The Mark – Inspirations, Gratitudes

A couple of months ago, I clicked into the Aurealis Awards website to check out the shortlist for 2019. To my utter amazement, my psychological horror story, The Mark, was amongst the nominations for Best Horror Short Story.

The Mark is my second publication. In June 2018, I toddled along to the Emerging Writers’ Festival in Melbourne, where I came across the Monash University Publishing stand. I chatted rather nervously to one of the editors, Amaryllis, who was lovely. The theme for the next issue of Verge clung to me like a sticky film: uncanny. I loved it. Amaryllis encouraged me to make a submission.

My short story process could perhaps be compared to a ripening fruit. An idea drops into my head, but it’s a formless thing at first: smooth and hard and hidden within itself, like a curled-up bud. Then, one day, with the right dose of sunlight or water, it blossoms, ripens, sheds dried petals, and swells to bursting.

It’s at the bursting part that the words flow best.

For The Mark, the time from seed to overripe fruit was short. The seed was the Capgras delusion: a phenomenon I’ve always found fascinating, complex, and haunting. I wanted to delve into, and wrest back control of, the loneliness, grief, and powerlessness of the underrepresented, marginalised, unseen woman.

At the time, I was inspired by works like The Yellow Wallpaper and Alias Grace, both of which challenged notions of womanhood, social roles, unreliability, and madness. I was also deeply moved by women I’d encountered in my life and my work, who’d experienced subjugation in ways large and small, and crafted their own subtle resistances.

Verge accepted my piece, and it appeared in the anthology in June 2019, alongside a host of experimental, brilliant, uncanny works (I highly, highly recommend the collection). For the acceptance, I’m immensely grateful. For Stephen Downes’ editorial hand, reading recommendations, email discussions about the uncanny, and general encouragement, I’m also extremely thankful.

All in all, I feel very lucky to be on the list next to some very established names in Australian SFFH. I look forward to the results of the Aurealis Awards later this year. And as I feel like I’m still very much at the Starting Tavern of my Meandering Adventures in Writing, I look forward to engaging more with the spec-fic community, reading, squee-ing, learning, and waiting for more crazy idea-seeds to explode in my little, nutty head.

Hunger, fury, and lessons learnt from a short story

Yesterday, I finished editing the Malaysian Chinese gothic ghost story that I’ve been working on, tumultuously, with a fair amount of hair-pulling, for the better part of two months. Writing this piece was a great deal more challenging than I expected at the outset. I thought I’d share about what I struggled with, and consequently what I learnt about the craft of writing and about myself.

The first challenge I had to wrestle with was trying to write it ‘right’. All possible accusations of fraud leapt out at me. How can I claim to be a horror writer, when I’ve only ever written one other horror story (The Mark: and that was not with the explicit purpose to frighten, but to unsettle)? Who am I to write a Chinese ghost story when I’ve hardly lived in Asia and I have to reference-check every Chinese word I use? And how can I dare to label it as gothic when I had to spend an afternoon self-consciously Googling elements of gothic literature?

[It’s dark, it’s uncanny, it’s sensual, it has omens and spirits, it’s set in the 90s and there’s terrible phone reception—so, heck, I’m just gonna roll with it.]

Eventually, I figured out that I just had to write it ‘right by me’, although that in itself is much easier said than done. I had to focus on exactly what I was trying to convey, and shave away any pretence of being something else. My and my mother’s hazy recollections of talismans and spirits and superstitions are enough. The inspirations and influences from various things I’ve read, and places I’ve travelled, are enough. It’s enough that I’m emotionally honest with the reader.

The second challenge I had to overcome? My fear of being too…weird. What did I expect, really? In writing a story about suppressed hunger and fury, I found myself struggling with my own suppressed hunger and fury, wondering if I was coming across as too angry, too twisted, too much.

