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A long, long time ago, I read about steppe nomad sky burials and was entranced. I was particularly fascinated by the idea of a body, once deceased, being seen as a resource to feed something else. Carrion birds in this case -- Strangers in a Strange Land this is not. Tibetan Buddhism considers the deceased body at face value, in that the person is gone and what is left is empty flesh. Steppe geography, with its flat, generally treeless landscape and undiggable bedrock, makes sky burials a practical choice. While in some places the burial may have been no more than simply leaving a body exposed to the elements in a high place, Tibetan burials take a more involved approach. Designated undertakers dismembered and prepare the flesh for waiting vultures, a job that from my understanding is undertaken with the same practicality and spirit as a seasonal butchering. This idea fascinated me most of all. The occupation of undertaking in every culture is intimately preparing the dead for the afterlife, spiritual and physical. How we prepare the dead, in other words, says a lot about how we grieve.

In the Taoist and Christian funerals I saw growing up, the body was preserved so that it could lie in state and be remembered. I understood this as a part of the grieving process. The body was chilled and/or embalmed to give the family time to issue an obituary in the newspapers, which allowed for distant mourners to pay their respects. Islamic funerals are markedly briefer affairs, as the body is ideally buried the dawn after death. This is most likely a holdover from the religion's desert origins and emphasis on private cleanliness. That always seemed eminently sensible to me as it saved on the expense of prolonging a funeral while being resource efficient. Before burial, the corpse would usually be washed by relatives (women for female dead, men for male dead) or an elder designated with this task, and forms the most intimate part of the grieving process.

Unlike Taoist and Christian funerals, Muslim corpses are buried usually wrapped in a simple cloth and not coffins. A coffin or similar item might be used to transport the corpse to the grave site (which seemed particularly true if the deceased was someone wealthy or important), but the general idea was that the flesh had to touch the earth. When you think about it, this makes the decomposition process cleaner, as there is no preservative element between spaces. In all these cultures, remembering the dead was an involved process with vigils, prayer sessions and large family gatherings. Once it was time for the experts to finish the cycle, i.e. gravediggers or crematoriums, the family washes its hands of the body. A funny thing about having official burial grounds, a staple of urban planning, is that by concentrating bodies in otherwise unused land, we are also concentrating a vital source of soil revitalisation in a place where it is most underused. Death in the natural landscape, placed randomly, redistributes what is left of us to continue the cycle of life. A dead body isn't technically dead. Part of the reason we consider the hygienic disposal of our dead at all is because corpses teem with life, from the bacteria that eats us from the inside to the illnesses that may spread from improper disposal. Some modern cemeteries try to balance this as part of their marketing, turning grave sites into a tree grove for example. Victorian cemeteries were designed to be used as parks in broad daylight, so fearing the cemetery or even considering it a bleak place clearly is more about our current social mores than it is based on the reality of death. Butchering bodies for carrion takes the reality of steppe geography and its most prominent recyclers, carrion birds, as a means to an end.

For The Bone Beathers, I wanted to play with the idea of the lonely gatekeeper to the afterlife at the top. It combines a longstanding interest in ancient step archaeology and the idea, the 'honour', of being that designated person, the elder whose job it is to care for the dead. People don't always choose their occupations. What if someone was compelled upon to join a family of undertakers? Division of labour in nomad herding cultures tends to be clear cut, with men travelling and trading, women milking and responsible for food production, while children, unmarried or childless singles tend the livestock. A certain egalitarianism existed in ancient societies like the Scythians (themselves a collection of various steppe peoples the Greek lumped together), where women led tribes in peace and war, and fought alongside their men. The Greeks rather hilariously assumed Scythians were all-female because men and women dressed alike. The bow, the great equaliser, meant that women and children could take up the defense of a camp, or shoot at oncoming armies from horseback. Modern horse-herding peoples, such as the Mongols, still retain some of these values. Yak and sheep-herding nomads appeared to have different norms (being more pastoral than war-like), although all share a natural independence and loyalty to family arising from mutual dependence in a harsh environment. I tried to get a sense of that across, the sense of smallness in an incredibly vast landscape, but paradoxically, the freedom to be lost in that landscape. Ultimately, the story ends on one of my favourite subjects, which is how removing a cog from an assumed social system collapses the tower. And murder. Because murder makes everything better.

