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A flock of birds

Colophon: Her Sacred Spirit Soars

It occurs to me that I never posted a colophon for my one full-length short story publication this year, “Her Sacred Spirit Soars” (podcast). Well, better late than never, right?

This story has been through so much, y’all, but it’s a standing reminder to me of how much of a story comes out in the revision process. My first draft of this story (written for the Fall 2015 Short Fiction course at the Brainery) was an attempt to write a selkie story that wasn’t a selkie story, and then I wrote a selkie story, so this one could be free of that weight—then I started turning it into a story about mythical birds, about love and loss, about depression and recovery.

I’m not exactly sure how I came up with the idea, except that I was searching out mythical creatures from Chinese folklore and came across the qianqian (or kimkim). I found myself fascinated, but also frustrated, as I couldn’t find very much information on them online, whether in English or in Chinese. So I decided to face my diasporic impostor syndrome—Who’s to say I’m any authority on Chinese culture; who’s to say I can play with and bend with it?—and do what I wanted and imagine how I saw fit: after all, vampires and werewolves have so many iterations and one doesn’t have to be a cultural expert to play with them.

So I ran with it, this weird idea about symbiotic birds and reviving coma patients and electroconvulsive therapy and body swapping and amnesia and love and loss and depression and recovery, and it coalesced into a story that ended up working. Which teaches me to just go with the flow of my ideas and trust that they’ll find an audience.

Part of this story draws from personal experience: I don’t keep it a secret that I deal with my own share of mental health problems. When I think about this story, I recall sitting in my therapist’s office and struggling to explain to her why I write the stories I write: “I guess I always end up writing what I needed to hear when I was younger—messages of hope and reassurance.”

And this story exemplifies that—it’s a story that says you can love again after you’ve suffered a loss; it’s a story that says there are people out there who will support you, that says things will get better, even if things don’t turn out perfect. It’s a story about acceptance, one that doesn’t necessarily have to be romantic to be true. (Not that there’s anything wrong with romantic stories, but I wrote this story on some level to be an aromantic show of love—it’s as much platonic love as it is any other kind of love.)

I also created a mixtape that collects a few songs that play off the mood of the story as it progresses:

And here’s the song that I nicked the title from; Eric Whitacre is one of my favorites:

I hope you enjoyed this story and my notes, and as always, thanks for reading. ♥

Cover photo by Micolo J

Reading for the Rhysling

Voting for the Rhysling Award is now open! The SFPA has a page with all nominated works; I’ve also read through this year’s Rhysling anthology and made a long list of the poems I liked. Here they are, for those of you who want some poetry recs~ 😄

Short Poems

13 of 73 eligible.

Long Poems

9 of 44 eligible.

It’s going to be hard narrowing these down to my top three in each category—there’s so much amazing work! Good luck to all the nominees! 🎉

Onomatopoetic Verbs in “Coyote Invents the Land of the Dead” by Kij Johnson

Kij Johnson’s “Coyote Invents the Land of the Dead” is a mythic tale of love and loss that I found engrossing, in part because of the strange, evocative language. Johnson plays with sound and form, and Kate Baker’s narration of the piece brings that playfulness to life. It’s an entirely different experience listening to the story than only reading it.

One part of the story that struck me was Johnson’s creation of onomatopoetic verbs to describe the sounds of the seashells (emphasis mine):

The sand around her was heaped everywhere with mounded massy dark shells, pyramided into black piles as high as her waist, and over the sand/water-whisper the piles chirked when a crawling wave touched them.

[…]

Dee pushed the shells aside with her feet as she walked, and they chunkled against one another.

It’s such an evocative shorthand, one that recurs throughout the story: chirked, chunkled, skrankles, chirking, chirpling, chinkering, chirtling, chirtle, skankling. Removing morphology like -ed and -ing and transcribing the words in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) according to my and Kate Baker’s general U.S. accents produces the following pronunciation list:1

Word Pronunciation
chirk [t͡ʃɚk]
chunkle [t͡ʃəŋkl̩]
skrankle [skɹejŋkl̩]
chirple [t͡ʃɚpl̩]
chinker [t͡ʃɪŋkɹ̩]
chirtle [t͡ʃɚɹtl̩]
skankle [skejŋkl̩]

Fricatives like <s>2 and affricates like <ch> create grating sounds, while stops like <p>, <t>, and <k> mimic the sound of seashells colliding. Also notable are the vowel choices—<i> and <a>, perhaps to mimic the ringing and clanging of the shells, like windchimes in a beach breeze.

