Alessa Hinlo is one of those small and fierce women that we Asians should be famed for. Editrix Jaymee had the joy of meeting her, after a long time being aware of each other through social networks, at WisCon last year. Her story, "The Last Aswang," feels like a knife cutting in, and twisting. It is also a very strong example of steampunk that moves away from the materials we commonly associate with it to more nature-based materials--an indigenous steampunk form!
Give a one or two sentence summary of your story.
"The Last Aswang" takes place in an alternate timeline where the Philippines wasn’t colonialized by Spain and is about a diwata’s servant who receives a special visit. The title points to what’s actually going on in the story, but a more accurate description would be spoilery.
Why did you choose this particular theme?
The seed that eventually became "The Last Aswang" came from a couple different sources. I write about women. Those are the stories I prefer to tell, and I like exploring different expressions of female power and agency. When it comes to the Philippines, the aswang and diwata are exactly that. They exemplify feminine power to me. I couldn't not write about them. Are they sometimes monstrous? Yes. Are they sometimes thwarted? Sure. Are they sometimes doomed? That, too. But that’s what interests me. I wanted to delve further into their legends and lore, to a place that accepts the monstrous and that celebrates the power…without destroying them in the process.
When we talk about countries like the Philippines, which have a long history of colonialism, I especially wanted to focus on the women. It is their stories that are often lost and in my alternate vision, I wanted my women to have a voice that could not be ignored.
Did you do a lot of research for this story? If you did, found anything interesting?
Despite the focus on the Philippines, I wanted there to be a global context in this alternate timeline, so I did a bit of research into the Manila Galleon Trade Lines. What surprised me is that despite the name, the galleons’ first stop was Cebu, not Manila. Being Cebuano myself, I took that as a sign this was a story I needed to write.
Tell us a bit about where you've set your story.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s set in an alternate Philippines that never fell under Spanish colonial rule. I spent a lot of time brainstorming ideas of what that would look like. Under what conditions would Spain fail to seize control? What would the steampunk technology look like? What resulted was a Philippines that occupied an uneasy position on the international stage and whose tech was fueled by supernatural magic.
What was the hardest part about writing this story?
I was born in the Philippines, but my family immigrated to the US when I was a baby. I grew up in the US. I live in the US. And as a result, what's happened is that I struggle with writing speculative fiction that draws upon Filipino folklore. Delving into the mythology and re-imagining it as a story I can tell is a way to reconnect to my heritage, but at the same time, I don’t want to appropriate my own culture. Is that possible? Is this a thing? These are questions that go through my mind constantly This story, with its alternate historical basis, hit all of my insecurities surrounding authenticity. To be honest, I was paralyzed for a long time and almost gave up on the idea of submitting. But sometimes you just have to say, "Fuck it, let’s do this thing." And so I did.