The Age of Blight: An Interview with Kristine Ong Muslim

kristineongmuslimThis week we’re featuring two stories—“Day of the Builders” and “Beautiful Curse”—from Kristine Ong Muslim’s haunting 2016 collection, Age of Blight from Unnamed Press. Muslim resides in the rural southern Philippines where she has written a total of seven books of fiction and poetry. She was co-editor this summer with Nalo Hopkinson of Lightspeed Magazine’s special issue, People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction. She currently serves as poetry editor for LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction. I interviewed Muslim for Weird Fiction Review via email, curious about her approach to the un/real.

Weird Fiction Review: Can you describe where you are as you’re answering these questions?

Kristine Ong Muslim: I am writing this inside my bedroom. I am writing in my single bed. My secondhand Fujitsu laptop is propped on top of a box. Attached to the laptop is a dirt-cheap keyboard whose keys are intended for vigorous typing. On the left side and flush against the wall are a computer desk and a bookshelf. I have two bookshelves in my bedroom, which is also my physical “writing room” as opposed to the intangible writing room in my head. The computer desk serves as a catch-all dumpsite. Visible right now on this catch-all dumpsite are two bars of dog soaps I bought online, a roll of tissue paper, prescription glasses, nail cutter, a clean mug and a dirty one, assorted toiletries, a solar lamp, my printer, new books and contributor copies I have yet to shelve because the shelves are full. There are also candles and a match nearby because where I am there’s this third-world thing going where electricity regularly goes off. On all four corners where walls meet the ceiling, there are small cobwebs by mosquito-munching daddy long legs. I am really lazy and will only clean when I absolutely have to. I sweep the floor like once every two weeks. Anyway, there are two empty bottles of Mirinda on the floor near my bed. There is no clothes closet. I don’t have that many clothes and have no need for owning too many clothes, so I just stash my clean clothes in plastic modular containers. Most of these containers are under the bed. Right next to the computer desk, there is a pile of dirty clothes. Well, it’s sort of a neat pile on the floor as I still have a semblance of standards. I do the laundry when the pile reaches a critical height. On the right side is a sliding glass window, which has a screen panel to keep mosquitoes away and let in fresh air. The screen is in dire need of cleaning.

WFR: What in the environment around you right now means the most to your writing?

KOM: The window with the dirty screen panel. I will have a hard time thinking and writing if my line of sight is obstructed. I have to be able to look out and see past this bedroom.

WFR: Can you tell us one unusual true thing about yourself and one unusual lie about yourself? (We will leave it to our readers to guess which is which.)

KOM: I haven’t seen one episode of Game of Thrones. I am going to be 36 soon and still don’t have a driver’s license and a passport. All these are true, by the way.    

WFR: What’s your relationship as a writer to the real versus the weird or unreal? How much contamination is there? Is there a wall, a fence, a tunnel?

KOM: There is a wall. The wall is porous. The writer-me has no choice but to live in the “real” side of the wall. The wall is leaking bits and pieces of the weird and the unreal from the other side. I can’t ever have the whole picture of the bizarre stuff that lives on the other side of the wall. I make educated guesses about its nature. I make ultimately flawed conclusions about its motivations for leaking parts of itself through the porous wall. It’s like a version of Plato’s cave allegory once again.

Outside the visible spectrum, the human eye is useless. The same is true for human hearing with its limited audio frequency range. We can’t see into the ultraviolet range, for example, and what if the things we deem supernatural are just the out-of-range stuff we have no way of seeing? Our senses only allow us to experience a portion of reality. But the human mind is something else entirely. I don’t think it is designed to be comfortable with having to make do with limited sensory perception. I believe that creative expression — visual arts, music, literature — the imaginative ones, anyway — is a form of compensation. It’s the human mind trying to make sense of this strange world. It’s the human mind grappling with its limited sensory perception and inadequate feelers. The more active the attempt to compensate, the better the resulting creative work. What I mean by “better” is that the creative work is more deeply imaginative. It may look familiar but it is obviously transplanted from outside the sphere of human existence.   

