Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.
Asian Heritage Month Edition is a month-long event at The Quiet Pond, where Asian authors and bookish content creators are invited to celebrate being Asian, Asian books, and the experiences of being an Asian reader. (Note: Here is an explanation of why we are calling this guest series ‘Asian Heritage Month’.)
If you, like me, are always on the lookout for science-fiction/fantasy stories where the universe is not always white and Western, then you can understand the delight of finding stories where the worldbuilding envisions something a little more diverse. Specifically, I love books where people of colour, disabled people, and queer people (or a mix of these!) are included in such universes and stories. In the vein of Asian Heritage Month, I love reading stories where the writers explore a future or a universe where Asian culture is something that is distinct and present, rather than extinct or absent.
If you love science fiction and/or fantasy books, then you would have definitely across one of Aliette de Bodard’s work. From her ‘domestic space opera’ series containing 44 short stories within its vast universe largely inspired by her Vietnamese heritage to her 19th Century gothic/romance series about fallen angels that explores French colonialism, Aliette’s work is vast and impressive!
I’m thus incredibly honoured and delighted that I have Aliette visiting the Pond today to talk about her wonderful writing career and share with us her wisdom! She visits us as a green and blue East-Asian dragon, holding a cup of tea, and I am so excited to share with you all my interview with Aliette. But, before I do, I’d love to introduce you all to her latest novella, which is part of her Gothic postapocalyptic urban fantasy series, Dominion of the Fallen, called Of Dragons, Feasts, and Murder!
Of Dragons, Feasts, and Murders by Aliette de Bodard
Lunar New Year should be a time for familial reunions, ancestor worship, and consumption of an unhealthy amount of candied fruit.
But when dragon prince Thuan brings home his brooding and ruthless husband Asmodeus for the New Year, they find not interminable family gatherings, but a corpse outside their quarters. Asmodeus is thrilled by the murder investigation; Thuan, who gets dragged into the political plotting he’d sworn off when he left, is less enthusiastic.
It’ll take all of Asmodeus’s skill with knives, and all of Thuan’s diplomacy, to navigate this one—as well as the troubled waters of their own relationship….
I want to thank Aliette for providing me with a review copy for Of Dragons, Feasts, and Murder! I had such a wonderful time reading it. It’s a fun murder mystery which takes place during Tết, which, of course, means family politics, bureaucracy, and a lot of filial piety. Though I haven’t read the Dominion of the Fallen series, this worked wonderfully as a standalone and – I’m not going to lie – I’m now really intrigued by the main series!
Author Interview: Aliette de Bodard
Xiaolong: Hello Aliette! A big big welcome to The Quiet Pond! We are so delighted to have you visit us today for Asian Heritage Month. For our friends out there who may only be meeting you for the first time, can you tell everyone a little bit about yourself?
Aliette: I’m a writer of fantasy and science fiction, the author of the Xuya space opera novels (many of which are set in a galactic empire inspired by Vietnamese culture, where spaceships are part of the family), of the Dominion of the Fallen books which are set in a a gothic alt-Paris. I’ve won three Nebula Awards, four British Science Fiction Association Awards and a Locus award, as well as been up for a bunch of things like the Sturgeon, and multiple Hugos. I’m of Vietnamese and French descent and live in France, and I work as a System Architect.
Xiaolong: I am blown away by the depth and breadth of your work! I want to start with your biggest collection of stories, The Universe of Xuya, which comprises an incredible total of 44 short stories. (Wow!) Can you tell us about how this series came to be, and how it has grown over the many years you’ve written for it?
Aliette: I basically started writing Xuya as a sandbox. I wanted to have an alternate future in which Asian cultures played a major role. Later on, Xuya morphed into a protest against the lack of mothers in SFF. I watched Star Wars Episode III, and thought that any culture that could regrow arms and save a man who’d fallen into lava but couldn’t prevent a young mother from dying in childbirth–or, for that matter, letting her know ahead of time that she would be having twins–that culture had deeply dubious priorities. I wanted my space faring culture to love and care for its mothers, I wanted it to leave space for families in all their complexities–the sense of duty, obligation, the love–and I also wanted food in space. Noodle soup and dumplings for the win!
