Award-winning writers explore Filipino representation in fantasy and science fiction

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Writers Michi Trota — also the managing editor of Uncanny Magazine — and Alyssa Wong are the first Filipinos to be internationally recognized through the Hugo and Nebula Awards, respectively. They talk about the importance of representing less visible identities, and how they started telling stories. Photos from UNCANNY/WEBSITE

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Filipinos are not strangers to fantasy and science fiction, as we have a long list of talented writers like Dean Francis Alfar, Kristine Ong Muslim, and Yvette Tan. And while we have various writers published both locally and abroad, one act of international recognition that has eluded our writers is winning one of the major genre awards — until now.

The three most recognizable awards in fantasy and science fiction are the Hugo Awards (voted for by fans), the Nebula Awards (voted for by members of the Science Fiction Writers of America), and the World Fantasy Awards (judged by a jury). This year, Michi Trota and Alyssa Wong have won two out of the three, with Wong in contention for being the first Filipino to win the World Fantasy Award in October.

Trota is the managing editor of Uncanny: A Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, which won the Hugo Award for Best Semiprozine, making her the first Filipino — or Filipinix as she prefers it, to be gender neutral and inclusive when referring to general populations — to win the said award. This is her third year managing the magazine, in addition to pursuing other fan-related work which includes acting as fire performer for the Raks Geek performance troupe, lead organizer and communications manager for the Chicago Full Moons Jams, a member of the Chicago Nerd Social Club, and contributing to various publications and panels.

Wong’s “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” won the Nebula Awards for Best Short Story last May and is the first Filipino to have done so. The same story would be a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Awards and the World Fantasy Award. Wong is a relatively new writer, as her first professionally-published fiction was “The Fisher Queen,” published in the May/June 2014 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and would later be a finalist in the 2014 Nebula Awards.

Wong grew up in the US, but was always conscious of her Filipino heritage and identified as such. She was always a storyteller, crafting stories to entertain her relatives and siblings, but what cemented her dedication to the craft was graduating from the 2013 Clarion Writers' Workshop. She is also the first Filipino to be a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

CNN Philippines Life talks to Trota and Wong  about their writing inspirations, their community in the US, and the importance of representing less visible identities.

uncanny 11.jpg Uncanny Magazine currently has 12 issues in its slate. Trota says that the magazine "celebrates the vast variety of perspectives and ideas from every conceivable background about what science fiction and fantasy can be." Photo from UNCANNY/FACEBOOK  

Congratulations on both of your wins. Michi, can you describe what exactly it is you do at Uncanny, and elaborate on how the magazine is open to submissions from Filipino contributors and other diverse voices? Alyssa, can talk about when you realized you wanted to be a writer?

Michi: I’m the managing editor of Uncanny. I do a little bit of everything, but the bulk of my responsibilities is producing the magazine, including copyediting and proofreading, layout of the PDF and input into the website, and cover design. Along with the editors-in-chief, Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, I’m very involved in working with the nonfiction writers and topics we publish in Uncanny as well. I love fiction and poetry, but nonfiction is my specialty as a writer, so I’m thrilled to be able to lend my perspective to shaping the nonfiction content in Uncanny.

Uncanny celebrates the vast variety of perspectives and ideas from every conceivable background about what SF/F can be, which includes being open to and inviting writers worldwide to submit their work to the magazine. There is a vibrant, passionate community of Filipinx writers — which I was in part introduced to because of Uncanny, and meeting wonderful writers like Isabel Yap and Alyssa Wong, and getting to know you, Charles. Visibility is extremely important in creating an atmosphere where one can find themselves and their stories acknowledged and included. I hope that by seeing how Uncanny has published a diverse range of creators and artists, including Filipinx writers such as Alyssa, Isabel, and M. Sereno, and with a Filipina as managing editor on staff, more Filipinx writers will give Uncanny a try and share their work with us.

Alyssa: I’ve always known that I wanted to be a writer, but I never thought that I would be able to actually do it. It wasn’t until I attended the Clarion Writer’s Workshop in 2013 that I had teachers who encouraged me to embrace my voice, and the stories I wanted to tell, instead of trying to hide my voice and write “safe” stories.

