This has been a breakout year for S. Qiouyi Lu. The speculative fiction writer—based in Los Angeles and a recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship—has just published their first novella, In the Watchful City. A deft and intricate look at a utopian society that isn’t all that utopian, the book combines a wide array of influences to tell a series of stories that add up to more than the sum of their parts.
You grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, known for its Asian communities but also significant Latino communities and general diversity. How does that inform your point of view?
The biggest impact is that it normalized cultural contact and mixing. People of different backgrounds coexist in the same spaces. I find language to be one of the most salient markers of that coexistence. For example, you can find Spanish-language churches right next to Buddhist temples that conduct services in Vietnamese. The Punjabi grocery store has “Indian Market” on its window in Chinese. You’ll hear at least three languages on an average day—I learned to identify multiple languages from an early age simply because I heard them spoken around me.
I find myself trying to incorporate a diversity of cultures in my writing as a way to reflect the reality in which I grew up. I also feel that the heterogeneity of the region has made me more sensitive to the variations within groups. Just among Chinese Americans, there are a ton of origin stories, cultural practices, political viewpoints.
What drew you to speculative fiction? Who were your early influences?
I grew up with anime and manga and Western writers like Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones. All the work that captivated me had strong world building, which brought to life things that don’t exist in our world—yet the stories also centered on human feelings and experiences. The capacity for imagination is what brings me back over and over again to speculative fiction.
I began writing around fifth grade, when I started with fan fiction. Over the years, I gave personalities to Yu-Gi-Oh! cards; I filled in backstories for the villains of Hunter × Hunter; I wrote a coda for Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy; I ran with the mythos of Supernatural and imagined what angels could be like in nonhuman bodies. I wrote non–fan fiction, too. My writing has always been in conversation with the norms of genre fiction.
Your stories tackle sexual assault, suicide, loss of cultural identity, mental illness, who gets to be human. Yet at their core, they’re love stories.
It’s the extremes that make love as strong as it is in my work. Only after you experience deep sorrow do you have a true appreciation for joy. The love that emerges from difficult narratives has faced a trial and come out stronger. And it’s not just romantic love—we experience so many different forms of love, and it sustains us as people. I think all my stories have some thread of love that pulls characters through even the darkest moments.
“Where There Are Cities, These Dissolve Too” envisions a future in which the Chinese Exclusion Act has been reinstated. Written before COVID-19 and the appalling violence against Asian Americans, it seems scarily prophetic.
Reading U.S. history, we see that racism against Asian Americans never truly goes away. And people’s perceptions of Asian Americans have their roots in early policies and discourse. The Chinese Exclusion Act positioned Chinese immigrants as unassimilable and fundamentally un-American, creating the stereotype that fuels a lot of the xenophobia we keep seeing, especially in the wake of COVID.
It’s said that science fiction reflects the author’s time. Do you think that’s true?
Definitely. The environment we’re in shapes how we conceptualize the world, and those views influence how we conceptualize the future and the unreal.
In that sense, I find science fiction to be a great tool to deconstruct our assumptions, as there’s more room to create alternate ways of viewing society and culture. In the Watchful City presents a world that is queer-normative, where gender is a nonbinary system and there’s nothing unusual about a relationship between two people of the same gender. But I don’t actually make the ideology explicit. Instead, I mostly leave it to the reader to do the other half of the deconstructing. When the reader stumbles on something—the neopronouns, for example—I hope that makes them question their assumptions.
You’re trained as a linguist and work as a translator. As such, you’re always navigating borders, moving between worlds and cultural traditions. How does that manifest in your work?
I focus on sociolinguistics—in particular, language contact. What happens when people who speak different languages come together? How do they adapt? Even without multiple languages, sociolinguistics asks a lot of interesting questions, like, How does our language use reflect the way we understand ourselves? What kind of choices do we make when we navigate between different social groups? Some people code-switch and speak one way with family and another way at work.
My understanding of language is deeply rooted in society. Language contact doesn’t exist without cultural contact. I think this traces back to my upbringing. At times, I’ve literally played the role of translator, like when I accompany relatives with limited English proficiency to run errands; other times, it’s been more social or cultural, like when I explain the norms and expectations of Chinese American communities to an outsider. Perhaps one of the most true-to-life pieces I’ve written about this is “Where a Heart Would Fit Perfectly.” The story is set in Hsi Lai Temple and ties together the Hungry Ghost Festival and Día de los Muertos. It’s all about the bridges that can be built through those connections.
Where do you go from here?
My next book isn’t a sequel to In the Watchful City, but it will tackle some similar themes—language, power, identity. Those themes are so vast that there will never be enough stories to capture their complexity. I’ve also got a couple of stories coming out, the next being “Your Luminous Heart, Bound in Red” in the September/October 2021 issue of Asimov’s. Although it’s not directly connected to “Where There Are Cities, These Dissolve Too,” I think of the stories as foils. “Cities” is about messy, dangerous femininity; “Luminous” is a quieter story about deconstructing toxic masculinity. It’s the Little Red Riding Hood story I’ve always wanted to write, one that subverts the relationship between Red and the Big Bad Wolf. I’m excited for it to be released into the world.•