Grasping for the Wind

Thumb UpEarlier this week, I got a very nice surprise: John Ottinger III reviewed Red Dot Irreal for Grasping for the Wind. It’s an overwhelmingly positive review, an absolute love letter, and it truly made my day. I’ve been publishing for almost ten years now, and although I’ve tried to build up a thick skin against criticism, it’s always extremely flattering and ego-boosting to see someone enjoy your work so much. This is the first actual review of the book I’ve seen; I was actually starting to wonder if it would get reviewed, despite all the copies I sent out.

However, that said, there are a few things that need to be clarified or corrected here.

1) “Lundberg is currently a professor of English”: I wish this were the case, but it’s not. I was an adjunct professor for SMU back in 2007 (which is where I got much of the material for “Dragging the Frame,” although that story is highly fictionalized), but that was only for one semester. After that, I taught at Hwa Chong Institution (High School Section) for four years as an English teacher. Now I’m not even doing that. The only teaching I’m doing at the moment is conducting writing workshops for BooksActually, and mentoring two young prose writers for the Ceriph Mentorship Programme.

2) “All set in the exotic ‘red dot’ nation of Singapore”: I really did try very hard when constructing these stories not to “exoticize” Singapore, or to paint an unrealistically rosy picture of the country. Instead, my aim was to show life as lived by the people here, whether local or expatriate, in a believable yet fantastical milieu. I might be accused of an overt mysticism in “Kopi Luwak,” which takes place on Bali (the only story in the book not set in Singapore), but this was done for a reason as well, to show how the asshole protagonist has exoticized that tiny island in order to take what he wants from it.

3) “Married to a native of that island nation and father of a biracial child”: This quote was brought to my attention by Lavie Tidhar on Twitter, and while it’s technically true, the wording is a bit problematic. “Native” has colonial Othering connotations, and was often used by the British (and others) to justify the theft and destruction of the property, land, resources, and people they wanted to “civilize.” “Local” is a slightly more neutral word, and would have been more accurate, although Janet is also quite international; she’s traveled all over the world, and went to university for three years (iirc) in the USA. Replacing “native of that island nation” with “Singaporean artist and writer” would have been better, but eliding this fact altogether probably would have been best, as it’s a bit distracting and not really relevant to the rest of the review.

4) “A tale of pirates (known as bogeymen in the local parlance)”: Actually, that’s not quite right. The etymology of the word “bogeyman” comes directly from the Bugis, a seafaring Indonesian ethnic group who were largely fishermen and farmers for centuries. Some of them were also pirates, and they were known to be particularly fearsome throughout the seas of Southeast Asia. Not all the Bugis were pirates, and not all SEA pirates were Bugis. But it was because they were so scary and efficient that they were transformed into mythological monsters by the British sailors who survived encounters with them. Oh, and “Bogeymen” would technically be clockpunk rather than steampunk; in the mid-1800s, steam-powered devices were not yet evident in Southeast Asia, and they’re not in the story.

5) “Oriental history”: Again, some problematic language. “Orientalism” was mostly used to Other the cultures of the Middle East, but this extended to the “Far East” as well, and was almost always used as a term of derogatory contrast to Western culture; the brilliant Edward Said wrote a whole book on this subject. See “native” above.

6) “‘Lion City Daikaiju’ is a flash fiction that is a metaphor for Singapore’s search for a place in the global culture”: Sort of. It’s more of a diatribe against shallow consumerism, materialism, advertising, pandering to tourists, brainless entertainment, and the destruction of history in the relentless pursuit of progress. But mostly I just wanted to write Godzilla story set in Singapore.

Anyway, John could not have known most of this stuff, and I still greatly appreciate him reviewing the book. These are small details, but I hope I’ve clarified them better here.

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6 Comments

Filed under Red Dot Irreal, Reviewing

6 responses to “Grasping for the Wind

  1. Jason,
    Thank you for the clarifications. As you said, I didn’t or couldn’t know most of this stuff. For instance, I was not aware of the nuances of the difference between clockpunk and steampunk – I tend to lump them together. I chalk it up to being too lazy to track the many SF subgenres proliferating these days.