It’s my undersanding that you were both raised in the US. At what point were you aware of your Filipino heritage and what made you seek it?

Michi: Both my parents immigrated from the Philippines — my mother was from Quezon City, and my father was from Zamboanga. They met in Chicago, and I was born and raised in a quiet western suburb of the city. There was no Filipinx community in my neighborhood or at school, and not much of an Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. Although I was lucky to come from a family with strong economic resources, the communities I belonged to were heavily white American, and we didn’t see many of our relatives often as they either lived on opposite coasts or in the Philippines. While both my parents were very proud of our Filipinx heritage, they felt it was very important for me and my brother to be assimilated into US culture. Aside from cooking, I grew up with very little connection to what it meant to be Filipinx.

My involvement with fandom and social justice — which very often overlap — is what actually allowed me to feel comfortable enough to reconnect with my Filipinx roots. I literally had no idea there was such an active Filipinx fan & creator community worldwide, and it was like finding a home I didn’t realize I’d missed. Seeing work by people like Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Alyssa, Isabel, and so many others made me feel that not only was it okay to embrace my heritage and be a part of genre, but that it was okay to celebrate that heritage and have it be reflected in my work.

Alyssa: I grew up in the desert, with very little Filipino community. My mother is Filipina, and I’ve always been aware of her side of my heritage — mostly through food and stories she would tell us — but I wasn’t able to visit Manila until I was in my 20s. That was when I met most of my mother’s family for the first time, and that was when I got to see, with my own eyes, where she had grown up and what her own influences were. I wanted to know more. I wanted to know everything.

How does this awareness affect your fandoms, your work, and your identity?

Michi: I am far more comfortable now talking about what it means to me to be Filipino and American, and understand it was a false choice in the first place that I had to be one or the other. It’s helped make me more aware of nuances in discussions about representation, and noting how AAPI people are not a monolith and the intersectional issues within representation for AAPI people in SF/F and geek culture, as well as the larger world. I’m very aware of the need for better visibility for marginalized characters and creators in fandom, because I know from experience how empowering and inspiring it can be to see yourself reflected as part of — not an accessory or curiosity and most definitely not just a sidekick — in the genre you love. And I’m more aware of how my own biases, experiences, and baggage can influence how I respond to the stories I read.

Fandom has given me another avenue besides food to explore what my identity means to me, and how I fit into the world. I love SF/F, and I love cooking, and it’s been a way for me to feel closer to my parents — whom I lost at a very young age — because both of them loved SF/F very deeply. It’s also unlocked avenues of exploration for my own writing, both for nonfiction or personal essay and fiction, because I feel less obligated to write what’s expected of me or what “is more likely to sell” and more confident in telling my own stories in a way that makes sense to me.

Alyssa: I try, very intentionally, to focus on characters with Asian American backgrounds. I am a mixed race individual (“hapa,” as my dad’s side of the family says), and it is very important to me that I don’t forget that my heritage is rich and varied. I have a lot of material to draw from, from my mother’s family’s ghost stories to my father’s multi-generational Chinese-American family history.

Since I didn’t see characters who looked and felt like me when I was growing up, I write about them now. I want people to be able to pick up a story and see themselves: a Filipino character, a Chinese character, a Chinese and Filipino-American character. Even though my work is speculative fiction, I try to focus on real history and real issues, and then weave those threads into the story. I want my stories to ring true with people’s experiences, and although I can’t tell stories about every experience, I try to write about my own and my friends’, so that people from our backgrounds can see themselves reflected there as well.

Alyssa Wong - photo credit Navah Wolfe.jpeg Alyssa Wong’s “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” won the Nebula Awards for Best Short Story last May and is the first Filipino to have done so. She says she had always known that she wanted to be a writer, but never thought that she would actually be able to do it until she attended the Clarion Writer’s Workshop in 2013. Photo by NAVAH WOLFE  

Were there any challenges you encountered in the fantasy and science fiction field?