One of my life-defining moments had to do with being in a darkened room with a lab instructor doing the double-slit experiment, that classic demonstration showing the wavelike and particle-like properties of matter and light. I was in college then. This was in the late 1990s. I already knew what was going to happen when light passes through the slits, as well as the reason for the weird patterns behind the slits. But to see the results in real life — it was just mindblowing, truly crazy magical that I emerged from it a new person. For a moment there, I was convinced — and still do — that there’s intrinsic weirdness in just about everything in this universe. When reduced to subatomic sizes or magnified to enormous star-scale dimensions, all things won’t behave in a neat, rational Newtonian manner. Writing about the uncanny puts me back inside that darkened room, with that lab instructor and his magical flourish and my younger self wrestling with things that don’t make sense — but they are happening and are existing precisely because they don’t really have to make sense in order to exist.

WFR: What do you gain in your writing from making the unreal matter-of-fact?

KOM: I get to frame the unreal in such a way that it is grounded in my world, my material reality. It is not some lofty, fantastical concept anymore. When I make it matter-of-fact, I take out whatever is sacred from it. And because it is no longer sacred, I can then make it speak my language and have it use my symbols. I get to make it seem familiar and bend it to fit my misanthropic mythology where nonhuman animals reign supreme. Because it seems familiar, I increase my chances of being able to understand it better. To understand is to have power. It is why I get a high after writing something I feel was able to effectively stage the unreal in the realm of the mundane. I guess “staging” is what I’m actually doing. Like in real estate. To sell houses, professional “stagers” stage rooms in a house even if what they are in fact selling is an empty house. They put in a vase of fresh flowers, the vase angled perfectly so it adds interest to the prospective buyer’s line of sight. They put in a nice throw pillow in a strategic place, creased at a perfect spot so that the creased pillow evokes comfort. They put in a mirror at a sweet spot for adding depth and light. More or less, my body of writing is like this — all staging, bringing about livability in a totally empty house. I am offering possibilities, for example, of how a house should be.

WFR: Is distance from narrative or character something you think about?

KOM: Yes, but not as much as being consistent with the interconnectedness I’ve laid out for the various characters and places in my succeeding books.

1470WFR: How does a story usually come to you? What initial type of inspiration?

KOM: Most of my stories usually spring from a compelling visual that I can’t shake off such as the image of a boy who lives in a house that doubles as his body. It can also be a scene in a movie or a book. A swing that suddenly starts moving even if nobody’s on it — that became “The Playground” in Age of Blight. Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible rock-climbing Dead Horse Point in Utah — that became the dude hanging precariously while holding on to a protruding rockface in “History of the World,” the last story in Age of Blight.

WFR: After inspiration, what makes you excited about your writing?

KOM: That it is finished and may soon be published. That it is a part of me and it is out there in the world and somebody else might read it and see right through me.

WFR: How does your poetry influence your fiction?

KOM: In poetry, I think on a sentence-by-sentence, line-by-line basis. I think of where to cut a line. I pay attention to sounds of successive words. I tell a story by not focusing on telling the story. I am intuiting how a story should be even as I segue into other unrelated stories. This is how I usually write poems. And this mindset influences my fiction mainly by diluting it with needless gunk. For example, I wax poetic when I shouldn’t.     

WFR: In putting together Age of Blight what did you decide to leave out and why?

KOM: I did not decide to leave anything out. The original manuscript was much, much longer than the resulting book. The extraneous parts were cut during editing. The lackluster areas were pointed out to me for rewriting. I’m so glad the book was free of the waxing-poetic needless gunk.

WFR: Is there a reaction to the collection that has horrified or delighted you?

KOM: I am delighted by all reactions to, both good and bad reactions, as well as critical reception of the book.

WFR: What touchstones do you return to in terms of the influence of other writers?

bob4ukh1KOM: The visceral horror in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood and the first book in the Borderlands series of anthologies. The masterful fusion of the supernatural and psychosis in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall Paper.” The inscrutable time-traveling Other in many of PK Dick’s stories. I also have a long list of ideal specimens for specific scenarios in fiction. Here’s one example. There’s a part in Nomads (Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s novelization of John McTiernan’s screenplay) that has long embodied for me the perfect depiction of the inherently evil Other. In that scene, a main character was riffling through photographs he took during a long-ago Arctic expedition. The character was struck once again by one of the photographs. The photo showed a lone figure of an Eskimo. There was something strangely familiar and deeply unsettling about this particular Eskimo. I am paraphrasing, thus the total loss of potency. But the way Yarbro wrote it — I thought it was flawless and thoroughly non-stereotypical.

