Thursday, May 14, 2015

Roundtable Questions: Alessa Hinlo on "The Last Aswang"

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.

This series was originally posted at Silver Goggles for the Airship Embassy's Steampunk Hands Around The World event.

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