Psychic Rituals and Political Machinations: An Interview with Nadia Bulkin

Nadia Bulkin is a Shirley Jackson Award-nominated author of short fiction.  Her stories have appeared in outlets such as Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol. 3, Aickman’s Heirs, Walk on the Weird Side, the World Fantasy Award-winning She Walks in Shadows, and many more.  Her debut collection, She Said Destroy, was released by Word Horde in August, 2017.  After growing up in Indonesia, Bulkin relocated to Nebraska and currently resides in Washington, D.C.  She has a B.A. in Political Science and an M.A. in International Affairs, reflecting interests that often find their way into her stories.  We recently caught up with her to learn more about She Said Destroy, the nature of hauntings, how politics and horror interact, and other things that make her fiction tick.  More information can be found at http://nadiabulkin.wordpress.com/.

 WFR: What was life like in Indonesia after the fall of Suharto? What sort of influence did it have on your life and work?

Nadia Bulkin: I was only in Indonesia for three months after Suharto resigned – my father, who was Indonesian, had died suddenly two months prior to his resignation, and my mother, who is American, decided she needed to return to the United States. What I did see was an outpouring of truth-telling – my elementary school teachers would spontaneously make previously-taboo political statements in the middle of class, and I remember thinking: I thought everyone loved Suharto, but it turns out everyone hated him. It was like the entire country was letting loose a scream it had been holding in for years. And it was frightening, to go from the “safety” of authoritarian control to chaos. A lot of my academic work has focused on this period of transition, because I’m interested in national transformation and because a lot of people did not expect Indonesia to survive in one piece. There’s definitely something about trying to endure in the face of total disruption and destruction that is very close to horror. And a lot of my Indonesia-based fiction – like “Endless Life” in She Said Destroy, or “Wish You Were Here,” which was published in Nightmare Magazine last year – is about dealing with terrible long-buried truths that get upturned after a major societal shift.

WFR: What was your introduction to horror and weird fiction?

NB: I always really liked horror (more on that below) – I devoured Goosebumps, then moved onto Stephen King (Pet Sematary was my favorite). It was more of a guilty pleasure until I read Shirley Jackson, who changed everything for me (I was most moved by Hangsaman) – her work is so substantial, and unforgivingly dark. Very bold, very true to her truths, and to me that’s what writing horror is actually all about. I didn’t start reading weird fiction as it’s typically defined until I was trying to publish horror stories in the middle of the Lovecraft boom (I started with William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland), but a lot of the modern classics I grew up with had strains of the weird too. A Passage to India revolves around what I’d argue is an incident of the ultra-weird. The Sheltering Sky goes full surreal in Part III. I loved stuff like “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “In The Penal Colony.” A lot of British children’s lit, like The Jungle Book and Peter Pan and The Wind in the Willows, has undercurrents of the beyond-the-beyond, and those were the parts I latched onto as a kid – Shere Khan and the Great God Pan.

WFR: What is Indonesian horror like? Is it mostly in films or are there also books or other publications?

NB: Horror is part of the cultural fabric of Indonesia, because spirits are part of the cultural fabric of Indonesia. Every house has spirits; the only difference is whether they’re good or bad. Everyone knows at least a handful of people (if not way more) who will attest to having seen a ghost. Certain places are simply known to be haunted, and avoided; there’s a lot of fear-mongering about the use of curses and nefarious witch doctors (dukun sihir). My exposure to it was mostly in film, but I sometimes read short ghost stories in teen magazines. It’s mostly vengeful and grotesque female ghosts and black magic, with some demonic evil thrown in for good measure. It’s very intense, melodramatic, almost histrionic – a lot of it is sort of comedic, or absurd; at the same time, there are a couple archetypal ghosts that I can’t talk about because they freak me out so much. There’s also a tendency to try to make fictional horror more powerful and real through urban legend – production studios push rumors that someone died of fear in an early screening of a horror movie and now the movie (or the movie theater!) is cursed.  

WFR: Can you tell us about She Said Destroy? When were these stories written? Are they all reprints or are there stories original to the collection?

NB: She Said Destroy is my debut collection from Word Horde, featuring twelve stories that were published between 2008-2015 and one original, “No Gods, No Masters.” Aside from horror, the two main threads that I wanted to braid together were female voices and socio-political issues, mostly about governance and history and the lies that communities tell themselves.

WFR: One of my favorites in the collection was the opening story, “Intertropical Convergence Zone.” Where did you get the idea for this story? How did it develop?

