Read Part One here.
Airship Ambassador: How did you round up the group of authors for this anthology?
Jaymee Goh: There is always a selection process—an anthology is essentially a curated volume based on the tastes of the editors and the needs of the theme. But it wasn’t so much a rounding-up process as it was a headless chicken run hoping to receive enough submissions to start with.
The open call went out in June 2014, a little after my PhD qualifying exams. I used the principles espoused in Rose Lemberg’s essay “Encouraging Diversity,” most importantly the points she makes about solicitation, and talking to people. We knew we wanted the slush pile to be predominantly Southeast Asian—and if you say nothing and just plug the call for submissions to the main science fiction fantasy publishing circles, you won’t get that. Part of this is that most Southeast Asian writers don’t haunt those circles. The other part is that many are not inclined to submit to an English-language anthology if they feel their English is not up to snuff, or are intimidated by the fact that the publisher is American. There is a lot of unnecessary lionizing of American publishing, to the disadvantage of the slush pile.
So, if you want the slush pile to be predominantly Southeast Asian, then you must contact people who know them. Birds of a feather do flock together! We contacted friends, whether in Southeast Asia itself, or who knew people in Southeast Asia, and asked them to pass along the submission guidelines. We also sent emails to every single Southeast Asian science fiction writer we knew, asking them to consider submitting to us. (This is how we got Nghi Vo’s “Life Under Glass”!) Assume that for every 10 such solicitations, you’ll only get 1 submission. For every 100 people your guidelines reach, only 1 will actually submit. So you must spread it far and wide! And you must reiterate the process. You must remind the people you want to see submitting, that it is they you wish to see in your slush pile. I don’t know how many times you have to say it for it to sink in, but you have to say it a lot.
You can, after all, only have a selection process if you have things to select from. But we did not have the idea that there were specific people we had to publish—just people we wanted to hear from.
On a related note, I will say that Southeast Asians who worried about their English were much better readers of my guidelines than American writers whose first language was English. Indonesians for whom English was a second language were pointing out that I had left out Indonesia in my list of countries within the guidelines, whereas English-speaking Americans were submitting stories set in Japan or China.
AA: I’ve heard about that submission situation a fair bit over the years about very different kinds of anthologies. Sounds like so many times the message has to go out, and out, and out, before people ‘hear’ it. What are some of the ideas presented about Southeast Asia which you are really glad to see in the book?
JG: There’re some themes which you can expect as a given from the anthology, such as that of anti-colonialism, and technology as a boon and bane. But I think the thing I really love most is the theme of family that runs in most of the stories. And I don’t just mean blood family, though there’s a lot of that—Nghi Vo’s story is of two sisters exploring a mountain range, and Pear Nuallak’s story follows two arcs, a mother’s and her daughter’s, as they come into their identities as queer women and, more importantly, ambitious women who dream beyond their village homes. There’s also the theme of chosen family, like in Olivia’s story where three incredibly different women come together, and they end with a relaxing breakfast, having chosen each other’s company. Ivanna Mendels’ story is also about this kind of love, a very deep abiding one that engenders fierce loyalty. A lot of these characters are petty, not necessarily likable, selfish in many ways, but ultimately they make choices that connect themselves with others around them.
AA: That’s quite a variety. I find it amazing how authors can make so much happen on several levels in a short story format. There’s only so much room for so many stories – how many more stories were there which just couldn’t be squeezed into the final book?
JG: For us it wasn’t so much a case of squeezing stories into the book, so much as it was about stories that were very good, but just didn’t ultimately fit our vision. It’s hard to let them go, but the nice thing about themed anthologies is that you get to read these marvelous stories that you hope to be able to pass along to other editors, so those stories can grace their projects.
AA: Any plans for a sequel?
JG: Not currently. Our publisher, Rosarium, has been trying to keep apace with its growth as a comics purveyor, and anthologies are rarely profitable. The chances of us getting a sequel are higher the more people keep buying the book! But we know for a fact that there are more stories out there to be told, and we certainly hope to be able to have a sequel sometime in the future so we can pull them together.
For now, though, all I’ve got is encouragement to Southeast Asian writers to keep writing their histories into these marvelous inventive ways and send them out, and when the sequel comes, we’ll pull them all into one spot.
AA: When people read The Sea Is Ours, what would you like for them to take away from the stories and the characters that they could apply to their own lives?
JG: Things that folks can “apply to their own lives”? That’s silly; fiction is first and foremost meant to entertain. Secondly, anything you can glean from The Sea Is Ours, I think you can also glean from practically many works of fiction out there.
Thirdly, The Sea Is Ours was a labour of love for fellow Southeast Asians. Anything anyone else pulls from it for their own lives is from their own perspective, and certainly not anything I intend. I want Southeast Asians to see themselves in these stories, or people who at least look like them. I want them to know that they, too, are incredible and inventive and brilliant. Because when you don’t see yourself enough, it becomes hard to imagine yourself in the mirror we call stories.
Perhaps, then, the most simple takeaway I want readers to take away is this: that Southeast Asia is a rich, vibrant place, full of interesting human beings whose cultures and perspectives are different, not so much for novelty value, but as a basic fact of life.
AA: As editor, did you have to be very selective to have a balance of the stories?
JG: This is a very vague question!
Sometimes editors do not have a choice as to what “balance” means. We received many stories featuring the Philippines, so sometimes people think The Sea Is Ours is an anthology of Philippine science fiction since it skews so heavily towards that archipelago (5 out of the 12 stories are set in the Philippines). Ideally I would have had a wider geographical spread—we received no stories about Burma, for example. I would like to have had at least one story for each Southeast Asian country, but that is not how selection works—you have to pick the best stories that fit the anthology theme and shape. And then for the stories which are very good and make the final cut, you work hard with the writer to improve the story until it is the absolute best it can be at the hands of the writer.
We’ll pause here in our chat with Jaymee. Join us for part three when she talks about anthology feedback, comparisons, and the editing experience.
You can support Jaymee and our community by getting your copy of The Sea Is Ours here.
Also, check out her exhibit page at The Steampunk Museum.