speculative prose

An Interview with Xue Xihe

We’re celebrating the launch of Issue 19 by talking to our authors about what makes “Voyages” — and stories.

mazeLackington’s: “Enchiridion of the Soltite” is written in the style of an educational pamphlet published in your fictional world. When fiction mimics the form of nonfiction, do you think it’s important to ensure that readers know it is fiction? Why did you choose this format for this story? Are you interested in stories that blur those lines yourself?

XX: What one considers fiction or nonfiction can vary. I am not concerned by the distinction between fiction and nonfiction as modes of literature, only if and how they portray truth. Nonfiction is frequently more untruthful than fiction. We see it all the time with falsehoods distributed by pseudoscientists, anti-vaxxers, pyramid schemers, conspiracy theorists, historical negationists, hagiographers, corrupt politicians, hack journalists, terrorists, and—unfortunately—so on. On the other hand, much of the fiction I read is true. That is, either consistent with whatever’s possible in its own reality or ours. Fiction that is faked is fiction I want nothing to do with. And it does a disservice. When an individual may be harmed by an untruth, whether in fiction or nonfiction, we need to affirm what is right. So, for example: fictionalized biographies need to be introduced and read with great discretion (if at all), but I am all for fictional biographies. I am also glad I was able to attend dragonology lessons as a kid, with The Dragonology Handbook: A Practical Guide to Dragons as my textbook, paid for the entire class out of pocket by the teacher, a true heroine.

“Enchiridion of the Soltite” is, shall we say, a hybrid of fiction and nonfiction, created to accompany the Adventurer, whether a Soltite or Friend thereof, whatever their journey. The general practical advice therein applies to travelling on earth, too; though, spidersilk is pretty hard to find around here. Moreover, the instructions are all fully functional. However, the electuary is not recommended for use on our world, even if it would, in most cases, be better than nothing, in a pinch—here countless modern, sterile antiseptics, styptics, and dressings must be used whenever possible. The first aid for jellyfish stings does come recommended. So, keep some vinegar and tweezers with you if you’re snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef (which you should do as soon as possible, if you were ever planning on seeing it; it won’t be here for much longer), or any Aussie beach, really. And the instructions for a game of mazes took a long time to write, so that they worked and Readers could make and play one according to the “Enchiridion” if they so chose. At the same time, these and other fixtures of nonfiction, when placed into the context of a narrative, can take on new meaning. I was interested in exploring narrative/story as the act of reading, the act of reading as travel, and travel as writing. Structure married to storytelling thrills me! One can play around with the form, too, and place the section on physick right before the one for burial rites. It can be read and reread according to need and desire, linearly or nonlinearly, as well; yet another thing that is cool about a text that doubles as an applied resource (compiling other resources within it) is that each section can be self-contained while also relating to every other section, to make a world in which you can find a story.

Lackington’s statement that it is “where prose itself speculates” is near and dear to my heart. Prose is essential to our existence, but some of its many forms remain invisible through the mundane. Those with origins in nonfiction, when applied diegetically to fiction, and especially the literature of the fantastic, call attention to themselves, often to wonderful effect. Some interesting forms of nonfictional literature have been worked into fiction, such as the ethnography in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, and (three!) self-described lexicons in Milorad Pavić’s The Dictionary of the Khazars, though the book really reads, in translation, anyway, more like an elliptical, surreal encyclopedia. The handbook has been used equally rarely (that is, a handful of times—from what I gathered from my Google searches, anyway—and I think exclusively as longer satire—I don’t remember any attempting a narrative, either). And I don’t think I have seen a fictional pamphlet before, given that it is the chapbook that would be its domain. An enchiridion, which can be a combination of the two forms aforementioned, no doubt features even more rarely on the list of fictional nonfiction. Hence, it was super exciting to work with one. (I’d love to be notified of any other work that suits this description. So, if you know of or make any yourself, please contact me; I’d love to experience it!) There are other forms of prose I feel are neglected in creative work, too, such as the prayer, the speech, the instruction—all of which made it diegetically into the story as epigraphs. Of course, I also relish textures and layers and interplay in language, in the shaping of it, how prose can story its starting, turning, arriving. The transports of the sentence and sections were and are key to exploring the dimensions of the enchiridion.

The format was decided almost immediately after the initial idea. The pamphlet-handbook is capable of inviting so much intimacy, and delivering direct compassion—perfect for a story about a god of travel. And I wanted a form that would be true to faring and facilitate Readers becoming active participants in this story, characters themselves, free to form their own relationships with Solt and Poyna and the narrator(s) and the world and the words. And allow a while to do something nice for themselves. My hope is that the Reader on a voyage, with some time left before their arrival, can share with the stranger beside them this peculiar story. Maybe after much confabulation the new friends could then navigate a game of mazes together.

