me a context to consider: is this a very influential story or an underrated one? Is this a regular example of the author's writing, or a mysterious one-off. What was its publication history? And is this version different from others?

This last question I consider frequently because I know that several short stories and poems of mine that I've had published will definitely undergo revisions for different formats and mediums. I don't think it will go quite as extreme as the revisions to Leaves of Grass or The Magus, but I think these are some of the interesting questions to consider when you're looking at a piece. As I look at Alternative Alamat, I can definitely appreciate some of the questions they, too, were trying to address. 

Saymoukda Vongsay and I are also wondering if we should simply excerpt some pieces, or allow in more creative non-fiction works. A story should be more than just a regular story set in the world followed by "and a robot wheeled by." The fantastic elements should definitely have a purpose within the narrative, one that changes the way characters respond and interact. The way they think.

Do we include alternate history pieces that take a controversial stance or opt for those which work a more nuanced sense of international relations? When we watch a film like Uncle Boonmee and see characters referring to Lao as 'smelly' and 'lazy' we're going to take umbrage. But that doesn't mean the proper turn is to print stories that sling those invectives back at people.

Do we keep it family friendly? It seems the polite thing to do, but then again, on any given afternoon our readers children will be going off to lay waste to the Ork and zombie hordes, or doing any number of misanthropic things while committing grand theft. So, why bother shying away from that? As always, the mantra I hear from other editors is: "Is it in the service of the story?" We don't have to present gratuitous sex and violence, but the original Grimm's Fairy Tales were also some pretty dark works too.

What are some of the other issues you like to consider when putting together an anthology? What do you expect to see, what do you reject, what do you wish you saw more of?


Paolo Chikiamco said...

Hey Bryan!
I feel your pain, and while I’m sure not every aspect of my experience with anthologies will be relevant to your context, let me ramble on a bit here, and hopefully you’ll find something of use:
If I’m understanding the situation of your spec fic antho correctly, what you’re putting together will be the first one of its kind, in terms of drawing from this particular pool of creators, in this particular genre. The parallel here then, in the Philippine context, wouldn’t be Alternative Alamat (but thanks so much for the mention!) but the annual Philippine Speculative Fiction series. While I’m not privy to the nitty gritty of the PSF editing/selection process, based on conversations with the editors, the main thrust of the anthology is to provide as broad a spectrum of spec fic from Filipino authors as possible, with the caveat that stories must possess a certain level of quality. If they need to choose between having printing two great stories that cover the same topic, or bump one of those for a good-but-not-as-good story with a different subject, the impression I get is that they’ll lean toward the latter (but still decide on a case to case basis). For PSF, I think that this is the right way to go, because for a long period of time, it was the only spec fic anthology in print, and thus it was, by default, the face of and introduction to the Philippine speculative fiction scene. The publishers/editors of PSF are aware of this role, which is why their introduction is almost always an overview of The Year That Was in Philippine spec fic, and why in recent years the editorial team changes from volume to volume. So, if your anthology is going to be the vanguard, just as PSF was/is, then there’s something to be said about going the route of a broad sampler, as opposed to the more restrictive “best of” or prescriptive (“this is what Lao-American spec fic should be”) routes. I think vanguard anthologies are best when cast a wide net over, not just readers, but prospective authors. (It’s why even if a purely PG rating would be accessible to more readers, I don’t think it’s the right move for a vanguard.) Once more authors are producing, there’ll be more material available, and that’ll make targeted anthologies--for a YA audience, for Best of the Year anthos, for subgenre collections--easier to do. (In a real sense, I don’t think I would have been able to do Alternative Alamat if the PSF series didn’t exist.)

(To be continued)

Paolo Chikiamco said...

That being said, don’t feel too pressured by the vanguard position. I wrestled with the “with first publication, comes great responsibility” thing a bit, but in the end I decided that there wasn’t anything to be gained from sacrificing my own sensibilities in order to “better represent” the breadth of my target fiction. I received stories for Alternative Alamat that I would have loved to publish because they featured obscure myths that I believe deserve wider recognition… but the stories just weren’t good enough. (My solution was to add more non-fiction to the mix.) Similarly, I decided that there was simply no “right” or “wrong” answer to some of the editorial judgment calls I had to make, particularly with regard to my judgment of whether a story fell within my stated scope for the book. Editors can’t help but leave their personal stamp on their anthologies, and they have a right to do so, to act according to their sensibilities, even when the same can’t be articulated to the satisfaction of, say, a rejected author. Once I embraced the unavoidable fact of my inability to be a True Neutral editor, moving forward became much easier. I still have my share of angst about the endeavor--if you’ve read the introduction and found it to have elements of pre-emptive defensiveness, you wouldn’t be wrong--but at this stage of the development of the local speculative fiction scene, the imperative for PRODUCTION trumps almost every other concern, in my opinion. I’ll take whatever slings and arrows are hurled my way, if that means more Filipino spec fic available for reading. In any event, editing and anthologizing (is that a word?) is something you only learn on-the-job, anyway ☺
Not sure if that was coherent, but I hope some bits were helpful!

Jha said...

Well you asked for my opinion and here it is: you have a lot of either/or questions.

I, uh, don't bother with either/or questions. My main question is: what is this anthology trying to accomplish? What kind of stories does the editor want to feature?

(And no, no generic "good and well-written spec fic" answers, that's fucking bullshit; that's the BASE; one must ASSUME that the final will have finely-crafted stories.)

A lot of your questions also have to do with what available resources there are at hand; some of us don't have inlets into mainstream professionalism, and some of us don't care for mainstreaming either. Some of us have the energy to really mentor and guide up and coming new writers, while others cannot commit to that kind of effort.

There IS also the problem that anthologies don't do well on the market, because they're such grab bags for readers. =/

For Steampunk Shakespeare, I had to go with what I wanted to see in a steampunk anthology that's more than just "glue on gears"--that the aesthetic changes the meaning of the original while retaining the form. Not all our submissions managed to do this, although some of them were really well done. But of course only readers will be able to be a judge of that; I just do my best.

I has more thoughts but they're not nice for a public forum.

Bryan Thao Worra said...

The biggest thing I'd worry about is the stories behind the anthology being more interesting than the work within the anthology.

It doesn't help that as an artist I can appreciate that even a train wreck of a book can be of interest if done well, vis a vis Kerouac's On The Road.

This is definitely the first anthology of Lao American speculative literature (and quite possibly for all of the Lao communities in diaspora) and one of the first full-length anthologies of Lao American literature, period. The other anthologies have previously clocked in under 100 pages and were mostly mainstream and fairly conventional topics from a grassroots collective.

I try to be conscious of that without letting it paralyze us about just making a fun, interesting book that meets the literary needs of our community.

There's really no effective benchmark yet of how Lao Americans want to get and interact with their books, if at all, so this is a bit of a roll of the space-dice.

Unknown said...

I am curious, Bryan, do you speak the Lao language or the Hmong language? Or both?

Is it common for Hmong people to speak more than one language in places like Laos and Vietnam?

Just curious to know. Til later.