More Than Human
Larissa Lai Reinvents Myth
Originally published in CURVE MAGAZINE, March 2010.
Larissa Lai would be a challenge to any marketing firm. She’s Chinese-Canadian, but grew up in Newfoundland and now lives in Vancouver where she teaches at the University of British Columbia. Her novels—When Fox is a Thousand (Press Gang, 1995), and Salt Fish Girl (Thomas Allen, 2002)—have been shortlisted for speculative fiction awards as well as literary ones. Her work is too abstract to sit comfortably on a genre shelf, but her characters are often not entirely human. She’s, well, quirky. Oh, and also queer.
Nairne Holtz: Your books feature human animals, genetically engineered humans, cyborgs, and goddesses who become human. What appeals to you about hybrids?
Larissa Lai: I’m looking for a way to describe the world we actually live in, which isn’t easy when language is so loaded. No one is just one thing. But when you look like you are, it is really easy to have your life defined that way. For instance, because I am Asian, I seldom get recognized as lesbian, or worse (wink!) bisexual (the Jenny Shimizu cover of Curve notwithstanding. I still have that one, by the way, carefully stashed among my valuables.) But, to be serious, in the moment I began writing, or, at least, publishing, there was a lot of pressure on Asian women to write about “the experience of being an Asian woman”—as though there were some truth that could be captured and disclosed that would shatter an inscrutability imagined by the mainstream as essence when it is actually projection. By writing about multi-faceted, fantastic beings, I hoped to shake fully free of that set of expectations, so that I could write about the whole range of things that interest me—race, class, gender and sexuality for sure, but also biotechnology, mythology, capital, love, dreams, and the practice of writing itself. But of course, thanks to the mysterious powers of language, I got pulled back into the original conundrum... though hopefully in more interesting and productive ways.
NH: Myth, in the sense of both folklore and false notions, plays a large role in your work. You recombine Chinese creation stories and Western fairy tales with myths used to sustain power (e.g. foreigners carry diseases and take away jobs). Why do you use myths to express your ideas?
LL: So much of the way we know ourselves comes to us through myth, in both of the senses you describe. I retell in order to place my voices and characters in human (and sometimes non-human) community, to show the ways in which we are connected to one another through the telling and retelling of stories. In oral cultures, stories are never told the same way twice; they are told to reflect the moment of the telling, even as they reflect the past. I am trying to reengage that ancient power in order to remake our damaged world differently, without denying history.
NH: You are a queer Chinese-Canadian author who publishes political, cross-genre work with small publishing houses. This would seem to limit your audience, yet an entire issue of a literary journal was dedicated to scholarly essays on your work. Who are your readers?
LL: Honestly, when I first started writing, I thought my family and friends would read my work and that would be that. But my readership has turned out to be so much more complex and varied. I don’t think it’s as easy as saying my readers are women, LGBTQ folk, brown people, scientists, hippies, speculative fiction fans, experimental poets, geeks and intellectuals, although all of this may be partially true. What I think is that readers of all stripes are smarter, more interesting, and more hopeful than the mainstream publishing industry, with all of its demographics and statistics, can pander to.
NH: You have recently published a book of poetry, Automaton Biographies (Arsenal Pulp, 2009). Your poetry, like your novels, has a mash-up quality, but is more challenging for readers because of its experimental form. What do you prefer about writing poetry? What do you prefer about writing fiction?
LL: I like writing poetry because it offers a greater freedom of form and an opportunity to really get into language and play with it. I do sometimes wish that more readers were more interested in play and less interested in fixed meaning. Though I think lots of LGBTQ readers do get this. We value pleasure in life, why not in language?
What I like about writing fiction is that its length gives me time to work out complex ideas, emotions, or situations. Conflict and character are fabulous vehicles for thinking about relationships and the world produced through interaction.