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Asian Heritage in Horror Month: An Interview with Wen-yi Lee




What inspired you to start writing?

I’ve been writing stories since I could write and never stopped, basically. I just got around to actually learning how to revise and submit things to publishing places eventually, but it’s one of those things I think I’d be doing all my life regardless. Just for me.

What draws you to the horror genre?

Well, I kind of like twisted things, as a baseline. As a writer, I like that horror as a genre lets you take an abstract fear and make it tangible, and confront and take apart all its angles. I also like the big, raw feelings; I like the transportive strangeness and the sense of confrontation and catharsis. Horror and romance are Barbenheimer genre sisters, really; they’re both rooted in these big vulnerable core feelings. I love romance in my horror, or horror in my romance.

Do you include Asian and/or Pacific Islander characters and themes in your writing with purpose, and if so, what do you want to portray?

I do! The protagonist in my debut novel is Chinese American, but more often than not I write from my being Southeast Asian Chinese–specifically Singaporean–which is very different from the Asian American identity but shares enough here and there that I do resonate with Asian American work. In The Dark We Know there are elements of being unrooted compared to the white families in town that can trace their lines back generations on the land, and familial language barriers and cultural isolation are factors in the main character’s loneliness. Other times, I’m not trying to write something “cultural” and “meaningful”, but just tell a good story that happens to be rooted in a particular ethnic/cultural environment, with characters that look and sound familiar instead of the blonde/blue-eyed girls that my main characters used to be. I’m still working on putting out a true love letter to Southeast Asia’s shared iconic female ghosts.

What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?

About the world: There’s the potential for the surreal in everything, once you start trying to look for it. That there’s a lot of weird shit out there objectively that you don’t even have to exaggerate to make horrifying.

About myself: I’m slightly more deranged than I thought. And also that I like hope a lot. I’ll never be a grimdark writer; I like big feelings and having souls stripped raw but then building from the ashes toward healing and connection. I like narrative tenderness these days.

How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? How do you think it will continue to evolve?

I think the most notable recent shift is, like across genres and mediums, seeing a lot more voices and narratives from previously underrepresented communities. And I guess unfortunately some of the most striking contemporary horror has come from there because they’re drawing on such truly lived horror. But it’s only adding and expanding to the wealth of the genre, and I think/hope it will continue to grow toward more intersectional voices. There’s also been a lot of great genre-blending and character-driven/literary-appealing horror recently, which are my favorite spaces to swim in, and I think we’ll just continue to see more expansion of what the genre can look like.

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?

I don’t have the most extensive genre knowledge to really talk about historical representation, but I feel like Japanese and Thai horror films in particular have always been standouts in their own right, and now we’re seeing some big Korean horror in both film and books making it into the Western/Anglo cultural sphere, which is really cool. Continuing to widen that is always the hope. Specifically, I want my Southeast Asian horror books!! Please!! This region is so famously haunted. There are so many iconic ghosts and monsters. I need authors and publishing to get on it. I would love to see more specifically from Southeast Asians living in or set in Southeast Asia itself.

Who are some of your favorite Asian and/or Pacific Islander characters in horror?

I don’t have the most to be drawing from, just from not having consumed that much with focal API characters, but I wish I’d had Jade Nguyen from Trang Thanh Tran’s She Is A Haunting when I was a few years younger and an actual teenager. She’s messy and angry and bisexual and a Southeast Asian eldest daughter and has daddy issues– a girl after my own heart.

Can you recommend some Asian and/or Pacific Islander horror authors for our readers to check out?

While they’re obviously not underrated, having won Bookers, I’ve thought about Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny and Han Kang’s The Vegetarian since I read them. I’m also a Junji Ito fan; my book has a bunch of people in the mountains vibes, so I was thinking a lot about The Enigma of Amigara Fault while working on it. I also have to shout out some friends: Trang Thanh Tran, above, writes incredible, strange Vietnamese American YA horror; Sloane Leong is hapa and has great dark short fiction, and has also edited two BIPOC horror anthologies, Death in the Mouth!

What is your best advice for horror authors today?

I feel like my best advice is for authors who aren’t sure if they’re into horror because that’s where I was for a long time: be open, explore, and you’ll probably find a type of it you like. I find that–myself included–a lot of people have a stereotyped, kind of pulpy idea of the genre that’s one fun part of it but is nowhere near encompassing. It’s such a wide-ranging and versatile space with a ton of different subgenres. As I said earlier there’s also more of it nowadays that’s more ‘mainstream’ and works as a great entryway, especially the softer, more character- driven horror and social horror that draws on very real histories and injustices. And in that vein, I guess the broader advice to everyone is to not get tied down to a certain idea of what horror has to look like.

And to the Asian and/or Pacific Islander writers out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?

Write, and put yourself out there, and don’t be afraid to represent what’s yours but also don’t feel like your identity has to box your work in. Also, every Chinese horror/dark fantasy writer is probably going to think about a hungry ghost story at some point, and that’s okay. It’s a rite of passage. (But also, less tongue-in-cheek, I think taking existing folklore/superstitions and sincerely engaging in conversation with them to see what thread you can draw between it and yourself to bring a different/intimate perspective is a great way to start.)

Wen-yi Lee is a Clarion West Workshop alum from Singapore whose short fiction has appeared in venues like Lightspeed, Uncanny, and Strange Horizons, as well as in various anthologies. She likes writing about girls with bite, feral nature, and ghosts. The Dark We Know is her debut novel. Find her on socials @wenyilee_ and otherwise at wenyileewrites.com.

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