It was also a chance to deal with AI. I was really not interested in a retread of whether AI were people: Xuya already had the discussion and AI are not only people, they are family. This means that shipminds (Xuya’s AIs are either implanted into ships or into space stations) can have relatives, and what this means in terms of familial dynamics is, for me, at the heart of the Xuya stories: how a ship with vastly different priorities and a vastly different lifespan comes to have different roles in its own family, how they deal with other humans, etc. I guess I’m always interested by the meeting of different mindsets, and how people can navigate in between!
Xuya has grown a lot: it started as pseudo-noir, and I soon found out that the most interesting bits were in space. I call this whole thing domestic space opera: the stories as they unfold got more complex, explored different bits of space, but they’re all about people relating to each other and navigating their web of obligations to each other, and what this means to them and to others. It’s gone from fairly short stories to the longest pieces: my upcoming Seven of Infinities is basically half a novel, which gave me a lot of space to develop shipmind culture, and also the romance/heist plot at the heart of the novel (it’s “two mismatched characters investigate a murder. They’re attracted to each other, but it’s TOTALLY FINE because they’ve got it under control. Aka ‘famous last words’!”).
Xiaolong: Let’s talk about your adult paranormal/mystery series, Dominion of the Fallen! For those of our friends out there who haven’t heard of it before, what is it about?
Aliette: Dominion of the Fallen is basically my love letter to the French 19th Century classics and the Gothic/Romantic novels of that time period. It’s set in an alternate Paris inspired by the Belle Epoque, except that the city is ruins following a magical war, and that various magical factions called Houses continue to fight a cold war in the ruins, and it’s what happens when that equilibrium of cold conflict is completely upended by Philippe, a Vietnamese ex-conscript and former immortal in hiding who gets dragged into House intrigues; Madeleine, a geeky alchemist who just wants to be left alone; and Isabelle, a naive Fallen angel who learns to make her own choices and grow into her own identity as the series goes on.
Xiaolong: The Dominion of the Fallen series follows fallen angels, magicians, and even dragons. Moreover, Dominion of the Fallen takes place in Paris and there are Vietnamese characters too, thus drawing from your identities! What was your experience of writing about and incorporating your identities into your stories like?
Aliette: I mentioned the 19th Century classics. One thing these books don’t really have is representation I could get behind (though it’s not all white male writers: some of them are written by POCs, notably Alexandre Dumas). I always thought that people like me couldn’t really hope to feature in that kind of books (and when they do, it’s often caricatures, or very set roles, like the black slave, the black soldier utterly devoted to his former commander and speaking very bad French, the inscrutable Asian, etc, etc.). I wanted to write something set in Paris, the city that I’ve been living in almost all my life, that put Vietnamese culture at the forefront of its preoccupations. I always wanted to deal with colonialism and the French colonial empire, and what that would mean in terms of immigration (many of my Vietnamese characters are descendants of the colonial subjects brought over to fight the war that devastated Paris, mirroring the Vietnamese who came to fight WWI and WWII, but there are also older powers in the river–there’s an entire dragon kingdom under the Seine, which to me is a very interesting statement of people bringing their spirits with them, and the conflicting relationship they end up having with the beings they worship).
Writing it was bloody scary, though. I’d been circling Vietnamese culture from afar: I wrote a lot of stories with Chinese main characters because it felt safer, and I wasn’t going to get a lecture from my family on how I’d gotten everything wrong. Vietnamese and French culture, in many ways felt like, hum, things I didn’t own enough to actually put them into my writing. I was talking to a friend about this, and I realised that if I didn’t write about my own identity–if I didn’t put people like myself into stories–who would? I started incorporating Vietnamese characters in my SF first, and at the same time I worked on what what would become The House of Shattered Wings, the first Dominion of the Fallen book. And it felt very much like I was putting my own heart out there to be crushed. I’m glad that didn’t happen (I get a lot of fan mail that says it’s so nice to see Vietnamese characters that aren’t fighting the Vietnamese/American war, and that means a lot to me).