The Bone Beaters is slated to appear in the May 2017 issue of The Dark.
vampyrichamster: (Default)
Been a while since I wrote any story under 4,000 words. It's something of a homage to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper, which I read in my late teens. I forget how I came upon it exactly, but that smell that is the colour of paper was in one of the school libraries I frequented. I have a strong suspicion it was in the second-last high school I went to, where I discovered M.R. James in a large stack of Penguin paperbacks. The story resonated with me because as a kid who was alone and awake at night a lot, I kind of wanted to be pulled back into the walls. As it was, the story pre-empted many events in my life, and a lot of the feelings of helplessness I would eventually face when I dealt with the worser of depression throughout my early 20s.

While researching this story, I learned interesting this about the etymology of the Djinn. Islam sees them as the only other creatures apart from humans to have free will. They exist concurrently with us on their own plane, occasionally stepping into human lives to lead them astray. The ghul (precursor of "ghoul) tricked people by turning into a variety of shapes, led them away from society and killed and ate their corpses. We know they are made of smokeless fire, and can be anything they so choose. They travel in the blink of an eye. Iblis, the djinn who is synonymous with Satan, whispers evil in people's ears because he would not bow down to Adam, made of clay. The Djinn may actually be the Bedouin, who only rarely leave the desert and have little worldy knowledge. The word "djinn" itself comes from the Arabic root word implying hidden, like places or people hidden in the dark. My goal with the story is to achieve all these meanings, and for that, it was worth the effort.

Title: Salvation on the Tongues of Djinn
Word count: 3,502 words
Finished: 03/23/2011
Time Since Inception: 3 days
vampyrichamster: (Default)
Word count: 36,000 words

When I first began writing Finches, I had no idea it was going to be a book. At best, I thought it would be a triptych of short stories. Then a novella in four parts. Then, it grew to three parts and seven vignettes. The characters grew with me -- from set old men doomed to live and perish in paradises of their own making, to increasingly stronger and more vocal women. That first commentary on Quranic dogma vs. the evolving truth of the world as it is, both in our reality and in the story, went from a relatively straightforward study vis-à-vis a ghost story, to a running commentary on how my own thinking has changed since I began writing it five years ago.

I never intended to write a feminist novella on the Islamic reality in Malaysia. But the wealth of books I have acquired, from generous family gifts and my own growing collection, strengthened a message I picked up long ago and never really did anything with. I am proud and happy to have transmuted some of it into tangible writing. I also feel that Finches closed a particularly bitter chapter in my own life. Much of my adulthood was spent grieving over my father's betrayal of our family, and the subsequent betrayal of both parents bickering and coping with polygamy as an influence over our collective lives. I wrote the first three chapters at the tail end of this gloomy period, when my family had only just healed but many of the smiles we were obliged to show other people were grimaces. I was a very angry younger person. That shows, I think. The first two members of Ghani's family we see in the novella practically eviscerate themselves to preserve the status quo, then the third protagonist -- and the first female voice to appear in the book -- moves in, takes over and just about overwhelms the landscape into staying the same no matter what. That was how I felt then, that after my own father's proposed second marriage stampeded through my late teens, all we'd done is tamp down any blowholes and pretended it never happened. My father just shut that part of his life away, and my mother, like Grandmother Jah, erased all existence of this other woman. The rest of us tried to forget. It worked out emotionally, because even forgetting is one way of dealing with extraordinary situations. I don't know if it ever worked out mentally for me. I am not the kind of person who cannot try to resolve a problem. So even if my family has largely forgotten, I needed to figure out how the greater ramifications of what we experienced connect to other people.

