Interview with Jason Erik Lundberg about his latest novel, Diary of One Who Disappeared (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2019)
by Cyril Wong
Diary of One Who Disappeared by Jason Erik Lundberg is the latest addition to the genre of speculative fiction that has taken root and is growing in Singapore, as seen in the rapid increase in publications, readership, and critical acclaim for works such JY Yang’s “silkpunk” novellas and Nuraliah Norasid’s prize-winning The Gatekeeper. Being an author and anthologist of over twenty books, including Red Dot Irreal (2011), Strange Mammals (2013), Embracing the Strange (2013), as well as the founding editor of LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction (2012–2018), American transplant Lundberg may have played no small part in expanding the popularity of a category of writing that still dances rebelliously between literary and pulp.
Lundberg’s latest narrative is set in 2040. An envoy of the North American Union, Lucas Lehrer has been tasked to offer a political partnership to the Southeast Asian nation of Tinhua, but in a reversal of fortune becomes a fugitive instead. Against a backdrop of societal instability and growing nativism, he befriends a young woman who is not what she seems; in fact, she may not be from our universe at all. I had a chance to chat with Jason about his book, speculative writing in general, and how it is thriving in our corner of the world.
Cyril Wong: What would you say Diary of One Who Disappeared is about? What Southeast Asian country inspired the realm of Tinhau, and why?
Jason Erik Lundberg: In short, the novella is about a civil servant named Lucas Lehrer who travels from his country in the West to a Southeast Asian island-nation, with the offer of political partnership. Secretly, he also hopes that this alliance will shame his leaders back home into liberating and enfranchising a minority of the population who has superpowers. The talks unfortunately break down, but Lucas decides to stay on; when he does, he discovers that his subconscious desires start coming true.
The North American Union and Tinhau are the parallel-universe equivalents of the USA and Singapore. For this story I wanted the action to take place in a Singapore-esque country, since I’ve now lived here for 12 years and continue to find it fascinating, but I didn’t want to be constrained by all of Singapore’s cultural and historical baggage.
CW: Was Lucas Lehrer inspired by yourself in any way, since you are a writer who was originally from the States and who has lived and worked in Singapore as an editor and author for many years now?
JEL: Lucas is perhaps my most autobiographical character: I moved from the USA to Singapore in 2007 (though under very different circumstances), and many of my adjustments to living in this country are reflected in Lucas’ hapless drive to understand Tinhau. His marriage is also falling apart; I got divorced several years ago (although my ex-wife is nothing like his), and so I was able to explore the emotional pain of marital dissolution from a position of authority.
There are significant differences as well, such as the fact that I’m a Buddhist and Lucas is an evangelical Christian. Also, even though he considers himself an ally to the imprisoned superhumans of his homeland (called swees), it takes him a long time to actually accept them as full human persons, largely because of the NAU’s indoctrination and Othering of swees as subhuman; I would like to think that I’m much more open-minded and accepting of people who are different from me, and I was raised to believe that “different” has no inherent value of goodness or badness.
That said, Lucas is not solely based on me. Much of my own experience was infused into his character, but he’s actually an amalgamation of a number of people I’ve known or been acquainted with, all of whom are also sprinkled into the stew of his self.
CW: The narrative of the novel is presented through missives and official announcements. Why this chosen format of communiqués, letters, emails, etc. in telling a story?
JEL: As much as I enjoy straightforward narratives, I’ve always been drawn to those that employ methods such as these to tell the story, as if you the reader unearthed them somewhere and then have to piece it all together. Bram Stoker’s Dracula does this, as well as Stephen King’s first novel Carrie, and countless other works. There’s something about a book-as-found-object that is very appealing to me.
In addition, even though the story takes place in the year 2040, the NAU has experienced decades of hardship as the result of infrastructural destruction. They have not advanced, either socially or technologically, nearly as much as Tinhau has, and so therefore they still rely on more “old-fashioned” methods of communication. Structuring the book as a series of letters and diary entries further reflects this reality.
CW: Was there any urgent aspect of our present political realities that you intended to highlight, even if tangentially, through your narrative?
JEL: I finished writing the novella in 2014, and even though the politics of the book were present then, they seem tamer and even naïve to me now. The world is a very different place in 2019, with right-wing nationalism, xenophobia and bigotry on the rise everywhere, and so I felt it important to reflect this during the editing process. NAU President Jarret (who is very much an echo of Octavia E. Butler’s character of the same name in Parable of the Talents) is Trumpian in the extreme, although even worse, because he is actually competent and conniving in his brutalising of the Other; he even retains a personal militia of Redcaps, based on Hitler’s Brownshirts, although all of this is offstage world-building.
When Lucas arrives in Tinhau, the country feels like a beacon of enlightened acceptance compared to his homeland, a utopia that he finds himself dazzled by, even though he’d already done lots of research on the place. But within that utopia lies the simmering ugliness of intolerance, exemplified in the Minister of Defence, who stokes hatred for Tinhau’s swees, even though, by law, they possess all the same rights as any Tinhauan citizen. It’s not that this attitude has followed Lucas from one country to another, but that it can be found anywhere, anytime, and we have to be vigilant as compassionate human beings to always push back against it.
CW: What authors have shaped you and the writing of this book?
JEL: Very directly, in addition to Butler, Stoker and King, mentioned above: Franz Kafka, with Amerika; Philip K. Dick, with The Man in the High Castle; John Kessel, with Corrupting Dr. Nice; and Eugene Myers, with Quantum Coin. However, many writers have shaped me over the years, and their influence can be felt in the novella as well: George Orwell, Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Carroll, Ursula K. Le Guin, Salman Rushdie, Jeff VanderMeer, Aimee Bender, Italo Calvino, Haruki Murakami, Terri Windling, and the list goes on. It’s impossible to give a truly comprehensive answer, because every book I have ever read has shaped me in some way, whether big or small.
