When Niall asked me to pick a blog topic and suggested, as one option, why I kept coming back to the mythological grounding of Scale-Bright and its related stories, I jumped at the chance: it seems like a perfect way to combine that particular subject and the more general one of writing interconnected short stories that share a world or characters.
I have it on good genre authority—mainly Rachel Swirsky and Niall Harrison—that interconnected short stories are far from uncommon; Aliette de Bodard is famous for it with her Xuya stories, which share a space opera universe best known for its sentient ship AIs and complex families, and the novella On a Red Station, Drifting in the same setting. We know Ann Leckie’s Radchaai mostly from Ancillary Justice, but there are also short stories like They Sink and Are Vanished Away’ and ‘Night’s Slow Poison’. Richard Parks has his Lord Yamada stories and the novel Yamada Monogatari. Lavie Tidhar has built up his Central Station over the years. E. Catherine Tobler has her Unreal Circus, Jason Sanford his Plague Birds while Mike Allen has phantasmagoria SF Hierophants stories and poetry. That’s just to name a handful! It seems to me that the drive to establish a sense of continuity is shared by many writers; sometimes we come up with a world, or a set of characters, we can’t entirely let go after just one story.
But another draw for me is that while reconfigurations of folktales and myths are plentiful, the type of what gets retold tends to be particular. Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and so on are the frequent choices. I wanted to pick a story outside that range. It’s far from obscure; the story of the archer Houyi and the legend of the White Snake are staples—but to some the fact that I gender-flipped Houyi can go entirely unnoticed! So it’s interesting to try this out, introducing tales that are new to some readers while being deeply familiar with others. I’ve observed that retellings tend to give sly nods to readers who know the original—through motif, iconic moments—and that’s part of the delight; I do it too, though I also like to think that I’ve drawn these stories in a manner that can be enjoyed by those unfamiliar with them as well. And once I did one part of this, the rest demanded their turn. ‘Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon’ came first, focusing on Chang’e and Houyi; it led me to research Xihe, the mother of the suns Houyi (somewhat inconsiderately) brings down, and then I wanted to give her a story too—one mostly of my own invention, taking elements from the original material and reconfiguring them to varying degrees. I couldn’t stop there though; at the time I wanted to do so much more with these characters, but ran into the issue that Houyi and Chang’e had already finished their arc, if you will. They’d overcome most of their obstacles, achieved narrative closure, and it’s time to relegate them to secondary roles.
I needed a new character, a new focus, and a new story. Bringing all of this to our time seemed like a fine way to do it, and making the main character a many-times removed grandniece of Chang’e’s gives them a crucial family connection. Then I lit on the concept of tying it into a different myth—which offers its own (relatively) young, hot-headed figure in the Green Snake as foil to the young, uncertain woman I’ve made the lead of Scale-Bright. Things ballooned and before I knew it, I had in my hand an entire novella. It couldn’t be squeezed back into a short story anymore.
It’s not all smooth as this is not my culture, but I hope that I’ve put in thought and research, though if concerns are raised I would be more than happy to attend to them. Part of my goal was relentless fidelity in specific aspects. I never include glossaries in my work, as it’s important to me that words are understood through their contexts organically. The characters speak more than one Chinese—readers who know will recognize the markers around that. There are terms in the novella I leave untranslated and undefined, and while that might make the reading experience challenging to some, in that regard I’m of the Junot Díaz school of thought: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao comes without a glossary, so I like to think I’m safe, or at least in good company!
And it’s satisfying, as well, to fulfill the obligation to characters who’ve taken root in your head. To make them complete, while simultaneously sharing something you love—a body of myth that resonates with me, recast slightly in a way I hope will resonate with others too. That, to me, is one of the best things of this business: sharing what you care about, what matters to you, and writing from a place of joy.
Benjanun Sriduangkaew is "a writer of SF, F, and other things in the between" whose fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, The Dark, GigaNotoSaurus, Tor.com and a number of anthologies such as Solaris Rising 3, Phantasm Japan and The Mammoth Book of Steampunk Adventures. A 2014 Campbell Award finalist for Best New Writer, her debut novella Scale-Bright is out now from Immersion Press. Find out more about it and its author at A Bee Writes.