So, yes, there is an especial interest on my part in this kind of work—as a bibliophile, besides, I am particularly enamoured with books that are worlds. I have planned to do more work informed by that and the history and present and prospects of prose forms: a manual on summoners’ housewarmings; a catalogue of/companion to a museum; a libretto for a space opera; a chrestomathy, though I don’t know what about yet; perhaps an invented nonfictional mode from another distant world. I want to write it all!

Lackington’s: The land of Yon has many fascinating customs and features. In the course of the story, we learn about travelling temples, games of mazes, methods for whistling, the endemic animals, and much more. Were there sources or experiences from your personal history, the wider world, or other fictional worlds that helped inspire some of these fantastic images?

XX: Since I created this world, and wanted to make it my own, it is as much of me as my heart is. I home it in my heart. I belong here. So, of course, the places I’ve been and all I’ve lived have grown the place. Inspiration can emerge from the mind unannounced; great floating islands of wonder, they are. Elements from both experience and imagination may merge and/or metamorphose over thousands of nights and days of dreaming and living. Some remain familiar. Others are deliberately applied. It is also the lack of things I want to find in fiction that motivates me to write (in this case, one of the things I sought to create specifically was a world in which cross-cultural communication and integration have been the norm for much of history, and this mindset has influenced many of the images. I sadly see this environment in works set in other worlds)—there is a long, long list (feel free to ask me for it!). And I resolve to write out of love, so there’ll be things in my work that directly come out of my passion for them in my personal life. Thus, owos are not so distantly related to Australian megafauna of the Pleistocene!

I’ve gotten into board games in the last three years or so, and my S.O. is responsible for much of my affection for them. A game of mazes was designed to be a portable board game that is easy to learn but also customize and complicate. You can find a number of board games that involve tiling paths. I can think of a few off the top of my head: Carcassonne; Labyrinth; Tsuro. However, all of those I listed, as are most board games, are competitive, not cooperative. I can be very competitive when it comes to board games (at least when it comes to those played with my S.O.), as I have gotten used to winning them. I can’t help it! There aren’t that many cooperative games out there. I wish there were more. I love them and love playing them with friends, new, old, or future. So I made one (and you can, too)! It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while now. There is nothing like making something yourself, whether that’s a story or a dress or a leaf boat. It’s up to you how involved you get; you have that freedom and power. And the resourcefulness you exercise in making things is important. It helps our planet.

It is a beautiful planet, strange and surprising. Of course, travelling across it has inspired much of my work, and especially this story; it can be and often is a transcendent experience to be where you have never been before. So much diversity yet so much similarity flourishes among us all. Fantasy needs to evoke, for me, something of passing apsaras almost two hundred metres above the ground in the rock fortress of Sigiriya, waking among snow-capped cabins deep in the Alps, the hint of a trail into the woods beside the castle you just slept in, placing the thousands of stories of the Long Corridor, your eyes hovering over a dream of limestone mountains, gasping with wonder in a Jeep a metre away from a wild elephant. In between these marvellous moments of my travels were the equally magical meetings with many people dear to me, people who have freely given me so much love and happiness. I have sorrowed also, sometimes to hear their stories, and always to depart. I had to write about it, out of gratitude, out of love for the beauty they bring to the world.

I told Ranylt and Matt in my cover letter for my submission that I was prompted to write “Enchiridion” when I was travelling, on a long bus ride from Ipoh to Penang that went much smoother than one from Singapore to Malacca, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if a god of travel were looking out for us today?” My next question was: Who are the gods of travel? At the time I realized I didn’t know of any myself who were explicitly. So I went looking in my mind and acquainted myself with Solt, and later Poyna, who complements him—oh, I plan to write a story or two about her. I have a fondness for gods of really specific things, and how followers of them create beautiful, intricate languages of signification out of their domains and paraphernalia; mazes and serendipity stood out as purviews relating to travel—such a god seemed very strange and his characteristics, upon examination, synergized so well it must have been what he was about. But many gods are cruel, self-contradictory, uncaring. Solt is none of those things. So he is all-loving, but not necessarily all-powerful. I would be happy to worship Solt’s kind of god, kind to all whether they believed in him or not. He does his best for others, no matter that his favours may not be returned. Isn’t such a power a pleasant thought? And something we can all do to put into practice. When we went out to celebrate my acceptance for “Enchiridion,” one of our favourite dessert places was offering free ice creams. Sweet serendipity, indeed.