My story aims to be metaphorical and impressionistic, not explicit and didactic. I’m not trying to impart any particular lesson, but to inject you, the reader, into Fen Fang’s body: so that you can feel her feelings, grapple with her reality, and scramble as it distorts. I enjoyed this exercise immensely—using Fang’s senses, her behaviour, and even the form of her language and thought, to shape the narrative experience. It’s certainly the most metaphorical and twisty thing I’ve written so far.

Plus, yeahhhh, there’s a ghost in it!

I hope that I can share it with you soon.

Aurealis Awards 2019: Shortlisted!

Greetings, digital ghosts.

Just a little post to announce that my short story, The Mark, has been shortlisted for Best Horror Short Story in the 2019 Aurealis Awards.

 
Wang Yibo dancing on stage with a seductive twirl.
Mood

I’m feeling incredibly privileged and honoured that my second published work is an Aurealis Awards nominee.

Congratulations to all the other finalists: a stellar line-up!

https://aurealisawards.org/2020/03/25/2019-aurealis-awards-shortlist-announcement/

Bodies No. 3

I hate my skin. It isn’t fair and clear, with peach-tinted cheeks, like the girls in Chinese movies. Nor does it glow with the promise of summer like the caramelised beach babes on the covers of Dolly magazine. Large pores, inherited from my mother, speckle the space around my nose. I hate my hair, which sits against my scalp as flat and black as an oil slick. I spend hundreds of dollars to volumise it, texturise it, bleach it. I hide my broad forehead behind a sweep of fringe. And my bridgeless, button-shaped nose–a stunted runty cousin to the proud pinnacles of my peers–it can’t even prop a pair of glasses up. I hate the way my face prompts others to question my foreign, other heritage.

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I love my olive skin. I love the way it deepens to brown at the merest touch of sunlight. Its subtle green undertones remind me of the cool colours of forest undergrowth, or a beach in winter. I love my eyes, which are almond-shaped and shallow with folded lids like my father’s. I like the shiny blackness of my hair. I like my cheekbones, which are high and wide like my mother’s. I cherish the unexpected angles of my face: the strength of the cheeks and the jaw, the wide forehead, the soft chin. I like that it holds both sharpness and softness, both inquisitiveness and openness. I like the way my face carries pieces of my ancestors, and invites others to wonder where I am from.

Bodies No.2

She wears no makeup except for a subtle pink on the lips, collecting in the creases. Her black hair is wrapped inside a bandanna with a pattern of purple and green leaves.

She is still when she speaks. Her unadorned hands, with long tapering fingers, lie calmly in her lap. Her round, strong shoulders do not move. Only her full lips, beneath broad cheeks, shape the syllables. Her sentences come short and sharp. Full of meaning. Without wasted words. She stares at you over her sentences, waiting for a reply.

When she stands up, she catches you off guard. You expect her to be taller than you, but she only comes up to your shoulder. Beneath her skirts, her legs are bowed. She walks with a fierce rhythm, navigating the stairs one at a time. She does not hold the handrail.

Faith

In a dark community hall

In a dark campsite

In the dark Australian bush

The Holy Spirit descends

 

Wistful chords from unplugged guitars

Spinning two-dollar disco lights

A forest of swaying teenagers

Straining towards the heavens

 

The pastor torrents with prayer

The room swells with amens

The girl starts to shake and mutter

Bent into a Z by her faith

 

I watch as they lower her to the floor

Shuttered face, pale and glistening

Afterwards, they tell us tenderly

She was overcome by the Holy Spirit

 

Work Experience

The top button of my mother’s work pants, a size too small for me, digs into my tummy. My shoulders feel like they are splitting the seams of my freshly-ironed burgundy shirt. They say puberty is a blossoming into womanhood, but my body must have taken a wrong turn. At fifteen, I am gangling limbs and pimpled brow and round gold glasses. They stopped calling me pretty when I was eleven.

I sit in a small office on the first day of work experience. Across the desk from me is a middle-aged man. He’s white. He carries a bit of extra weight around his middle. His green tie clashes with his shirt, which is the colour of old bread.