    As to the “Othering” of some of my language, I have to admit to some intentionality with that. It is was not to denigrate the differences, but rather to highlight them. I have actually read portions of Said’s book, but what portions I read did not make clear that “Oriental” or “exotic” was derogatory. I used the words more to make clear the setting of your collection to those American and British readers (who are my prime constituency). Too, part of the reason to use “Oriental” was to evoke the mystical (yes, even stereotypical) Western ideas of the East. This is a trope you upend, mess with, and play with I think, and I wanted readers to enter your collection reminded of, but ready to be challenged in their Western idealization and stereotypes of Asia.

    As to “native” – sorry to offend. I did not know that it was used in such ways in imperalism. I’m not well versed in Western imperial history. When I used native – I was thinking of the way I would say Native American as a term of respect rather than using the much more derogatory misnomer “Indian.” It just goes to show how languages nuances are important, and being unaware of a culture’s history (as I am vastly unaware of Singapore’s) can offend if you are not careful.

    Sorry for the errors, I’d be happy to correct, rework the review to be less offensive and correct in terms of your work, if you like. Accuracy is important to me, and getting it wrong hurts and annoys.

    • Hi John!

      Thanks so much for your responses here; I’m glad for the chance to have a discussion about some of these issues. I really hope I wasn’t too harsh, and honestly wasn’t taking you to task, although it probably reads like it. Sorry about that. I really was incredibly flattered by your review. But as you say, how we use words is important.

      The clockpunk/steampunk difference is a minor semantic one, and really only matters to anal retentive freaks like me. There certainly are too many “-punks” to keep track of nowadays. It’s true that “Bogeyman” takes place during the Victorian era, and that the prosthetic legs in the story have a very steampunkish vibe to them. So I’m perfectly fine with labeling the story as steampunk.

      The Othering nature of words like “Oriental” and “exotic” has a very long history, but because much of the issue stems from British colonialism, many Americans aren’t even aware of it. The words enter the common parlance and don’t seem to have a negative connotation except for those who study post-colonial history and literature. But at the same time, the issues do exist. And I say this fully aware that I am a privileged white male Westerner who is not, and never will be, personally affected by this use of colonizing language; however, my wife and daughter, and my wife’s family, and all the amazing friends and colleagues I’ve made in Singapore would be. I certainly don’t presume to speak for them, but I do need to remind myself to be aware of issues like this that might adversely affect them.

      And as to “native,” again, it’s a word that has lots of connotations, including more neutral ones, like Native Americans (although some prefer “American Indians” or “First Nations” instead; it’s complicated here too). I certainly wasn’t offended by the word, but after living in Singapore for nearly five years, a country that prides itself on its colonial and post-colonial history, I’ve become much more aware of how terms like “native” were once used by the Empire to justify pillaging and subjugation.

      So please, don’t feel as if you have to rewrite your review because of these lingual issues. It might be helpful for the review to link to your subsequent post that points back to this one, for the purposes of discussion, but I certainly don’t want to tell you how to review my book. Especially not since the vast majority of it is so wonderfully kind toward Red Dot Irreal.

  2. Pingback: Jason Erik Lundberg Takes Me to Task for My Imperialism – Grasping for the Wind

  3. uncurl

    Appreciate your thoughtful clarifications, especially as someone who works too closely with postcolonial theory – words like ‘orientalism’, ‘oriental’, and ‘native’ are definitely loaded and need to be used with a lot of care and awareness of its history and connotations, lest it diminishes the credibility of the reviewer. Given the increasing shunning of attempts at exoticisation in fiction and travel-writing, these points are all the more timely. Thanks Jason.

    • You’re quite welcome, Wei Fen. I’m just glad I was able to approach this in an accurate manner; I only have amateur passing knowledge of postcolonial theory, so I didn’t want to step on any toes, or make out as if I was speaking for other people.

  4. Pingback: Putting the Toxic in Exotic | Jason Erik Lundberg

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