Some of my all-time favorite short stories include Saki’s “Sredni Vashtar,” Ray Bradbury’s “The Foghorn” and “The Crowd,” Margaret St. Clair’s “The Perfectionist,” William Hope Hodgson’s “The Voice in the Night,” Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model,” Howard Waldrop’s “Mr. Goober’s Show,” Ian Watson’s “Caucus Winter,” John Shirley’s “Equilibrium,” Dan Chaon’s “The Bees,” Michael Shaara’s “Orphans of the Void,” John Brunner’s “The Clerks of Domesday,” Karl Edward Wagner’s “Sticks,” E. B. White’s “The Door,” Howard Fast’s “The Large Ant,” Kuttner/Moore’s “Mimsy Were the Borogoves…,” and Simon Bewick’s “Special Edition.”

WFR: Can you remember the first time or times you encountered uncanny fiction? What was that like?

KOM: Sometime in my teenage years. I think it was Stephen King’s we-all-float-down-here It. I’ve never really recovered past that point. I knew right then and there that the most important fiction for me had to have something to do with tapping into that cold malignant unknown. Anything less won’t be as satisfying. I worked for like five, six years as a rank-and-file employee in call centers in Manila and Cebu City. In between calls and even while taking calls, I had this little browser window open at the side of the screen. I read like crazy. I read Lovecraft, PK Dick, PDFs of science fiction pulps published in the 1930s-50s. Night after night during those years, I was physically in a swivel chair in a call center, pretending yet again to listen to another first-world complaint. Mentally, I was somewhere else, possibly in the fabled lair of It, where everyone and everything floated.

WFR: Where would you position your work and your career in relation to the contemporary fiction scene? Either genre or non-genre?

KOM: In the international contemporary fiction scene where almost everybody is skilled and intelligent, I position myself and my work as one of the blips in the great radar, a blip that is made unique solely by the fact that my voice is not honed by formal instruction or workshop and that it came from the Philippine south.

In the contemporary fiction scene in my country, however, by principle and because of my geographical location (I am not in Manila), I position myself and my work outside the patronage-politics-based English-language Philippine literary canon. English-language Philippine literature works like an exclusive club for diasporic writing (including works by mostly moneyed Filipino writers who can study in nice universities outside the Philippines, consistently get away with exoticizing Filipino culture in their writings, self-proclaim as an “exile,” or assert a “patriotic” stance in the style of a brown-person version of a white man with savior complex) and (more often than not) realist first-person creative works by writers in Manila, as well as by university-connected writers with sweet ties to Manila. I am not and will never be in this category of Filipino writers writing in English.

Then again, brilliant and innovative English-language Filipino writers thrive outside this system. These writers sometimes make flimsy zines, occasionally self-publish their books, put out works that exhibit broad vision, generally dissociate themselves from the typically private-school-groomed Philippine literati, and take on ambitious and complex themes as opposed to the suffocating realist first-person self-aware miasma. I know some of these Filipino writers in social media. I am with them in spirit. I position myself and my work alongside this group of Filipino writers — alongside them but not within.

WFR: Can you tell us something about either “Beautiful Curse” or “Day of the Builders” that might surprise us? We’re just as happy if you make something up.

WFR: The original “Beautiful Curse” wasn’t as appealing as the final version. Chris of Unnamed Press said that he might cut the story out of the collection. It was a reaction that was perfectly understandable that time and was something I’d be eternally grateful for. I rewrote the story in order to somehow whip it into shape. In the original version, the narrator’s source of torment wasn’t well defined and the ending was an awkward open ending. Now it just hit me that this new ending sounds like that of Matheson’s “Born of Man and Woman.”

Day of the Builders,” on the other hand, is a composite of historical and pre-historic elements — the Russian Empire expansion, the Paleo-Indian civilization of Pre-Columbian America, and Incan religious cosmology as described in The Florentine Codex. I was intentionally vague with the “sickness from the outsiders” bit. I want it to simultaneously insinuate mass hysteria, lack of herd immunity, and the good old supernatural leering its ugly head. The indigenous tribe in that story was in a remote location and therefore would not have acquired immunity to fight off certain diseases common in heavily populated areas. Cultural assimilation, colonization, and industrialization-fueled environmental destruction all go hand in hand in “Day of the Builders.” Although I was fully aware of how the story should end (the more technologically advanced civilization always wins), I still thought these were important issues that should be tackled in fiction. So, I did, and I hoped how I did it worked.