Round Table: Environment and Background, Part Two

The second of our Original Content Mondays (with much more to come!), the second part of our first round table (the first part can be found here).

Q: How, and to what extent, does your environment and background inform your writing?

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz:

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz is a Filipina writer and the mother of two boys. Born and raised in the Philippines, she now lives with her family in The Netherlands. Her work has appeared in a variety of online and print publications including Weird Tales Magazine, Fantasy Magazine and Philippine Speculative Fiction volumes II and IV. She is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and recipient of the Octavia Butler scholarship for 2009.

Environment and background inform my writing a great deal. I grew up in the mountains of Ifugao, and I experienced many things that seem to find their way into my fiction whether I intend them to or not. When I went to Clarion West I had a long talk with Nalo Hopkinson and later with JT Stewart where I expressed my fear of misrepresenting or exoticising the culture that I grew up in. After that talk, I found that I had more courage to write about what truly concerns me. I wouldn’t say that I am writing about my culture, but rather it’s like carrying on a conversation with the culture, and I like this better because in doing so, it helps me to understand and see things more clearly.

Growing up in the mountains during the period of martial law has given me lots of fodder for stories. One of my strongest memories is of waking up to find that the hospital compound (my father was a doctor there) was filled with government soldiers on one side and rebel soldiers on the other side. Both parties didn’t want my father to treat the other side, but my father said that if they shot him, there would be no one to treat their wounded and to him there was no such thing as military or rebel, but just patients. So, my father wasn’t shot, and he treated all their wounded and at the end of the day, all of them just vanished back into the mountains.

Experiences like these made me think of the ways we employ when there is something we feel we have to fight for. It is easy to wage war, but we have to stop to consider who truly benefits from such an action. Too often, even the persons we claim to be fighting for become the ones caught in the middle. They become the victims. It’s not wrong to have a conviction or to fight for something that you feel is right, but it’s also important to consider how you want to fight.

When it comes to story, I feel that it’s essential to consider what it is that you want to say first. To have that clear vision and then to look at it from all sides and consider even the side of the character or the action that appears villainous.

When we moved to Manila, I worked for several years in the squatters area. The poverty there and particularly how children sometimes cannot go to school because of it is enough to break a person’s heart. I guess, the difference between the place I live now and the area I worked in is that I saw how laughter and tears and worries were shared as a community whereas here, everyone is confined in their four walls and you never get to hear about the suffering the other has. There’s an interesting contrast there with regards to how that sense of community is wealth when compared to the sense of isolation and loneliness in a position of perceived wealth. When I look at my stories, I see how this contrast is a puzzle that finds its way in there without my being aware of it.

Perhaps the most essential way in which background informs my work can be stated like this: I write fantastic fiction because I grew up in this fantastic place where the real world and the spirit world lived side by side. As they say, the cultural show is for tourists but when it is the real thing, even the air feels different.

With regards to writing, I feel that unless a story has a certain spirit, it’s not really alive yet. When I feel strongly about a story, I throw myself into it with all my heart and my passion, with all my indignation and my wrath. Sometimes, a story doesn’t even need a villain to be a story. Sometimes, a story is just something that needs to be told with all the strength that you have because you are the one who has that vision.

Lauren Beukes:

Lauren Beukes is the author of Moxyland and the upcoming Zoo City, both from Angry Robot. She’s also a TV scriptwriter and a freelance journalist. She lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

The short answer is entirely and in everything I do.

I grew up under an evil racist regime, too young to get involved in the Struggle but not so young that I wasn’t aware of it – as much as you could be in a police state where people were fed misinformation, propaganda and lies to disguise the depths of what was really going on. Assassinations, torture, disappearances – all this only really came to light during the Truth Commission hearings, which some people still gloss over and would like to believe is totally disconnected from where we are today.

It’s been amazing to live in a country going through such hectic transformation, even if the bright shiny optimism we started out with as a brand new democracy in 1994 is starting to tarnish and peel off.

As a country, we’ve been damaged and wounded by the last 13 years, by corruption, by race rows, by crime and poverty and an education system that is letting kids down and definitely by the  legacy of apartheid.

But in a way, it feels like a coming of age. It’s not pretty, we have crushing problems, but we’re in a position now where we’re being forced to deal with them. We’re in crisis and hopefully we’ll rise to it.

My own trajectory in that is that I was lucky to grow up with liberal parents who were involved with various outreach programmes including Habitat for Humanity and to go to a private (and therefore mixed race) school.

I went on to become a journalist, practically by accident, but it gave me  the opportunity to write about everything from six star hotels to a mobile clinic on a train catering to the poorest rural communities. I’ve interviewed trendy swingers and township vigilantes, teen vampires and HIV activists and learned useful skills like pole dancing or how to make smileys (or boiled sheep’s heads – a local delicacy).

Journalism has given me a very broad perspective of what this country is about. And I’ve found ways to incorporate a lot of that into my fiction, from a 419 scam story in a recent literary anthology to Moxyland’s corporate apartheid or the alienation of refugees living in Hillbrow in Zoo City.

All of that has very much shaped who I am and what I write about.