All of these elements of intent and inspiration and whatnot dovetailed into the other customs, features, and images in the story, which I tried to develop organically from who Solt and his followers are, from the clay of a world I did my best to equip with compassion. There was also a lot of pure magic involved! So, that process is where—to use another image from your list—the travelling temples and mandates thereof came into being. It often happens like that for me. You transport yourself into Yon, and are at once sure that it is natural the Soltites would have such temples. Of course they shelter whomever asks, so long as no harm is done. Of course they are comfortably outfitted. Before stepping in, where do you string your shoes but the eaves? And there it is, the Great Temple of Ime, scudding between the skies and seas of your mind.

Lackington’s: We are told that the Enchiridion has been banned in your fictional world, and that those who print or distribute it can be harshly punished. However, this has only increased its circulation. Do you find yourself drawn to banned or forbidden books? Have you ever been warned away from a book, only to then seek it out?

XX: In my life I have never been personally or directly forbidden from reading any book. I was expressly nurtured into the sense that all reading can be, in some way, valuable, educational, or both. I believe in such an attitude’s benefits for readers of all ages and walks of life, as long as personal discretion goes into choosing books in the first place and interpreting the information therein.

The Areopagitica still covers many sound arguments for freedom of the press, which can be applied to reading, too. Of course, I believe material that is exploitative of actual living people should not be published—and of course there are books that I think it would have been better never to publish for this reason or others. Recently, I’ve seen some online magazines mention they’ll take down stories upon the author’s request, and I agree with such a blanket rule. I also disagree with the idea that people are born with the innate ability to judge right from wrong. And I acknowledge that there is, no doubt, possible harm done in exposing a suggestible mind to dogma and prejudice. But if one reads widely, one is likelier to develop better critical thinking. Moreover, there are potential benefits to the suggestible reader encountering dogma and prejudice and discussing it, thereby finding it utterly condemned—the suggestible reader can then learn to identify these attitudes earlier in life and internalize less of what might be harmful to them. (They can even save themselves a lot of time and stress by learning more quickly and effectively what benefits them and what wastes their time.) This is the kind of nourishing interchange that might have prevented some tribulations detailed in the “Enchiridion,” although, who knows! Cil’s quite the boofhead.

And as you suggest, the more you forbid someone from doing something, often the more they will seek out that very thing. I don’t think bans on books often work in the long term.

I would also like to note the unfortunate reality that there exist books that are forbidden to readers before they can even be directly or personally warned away from them. These books are forbidden most insidiously at a societal level.

Take, for instance, a school library: most primary education institutions will only carry books of a certain kind—usually either books written for a narrow age group and abridged and/or bowdlerized established books, like the 1,001 Nights, pocket editions of Jane Austens, etc. It’s especially interesting that a book can be so widely read, encouraged to be even more widely read, and yet still remain largely forbidden. The 1,001 Nights are a good example of this. The stories in it known to most of us English-enabled are the much expurgated and, well, thoroughly Occidentalized versions. Even before that, the 1,000 Nights went through many a cycle of appendment and abridgement. How much the original oral transmitters of the stories changed them to suit each yarning we will likely never know. Oh, so much of the essence of a book may become, whether intentionally or not, forbidden—by editing, by translation, by adaptation, and so on…

A more flagrant example is the banning of a book by a state, often on unreasonable grounds, such as prudery, the censorship of dissent, and/or old-fashioned bigotry—so, in a sense, I have been in places where I and everyone else there were banned from certain books, though I did not know it at the time. I very much resent that now just on principle. Though forbiddenness is not really something that draws me to a book (probably because of the free reading environment I grew up in), if I know there are censored or altered versions of one, I will always seek out the full, original text; I’m insistent on having complete reading experiences as a touchstone, at least. And it’s perfectly possible in most cases. Thank goodness I taught myself Google-fu!

Fun fact: I just learned today that Alice in Wonderland was banned in Hunan, China in 1931 for, in essence, anthropomorphizing the animals. Governor He Jian believed “animals should not use human language” and went so far to say that it was “disastrous to put animals and human beings on the same level.” I wonder what he would have thought of Cat Country, published two years later; or Animal Farm, especially given that he was a member of the KMT.

Lackington’s: Is there something about unconventional modes of storytelling that you find especially compelling? Why do we need to make space for stories that don’t always work the way that readers have come to expect?

XX: Absolutely! Endless possibilities await art free from the obligations of convention. It’s not that easy to define convention, right, because there are many conventions, they are changing all the time, what they even are differs slightly or vastly depending on who and where you ask. Convention is often arbitrary. Convention consists of expectations, sometimes aforementioned obligations. As a rule, not a tool, it can be dangerous.

