Shamar Hill: I’m curious about your background and how you came to writing.
Ploi Pirapokin: I came to writing primarily because I loved reading and wanted to be in conversation with the authors I read. My father had always boasted about having read every book in the library at university and 6-year-old me wanted to do the exact same thing. I grew up speaking Thai and Cantonese but was enrolled in an international school where we were only allowed to speak English. So to catch up with my native English-speaking friends, I went to the public library and picked up a few books every week to build upon my vocabulary. If I came across a word that I didn’t know the definition of, I’d leave it and see how it sounds with the rest of the sentence. I learned English that way – through repeating sounds, phrases, and sentence structures – and eventually through Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey’s music. It was only when I started writing fiction seriously that I began to care about finding the most precise, accurate word and/or phrasing to depict what I was describing, but even then, I would care about how it sounded within the sentence and if the rhythm was off, or the tone wasn’t quite right, I’d rewrite the sentence.
Shamar Hill: That seems to be evident in your work, especially in your short story, “Fouis Vuitton” in the Bellingham Review. Editor S. Paola Antonetta described that piece to be “politically candid and gripping,” and I’ve noticed you write a lot about the politics of Hong Kong. Can you elaborate on that?
Ploi Pirapokin: I’ve never thought of politics to be a macro thing. The decisions made by those in authority, especially those in the government affect their citizens directly. Hong Kong is a city that has never had the opportunity to build its own identity outside of being a colony, whether it was a British colony or now, a Chinese city. During the British occupation, there were signs up that read, “No Chinese or Dogs allowed,” whereas now, the Chinese Communist Party pre-screens candidates for Hong Kong’s head of government. I’m interested in how people handle the choices and identities prescribed on them. My own background being Thai but being raised in Hong Kong at a British school and eventually ending up in America for university is an example of what it means to have to curate one’s own self. After being exposed to so many ways of being, I’m obsessed in exploring what it means to assimilate, to negotiate cultures, and to compromise identities in service to or having to survive in the world.
Shamar Hill: How do you explore that in your work, particularly with speculative elements?
Ploi Pirapokin: Real life is often absurd! I remember reading in a Thai newspaper about a man who bought burned fetuses covered in gold for some black magic ritual. I’m inspired by realistic stories that I’ll then imagine into, and write a degree away from what really happened, whether it’s from a slightly different point of view or to serve the character’s arc. China Mieville was revolutionary for me in that sense because he incorporates a lot of contemporary social issues in the most fantastical and weird ways you can never imagine. I remember reading Perdido Street Station where the story is about a protagonist who has a moral dilemma about helping out a friend of his who had committed rape. But if you take that away, you still get to see cool monsters in a surreal city. I like stories where something that matters happen in a memorable way.
Shamar Hill: How do you come up with ideas for the fantastical or the weird?
Ploi Pirapokin: I used to think realism was a snobby, literary genre where authors had to objectively depict their experiences as naturally as possible. But in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Vardaman says on one entire page “My mother is a fish,” and I thought, what if he actually believed his mother is a fish? What if his mother is actually a fish? I saw then that one’s individual perception and perspective on something could be weird and just as true and real. Sometimes I’ll turn a metaphor into the literal. Sometimes I’ll research myths and legends to use as a structure for a modern day tale. There’s an Oulipo automatic writing exercise Ann VanderMeer had me do once, where we came up with a list of “If’s” and “Then’s” in one minute, where I’ll pick from that list a prompt to write from, such as: “If I heard a monkey clap, then all the flowers will grow underwater”. Most of the time, I’ll read and respond to authors whose work have touched me in some way or another.
Shamar Hill: Who are some authors you turn to?
Ploi Pirapokin: Roald Dahl’s Matilda was a huge influence on me. My favorite quote from that is: “The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives… she travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room.” I wanted to be as smart as Matilda and develop telekinesis from reading too much! From then, I went into the Redwall series, the Borribles Trilogy, the Gormenghast Trilogy and so on. I was drawn to books where those in authority were villainous and imperfect, and where children, especially girls, came out on top. Now I turn to Italo Calvino for his narrative style. Julio Cortazar, Cesar Aira, Ken Liu for their ideas. And most recently, I’ve been reading the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy of 2015 and being blown away by Theodora Goss, Carmen Maria Machado, and Sofia Samatar.
Shamar Hill: How do you draw the line between genres then, let’s say science fiction versus magical realism or even slipstream?
Ploi Pirapokin: At San Francisco State, I took a class where the professor distinguished science fiction from fantasy by having the hypothetical ‘new thing’ aka the novum in a story can be imagined to exist by scientific means rather than by magic. Slipstream to me is fiction that employs elements of the speculative. But to me, categories serve to define the best examples of, or to show templates of how something can be written, and definitions are always changing. I always tell my students, writing is what you can get away with. If the story is good, who cares what it’s labeled as? Leave that for the marketers and the publishers. It’s an exciting time to be a writer and for me, a writer of color, because in the history of genre fiction, where are the women of color? We are writing and coming up with ways to expound on or subvert the lines that were drawn and contributing our voices to literature.
Ploi Pirapokin is a Thai author raised in Hong Kong. Her work is forthcoming and featured in Tor.com, Apogee Journal, the Bellingham Review, Fiction International, Anthropoid Collective and more. She has received fellowships from the Radgale Foundation, the Anderson Center, the Brush Creek Foundation, Kundiman and others. She holds an MFA in Fiction from San Francisco State University and has taught at SFSU and the Emerging Writer’s Institute at Brown University.