I wrote the last two chapters of the book, incidentally the two longest chapters both in terms of writing and writing time, only after I married and moved to the United States. There was a long convalescence between Chapters III and IV. My dear husband encouraged me to write this book and complete it, as did the kindest friends I ever had and will continue to ever have, in particular [ profile] mokie, who has endured far too many rewrites of this work. Being married was an interesting experience for me. It continues to help me grow emotionally and intellectually. I am happy where I am in life right now, that itself is new and something I thought previously impossible. Thus, the closing chapters of it Finches are about that -- negotiating the past, in order to deal with the present, and the final closing of the shutters and locking up of the old homestead, whether its ghosts agree or not.

What finishing the book has taught me, most of all, is that my convictions when I was younger, my instincts to protect myself from my parents and the social environment that encouraged them to make their choices (and mine), were not wrong. I should stop feeling guilty about them, or even for them. My writing is still an essential part of my identity. It helped me work through crises before, and it constitutes an important part of my thinking process now. I am still an atheist, and I continue to be fascinated by religion. That polarity birthed Finches. and it continues to bring forth new, fun things for me to do with my brain. Irreligion helped me analyse the aforementioned social environment I grew up in, which stopped me from being overwhelmed by it. Evolution happens. It continues to happen, and nothing that people can imagine will bloody well stop it. It happens even though books say it doesn't, and it happens even as Wahhabism creeps and freezes one half of the world while newfound Jesus shambles into the other. It will still happen, mind you, even when that epic religious battle people say is going to take place actually does.

And now comes another interesting phase in my writing, which is getting out there and finding a home for this book. I'm less depressed over this prospect than I was last year, but I'm up for suggestions, if anyone knows a potential market for a novella of up to 40,000 words. I'm trying literary markets right now, but one man's cultural horror is another man's magical realism. All very exciting, I assure you.

Finches IV

Feb. 10th, 2010 11:36 pm
vampyrichamster: (Default)
The climactic scene in this piece came about because of a particular fascination I had with the idea that children were their mothers' shields from the flames of Hell according to a story related in the hadiths of Al-Bukhari and Muslim. Specifically, as narrated by Abu Said Al-Khudri:

Some women requested the Prophet to fix a day for them as the men were taking all his time. On that he promised them one day for religious lessons and commandments. Once during such a lesson the Prophet said, "A woman whose three children die will be shielded by them from the Hell fire." On that a woman asked, "If only two die?" He replied, "Even two (will shield her from the Hell-fire)."

It was a story I recall being related to me as part of my Islamic Studies classes as a child, as a means of establishing the lofty rank of mothers in Islam. This hadith was also a reflection on the high infant mortality rate of the early Islamic period. Children died in a matter of fact way of life, because life expentancies for that period were short, due to war, malnutrition, harsh weather and all the other things that hospitals and anaesthetics have dulled. Because life expectancies were much shorter, girls married younger, to take advantage of their fertile period for as long as possible. That trend persists in places where life is particularly hard even today. Another point of interest that hasn't seemed to change is that younger mothers (in their early teens), especially first time mothers, face much higher risks of infant mortality, or indeed, losing their own life during the birthing process. Given that being a mother was so inherrently dangerous (and still isn't entirely safe in the present day), it's no wonder mothers, the most effective means of propagating the Islamic faith outside of conversion by warfare, were given such importance in Muslim scripture.

It is also said that heaven lies under the mother's feet. Both the power of the mother and her capacity to shape the nature of her child's afterlife were what led me to develop Aishah's story as it occurred. I asked questions like, "What would the mother of a deeply deformed child do, when faced with the thing she birthed for the first time?" Wouldn't she more likely wish it dead than alive?

Another major factor in the story happened because my mother once asked why I couldn't write stories about traditional Malaysian spirits. I think she was hoping I'd write something commercially viable -- not... one of my redeeming traits. However, she did ask pretty specifically why I couldn't write a nice story about pontianak or toyol, both spirits related to women who die in childbirth and aborted infacts/victims of infanticide respectively. That put the idea in my head that I could probably slip in a toyol into Finches. I even knew which chapter I'd have it in. Toyol are often pictured as infant-sized spirits, looking pretty much like graying infant corpses with clouded eyes, and as luck would have it, I already had a character like that. The story about pontianak though, may take a while to manifest itself.

So, a lot of storytelling about mothers (and a demon baby) -- exactly what this chapter has written itself into.