Convention can be incredibly helpful, yes, but it is by definition pervasive, and thus often unseen, and what is unseen is much unlikelier to be considered critically, questioned, or challenged. Enforcing one convention, whether by design or negligence, can devalue other conventions, or it can silence voices that are not conventional at all. Both of these things can, within and outside stories, create or exacerbate great harms: prejudice, oppression, complacency, ignorance. Absolutism was a convention. It still is, in some places in the world.

The damage can start on a microlevel. A gifted artist who does not subscribe to the conventions of their time and place and language may have no one with whom to share their work, may steadily lose faith in it, etc., and perhaps in the end they will change and destroy priceless individuality and innovation for convention. If this happens often enough, homogeneity proliferates, and everyone suffers. There is a lot at stake—variety, for one; and great art, for another. Lives, above all. What if certain unconventional aspects of a work are tied to identity? Especially identities of groups that already require more support and exposure? We must facilitate their narratives.

It saddens and infuriates me to think of what has not been published, or ever written at all, because it was unconventional—deemed too strange, unfamiliar, unsellable, or dissident. It has many times over been convention that has quashed unconventional works of art made on pain of exile, imprisonment, even death for the artist. Nothing good comes from this, for the reader or the writer. To reject convention when it is necessary is to assert our freedom, our art.

Aesthetics also provide great reason for going against convention. Some stories from the outset require an unconventional telling and are stronger for it; it does not do to try and make something conventional when it doesn’t suit. So much literature I love would be lost, or robbed of its essence—this ties in with what I wrote earlier about the risk of the erasure of identity—such as Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God; Naomi Mitchinson’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman; E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros. These are only a handful, picked at random. There are many, many more. Earlier in the interview I mentioned how much I love the kind of prose Lackington’s showcases. I’m grateful for the gift. I adore language idiosyncratic to author or character or story. I also find it odd that it apparently isn’t common in the field anymore. While a generic style can be used for effect, so can a strong style, or several—and I will stand by my argument that the strong style has a potentially wider range of effects. I also named intimacy before (with the world, characters, author itself, etc.) as one of the effects an enchiridion can encourage. In a work with a generic style, intimacy can’t really be evoked because of the very fact that the style is generic/contemporaneously journalistic (though there are certain places where that too, can be used for effect); one could argue such a style is supposed to strip that away.

I stress: writers must exert their language(s) in every aspect, as much as they can, when creating a story set in another world, for there vocabularies people the architecture of syntaxes. There the words are the entire world.

And when all that work pays off… Wow! How exciting it always is to explore newfangled land. Innovation of form can make me feel like I’m off on an adventure, and further the wonder and awe one experiences with the art of one’s heart. With unconventional stories, it’s much easier to encounter something unique! You can discover all new forms and modes of storytelling that generate yet more novel ideas, more wonderful, revolutionary work. It is vital stuff that enriches us all.

And we would not have stories that are now considered conventional, if not for unconventional stories laying the groundwork. Every convention that proliferates now is likely to have undergone at least one battle for its existence, from naturalistic dialogue (yes!!) to present tense. (Heck, even the novel was once novel, and is now anything but. And it is a relatively new artform…) How much literature would have never been written if the frame story, the utopia, the romance, etc., did not do it first? We would not have so much metafiction, the dystopia, the fantasy.

It must be impressed that unconventional stories are essential for maintaining the ecology and diversity of all stories. We need to accommodate and champion work that braves the uncharted, the unknown, the untold. We must make space for artists whose marvellous narratives and lives go against the status quo. The rightful fight for such art is more than worthwhile.

Aside, for the Dear Reader-Writer: Please keep writing, no matter how unusual the story. It might be something no one else knew they wanted all along (or, better yet, something you didn’t know you needed all along). A story that defies convention can be a rare and precious gift. Here is one who anticipates the day she becomes a reader of your writing. ❤

I’m so glad Lackington’s offers such a warm and loving home for many a beautiful, inventive story, and that mine has settled in perfect happiness here. I very much look forward to all the adventures we shall go on in future together!


Xue Xihe wonders about the unknown creators and stories behind the articles of vertu she has keenly collected during her adventures near and afar. Free handbooks, ticket-enveloped discs, brochures doubling as board games, lolly wrappers, and other novelties remain welcome additions to her treasury. As a cosmopolitan cosmopolitan herself, she frequents lands abroad and other worlds. She is a maker, too. Her poetry has appeared in Windfall: Australian Haiku. Tweet her about your voyages @_xihe_. She thanks you for reading!




This entry was posted on June 18, 2019 by in Interview.
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