This premiere issue of LONTAR presents speculative writing from and about the Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia, Singapore, Laos and Vietnam.
Inside these pages, you’ll find: a post-apocalyptic Manila from Kate Osias; a utopian Kuala Lumpur from Zen Cho; a haunting military excursion down the Yellow River from Elka Ray Nguyen; a young Laotian journalist’s place in the sensationalist future of news reporting from award-winner Paolo Bacigalupi; speculative poetry from Chris Mooney-Singh, Ang Si Min and Bryan Thao Worra; and an unusual exploration of Philippine magic systems from Paolo Chikiamco.
- Etching the Lontar | Jason Erik Lundberg (Editorial)
- Departures | Kate Osias (Fiction)
- Love in the Time of Utopia | Zen Cho (Fiction)
- Philippine Magic: A Course Catalogue | Paolo Chikiamco (Non-Fiction)
- Jayawarman 9th Remembers the Dragon Archipelago | Chris Mooney-Singh (Poetry)
- The Immortal Pharmacist | Ang Si Min (Poetry)
- Stainless Steel Nak | Bryan Thao Worra (Poetry)
- The Yellow River | Elka Ray Nguyen (Fiction)
- The Gambler | Paolo Bacigalupi (Fiction Reprint)
Behind the Scenes of “Departures”
The original concept for this story was to write it from the perspective of Enzo. Unfortunately, after a thousand words in, I realized that the story was much larger than I had originally thought. Which meant I would have to commit far more than I could afford. (Because of certain practical realities, I have a day job; also, I have a five-year-old who likes to explain to me why he likes Nightwing over Batman and how he absolutely needs a cape now and why I should listen to him hum the Angry Birds tune every time he feels like it.) I decided to scrap that monster of a story and turned my attention to Carla, who, thank goodness, had a self-contained journey.
One of the short stories I’ve been toying with recently (but have not actually written) is Natalie’s point of view. In my mind—as most stories are, I suppose, when they are first conceived—it is a beautiful depiction of love and growing up and how the world moves on as a contrast to a place that doesn’t. But the words have yet to obediently find themselves on paper so all I have are visions. Perhaps someday, when I myself have grown up, I will have enough craft and skill to actually write down.
Behind the Scenes of “Love in the Time of Utopia”
What first sparked “Love in the Time of Utopia” was the idea of someone saying to someone else, in horror: “You can’t message her on Facebook! That would be so forward!”
I liked the idea of writing a story about the interaction of Regency novel norms and modern social media. But as I tried to work out why you would have those sorts of norms in a near-future version of Malaysia, the story became more about the idea of meritocracy than about etiquette. “Meritocracy” is a word we throw around a lot in Malaysia, as a remedy for all our ills, but the story examines what it might mean if we did implement a strict meritocracy based on, say, academic achievement.
(I originally set the story in Singapore, but for some reason that didn’t work.)
So it’s kind of a gentle satire, but it’s also just a love story, and a coming of age story. Hopefully it works on at least one of those axes.
Behind the Scenes of “Philippine Magic: A Course Catalogue”
I have a confession to make: I’m not a big Harry Potter fan. Oh, I read and enjoyed all the books (maybe except for Book 5), and watched all the movies (still think the 3rd was the best), but every time the story would try to present itself as being a worldwide magical conflict, I’d have to battle an urge to sigh. I just didn’t see a lot of non-Western magical types/motifs represented in the Harry Potter world. As for specifically Philippine magic, yeah… no. While that’s hardly surprising, that kind of thing still keeps me from truly immersing myself in that world, even if I found aspects of it very inviting, because it felt like a world that has no place for people from my neck of the woods. And that’s a shame, because there’s a rich diversity of magical practices in the Philippines.
So I’ve always thought about what a Philippine magical school might be like, one which used and taught magic in a way that magic has appeared in our culture, our old stories and urban legends. When Jason asked me to contribute something to LONTAR, I realized I didn’t want to submit a story. What I wanted to do was imagine that Philippine school of magic, and in providing a list of courses that are taught within its hypothetical halls, give some insight into our own traditions of magic. It was a… much more daunting task than I’d originally anticipated, and in no way does the list I created even scratch the surface of the myriad magical traditions, ancient and modern, found in these islands. But it’s a start.