He talks about the company. He is an unfamiliar entity to me, and so I don’t say much. The office is ringed with open shelves, stacked with folders, bristling with papers. His coffee mug leaves a moist ring on the laminate surface of his desk. The room smells like dust and stale biscuits.

“Well!” he says, standing up. “I bombarded you with a lot of information. Hope you can remember everything!”

I stand up too, smile, and say thank you.

“Ah, you’ll be right. You young Chinese girls, I know you. You’re all extremely smart. Especially at maths!”

He grins expectantly at me. I think he thinks he’s paid me a compliment.

I smile and nod and say thank you again.

Stuff #1

Like a snail, I drag a mountain of stuff with me wherever I go.

I have all sorts of stuff. It fills rooms. It wedges wardrobe doors open. It transforms the backs of cupboards into a black hole of forgotten condiments and expired food. I scour the shops in search of storage solutions: more stuff to solve the problem of stuff.

There’s the Stuff They Told Me I Needed. A pair of black boots and a pair of brown boots, because you can’t just have one pair–what if you want to dress down, for god’s sake?! A shiny computer, because to work on that old model would be an abomination, an absolute abomination. A set of $300 headphones, because that song deserves to be heard in high fidelity. It would be wrong otherwise.

There’s the Stuff That’s Supposed To Make Me Beautiful. Oil cleaners and foam cleansers and toners and serums and face masks and BB creams and CC creams. Lash-extending mascara and false eyelashes and lip stain and cheek stain and nail polish. It’s revolutionary technology, until the next revolution.

There’s the Stuff Other People Gave Me Which I Feel Too Guilty To Move On. Keyrings. Souvenirs from Paris from someone else’s trip ten years ago. A book you still haven’t got around to reading, you terrible person. A camera. A diary, unfilled. Sometimes I take out the items and admire their pretty shapes.

There’s the Stuff That Carries the Past. This is the hardest sort of stuff to discard. These items are heavy, even if they’re just pieces of paper. They pull you to the ground and swallow you in memories.

One day, I will peel off all this stuff, layers of it, and slither away like a snake leaving her old, lifeless skin.

Fathers

Our fathers left their lands to look for better ones.

They left their lands and their loved ones and the lives they had built up around nice jobs and nice houses and the corner-shop snacks of their childhood. They went overseas, often alone at first. Searching for new homes and small money. Trading in the clunky words of a new language, trying not to look the fool. Modern day scouts for their fledgling families.

The weapons of our fathers were moderation and caution. For their families, it was better to have a safety net than an SUV. They learnt to calculate when not to take risks and when to hold their tongues. Because they could not rise in the ranks of a foreign company through youth or charm or eloquence or appearance, they learnt to put their heads down and swallow racism and work hard and complain little.

They weathered anxiety so that we would not have to. They absorbed worry, turned it over and over silently, wore it down. Buried it deep, heaped it over with other things. Traded their dreams for their children’s.

Our fathers put their cultural memories into a little box that they brought with them to the new land, and sometimes opened. The children laughed, thinking that there was no use for such things in this new, loud, opportunistic place. We dismissed their wariness, not knowing that it allowed us to survive, and ventured bravely forth into the world, believing it is ours.

Bodies No.1

The new girl was plump, gloriously plump, in a way that made Angie, who had always craved thinness, want to be just as full and shapely. The new girl had apple-round cheeks that tapered to a dainty chin. Her nails were painted gold and sat like gems embedded in her fleshy fingers. She had the sort of fingers that you liked to watch kneading dough, or braiding hair, or handling jewellery.

She neither flaunted nor hid her body. Her jeans followed the expanses of her buttocks and hips and fell cleanly to her ankles. Her fitted black top hugged the swells of her breasts and tummy. She wore the sleeves pushed up to her elbows, revealing chubby, smooth forearms and a bracelet from which dangled the letter J.

Angie watched as the new girl lifted her chin and laughed. The small of her lower back made a letter C, rising into the softness of shoulders, the softness of chestnut curls. Angie felt the corners of her own mouth tugging into a smile.