Asian Heritage in Horror: Interview with Dan Rabarts
Dan Rabarts (Ngati Porou) is an award-winning author and editor living in Porirua, Aotearoa New Zealand. He is a four-time recipient of New Zealand’s Sir Julius Vogel Award and three-time winner of the Australian Shadows Award.
His short stories have been published worldwide, and he is the author of the steampunk-grimdark-comic fantasy series Children of Bane (Brothers of the Knife, Sons of the Curse, Sisters of Spindrift, Daughters of Dust).
Together with Lee Murray, he co-wrote the Path of Ra crime-noir thriller series (Hounds of the Underworld, Teeth of the Wolf, Blood of the Sun) and co-edited the anthologies Baby Teeth – Bite-sized Tales of Terror and At The Edge.
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What inspired you to start writing?
The very first trigger that ever prompted me to write was when I was about 8 years old, and in school, we had a sentence we had to write over and over to practice the letter J. That sentence, “Jane’s long journey to Jamaica”, set off a story in my head involving a storm, a plane crash, a desert island, and a jaguar, which I had to write down. Though I’m pretty sure that particular story is lost to the mists of time, it was a starting point. Books like The Hobbit and the Dragonlance series then led me down the fantasy road, and by 14 I was trying my hand at writing long-form epic fantasies, around the same time I discovered Stephen King’s IT. From that point on, fantasy and horror would always walk hand in hand for me. Around the same time, I discovered Hugh Cook, a New Zealand author of dark fantasy whose work often trod into the horrific, and the fact that he was a Kiwi and had an internationally published fantasy series was inspiration enough for me, that just because I lived at the bottom of the world didn’t mean that getting published was as impossible as it seemed at the time.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
In real life, I very much like my comfort zones. When I read or write fiction, I like to be pushed outside of those safe places to go where I really wouldn’t, given a choice. Horror as a lens on the world also gives us a means to investigate injustice and societal failings, by serving them up in a setting that inspires discomfort and possibly disgust. Horror is a window that has options, regardless of the genre you’re writing your horror within, to expose some of the rot that surrounds us, and putting it on the page might prompt the reader to think a little differently about things when they put the book down.
Do you make a conscious effort to include Asian and/or Pacific Islander characters and themes in your writing and if so, what do you want to portray?
I draw on my Māori heritage quite frequently in my writing, either in the shape of a main character like Matiu Yee in the Path of Ra series (Hounds of the Underworld, Teeth of the Wolf, Blood of the Sun, co-written with Lee Murray) or in my short stories “Riptide” or “Oil and Bone”, or sometimes as supporting characters who provide a different perspective or insight on the narrative in a story like Floodgate.
In the Path of Ra, Matiu Yee is a matakite, or seer, who can sense dark goings-on in the spirit world, and who also carries a number of other burdens which go with his being a young Māori man dealing with various obstacles of crime and prejudice in an urban setting. Matiu embodies, to some extent, the challenges of trying to get by in a society where the deck is constantly stacked against you because of the circumstances of your birth.
In “Riptide”, the protagonist has a close bond with the whenua (the land), moana (the sea), and its taniwha in a story where the dangers of the physical landscape are reflected in the dangers of the mental health challenges our characters face. It’s then embodied in the concept of taniwha, which may be monsters, demons, or guardian spirits, depending on how we face them. In Māoritanga, there is a strong connection between the health of the land and our own health as a community and as individuals, and when that connection is broken, the damage can be devastating.
What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?
That people sometimes look at you differently after they’ve read your work? Ha. I remember the night my wife read my story The Bone Plate, which is essentially about cannibalism as a path to godhood, and she put the book down and said, “I used to think you were such a nice person.” Oh, I laughed, but that’s the sort of thing we get sometimes, especially from those readers who aren’t our key audience. Those who don’t like to be taken into places where they’re not comfortable, who don’t want to look into the void in case the void is looking right back at them. Most people don’t like to be shown, or to perhaps see themselves in, the mirror on the world that horror can present. Horror has a certain raw honesty that many people can’t or won’t face up to. It’s interesting, however, that the numbers seem to show horror being an increasingly popular genre, the further we get from January 2020, when it all started to fall apart. This is to say, it was all falling apart anyway, but January 2020 was just the most obvious tipping point in a long cascade of tipping points that led us to where we are now.