Michi: In many ways, SF/F has been a refuge for me, but like any community, it can also be insular and difficult to “break in” as a professional, particularly if you are not “a known name.” That, coupled with the discouraging pushback I’ve seen against the need for better representation and inclusion of marginalized voices in SF/F, as well as the ongoing fights about the need for better anti-harassment policies, can create a lot of barriers to entry, both in a systemic sense, and on an individual level. I remain boggled by the notion that reading more diversely and making concentrated efforts to be more inclusive somehow means sacrificing “quality” as if those ideas are mutually exclusive. They’re not, and in fact SF/F has become more vibrant and alive because of these efforts at increasing access, support, and visibility for diverse creators and stories. I’m very, very fortunate to have met people willing to both hold the doors open for me and extend opportunities to me in SF/F, because the friendships and professional connections I’ve gained from those actions have been life-changing; this should be the norm for the SF/F community, but it’s often frustratingly slow and halting in changing.

Alyssa: One of the strangest things that I’ve had to deal with while working in science fiction and fantasy is complete strangers writing angry blog posts about me. Not about my work — about me as a person. As Michi might also tell you, there has been a fairly recent pushback against diverse stories in science fiction and fantasy from a group of reactionary, angry, conservative folks who are afraid that their own stories are being pushed out of the field. Watching their movement and realizing that people hate you because of what you stand for, rather than who really are, has been very sobering. And watching the damage that they’ve done, and tried to do to the Hugo Awards has made me realize that sometimes people will destroy the things they love out of sheer pettiness, and that makes me very sad.

How did you first get into fantasy and science fiction? What kind of books and stories interest you?

Michi: I often joke I was doomed before birth to be a nerd because both my parents were huge SF/F fans. “The Hobbit” was one of the first books my mother ever read to me. My tatay would let me stay up far past my bedtime to watch “Doctor Who” with him, and would bring movies like “Star Wars” and "The Dark Crystal” home from the video store the day they were available. I often wish they were still here because they’d have been overjoyed with the richness of SF/F literature, movies, TV, games, all of it.

I still have a soft spot for superheroes (Batman’s still one of my favorites) and epic adventure stories. I’m an admitted MCU fan (just don’t ask me about “Doctor Strange” and “Iron Fist” unless you’re ready to hear a very long rant about whitewashing and how Marvel should be doing better). But I’m most deeply interested in stories that are character driven, with intricate and sweeping narratives, and rich, complex world-building. I’m not a fan of stories that fridge women for the sake of male narratives. N. K. Jemisin’s, Ken Liu’s, and Ann Leckie’s works always come to mind as an examples of what excites me about SF/F now.

Alyssa: I think that Christianity, from Catholicism to Evangelical Protestantism, has a very strong, rich mythos and belief in the supernatural. I grew up in a Christian community, so that was a good base for looking for the strange and miraculous in everyday life. The Bible is full of murder, fiery apparitions, tales of seeking freedom and justice, and incredible things happening. How could that not be fascinating?

My dad’s side of the family also really likes science fiction and fantasy, so I got the chance to read all kinds of books while I was growing up. My parents encouraged me to read, so I spent most of my time tearing my way through science fiction and fantasy books, from young adult books to more adult-oriented fiction.

For Michi, what kind of stories does Uncanny look for? For Alyssa, what stories do you want to write about or focus on?

Michi: I always say that the best way to understand what stories we’re looking for is to read the stories on Uncanny’s website — It’s free to do so! This is true for any publication you want to submit work to — read what they’ve published previously, and you’ll get a good sense of what the editors are likely to be interested in. But generally what we’re looking for is a passionate voice, narratives that take chances, and stories that just make you feel. Our submissions are currently open for short fiction, so please send us your work!

Alyssa: I love complicated family stories. I tend to write about characters who struggle and/or are afraid of who and what they are: characters who are strange and different from the people around them. Since I write science fiction, fantasy, and horror, this otherness is often physicalized; for example, the protagonist in “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” is a young woman who survives by eating people’s evil thoughts, transforming into them for a few moments as she digests them. She struggles to keep it a secret from the people she loves, both out of a sense of shame and a desire to protect them, and ends up pushing them away.

I also love protagonists with a grey sense of morality. I think it’s a fun and interesting challenge to try to convince an audience to like and sympathize with someone who either has done terrible things, or doesn’t think that they’re a good person, but accepts it. I think you can delve into much more complicated characters and issues this way.

