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Eliza Chan | FATHOMFOLK

Written By:

Ed Fortune
Eliza Chan 1 lsmall

Eliza Chan is a Scottish-born Chinese diaspora writer who thinks a lot about intergenerational relationships, diaspora identity, and immigration. Her latest book, Fathomfolk is not only an amazing fantasy novel, it also explores the joys and complications of modern cityscapes and depict multiculturalism based more on East and Southeast Asian cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore rather than London or New York.  We caught up with her to find out more.

STARBURST: How would you pitch Fathomfolk to an old friend who really likes Disney?
Eliza Chan: Rather than giving up her home and culture for a man she hasn’t even had a conversation with, what if the little mermaid was an immigrant? How would she adjust to the culture shock and the different way of life above water? Would she be mocked and discriminated against because she tried to brush her hair with a fork? Where does she fit in?

Why should we read this book?
Fathomfolk is the story of a modern cityscape, divided between the generally prosperous humans at the top, looking down on the underclass fathomfolk – kelpies, kappas, mermaids and more – who live in the slums below. It is a book for people who like it when fantasy asks real-life questions and for those who argue with their GM that goblins can’t be born inherently evil as everyone is an individual. It follows three points of view characters: a privileged water dragon, newly arrived in the city; a tired half-siren who has been trying to chip away at the system; and a scheming seawitch, in it for herself; all dealing with discrimination, diaspora identity, and the cost of change. You should also read it for mythology mash-ups, messy, eclectic cities, and delicious depictions of food!

Why Sirens?
I like reading different mythologies from across the world and was getting more and more frustrated at women depicted as the seductress or damsel. Sirens, in particular, just seem to lounge on rocks waiting to drown men and have no other ambitions or life beyond this. It reminded me of the common rhetoric that women were asking for it. I started to envisage a siren who couldn’t switch ‘it’ off and how she would respond to being discriminated against and treated with hostility.

If you could sit one of the characters from the books down and have a word with them, who would it be, and what would you say?
I would sit Nami, the newly arrived water dragon, down with a nice cup of seaweed tea and tell her not jump to conclusions about a city she has only just arrived in. Knowing Nami, however, she would roll her eyes at me and do the exact opposite.

What was the funniest part of getting Fathomfolk published?
I’m not sure it’s funny, but it’s certainly been fun going from polite, professional emails with my editor and team at the beginning and slowly descending into the realms of antler gaps, kelpie butts, and cabbage man references as we got a feel for each other. It’s been brilliant to work with fellow science fiction and fantasy geeks and know they are your people.

Why are we so fascinated with dragons?
For right or wrong, we’ve labelled all reptilian flying monsters as dragons, and that means there are so many varieties to read and write about. What’s not to love about giant magical beasts that can either be your mount, lover or burn you to a crisp on a whim? Seeing my toddler in his dinosaur era at the moment, I also think it harks back to that childhood fascination that many of us never grew out of. There is a duality in my mind between the water and weather-controlling Asian dragons and the fiery-breathing Western dragons, but we can contain multitudes. Mostly, however, I just want to be able to fly.

What’s your favourite piece of folklore to write about?
I like them all, which is probably why I wrote such a mash-up of mythologies and folklore! Researching Fathomfolk made me really aware of how folklore stories are ever-evolving and that there is no one true narrative. For example, growing up, I asked my mother about the Asian dragon and the dragon pearl ubiquitous in Chinese restaurants, traditional decorations and the like. Years later, when researching, I realised everything she’d told me was different from what I was reading. She told me the dragon pearl was its soul; in the most well-known story, it is a source of wealth and prosperity. We treat the written form as the authority on the matter when often it is just one version that happens to be written down. To this day, I do not know if my mother’s stories are from her own childhood or her own flights of fancy. Either way, does it matter? Writing and reimagining folklore as writers do is another evolution in this process, and I loved reimagining dragons and dragon pearls in a new way.

What’s the toughest part of the writing process for you?
Initial drafting is tough for me. I’ve given up on so many novels over the years and never got past about 30,000 words. There’s a really tough point about two-thirds in where you can’t see the wood for the trees, and that’s usually when I throw in the towel. It’s so important to me to have writer friends to support me, to set myself achievable goals and just push through. It’s definitely worth it when I write ‘The End’.

What other projects would you like to work on?
I am drawn to the darkness of the original fairytales before they were sanitised and would love to do a retelling one day. I’d also like to do something akin to Rivers of London or American Gods with a contemporary real-life city setting with the supernatural, but I’d probably take it north to Manchester or Glasgow. On the flipside, I’d equally love to do something with nods to anime and manga, such as Studio Ghibli or Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Too many ideas, not enough time!

What’s next for you?
I’m working on the sequel to Fathomfolk at the moment and also tinkering with my next project, Buffy the Vampire Slayer in Opium War-era Hong Kong.

Doctor Who or Doctor No?
Doctor Who, I’m still in my David Tennant-era mind.

The Little Mermaid or Aquaman?
The Little Mermaid. I particularly buy into Norton’s theory that The Little Mermaid was symbolic of an unrequited homosexual love that Hans Christian Andersen felt for his friend. It makes the othering, inability to speak, pain of transforming to fit in. and the ending so much more poignant.   

Selkies or Kelpies?
Oh that’s really hard! I’ve written a few selkie stories back in my day, but I find kelpies more intriguing these days. They are much more unpredictable, the antithesis of the docile unicorn. I love the image of galloping horses as crashing waves, and I was also the sixer of the Scottish Kelpies in Brownies as a kid.

Truth or Beauty?
Truth, every time! My Chinese name 真 literally means real or truth, and whilst I envied the other girls with their beautiful names, I’ve definitely grown into it.

FATHOMFOLK is out now and can be ordered here.

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