As for myself, because I rarely write horror in particular with any sort of a plan, I just let the writing take me wherever it wants to go. I can often be shocked or surprised by where my stories end up, the things that must be ruminating in my subconscious to end up on the page. The worries which work themselves out by forming narratives like some sort of bizarre therapy session. And how, afterward, I feel better for having taken those little slivers of darkness, pulled them out, and shown them to the light.
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve?
Horror on the page has been maturing and expanding its reach significantly since well before the 21st-century evolution seen in film, one that has only been accelerated by significant technological wind-shifts in the publishing arena which opened up more options for authors to be published, or to self-publish. We have seen a growth in niche genres and subgenres supported by independent small presses leveraging these lower-cost, lower-risk options, expanding the range of voices and the kinds of stories being published. Yes, not all of it has been good, but a lot of great work has been published in this space which would probably never have seen publication under the agent/big publisher model. That’s a trend I’d like to see continue, especially as it supports the publication of diverse and marginalised voices, whose stories are often left untold because the market forces in place are stacked against us.
How do you feel the Asian and/or Pacific Islander communities have been represented thus far in the genre and what hopes do you have for representation in the genre going forward?
For a long time, there’s been a lack of representation in horror for Pacific Islanders, both in terms of content creation as well as characters on screen or on the page. We’re starting to see a shift in that space in New Zealand, with authors like Whiti Hereaka reimagining Māori mythology from a modern and often horrific perspective, and Taika Waititi sprinkling hints of Māori culture into some of his more popular works. Several Kiwi authors draw on Māori and Pasifika culture as influences in their work, but aside from a few rare exceptions such as The Deadlands, there is very little which can be held up as a good example of Pacific horror told from a Pacific perspective. Thankfully we seem to be moving away from the old paradigms where indigenous peoples are the “other” by default, but we still see a lot of use of indigenous characters entering our narratives as a plot point, rather than as protagonists in their own right. My hope is that more Māori and Pasifika authors will try their hand at horror, and draw on the wealth of myth, folklore, and cultural grounding that makes our communities unique, to tell stories that inspire some dread and provoke some thought.
Who are some of your favorite Asian and/or Pacific Islander characters in horror?
Possibly one of the best entries into the Māori/Pasifika literary scene of the last few years has to be Lee Murray’s Taine McKenna series of military horror novels (Into the Mist, Into the Sounds, Into the Ashes), drawing on Māori mythology and set in the wild landscapes of New Zealand. The lead character Taine McKenna is a rugged Māori lad through and through, someone you want to go hunting monsters with in the remote wilderness of Aotearoa.
Who are some Asian and/or Pacific Islander horror authors you recommend our audience check out?
One author I will always recommend given an opportunity like this is the late Hugh Cook. His works are difficult to find but worth reading, both as fantasy and as horror, but also as an example of how a marginalised voice could raise above some of those obstacles and be heard in the international market, at least for a short while.
As mentioned above, Whiti Hereaka’s novel Kurangaituku recently won New Zealand’s Ockham book prize, with her retelling of some key pieces of Māori mythology.
Lee Murray, both for her military horror, and also for her related focus on Asian voices in horror, with her recent collaborative works Black Cranes, Tortured Willows, and Unquiet Spirits.
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
Connect with your community. Those of us who write horror may be few and far between, but we form strong bonds, even across vast distances, and those bonds can hold us together through much of what the world has to throw at us. For a couple of years there through the height of the pandemic, StokerCon shifted to a remote platform, allowing attendance from all over the world (though some of the times we in the Antipodes had to awake was also quite horrific). Those remote StokerCons were great to be a part of from afar, and the fact that the conventions were so successful is a testament to how solid the horror writing community really is, and to the strong efforts of those who have worked through our recent global challenges to maintain that sense of community. If you are writing horror and you feel like you’re doing it all on your own, rest assured you are not. Reach out into the darkness, and someone will certainly take your hand.
And to the Asian and/or Pacific Islander writers out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
Know your voice, and use it. Celebrate the fact that your perspective is diverse, that your cultural experience is rich and important, and know that there are not enough of us speaking in these voices, our voices. Grab hold of your roots and use them to write strong, valuable stories that no one else is telling but which need to be heard. Audiences and editors alike are calling out for more diverse storytelling and Māori/Pasifika stories told in Pacific voices will add a whole new verse to that song. So don’t be afraid to write the stories that tell us about who you are, where you’ve come from, where you think you’re going, and the horrors that might bring.