Asian Heritage in Horror: Interview with Doungjai Gam
doungjai gam is the author of glass slipper dreams, shattered and watch the whole goddamned thing burn. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in LampLight, Cape Cod Poetry Review, Wicked Haunted, The Dystopian States of America, among other places. She’s co-written stories with her partner, author Ed Kurtz, that have appeared in Lost Highways and The Bad Book.
gam—a Thai-Lao-Eastern European blend—was born in Thailand and currently resides in southern New England.
What inspired you to start writing?
When I was in high school, I remember we had to write a short story in my freshman year English classes. I wrote this awful thing but realized afterwards that I had enjoyed doing it. That summer I attempted my first novel, which is most likely rotting somewhere in my parents’ house. The next year I wrote what I would now call a flash piece, and I remember that it grossed out one of my classmates (it was tame—something about rats in a sewer) and I thought it was kind of amusing that I got a reaction like that. The following year I started dating an upperclassman who was a writer and he encouraged me to keep at it. That time period is definitely when I realized that this was what I wanted to do.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
Looking back, it seems like it was always there in the background, waiting to come to the forefront. Watching POLTERGEIST when I was like seven years old and getting creeped out by the guy ripping his face off (which, when I saw it again a few years back, I found it funny that I was so frightened by it). My grandma would watch scary movies and I remember seeing snippets of CARRIE and THE SHINING. My cousin is a huge Peter Straub fan and I remember seeing his books at her house. A friend of mine in eighth grade let me borrow a couple of VC Andrews books and I was hooked. I went to the library and read all of Stephen King’s books. In my early 20s, I met my writing mentor, Thomas Tessier, at a job we were both at. He was very kind and took me under his wing. I remember one time he told me that I didn’t necessarily have to write horror, but by then it just felt like the natural path to take.
I feel like some would make the argument that I don’t exactly write horror. I definitely lean hard into dark fiction. A lot of my stuff has been about grief and bad relationships, both of which contain horrific elements. In time I do want to take on some of the traditional ideas of horror. I love ghost stories, haunted house stories. I have the basic beginnings of a small fictional Connecticut town that’s haunted and crazy as fuck that may or may not be based on where I grew up (spoiler: it totally is). Unfortunately, there’s issues taking me away from concentrating on writing right now, but I still have story ideas constantly in my head and I hope to get back to it soon.
Do you make a conscious effort to include Asian Diaspora characters and themes in your writing and if so, what do you want to portray?
Not at first, and it probably had to do with where I was at with the idea of my identity. Being multi-racial, I’ve never really felt like I fit in anywhere. Couple that with growing up in a not-so-diverse town in the not-so-diverse time period of the 80s, and…yeah, it wasn’t always easy. As I’ve gotten older, I’m exploring more the side of me that I didn’t know a whole lot about growing up. My first attempt at exploring Asian characters was in my chapbook watch the whole goddamned thing burn (Nightscape Press, 2019). The story is about Sammi Hayes, a Thai-American girl and the consequences of the choices she makes. I examine to some degree the relationship she has with her mother and her cousin, both of whom are wholly Thai and communicate with each other in their first language while Sammi can only pick up a random word here and there, to her frustration.
I hope in time to examine more about Asian culture and relationships in my writing.
What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?
Writing horror has helped me examine my fears. Another thing I’ve learned from horror: the monsters on the page aren’t always as scary as the monsters in the real world.
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve?
I love how much diversity there is now! It’s truly wonderful to read stories from other folks of color, and it’s so inspiring to see how many Asian writers are out there. I hope to see more writers of color stepping up to share their stories, especially multi-racial writers.
How do you feel the Asian community has been represented thus far in the genre and what hopes do you have for representation in the genre going forward?
It seems to me that there wasn’t a whole lot of representation until really the last couple of decades or so—I mean, that could be me not being fully up to speed. But I do see a lot more Asian representation now, and I hope it continues to grow.
Who are some of your favorite Asian characters in horror?
A couple of my favorite Thai movies are DORM and SHUTTER. I love the characters of Ton and Vichien from DORM and the friendship they had, along with the sad truth that comes with it. SHUTTER has a couple of rough moments, but it’s so well done and the last image of that movie will always haunt me. I want to learn more about Thai folklore and ghosts. The krasue especially interests me—the detached floating head and entrails of a young woman? That’s pretty horrific!
Who are some Asian Diaspora horror authors you recommend our audience check out?
One of my favorite Asian Diaspora writers at the moment is J.A.W. McCarthy. Her collection SOMETIMES WE’RE CRUEL AND OTHER STORIES is amazing! I told her recently that I haven’t been able to bring myself to finish her collection because I’ll be so sad once I’m done with it. I look forward to seeing more from her.
Another recent favorite of mine is the poetry collection TORTURED WILLOWS from Lee Murray, Geneve Flynn, Christina Sng, and Angela Yuriko Smith.
Reading these works in particular helped me feel seen, that I wasn’t alone in this multi-racial dimension where I don’t quite fit in either world.
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
If you plan on submitting/publishing anywhere, ALWAYS do your research on them and any contract you get offered. I cannot emphasize that enough. There are so many people who have gotten screwed over by insane rights grabs or just never get paid. Talk to other authors who have published with them to get their take. If you’re unsure about terms on a contract, ask someone—another author or even a lawyer—to look it over for you. I’ve been through a situation indirectly with my partner, and I’ve watched from the sidelines as publishers have imploded. It’s ugly and anxiety-inducing, and I do not wish it on anyone.
And to the Asian writers out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
Your voice matters—don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.