Michi Trota - photo credit Patricia Wilson - Photographicstage.com.jpg Michi Trota believes in the importance of representing marginalized identities, especially those who are Filipino, and making them more visible. "Visibility is extremely important in creating an atmosphere where one can find themselves and their stories acknowledged and included," she says. Photo by PATRICIA WILSON/PHOTOGRAPHICSTAGE  

How does it feel to be the first Filipino representatives to win these awards?

Michi: I don’t know if it’s sunk in yet! I think I’m still convinced I’m going to come home one day to find I’d dreamed the whole thing, but there it still is, that shiny silver rocket with my name on it. I find it very hard to believe that it’s 2016 and I’m the first Filipina to be a Hugo finalist, and to have won in the same year — there are so many amazing Filipinx creators! I’m very humbled to represent Filipinx fans and creators in the Hugo Awards, and it’s an immense responsibility that continually inspires me to do my absolute best, and to do what I can to widen the doors and make SF/F even more inviting and supportive for everyone, especially those who, like me, haven’t always felt at home. Because I’m proud to be the first, but I damn well should not be the only Filipina with a Hugo. There can be more than one!

And I’m absolutely over the moon that I get to share these honors with Alyssa in the same year!

Alyssa: It’s wild! It feels unreal, honestly. It’s a very strange feeling to realize that you’re standing for a group of people, not just yourself. And a few years ago, I was just a kid who never thought other people would read my stories. I never dreamed of winning a Nebula Award, or making history, but here we are; I feel a lot of pressure, but I also feel very honored to be the first Filipina to win this award. I may be the first, but my dream is that many, many more Filipinos will continue to win Nebulas, Hugos, and be recognized for their contributions in fantasy and science fiction.

In your speeches, you mention your Filipino heritage. Why do you think it’s important for this be vocalized and acknowledged?

Michi: For the longest time, I assumed there weren’t many Filipinx creating SF/F because I didn’t see them — the faces we see of what’s available in the US genre are still overwhelmingly white — and how wrong was I about that? Visibility is a huge issue, because it’s that much more discouraging to be a part of SF/F if finding reflections of people and experiences like yours is like hunting for a needle in a field of haystacks. It’s tiring and it makes you wonder if it’s worth the effort if you’re going to be alone. I’m a writer, but I’m also an editor, and it’s just as important to see diverse faces among those who are responsible for opening the gates to the genre, as it is among those who are creating in the field.

Alyssa: For a long time, the face of American science fiction and fantasy was overwhelmingly white. Honestly, it still is. When I was growing up, my Asian friends and I had a lot of misconceptions about what you had to write about — and who you had to write about — in order to get published. We thought that no one wanted to hear our stories. I don’t want anyone else to believe that, because it’s not true. There are so many of us working in science fiction and fantasy, and for me, being visible and open about my heritage is important because it forces the spotlight to focus on us. If we are visible, no one can claim that we aren’t here.

What’s next for you?

Michi: Sleep! Also getting to work on Uncanny Year Three — we have an amazing line up of contributing writers (including both Alyssa and Isabel, as well as Cecilia Tan) and I’m eager to get started. And since we hit this stretch goal in our Kickstarter, for Year Three I will also be writing a regular column on Uncanny’s blog! I’m super excited to be on a panel at the Adler Planetarium’s Star Trek event in Chicago next month, where we’ll be talking about the show’s cultural legacy. I’m also hoping to do more essay/nonfiction writing, dipping my toes back into fiction, and making more time for fire spinning — Raks Geek has a show coming up in November. There are some other projects I’m thinking about, but I only have so much time and alas, I have no TARDIS. For anyone interested in my work, you can check out my website, www.geekmelange.com, and follow me on Twitter @geekmelange.

Alyssa: I’m writing a novel! Don’t tell anyone! All joking aside, I’m finishing up graduate school at North Carolina State University this year, and I have several short fiction — and longer fiction — projects lined up to keep me busy. I’m writing a novelette about parasitic angels and desert scavengers, a novella about maimed former pop idols and the past lives they can’t let go of, and several dark science fiction short stories. I’m also working on a piece for Uncanny Magazine, where Michi works!If you want to read any of the stories I have out now, there are links up on my site!