From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Fantasy Author Gord Sellar

I distrust this whole idea of heroes. The notion of a “hero” is like a carryover from times when the biggest thug in the group called the shots. We’ve internalized it, it might even to some degree be hardwired into us — look how we vote, after all — but when you look at it, this hero-worship is worse than useless.

Gord SellarGord Sellar, author of Pahwakhe, was born in Blantyre, Malawi and grew up in Nova Scotia and (mostly) Saskatchewan. After receiving a BA in Music and English Literature in Saskatoon, and an MA in Creative Writing and Literature in Montreal, he moved to South Korea. He’s stayed there for just over six years. He is currently living in Bucheon, a suburb of Seoul, where he teaches at a university. When he isn’t writing or traveling, he spends his time teaching himself to bake, or working on his website. He has his good eye trained on learning to home-brew beer in 2008.

Gord attended Clarion West 2006. The following year he published stories in Nature, Postcards from Hell, and Flurb. He currently has fiction forthcoming in Asimov’s, Interzone, and Machine of Death, among other places.

Where do you get your ideas from?

Living in Asia! When I left Montreal in 2001, I had only two friends with cell phones and I connected to the net using dialup. I flew to Seoul, which looked like a scene out of Bladerunner, and where everyone — even little old ladies — had cell phones and broadband internet. I’ve been out for drinks with gangsters, and met one in my YMCA swimming class, too. I’ve played a gig at a major Korean rock festival, met crazed Vietnam war veteran cabbies, and been served food where the main dish was still dying, wiggling on the plate. That “cognitive estrangement” that Darko Suvin used to write about as central to speculative fiction — that’s my bread and butter.

If not yourself, who would you be?

Yes, exactly. This dilemma is precisely why I’m content just being me.

(Though ask me again when we have the technology for an industry of intercranial tourism, and I may answer you differently.)

Who are your favorite painters and composers?

I could go on for hours about this — I studied the saxophone and music composition for years — but to keep it simple: Igor Stravinsky, Steve Reich, Johannes Ockeghem — the latter, his stuff is amazing! I just got that Michael Torke boxed set, Ecstatic Collection, and it’s excellent, too.

But, of course, my main musical interest has always been jazz, where’s mostly about performers, not composers: John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Zorn, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Matthew Shipp, Branford Marsalis, Don Pullen… there are so many I could name. I also think Nick Drake was an outstanding songwriter. And I have a thing for Mouse on Mars, and the now-defunct group Hum. Oh, and this bizarre Korean “group” Hwang Shin Hye Band, that consists of only one guy and is about the weirdest popular music ever.

I’m less clued in about visual art. I’ve always liked Dali and Kandinsky. For some reason I can’t pinpoint, Chaïm Soutine’s portraits really get me. But these tastes are purely idiosyncratic and admittedly ignorant. I do think highly of Jeremy Tolbert’s weird photoshoppery. That mushroom with the eye… gah!

Your favorite heroines or heroes in fiction?

Well, really, I distrust this whole idea of heroes. You should have seen the differences in opinion between my Korean students and Chinese exchange students regarding whether Mao Zedong was a hero or a villain of history. So often, the stories about “heroes” are the kind of thing one imagines to have been written by people whose teachers work for The Party, you know? The notion of a “hero” is like a carryover from times when the biggest thug in the group called the shots. We’ve internalized it, it might even to some degree be hardwired into us — look how we vote, after all — but when you look at it, this hero-worship is worse than useless. Sometimes, when it’s sublimated to geek-heroism, like in books by Greg Egan or Charlie Stross, that works for me, but otherwise, mostly I’ve got misgivings.

Many of the protagonists who mean the most to me are really just people like anyone else, who get caught up in personal and historical circumstances. These are the kinds of characters Peter Watts writes about — I’ve just started reading him, and he’s wonderful for that — and Bruce Sterling creates a lot of characters like that. Maureen McHugh, too — China Mountain Zhang showed me that there was room for books about normal people in the SF genre. About folks surviving, adapting, and dealing with life’s bizarreness as intelligently as possible. We don’t think of that as heroic. The old definition blurs that out, makes it just seem quotidian, but it really isn’t.

Actually, I’m fascinated by the the characters who are more peripheral, who normally wouldn’t be the focus of a novel, though they appear one or two times, and live and breathe for those few moments onstage. Perhaps that’s characteristically Canadian of me, all that interest in the periphery, since we’re so conscious of, and obsessed with, our own peripherality? Like that evangelical-vegetarian couple in Graham Greene’s The Comedians — those two still hang around in my imagination, though I read the book years ago. Or the heavy prole woman outside the window from Winston and Julia’s hideout in Nineteen-Eighty-Four, hanging her washing and singing. She haunts me.

What is your favorite occupation?

I actually love teaching, at least when it’s a challenge. In my job right now, for example, I get to work with college-aged Koreans who’re actually trying to learn about and understand Western culture(s), literature, history, and society, and things like that, which is a really rewarding process to help them along with. They surprise me pretty often, and occasionally, they just blow me away. For example, I published a chapbook of my students’ poems last semester. Some of the poems they wrote — in their second or third language, English — about love and heartbreak, about historical or personal tragedies and things like that… they were just stunning, and I simply had to get a chapbook together.

Your favorite names?

Names are like colors: I don’t really have any favorites. But I love the sound of the indigenous Korean names that have grown more popular, especially for female children, since the 70s. They’re really earthy-sounding. Most modern Korean names, like, say, So-Young or Jin-Hee or Ji-Young, they’re Sinicized names, that is, based on Chinese words and names. But native Korean names are slowly getting more and more popular, names like Haet-Bit, or Bo-Ram, or Ha-Neul, or Mi-Reu. To my ear, these names just sound richer and earthier somehow.

What natural talent would you like to have that you don’t?

I’m not sure whether I would choose a bigger talent for languages, the ability to do any kind of mathematics at all — I’m pathetically innumerate — or perhaps the ability to dance, and I mean, to really, truly dance. Not this wiggling-shuffling-through-the-crowd business we politely call dancing nowadays.


Read Pahwakhe here on Fantasy magazine and visit GordSellar.com for more erudite musings.

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