Xiaolong: Let’s talk about your upcoming self-published novella, Of Dragons, Feasts, and Murders, which takes place after the events of the third book of the Dominion of the Fallen series but also works as a standalone! Something that I really liked was that it takes place during Lunar New Year. What does Lunar New Year mean to you, and did that shape the events during Tết that take place in the novella?
Aliette: For me, Lunar New Year is about family and food. It’s about getting together and all the complexity of what that means–family can be a love or hate affair (or a love and hate affair). It’s a set of obligations as much as it is a support network, as much as it involves love. Tết to me is about some iconic foods (I didn’t get a chance to put in the narrative, but Thi Kho Tau, caramel pork, is a classic on our table), and about new beginnings. And obviously food. The candied fruit that Thuan keeps nibbling on are classics in the house during Tết, and the tea that he and his husband have, and the way it mirrors the state of their relationship, is something that matters much to me.
With Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders, I wanted to write a fantasy of manners and murders: something that would have a lighter tone than the trilogy, could be read totally independently, and which would basically fuse Asian court drama and the Gothic. I set it during New Year because New Year is a time of homecoming, and because it’s so significant as a festival, so it was the perfect time for dynastic intrigue and shenanigans as everyone was busy preparing for a holiday. The premise was that my main character, bi dragon prince Thuan, brings home his husband for his first Tết with the family: they both expect interminable family dinners, and what they get instead is a gentle suggestion they need to look into an official’s murder, because the fate of the dynasty is at stake. Thuan’s husband is thrilled (and wondering who to stab first, because he’s that kind of person); Thuan very much wants to stay away from all of this and just eat the food.
The New Year in the novella is the one in the imperial citadel (mostly the Nguyễn imperial citadel of Huế), so it’s not quite as intimate as the one I’m used to, but I wanted to have that dynamic of family and it being stricture and love–of coming home and finding that it’s changed in your absence, or that maybe you’re the one who’s changed.
Xiaolong: I just love how expansive your work is – you’ve written so much across your writing career. Do you have any themes or motifs that you incorporate across all, if not most, of your stories?
Aliette: I deal a lot with family, and memory, and what family history means and who gets to pass on, and whose narratives get enshrined: both family stories, and the larger history. I think it’s because so much of my childhood was shaped by the Vietnamese/American war–not the war itself, but the stories that were told of it.
I also have a sideline in dealing with aftermath, for similar reasons I think: I’m not that interested in the military side of war, but I’m very much always coming back to the impact of it on civilians, and the way that impact crosses generations, the way that people move away from it, the way that they do not, the way that they rebuild, and the way that people can live in ruins and start making something new within them.
Xiaolong: Here’s a fun question I like to ask all my guests! What is a food that reminds you of home – whoever or wherever that may be?
Aliette: Steamed rice. It’s my comfort food, always. And the smell of garlic always takes me home, except it’s the home of my childhood and my grandmother is chopping food in the kitchen and I know we’re going to have an excellent meal.
About the Author
Aliette de Bodard writes speculative fiction: she has won three Nebula Awards, a Locus Award and four British Science Fiction Association Awards, and was a double Hugo finalist for 2019 (Best Series and Best Novella). Her book Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders, a fantasy of murders and manners set in an alternate turn of the century Vietnam, is forthcoming July 7th. Her short story collection Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight is out from Subterranean Press. She lives in Paris.
I think the best kind of interviews are the ones that pique your curiosity and encourage you to branch out and try new things – and I definitely felt that way reading Aliette’s answers! A big and heartfelt thank you to Aliette for visiting the Pond today – it was such a pleasure and I’m looking forward to diving into the Xuya Universe!
Don’t forget to add Of Dragons, Feasts, and Murder to your Goodreads and pre-ordering it! It’s a delightful read and so much fun!