I’m not sure what to make of the strong use of <r>, though. There was an instance of the existing onomatopoeia “chirp” in the text, so perhaps the use of <r> echoes that. <r> also lowers the vocal quality of the <i>, lending some auditory variation between words like “chirk” versus “chinker.” <l> could have a similar effect, but I can’t be sure with only this cursory analysis.

I’d love to do a more in-depth study of diction, word choice, and sound choice in this piece, as there’s such a melodic quality to it, but that amount of work as I envision it is beyond my capacity at the moment. 😅 Just thought I’d show some appreciation for the piece by pointing out a particular aspect of it that I enjoyed.

If you have any further thoughts, I’d love to hear them in the comments below 😄!


  1. You don’t need to know IPA to follow along—I’m mostly tabling the pronunciations to clarifies how I’m reading them, for those who want more nuance about it.
  2. I’m using angled bracklets (<>) and spelling instead of IPA for readability among non-linguists.

Liner Notes: “The Lies You Learned”

1941 poster of the Great Levante, a magician
1941 poster of the Great Levante (via National Library NZ on the Commons)

I started writing “The Lies You Learned” on a plane ride back to Columbus from California in January. The first line took root in my mind; mesmerized, I opened a new document and began typing, wanting to know more.

But it took me a number of drafts to get the poem to where I wanted it to be. It was originally a poem about diaspora, about losing your mother tongue and having it supplanted by an oppressor’s tongue—but the poem started veering in other directions, so I scrapped that premise.

Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that that premise transformed. It became less about positioning a mother tongue against an assimilated tongue and more about how we learn to speak about ourselves, and about our position in relation to others. How we come to understand ourselves as racialized subjects, and how that understanding intersects with explorations of sexuality and self-worth, two separate concepts that too often get tied together in unfortunate ways.

The draft sat there for a while, speaking only of the kinds of lies that white supremacy and sexism place on people. But there was a spark, a circuit to the logic, that was missing.

I’m grateful to Alyssa Wong for pushing me to take “The Lies You Learned” one step further: “We see what the illusionist gets from the apprentice,” Alyssa said, “but what does the apprentice get from the illusionist?” That question stuck with me, because it’s not as simple as having lies imposed on us. Sometimes, we can work them to our benefit, use them to play up images that appeal to others, to gain a superficial kind of power.

But it’s never satisfying. It’s never true. It leaves a wrenching in your gut, an ashen taste on your tongue. But if you try to strip yourself of those lies, of white supremacy, or sexism, oh—it’s not easy. It’s a process. And I deliberately left readers with the narrator at the beginning of that journey.

Because the journey never truly ends. But we can still take that first step with others, learn to unravel those lies with other apprentices’ support. Even if I consider myself further along in that journey than I was before, I still find myself falling back into lies and traps, only ever being extricated through the help of friends who can see through to my truths.

This poem is very dear to me and was at times difficult to write because of how personal it was. But I hope that it speaks to others, whether or not you’re racialized in the same way, or gendered in the same way, because the truth is that we all learn lies that need to be excised.

My betas for this piece were Sonja Natasha, Alyssa Wong, and Nicasio Andres Reed. Thank you for your time and support 💓

Tracked changes for Chimera.

Colophon: Chimera

It was such a great experience to work with Ken Liu to bring “Chimera” to anglophone readers. 😄 Even after reading all 18,000 words about a dozen times, I still love the piece, and I hope you all do too. It’s my first professional translation, and I’m excited to bring more pieces to everyone in the future. 💖 And because many of you asked, here are some tidbits on the process of translation.

Background

I got started translating because of a happy coincidence: I had volunteered to podcast “Seventh Day of the Seventh Moon” by Ken Liu and, in preparing to narrate the story, I emailed him to ask about name pronunciation. I asked a couple questions about translation as well. After a few rounds of conversation, Ken Liu offered to work with me to do a translation together as training, and of course I said yes to the opportunity.

I first helped Ken Liu to beta his translation of “Everybody Loves Charles” by Bao Shu, which provided me the opportunity to see how he worked with the Chinese text. Then, I did the first pass translation on “Chimera” by Gu Shi. We had a few rounds of tightening the prose and proofing before we passed the translation back to Gu Shi for approval, then to editor Neil Clarke for acceptance.

