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5 Questions with Elizabeth Tan

Published 2nd September, 2019 in Behind the Book

You’re the editor on the West Australian side of this collaborative editing project, but have had an important role in other aspects as well. Can you tell us about what your work has involved, including the challenges and joys of working closely with writers as an editor?

While editing the West Australian stories formed the real bulk of my work for this project, I also collaborated with my counterpart in Singapore, Jon Gresham, to write an introduction for the collection and arrange the stories into a fitting sequence. This latter task was a little intimidating, as I feel that sequencing has such a significant bearing on the pacing and mood of a short story collection. After we’d determined the opening story and the closing story, we searched for resonances between the remaining stories—an affinity of theme (e.g. interconnectivity, addiction, regret), or some commonality in the protagonists’ predicaments and decisions. Instead of separating stories that shared similarities—as would be my regular instinct—we wondered if it might be better, instead, to lean into them. In this way, we liked to see the stories as a series of spiritual pairs.

The challenges of editing turned into joys for this project. My brain is very good at hypothesising things for me to feel anxious about—I worried about overstepping in my editorial suggestions, or misinterpreting the intent of the authors. I was also working with some very accomplished and prolific authors, like Rashida Murphy, David Whish-Wilson, Laurie Steed—what could I possibly have to offer them? I tried to replicate the positive experiences I’ve had in the past as a writer being edited: framing my suggestions as questions, being as specific as possible to the author about what I liked about their story, querying things that I did not understand instead of making assumptions. Many of my anxieties turned out to be unfounded, really: everyone I worked with was completely receptive and delightful to correspond with. It was such a privilege to have a small role in preparing these stories for print. 

You pulled the title of this collection, In This Desert, There Were Seeds, out of one of the contributing authors’ short stories. Can you tell us why this particular line spoke to the anthology?

‘In this desert, there were seeds’ is a line from Diana Rahim’s ‘A Minor Kalahari’, a fable-like story in which a watermelon spontaneously grows in a grey, barren town. When the line appears in the story, it seemed to me less like a beacon of hope and more of a reminder to the protagonist that there is still living to be done—that he is still here, ‘clueless but alive’. 

There was a line in another story that also struck me as a candidate for the collection’s title—‘Another day we are alive’, in Arin Alycia Fong’s ‘Walking on Water’. It would be disingenuous to suggest that all the stories in this collection are hopeful, and I firmly believe that it is not a writer’s obligation to be hopeful. However, this notion of humans just sticking around for another day, still here, like dormant seeds in a desert—this is an honest, humble conception of resilience that feels real to me, in comparison to the kind of empty, grandiose hope which is so often offered elsewhere, in Hollywood narratives and the like.

What are some of the important themes cropping up in the short stories you’ve edited and read for the collection?

Many of the stories are about grief, in all its painful permutations—there are characters here that grieve not only the dead, but lost relationships, lost futures, lost selves. There are also many stories about loneliness. In her story ‘Death Lilies’, Rashida Murphy describes her migrant characters as ‘outsiders trying to become insiders’, which I think is a fitting way to describe the particular loneliness of quite a few of the characters in this collection: characters who feel like outsiders, or who feel that their position as insiders is tenuous—as if your membership of a community can be revoked abruptly at any moment.

A number of the pieces in this collection could be categorised as speculative fiction, and it seems like our literary landscape is making more and more room for this genre—Kill Your Darlings recently put a call out for this work, and you’ve written for this genre. Why do you think we’re becoming more and more fascinated with imagined futures?

The callout for contributions to the anthology asked the question, ‘What are our greatest fears?’ It is perhaps not surprising, then, that a handful of the stories in the anthology touch on extinction and the climate crisis. During my PhD (a rather dusty and distant memory now), my research focused on speculative fiction that dramatised humanity’s anxieties about technology—in particular, the fear that technology makes the human its subject; renders the human subordinate, obsolete. I think speculative fiction about the climate crisis bristles with a similar anxiety about the obsolescence of the human—the awful truth that the earth doesn’t need us; the earth will survive without us. What remains to be seen is whether humans have a place in the earth’s future—and what that ‘place’ must look like. Leslie Thiele’s ‘The Slaughterman’ is one story in the collection that wrestles with this idea: what happens if humans are no longer the priority—if humans are not more or less special than the numerous other lifeforms on earth?

What do you think readers will take away from the collection?

I hope that there’s a little spark of satisfaction whenever the reader recognises a local detail, an accurate slice of West Australian or Singaporean life. I hope readers will take away the assurance that their stories are worthy of representation. 

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