Behind the Scenes of “The Immortal Pharmacist”
My friend, Hemma, and I were in Penang for a holiday. One night, she asked me to tell her a story. So in the dark, I spun a yarn about the rabbit on the moon wanting a mate. The yarn got terribly tangled and bizarre, but it stayed wrapped around my brain. When I came back, this little poem unravelled from that yarn. I’m going to keep the rest of it to myself—it was really a story for the nighttime, not for print.
—Ang Si Min
Behind the Scenes of “The Yellow River”
While I’ve always loved to read—and write—mysteries, I was never attracted to stories about the supernatural. In fact, I thought “speculative fiction” meant “edgy”.
A few years ago I found a musty, dog-eared copy of Lost Girls in my local gym in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The debut novel of a Canadian writer named Andrew Pyper, Lost Girls came out in 2000 and won that year’s Arthur Ellis Award, the top prize for mystery and crime writing in Canada. If I’d known it was a ghost story I wouldn’t have read it. But once I started, I was hooked. Although I’ve lived in Asia for 20 years, I grew up in Canada. Maybe it was the small-town Canadian setting that reeled me in, or just Pyper’s haunting but wildly beautiful writing. While the ending was unsatisfying, I hardly cared. I can still feel that book, so mysterious and disturbing.
Since then I’ve written two short stories that classify as “speculative”. One, “The Yellow River”, is included in this inaugural edition of LONTAR. The other, “You Get What You Pay For”, will appear in Monsoon’s upcoming anthology Crime Scene Asia: Asia’s Best Crime Fiction. Much to my surprise, a Catholic miracle and a vengeful ghost have crept into my novel-in-progress, which recounts the 1930’s murder of a French priest in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. What’s next? I can’t even speculate.
—Elka Ray Nguyen
Extract from “The Gambler”
My father was a gambler. He believed in the workings of karma and luck. He hunted for lucky numbers on license plates and bet on lotteries and fighting roosters. Looking back, I think perhaps he was not a large man, but when he took me to the muy thai fights, I thought him so. He would bet and he would win and laugh and drink laolao with his friends, and they all seemed so large. In the heat drip of Vientiane, he was a lucky ghost, walking the mirror-sheen streets in the darkness.
Everything for my father was a gamble: roulette and blackjack, new rice variants and the arrival of the monsoons. When the pretender monarch Khamsing announced his New Lao Kingdom, my father gambled on civil disobedience. He bet on the teachings of Mr. Henry David Thoreau and on whisper sheets posted on lampposts. He bet on saffron-robed monks marching in protest and on the hidden humanity of the soldiers with their well-oiled AK-47s and their mirrored helmets.
My father was a gambler, but my mother was not. While he wrote letters to the editor that brought the secret police to our door, she made plans for escape. The old Lao Democratic Republic collapsed, and the New Lao Kingdom blossomed with tanks on the avenues and tuk-tuks burning on the street corners. Pha That Luang’s shining gold chedi collapsed under shelling, and I rode away on a UN evacuation helicopter under the care of kind Mrs. Yamaguchi.
From the open doors of the helicopter, we watched smoke columns rise over the city like nagas coiling. We crossed the brown ribbon of the Mekong with its jeweled belt of burning cars on the Friendship Bridge. I remember a Mercedes floating in the water like a paper boat on Loi Kratong, burning despite the water all around.
Afterward, there was silence from the land of a million elephants, a void into which light and Skype calls and e-mail disappeared. The roads were blocked. The telecoms died. A black hole opened where my country had once stood.
Sometimes, when I wake in the night to the swish and honk of Los Angeles traffic, the confusing polyglot of dozens of countries and cultures all pressed together in this American melting pot, I stand at my window and look down a boulevard full of red lights, where it is not safe to walk alone at night, and yet everyone obeys the traffic signals. I look down on the brash and noisy Americans in their many hues, and remember my parents: my father who cared too much to let me live under the self-declared monarchy, and my mother who would not let me die as a consequence. I lean against the window and cry with relief and loss.
Every week I go to temple and pray for them, light incense and make a triple bow to Buddha, Damma, and Sangha, and pray that they may have a good rebirth, and then I step into the light and noise and vibrancy of America.