Challenges

Streamlining

One thing Ken Liu said in our early emails that stuck with me was that the ability to express yourself in English can be more important than your ability in the original language. As I learned through this translation, even if I translated every word of the original “correctly,” the end result would read awkwardly because it’d still be in a clunky, Chinesified English, rather than in a more fluid and natural English.

Additionally, streamlining isn’t only about cutting words—it can also involve combining them. Do I say that she laughed childishly, or that she giggled? The former may reflect the Chinese phrasing, but the latter gets more of the atmosphere and bridges the semantics to what anglophone readers expect. The skill of knowing which word is the most compact, yet also conveys as much of the same semantics as the original, requires strong ability in English.

In my first pass, I retained too much of the Chinese and Ken Liu had to streamline the text a lot, as you can see in the featured image above and in the examples below.

Before:

“Evan.” She quickens her footsteps to stand before me. “Darling, long time no see.”

As she comes close, a delicate, warm perfume wafts from her sleeve, the exact same scent from that year. I suddenly recall what she said as she bore her heart out to me, not long after we were married:

“Lately I’ve been thinking—if I were to take a picture of every one of my expressions, then I could write a dissertation. Managing Emotions and Social Responses; what do you think?[”]

After:

“Evan.” She quickens her footsteps. “Darling, long time no see.”

A delicate, warm perfume wafts from her approaching figure, the same as the scent in my memory. I recall what she said as she bared her heart to me, not long after we were married:

“Lately I’ve been thinking—I could write my dissertation based on pictures of my expressions: Managing Emotions and Social Responses. What do you think?[”]

They feel like minor differences, but after tightening, the initial 19,000-word translation went down to 18,000 words and gained a lot of readability. It’s always a delicate balance between being faithful to the original and streamlining text for different readers’ tastes. I believe it was also Ken Liu who said that translators are editors as well: we tailor the text to the sensibilities of different locales as part of the porting process.

Another part of the story that we had to streamline was the presentation at the release ceremony. The initial translation of the presentation clocked in at around 3,000 words, but after summarizing some paragraphs and rearranging part of the text, we streamlined it to around 2,000 words. Chinese science fiction tends to go heavy on the info dumps, which Ken Liu and I both don’t mind, but we’re aware of the fact that they can read as amateur writing to anglophone audiences. We kept most of the info dumps in the story intact, but we both made the editorial call that that section was getting long to the point of interfering with pacing.

Tense

One of the features of the translation that Ken Liu and I initially disagreed on was the tense that I chose. Chinese doesn’t have tense, so I couldn’t exactly reference the original text in making my decisions on what tense(s) to use in English—of course, without tense, there’s still a sense of relative time and sequence of events, which I had to convey in English. My decision was between using present vs. past or past vs. past perfect to indicate those differences, plus whether I wanted to use only one set, or potentially both sets.

I ended up using present vs. past for the sections on Earth, and past vs. past perfect for the sections on the spaceship. The reason why I did this was that the portions on Earth have a lot of reminiscing, and I felt it would be smoother to have a present/past shift, versus constant past/past perfect shifts. The sections on the spaceship, however, were pretty consistent in their timeframe, so having it in past tense throughout felt fine to me. Plus, the differences in tense help to differentiate the two settings and voices.1

Final Thoughts

For as long as I’ve been learning the language, especially as a heritage speaker, I’ve felt a lot of imposter syndrome over my Chinese ability. While translating, I relied on dictionaries to help me parse through a lot of unknown vocabulary—but in the end, I still did a good job for my first translation, according to Ken Liu. 😊 I made a few mistakes, but with Ken’s collaboration, we translated an 18,000-word novella—I have to have some kind of skill in Chinese in order to help do that successfully. 😉

I’ve already started working on another translation, one that isn’t a commission between Clarkesworld and Storycom. I’m doing that one entirely on my own—it’s a little scary, but I have my fingers crossed that between my skill and my betas’ attention, we can get the translation into tip-top shape. I’ll definitely have an announcement here if/when that one sells. 😄

If you have specific passages or questions that I didn’t touch on here, feel free to leave me a comment below. 💕 Thanks for reading!

  1. SPOILERS: It also makes it that much cooler when the two stories converge.