Title: Strong Faith
Words: 6,033
Finished: 31/01/10
Time Since Inception: 4 years+
vampyrichamster: (Default)
So I was supposed to have finished this thing a month ago, complete with, you know, debugging. Then, of course, I showed it to a few nice friends, let's call them [ profile] scanner_darkly, [ profile] mokie and [ profile] countlibras, all awesome people I respect, because that's what you do when you have friends. Let's say your friends come back slightly puzzled at your ending, and maybe notice where you've been slightly lazy and made dialogue a bunch of talking heads. Let's just say the writer became slightly freaked out, because, one would've thought three months of debugging could've plugged up some holes, but no! One's story still haunts one's sleep, complete with terrible accusations that one will abandon it for other writings, because it's so horribly scarred.

What can a writer do under such circumstances, except emulsify together a new ending, and rewrite an entire possessed nun? And let's just say now, that nun, she's awfully possessed.

Thanks to the edits though, I've found a couple of new threads I can follow to restructure the rest of the novella. There's even a real chance I might be able to run with these threads and turn this into a novelette, double the intended word count and double the editing mayhem. Fun!

Title: Mothers & Wives
Words: 8,197
Finished: 01/10/07
Time Since Inception: 1 week since the last debug
vampyrichamster: (Default)
Now this was a pain to debug. It's the longest portion of the stories set in the world of Finches -- I predicted it'd be around 6,000 words when I first worked on it, but the last scene just wouldn't end. The piece was full of hard angles to work through, just way too many scenes where the action didn't quite glide along as it should, or the characters were uncertain on what they were about. Unlike the previous two chapters, the protagonist in this piece is a woman.

I often worry that whenever I write women, they come out as these sentimental headcases I'd end up disliking, had they been real. Inevitably, they do end up as such. The same is true for characters of both genders I write, but the women among them are the most annoying. I don't exactly know if disliking my characters means I've written them well -- I often highly doubt my claims to good writing because I'm also the same person who has to debug it. I have to hope the misanthropy kicked in because my characters were believable, which probably isn't the best way to go gauging the believability of one's characters, I don't think.

There's a Buddhist nun and an apparently Muslim bomoh wandering around in my story. I sincerely, utterly, totally, truly, very much hope I didn't get the former too off the mark. Wandering Buddhist nun exorcists are a subject I've only ever heard second hand. I had to willfully stop myself from going TVB Journey to the West with the character, or any other TVB drama for that matter. The only real wandering exorcist nun I'd heard about came from a late friend of the family, who'd hired one many years ago. The lady informed her that her home was full of the spirits of WWII Japanese soldiers. As I recall, Auntie Ad had quite the worst of it living there. Things grabbing her legs in the kitchen and the bathroom she'd have to stab away. Peculiar feelings of things watching her all the time. Male voices behind her back. I'd only been to her house a handful of times, at most. I remember they had a problem with red ants, as many houses between the sea and reclaimed palm oil estates would have. I had a nap on their living room carpet. When I woke up, I realized I'd slept right next to a trail of ants that went from one end of the living room, followed the perimeter of their carpet, and extended to the garden. The haunting of that house eventually became the template for the haunting in this story, though I never did see or feel any ghosts there.

I don't even want to think about how grievously long the word count for this story is either. Where am I ever going to find a place for it?

Title: Mothers & Wives
Words: 7,896
Finished: 09/09/07
Time Since Inception: 1 year, with debugging
vampyrichamster: (Default)
I learnt, while writing this, that my stamina as a writer is no longer what it was when I was 19. I don't even remember how I wrote 5,000 word chapters a night anymore. Staying up any longer than till 7AM already feels like I'm about to collapse, and that's only if I really make myself write the next sentence I see in my head instead of lie down. Staying up till three in the morning is my current average, over whenever dawn was when I was younger.

I wrote this out of notes I patched together from my trip to Bangkok over June. Did you know the smell of city rain is musty? I think it's the bits of oil, sewerage and smoke that make it into the air in cities. I tend to prefer watching the rain behind glass than I do being outside in the middle of it. But I really like monsoons. The sequence for this story turned out quite differently from how I planned it too. It's a little more compact, which I think is a good thing. I had wanted it to be a kind of Dark Water meets a very different sort of A Foreigner's View of the River. It's still like A Foreigner's View of the River, but less vague (I hope).

