Monday, February 23, 2015

Writing "Unfilial Child"

It recently came to my attention that there were a couple reviews written for the anthology Streets of Shadows which published my story "Unfilial Child" back in September. The reviews had not been published until months later so I missed them at first. I'm very happy to have had my story called out in both of them, considering the number of authors who appear in the anthology!

The first one is from Urban Fantasy Magazine here and The Big Click covers it in a capsule review calling it a "diamond in the rough."

"Unfilial Child" was written in April last year and I had a month to write from start to finish since that is the time between when I discovered the anthology call and when the deadline was. I figured it was tight, but doable (and obviously it was). It was only later that I ended up panicking.

I immediately knew that I wanted to write about Los Angeles's Chinatown, since it's really the only heavily urban area I'm passingly familiar with as something other than a tourist, even though I hadn't been there in years. After my grandmother passed away the reasons to go just became more and more infrequent.

To get my supernatural element I decided to use the myth of the gu huo niao (Mandarin pronunciation, and written 姑獲鳥), a Chinese mythical bird known for stealing children and raising them as her own.

But to get the feel of Chinatown right, I thought I had to do more than just visit it for myself. I also visited my dad, who was able to tell me stories about things he saw in Chinatown as a kid, and stories about my grandmother who had lived there. As we talked, I realized that I couldn't write this story using the Mandarin or Cantonese I've used in previous fiction because that is not the dialect of the early Chinese immigrants. Until the 1980s, most Chinese in America spoke what we called Hoisan, or Four County dialect. Wikipedia uses the term Taishanese, after the Mandarin pronunciation of Hoisan (Taishan).

The problem with using Hoisan in a story though is that it's a non-standard dialect and there are no formal romanizations into the western alphabet. Among the early immigrants, names were frequently spelled differently in English even if they were written the same in Chinese. The surnames Hom, Hum, and Tom are generally all the same character. (The Mandarin have it easy. It's Tan.)

I approximated spellings for this story based on what the word sounds like to me and how I've seen Hoisan and the related Cantonese spelled in English.

I finished the bulk of my research halfway through April, but I found myself stalling on the story itself. I had been brainstorming and outlining since the beginning of the month. I had six solid single-spaced pages of material for a story that couldn't be any longer than 4000 words. But it wasn't coming together. I knew after writing the first page I wasn't coming at the story the right way, but I didn't know what the right way was.

Against my better judgment, I binged watched Guilty Crown, a 26 episode sci-fi anime series, despite knowing I had two weeks to go and jack for a story.

One of the characters stayed with me after the show ended. Daryl Yan wasn't necessarily my favorite character, and I probably would never want to meet him if he was a real person (he was one of the bad guys), but one of the things that made him sympathetic was that he really wanted to be loved by his father.

And then I realized what I had gotten wrong about the protagonist in my story. She had been a good daughter with a wonderful relationship with her grandmother. The ending of the story would hurt even with a good relationship, but it would be even worse with someone who didn't have, but had wanted that relationship and later realized that what they had wanted had all been a lie.

A week ahead of the deadline, I went nuclear. The previous draft was thrown out (though I later rescued two or three paragraphs) and essentially wrote a new first draft in two days. I set it aside again for a little breathing space, did a revision based on my gut feeling and the reaction of a few friends, and then sent it off.

It worked, and I hope with the details from the current Chinatown and my family's history, it feels real, or at least as real as it could be with a mythical bird in LA.