I am back in Kelantan for that final stretch of my journey as a Master’s degree candidate. But this is not about this particular facet of my life. Not yet, at least. I started a thread in a local writers’ group on Facebook, more or less to gauge how local writers approach their characters.
But I’m not even talking about that.
What has been bugging my mind since last night is a surprising reaction from one of the members who immediately blocked me on Facebook AND Twitter after a comment I made. When investigated, my friend and I discovered that said member was both pissed off and disappointed that I’m publishing a story about a prostitute, how in a typical male fashion, I am demeaning women. I am perpetuating misogyny.
One person’s opinion shouldn’t matter, especially when that opinion was formed based on a sliver of a whole. Other people’s opinion doesn’t make me or even break me. However, I keep thinking about said person’s reaction, and how things managed to blow out of proportion, and I am deeply saddened by it.
So let me tell my side of the story.
When Fixi Novo let out a call for submission for a Malaysian cyberpunk anthology, I was intrigued. I like cyberpunk well enough, but to be honest, I’m kinda miffed that when people say Malaysian English Science Fiction writers, I somehow fly under their radars. Probably because I tend to step on other people’s feet with my opinions and loud thoughts.
So. I wanted to write a story for that anthology, but life happened, and I had to concentrate on finishing and submitting my dissertation. Glad that’s out of the way (for the moment). Phew! At the same time, I stole time to do research on cyberpunk, and I was also waiting for a character to take shape in my head and tell me their story.
Also, like any other Fantasy/Science Fiction writer, I have an alternate multiverse of my own. It’s a world of Songstresses, spanning from near-future Science Fiction to space faring futuristic Science Fiction, to populated worlds that have forgotten Earth’s technological advancement so much that the stories become Secondary World Fantasy. I already have at least four half-formed stories in my head, bidding their time to be told.
Among them was a persistent image of a young lady singing in a dimly lit club, and her voice influenced the emotions of those who listened. I’ve had this image stuck in my mind for years, now. And one fine December night, that young lady came to life. She started singing her story to me, and she became fully formed.
Did I set out with a fixed plot in my head, using a girl who’s a prostitute?
I never write that way. I’m not a plotter; I’m a pantser. I am so character driven that even though I start a story knowing how it’ll end, sometimes when writing, the main character takes me places I didn’t think of, and I’ll adjust the flow of the story to fit the character.
You have no idea how loud my head can get.
For the longest time, my head has been devoid of these voices. Hearing my own voice can get lonely, especially when I’m a well-adjusted introvert. And now, since I started writing this particular story, the floodgate has been opened, and I can hear all those chatters again. It’s both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.
Back to the story. It’s set in 2032 Kuala Lumpur, where giant corporations have the government by the balls, and zealots are overpowered and are dictating everyone’s life, and racial segregation can no longer be ignored or held back. Sounds familiar? The situation is like 2015 Kuala Lumpur, only intensified exponentially. The narrator is a 22-year-old Malay girl who cannot remember her past, and is held captive to produce emotion drugs. Our generation has screwed up royally when we became addicted to handheld devices, and condemned our brains and the brains of our children to stop producing neurotransmitters to modulate emotions.
In a way, this story is told in a new way for me, with its non-linear narration. The main character, Arya, slowly remembers her past. The question again is did I intend for her to be a prostitute? Absolutely not. Did I intend to paint women in an unsavory manner? Arya kicks ass. She’s noble. She’s a good person in a bad situation.
Despite writing about sex, writing this story didn’t feel like a compromise to my integrity as a person, as a writer like writing “Kiss from a Rose” did to me. I am proud of the finished product.
When I finished writing the story, I had over half a month to meet the deadline. I needed to validate my worth as a writer. I don’t think I’ll ever overcome that insecurity. So I submitted the story to Clarkesworld. It’s a pro-paying market with high visibility, and best of all, the response rate is usually between 2-5 days. As expected, I received a form rejection after 2 days.
Then I tried Interzone, the premiere Science Fiction venue in the United Kingdom. I still had a lot of time to spare, so I submitted the story.
It was a post-rain Saturday evening, on December 20. I was driving, with my friend Adlina at the passenger seat. My phone informed me of a new mail in the inbox. It was a red light at Jalan Sultan Ismail, so I opened the email and this is what I received:
Dear Fadzlishah Johanabas,
Thank you for sending us "Songbird". We love it and would like to publish it in Interzone. We'll be in touch shortly with more details.
I assumed it was another form rejection slip. Then I read it again.
INTERZONE HAS ACCEPTED MY STORY, YO!
What happened in the car was a lot of excitement and drama, which I will not elaborate. Suffice it to say that the story, Songbird, will come out in March, in Interzone #257. Also, cover art!
Since I was—and still am—miffed that Malaysians seem not to notice that I’m a Malaysian English Science Fiction writer, I needed to write a new story for Novo. I asked Breanna, and she said, “Why not write the story of Arya’s twin?”
When I started writing Andri’s story, I did not set out for him to be a convicted gay Malay guy who’s a practicing Muslim. But he is. And if what my beta readers (Breanna, Rumaizah & Tita) said is true, the story is even stronger than Songbird.
So the question that’s been bugging me is what did I do wrong? Can I not write about women? Are my characters limited to men only, and if I were to write about women, it’s always in a positive light? If that’s the case, then I’ll be pandering to my potential audience, and not staying true to the people in my head who have given my their life stories.
Now that I’ve written this rant, I’m more at peace. Because, despite how badly one (or more) person now thinks of me, my integrity as a writer is still intact.
I am still telling stories that only I can tell, in a way that only I can tell them.
And I will keep writing.