Asian Heritage in Horror: Interview with Frances Lu-Pai Ippolito
Frances Lu-Pai Ippolito is a Chinese American writer, judge, and mother based in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not spending time with her family outdoors, she’s crafting short stories in horror, sci-fi, fantasy, or whatever genre-bending she can get away with. Her work can be found in Nailed Magazine, Red Penguin’s Collections, Buckman Journal’s Issue 006, Flame Tree Press’s Asian Ghost Stories, Strangehouse’s Chromophobia, Moms Who Write’s Order of Us, and Death’s Garden Revisited. www.francesippolito.com.
What inspired you to start writing?
The bookshelves. The bookshelves of my past where I rarely saw people who looked like me having adventures (except for Claudia Kishi in Babysitters Club). The bookshelves of the present where there’s more representation but more work to be done. And, as Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
My grandmother. She didn’t speak or understand much English, but she loved horror and wrestling. After we immigrated to the United States from Taiwan in 1983, we watched a lot of 80s horror and male posturing over impractically sized belts. Both forms of entertainment showcased big emotions and clear storylines that made it easy for my grandmother to understand.
I started writing because I wanted to write stories for her and my children that showcased our lived experience in ways that were understandable and recognizable to a diverse readership.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
I’m not fit enough for pro-wrestling. More seriously, I watched a lot of horror with my grandmother. From her, I learned how this genre can cross and bridge language and cultural barriers. She really had nothing in common with, say, the high school teenagers getting killed off in their dreams by a man with a bladed hand. Nonetheless, she understood their fear, anxiety, and desperate need to survive. For me, horror does this better than any other genre.
I also love exploring how fear reveals one’s true character. We’re all afraid of something and in that fear, we uncover who we really are when faced with the most compelling duress.
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?
Absolutely. I dive deep into Asian American immigrant family dynamics, secrets, and conflict. Jokingly, I’ve said in the past that the comp I go for is The Joy Luck Club + [zombies, ghosts, monsters, Asian mythology, folklore, etc.]. I do this because these are the stories I wanted to see on the shelves as a kid. These are the stories I want my children to have access to. Rather than bemoaning the scarcity, I wanted to add my words to narrative plenitude.
What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?
First, as my friend and teacher Eric Witchey has said, craft and business are two different things. Work on your craft and make it the best you can. And, work on the business side and learn all that you can. But do not equate the business success or failure with the competency of your craft. Therein lies the madness if you always judge your work by an acceptance rate, especially when writing from a different lens.
Second, much wiser, seasoned writers have advised me to never lose sight of why I write. I write to preserve culture, history, memory, and a particular lived immigrant experience (with, of course, a lot of creative fictional license). So, regardless of how these stories are received, I consider it a success when each story is written and added to the pile.
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve?
There’s a lot of support for a diversity of viewpoints and voices, much more so than I’ve experienced in the past. My hope is that this will evolve into diverse narratives and story structure, and a resulting growth in our readership.
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’s a mixed bag. In some cases, I think there have been great strides with the popularity of movies/series like The Ring, Train to Busan, Squid Game, and Hotel del Luna. Generally, there is more representation in speculative fiction than before. On the other hand, we’re really only at mile 2 or 3 of what is probably a hilly marathon. There’s a long way to go before I could even begin to say that this enormous diaspora of Asian communities has been adequately represented.
Who are some of your favorite Asian characters in horror?
The demon mistress in Pu Songling’s “Hua Pi” or Painted Skin is one of my favorites. This is an ancient Chinese folktale, recorded during the Qing Dynasty, that really survives the test of time. The demon is the villain in the story, but I find her desire to blend in very relatable to my experience as an immigrant.
Seok-Woo because of his compelling character arc in Train to Busan.
Aunt Mei from an older 2003 movie, “Dumpling” in the triptych “Three Extremes,” because she remains unabashedly cheery even when cutting up little limbs for dumpling filling.
Who are some Asian Diaspora horror authors you recommend our audience check out?
All the writers in “Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women” and “Tortured Willows: Bent. Bowed. Unbroken,” including Lee Murray and Angela Yuriko Smith.
Ploi Pirapokin’s work is across genres (including horror). Her prose is gorgeous and her perspective razor sharp. http://www.ppirapokin.com/writing.html
I’ve also recently been reading some fascinating short stories in a collection called “Apple and Knife” by Intan Paramaditha. https://intanparamaditha.com/
And, I’ve just discovered the stunning writing of Kuzhali Manickavel. Such an original voice. https://www.kuzhalimanickavel.com/
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
Be open-minded to what storytelling means. Stories are told in all cultures and communities, and the way stories look, feel, smell, and speak can be unexpected. Write what you love, but be open to loving something you’ve never experienced.
And to the Asian writers out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
Do not write in isolation. Build your community and celebrate your successes, failures, fears, joys, doubts, and affirmations with your “village.” That is how writers survive and thrive. I’ve been fortunate to have the support of incredible mentors and teachers, writer friends, and long-suffering family members. I participated in HWA’s mentorship program and learned so much from my amazing mentor Loren Rhoads. I highly recommend this program for new horror writers.
Be willing to learn. I’ve spent many hours in workshops. Workshops are wonderful for meeting fellow writing friends and for pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone. Picking a workshop can be tricky, but find writers you admire who are willing to teach you. Here are a few of my favorite writer mentors who are also amazing teachers: Moaner T. Lawrence through Moanaria’s Fright Club (https://www.moanaria.com), Eric W. Witchey (ericwitchey.com), Ploi Pirapokin (http://www.ppirapokin.com), and Nina Kirki Hoffman (https://www.fantasticfiction.com/h/nina-kiriki-hoffman).
Slush dive. By this, I mean learn about print and publication from the other side. I’m so grateful to Nightmare’s Wendy Wagner and Space and Time’s Angela Yuriko Smith for trusting me to be a first reader. When you are posted at the gate, you understand firsthand that the publishing world is a labor of love from creators who are just as passionate about the genre as we all are. You also see the challenges and realities of our industry. I think it’s important to have that perspective early.