CW: The novella contains a spiritual perspective about our interconnectedness as sentient beings (between the swees and the non-swees, for example, in the book). Can you say more about it and how has such a perspective shaped your writing generally?
JEL: As I said, I’m a Buddhist (although I don’t meditate as often as I’d like) and a big believer in karmic connection. None of us exists in a bubble; we all owe our continued existence to countless other beings on the planet. The people who raise us, become our friends, pay our wages, build and maintain our roads, regulate our clean water and air, cook our food, sew our clothing, treat our illnesses, etc. We can’t but be caught up in this web of interconnectedness, where any action on the web affects all the others on it.
Therefore, we can’t move through the world as though we aren’t standing on the shoulders of all of these people. There’s a very selfish isolationist way of thinking that has become more popular lately, which fails to recognise that we should be grateful every moment of our lives for what we have, because of the myriad kindnesses of other sentient beings. If there’s anything that I hope readers take away from Diary, it’s that we should be kinder to one another, and that starts with being kinder to yourself.
CW: Do you personally believe in the science of parallel universes – an idea that is referenced especially towards the end of the novel as part of a significant plot twist – and what can such possibilities teach us about ourselves?
JEL: So far, the idea seems to be a mathematical abstraction, more of a thought experiment than anything else, but an utterly fascinating one. Many Worlds theory allows us to conceive of other realities and other ways of being, and reminds us that even the most rigid and rooted cultural or political structure was once thought up by someone, that such structures are not inviolable and can, in fact, be changed.
Parallel universes play a part in the novella from the very start; as mentioned above, Lucas’ world is not our world. The idea that the USA has gone through such deprivation over decades that it had to form a borderless alliance with Canada and Mexico is an interesting one to play with (and was actually inspired by conspiracy theories that claim this has happened in our own world without our knowledge). In this manner, even though the book is set in the future, it is also an alternate history.
On a personal level, it makes me feel immensely grateful for this life I live. In another universe I might be svelte and wealthy and wildly famous, but in this one, I work an incredibly fulfilling job, am the father of an amazing little girl, and get to write books that people actually read. In this life, I have purpose and contentment, which I constantly remind myself of when times are tough.
CW: I cannot help but also think of Czech composer Leoš Janáček’s operatic song-cycle, The Diary of One Who Vanished, when reading your work. The opera features similar themes of emigration and romantic adventure. Is your novel inspired by Janáček's music in any way?
JEL: It is indeed. I came across the Janáček piece after I’d started work on the novella, but before I had nailed down a title, and was taken aback by how closely it mirrored the subtitle of Kafka’s first novel, Amerika: The Man Who Disappeared. (As well as the fact that Kafka was a fellow Czech.) It all fit in with the themes of adaptation I was already exploring, and in the way that anyone disappears, in a way, into a new culture after emigration. The love story was also an inspiration for the introduction of Yu-Wei in my book, although things don’t go quite the same for her and Lucas as they do for the lovers in Janáček’s opera.
I must say that I’ve only listened to the piece once all the way through. I am a Highly Sensitive Person, and am especially affected by music (which made things sometimes difficult when playing the tuba in the various wind ensembles of my youth); Janáček’s composition haunted me for months afterward, and I occasionally felt myself overcome with emotion when thinking about it. This is what great art does; it lives within you and becomes a part of who you are.
CW: I often suspect you are responsible for the greater attention that speculative fiction (however it may be defined) is receiving in our part of the world. Are you, indeed, partly responsible? And what do you think about the state of speculative fiction right now in the region?
JEL: First of all, thank you; it’s incredibly kind of you to say so. And it’s very difficult to answer this in the affirmative without sounding like a conceited egomaniac, but I shall try.
It has in fact been my conscious mission since moving to Singapore in 2007 to elevate the status of speculative fiction in the country. It was a three-pronged strategy: 1) to publish my own collection of Singaporean-influenced sf (which came about with Red Dot Irreal in 2011), 2) to curate an anthology of new speculative fiction by Singaporean writers, some of whom had never written sf before, or even much prose (Fish Eats Lion, 2012), and then 3) to expand this reach to all of Southeast Asia, and provide a regular venue for ASEAN fictionists, poets and comics creators to showcase their creative work (LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction, 2012–2018).
The fact that these efforts have succeeded in some small way has been gratifying to me. Because of the existence of these publications, writers in the region (and especially in Singapore) have felt the freedom to write their own sf, as a valid and respected form of expression. But I am certainly not a one-man show, and have relied on the talents and friendships of many other people to accomplish my aims, such as the publishers, fellow editors, contributors and readers of these works.
I can’t speak much outside of Singapore on the state of speculative fiction in the region (except to say that it is booming in the Philippines, and has been for at least the past 15 years). In Singapore, sf has emerged out of its infancy, but is still a relatively young genre here. A handful of Singaporean sf writers have seen some attention internationally, but their concerns tend away from their homeland, in the effort to become universally palatable. Writers I’m excited about, who are actually exploring the Singaporean condition using the fantastical, include Shelly Bryant, Clara Chow, Manish Melwani, Ng Yi-Sheng, Nuraliah Norasid, Victor Fernando R. Ocampo, Wayne Rée, and Daryl Qilin Yam.
And so I see things getting better and better, for Singapore in particular, and for Southeast Asia more generally. The stigma of speculative fiction has lessened considerably over the last 12 years in this part of the world I’ve called home, and that can only lead to more and varied non-realist writing. Long may it last.
Find Diary of One Who Disappeared by Jason Erik Lundberg here.
Cyril Wong is a poet and fictionist in Singapore.