I’m fascinated by apartheid, by the insidious “anti-terrorist” Special Branch of the South African Police Service who played off people’s fears to justify their actions (sound familiar?), by the artificially imposed divides between people, whether it’s race or income or nationality, by poverty and culture and technology, consumerism, branding and especially where we’re headed from here.

I won’t use much of that straight, but I’ll try to find an interesting way of twisting it and transmuting it into story.

Shweta Narayan:

Shweta Narayan was born in India and lived in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, and Scotland before moving to California.  She writes most of her stories while she’s supposed to be writing her dissertation; when the thesis is done her productivity will go either way up or way down. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in places like Strange Horizons, Realms of Fantasy, and the Beastly Bride anthology, and her poetry in Goblin Fruit and Coyote Wild.  She was the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship recipient at the Clarion workshop in 2007. Shweta can be found on the web at

I’m having trouble answering this question, because I’m a cognitive scientist, and keep running into the fact that my environment and background inform my writing in every possible way, to the largest possible extent, just like everyone else’s does — nobody gets hit with inspiration particles outside Terry Pratchett stories.  People who belong to a dominant culture might not realize that it’s affecting them, because humans are bad at noticing defaults, but we are all products of our environments.

Having said that, there are certainly aspects of my background that one could point at as particular influences.  Being a cultural hybrid, I write a lot about shapechangers, outcasts, and people leaving the familiar.  (It’s something of a challenge for me to write about integrated members of a society, in fact.)  I’ve written a story set in Aberdeen, where I lived for two years, and my current novel is set in an alternate Netherlands (I lived in the real one).  Several of my settings are Indian-based — anywhere from strongly based on my memories and research to clear secondary worlds loosely influenced by myths and legends I grew up with.  But I’m not immersed in any of India’s cultures, so I *don’t* write about issues particular to those cultures.  And I tend to write about clearly alternate versions of real places and people, partly because I’m a speculative writer and reality is more fun if you tweak it, but partly because I don’t have “ownership” of any culture’s stories or history.

My background informs my writing in less obvious ways, too.  For example, I tend to write fairly small-scale settings and panic over plots involving lots of people, probably in part because I grew up in very small communities, didn’t really live in a city until I was an adult, and don’t have good intuitions about large groups of people.

But I’m not just a person who moved around a lot.  I’m a geek, specifically a language/culture geek, and that means I’m aware of how my language use changes with where I live and who I’m talking to.  I don’t really see places — or hear accents — as defaults.  My characters do not speak “a language”, for example, because I don’t. They speak a dialect of a language, with its particular effects on word choice and sentence structure.  Similarly, they can’t live in Some Generic Place — I’d find that harder to write than a specific place, real or imaginary.  My dialect-hypersensitivity has the odd effect of making science fiction *really* hard for me to write.  I’m just too aware that characters reveal their world with their language use, and if I don’t change it somewhat I’m presupposing that *nothing* has really changed beyond the trimmings.  I’d have to make up a dialect, which might be a bit excessive.

I could keep going — forever, probably, since everything I write comes from somewhere, including this cognitive-science-influenced bit of thinking out loud — and that is precisely why I ought to stop now.

Lynne Jamneck

Lynne Jamneck lives in Wellington, New Zealand. An award nominated writer and editor, she is currently preparing for postgraduate study in English Literature and writing her first speculative novel. She blogs at and posts about her novel in progress at

I have this dream of having a study, lined wall to wall with books and a huge oak desk with a window that looks out on some dramatic rural scene… Hopefully I’ll have my study one day. I like studies. And I like the idea of having this liminal room where I can go and be… liminal.

Until then… I don’t have a fixed ‘place’ as such where I write. When and where I write mostly depends on where I’m the warmest and most comfortable. I live in the city, in a small house, and it’s really cold in winter. So, for the past couple of months I’m usually in front of the heater with a notepad and pen. I write longhand before transferring to text via the laptop. Other places and times of writing include in-between lectures at university, or in fact IN lectures when the topic at hand seems unable to elicit concentration from me. Inspiration doesn’t keep hours you know, it strikes at will.

My background probably informs my writing on a much deeper level. I was raised Protestant, and pretty much found myself in church each Sunday morning without fail. That stopped when I turned eighteen. I haven’t been in a church for fifteen years. But boy, those Protestants know how to get in your head. Amplify those values with growing up in Apartheid South Africa and you end up with what I like to refer to as A Mind Full of Questions Fighting A Head Full of Guilt. While that can make for some sleepless nights, it is the perfect concoction for writing heady metaphysical, multi-genre narratives. Which happens to be a good description for the book I’m working on now. Several themes appear to be endemic to the novel—culture clashes, rationalism vs. magical thinking, abuse of power, religious freedom, technology as help or hindrance and the barrier that language creates between us and an intuitive understanding of the world. (My mother tongue is Afrikaans, which enables me to understand some German, and I have a pretty decent grasp of Dutch. I wish I knew more Xhosa, one of the prevailing African languages, spoken throughout South Africa). Interestingly, I have noticed that since I’ve been in New Zealand (since 2004), there appears to be more physical ‘movement’ in what I write. Changing landscapes or structures. Earthquake central? Perhaps. Maybe it’s just the African continent battling with the Pacific Rim in my soul, creating something entirely new.

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