NB: I was reading about the psychic rituals and political machinations that both Suharto and Sukarno used to do to help ensure their continued hold on power, and decided to make the symbolic literal (because that’s kind of what ritualistic magic is all about, right, representation?). I had also been reading about General Abdul Haris Nasution, who narrowly escaped an assassination attempt but lost his young daughter in the attack – six Army generals ended up murdered, Communists were blamed, and that led to the 1965 anti-Communist killings that resulted in the deaths of likely at least a million people. Despite his personal tragedy, Nasution immediately went to work helping Suharto maneuver into power – his daughter is very lovingly memorialized as a martyr, and “Intertropical Convergence Zone” spiraled out of that. The “no duh” reality of authoritarian regimes is that they aren’t as black and white as you might think – people like the Lieutenant feel that they are working toward the greater good, even if it means doing awful things sometimes, even if it means immense personal sacrifice. Even monsters have devotees.

WFR: Some of your stories feature a political or military figure that looms, often supernaturally over the lives of other characters. Is there a direct relationship for you between the political and cosmic in weird fiction? If so, how would you summarize the link between those concerns?

NB: That’s a really interesting question that I hadn’t thought of before, but I think you’re right – when you’re in an authoritarian regime you are probably about as powerless as the average human in a cosmic horror story. Power imbalance, and how different types of people respond to it, is one of the things that interests me the most about cosmic horror: do you shut down, do you try to find a way to fight it, do you worship it instead? Because in the eyes of the regime – in the eyes of some looming Outer God – you’re either fuel for the engine or an acolyte. And of course the sad thing about victimized communities – communities that have been oppressed and denied agency – is that they become accustomed to being under someone’s thumb, which is why so many former colonies become dictatorships. So I think it’s worth asking the question: does an American respond to the appearance of an Outer God the same way an Indonesian would?

WFR: “Endless Life” is a particularly complex and interesting tale of a haunting, and it seems as though it’s intentionally tweaking a number of assumptions readers might have about how such a story can work. Are there any haunted house/hotel stories that have been particular influences on you? What interests you about the tensions in your fiction between “big” figures of historical import like General Fest and “common” characters like Melanie in that story, or about similar juxtapositions in other works?

NB: I love haunted house/hotel stories (The Haunting of Hill House, The Shining, and the Ju-on series have been most influential), but “Endless Life” itself was based on this absolutely hysterical Ghost Hunters: International episode that took place in some Argentinian hotel where Hitler was rumored to have died. The crew ran around berating this ghost for Hitler’s actions, and I was thinking, “Man, if that ghost isn’t Hitler – which it surely isn’t – it would be really pissed right now.” I think that’s that tension you mentioned – we often expect the ghost in your average haunted inn to be the ghost of some prominent, wealthy figure, but why? Do powerful people leave a greater psychic imprint in death than the weak and disenfranchised? Similarly, we usually expect ghosts to be created out of murders instead of freak accidents. I think we’re drawn to big narrative arcs, imbued with meaning, featuring larger-than-life characters – but reality often looks a bit different. The Stone Tape is a wonderful example of a story that plays with these sorts of societal assumptions about hauntings.

WFR: Violence often seems to exist in relation to anonymity in many of your stories, whether it’s a nameless final girl or statistics of people who have been victims of political conflicts. Do you view such erasures of identity as an inherent component of violence? And do you view violence or the threat of it as an inherent component of effective horror fiction?

NB: I wouldn’t say erasure of identity is an inherent component of violence – more like a reflection of how we as a society process violent incidents. We turn them into statistics. Sometimes it’s because we can’t handle the huge numbers involved, sometimes it’s because we can’t be bothered – and sometimes, of course, it’s the only way to reflect the gravity of the situation. But we tend to not let ourselves think about each individual that’s died in a mass casualty event, or even every missing-presumed-dead teenaged girl – their families, their aspirations. It’s overwhelming. So we hide from that truth. I wouldn’t say that violence is an inherent component of horror either – not exactly. I’d say that risk is part of horror – I call it The Price – but whether that comes in the form of physical violence or spiritual degradation or even one’s unmooring from the world, The Price has to be paid.

WFR: What’s next? Are you working on any projects currently that you can tell us about?

NB: I’m slowly working on a novel based on the Indonesian political crisis of 1965, except with government-sponsored psychics and demons – sort of The Year of Living Dangerously meets Stranger Things. But I’m always collecting projects and getting sidetracked – so I’m also playing with an idea for a nonfiction book and I owe various short stories to various venues.

WFR: Lastly, a food question: how do you like your nasi or bakmi goreng? What sorts of veggies or meat do you prefer in it? Do you add sambal or kecap manis?

NB: I’m actually not the biggest fan of nasi goreng (I prefer nasi campur and gado-gado), but when I do eat it I always add sambal. My mother used to forbid me from eating sambal when I was little, but now I add it to everything!

 

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