Stuff that didn't make it in: There was this wrecking site next to our apartment, for example, I wanted to use for sound effects. From dawn till dusk, there were the sounds of a motel getting demolished. The pounding the wrecking ball made breaking walls was a special kind of distracting sound. The workers stayed on site, in these plywood huts built next to the wreckage. There was a mutual clothesline and women, but I was never able to catch lights on in the huts at night. It's probably a good thing I didn't go the Japanese horror movie route...

Title: Into the Monsoon
Word Count: 5,006
Finished: 22/07/07
Time Since Inception: 1 month
vampyrichamster: (Default)
I suppose, if there ever was a story to accuse me of literary fiction for, it's this one. Not Finches -- it is a horror story, even if it does get buried under the rubble of being awfully quiet. A Foreigner's View pretends to be nothing. I don't know how I want to define it. It's a slow simmer, moving quietly downriver with the occasional corpse. It is hopelessly mild. It would be surreal, if anything about it was really solid, rather than vapid. I'm hoping a bit of psychological trouble and the feeling of stagnant air will miraculously carry this story into the arms of some mild-mannered editor person who might just like it.

I am entirely hopeful, you see.

Title: A Foreigner's View of the River
Word count: 6,668 words
Time since inception: 5 years
vampyrichamster: (Default)
Worked on editing the original Finches tonight. I didn't originally write this as part of a series. The stories that came after it, Rahim (Finches II), and the as yet incomplete Finches III and IV, have ended up being framed in more of the correct sequence than the original. I've deleted the original dream sequences that started the frame -- I think they're trying too hard. This meant I had to reorganize the Darwin and Quranic quotes that made up the rest of the frame to accommodate the three missing segments. I rather like the quotes that have taken their place. There's a particular quote I like, from Surah Al Isra, Ayat 31. I'd tell you what it is, but that would have serious ramifications for just about everything.

I've been waiting to hear about Finches from IGMS for 5 about months now. I did send them a query a couple of days ago, but it doesn't look like anyone's answering. So I'm taking the initiative to send it to Holy Horrors, a publication I do want to try with the story. With my luck, I'll suddenly get my reject from IGMS two weeks later or rather like that.

Title: Finches
Word Count: 4,573
Finished: 02/11/2006
Time Since Inception: 12 months
vampyrichamster: (Default)
I like the sound of the word calamansi. It sounds like calamity. Calamity juice. Nice vibe to it.

Wrote this as a set of notes on the back of bus tickets. I'd intended for it to be a much longer work, but it didn't turn out that way. I do want to compile something, a chapbook maybe, of poetry or flash fiction written on the back of receipts, at some point. It'd be a cool little project to manage. Calamansi Juice comes from a much older story I had lying around about grief. If I died, would my mother grieve the way I think she would? The thing about people is that they're always moving on. People die. Big whoop. They move on. Life should keep being that way, since it's not broken and doesn't have to be fixed. Somewhere along the line, I had these notes on the back of bus tickets about the people I'd see waiting at bus stops on the way home from the city, and I put them together to make a journey. The result is a bit of an art movie, it'd probably be interesting to see what would happen if I eventually compiled this as a script. The downside is that it is a bit of an art movie (read: a teacup tragedy -- the tragedy of all hamster stories is that they are inevitably teacup tragedies), and it'd probably horrify the poor souls who'd find this at the bottom of their slush at 2AM with the lack of things that happen. Oh, no!

Fantasy got first dibs. I swore I'd try to get something in there again, and hopefully I didn't miss their most recent cut-off date or something dreadful like that. Because I'm dreadful with deadlines, we know this.

Next: it's either Finches III: Prisoners of Afi-chan, or that 'wet panties' story [ profile] jack_yoniga said I should write, just to defy his pet phalluses.

Title: Calamansi Juice
Word Count: 2,256
Finished: 15/08/2006
Time Since Inception: 4 months


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