From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Painful Standards of Beauty: Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard lives in Paris, France, where she has a job as a Computer Engineer. In her spare time, she writes fiction: her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Interzone, Realms of Fantasy and Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction. She was a Campbell Award finalist for 2009. Her story, “Golden Lilies” runs this week at Fantasy Magazine. Visit AliettedeBodard.com for more information.

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In “Golden Lilies” Lin Weiyi asks for her ancestor’s spirit to bind her feet, a debilitating practice: “Golden lilies are shaped in early childhood — when the bones and flesh are still small, still pliant enough to heal cleanly after the break.” Can you tell us a little about how you researched this practice and the writing of this story?

I first heard of bound feet as a classic horror story told by my mother, and it’s always been something that repulsed me. There’s something I find intrinsically scary about having your feet broken repeatedly — being crippled for the sake of finding a husband takes painful standards of beauty to a whole new level.

I started writing this story after I got into reading a lot of classical Chinese literature, and realised that the bound feet were not even mentioned except in oblique ways — because the author knew that his audience would assume the feet were bound. That’s when the full import sunk in: that the practise was so widespread it had become natural.

If you were a mother and didn’t bind your daughter’s feet, then you were being unkind, for she would be unattractive, and thus unable to find herself a suitable husband. That was the scariest realisation I’d come to in a while, and I decided to write a story about it: a girl without bound feet, who would crave them as her only assurance of a future as a married woman. Naturally, it turned out to be a rather dark story, because of the subject matter.

As far as research goes, bound feet are a classical aspect of Chinese culture, and you’ll find them discussed in a lot of books. I just had to go through the pile of Chinese history books I already own to find a lot of information both about the process, its consequences, and a lot more gory pictures than I really felt comfortable with.

The protagonist, an honored ancestral spirit, appears to be something of a succubus with insatiable hunger, and yet she is an honored ancestor in her Chinese culture. Can you tell us more about this character and the history after which you have modeled her?

The narrator is a little bit of a conflation of several Chinese folklore concepts: the first is naturally ancestor worship, which essentially means that the older you get, the more power you have in the household (Chinese matriarchs have always been ruling their very own corner of empire within their households). And, although there still is inequality between male and female ancestors, as a dead person, the protagonist would have enjoyed even more influence than a sixty-year-old grandmother.

The “succubus” side comes from a different source: in Chinese tales, particularly in the Ming and Qing dynasty (15th Century and later), you find a growing fascination with female ghosts, and in particular with sex with ghosts. It goes hand in hand with a duality that’s often found around women: those ghosts are both intensely desirable (some stories even have them marry the main character and live happily ever after), and intensely dangerous (as ghosts, they steal the vital essence of the men they sleep with, essentially by taking in their seed, the foremost symbol of masculinity).

The classic story around this trope goes something like this: a young scholar studying for the examinations finds a young girl at his door, who alleges to be running away from an abusive household (interestingly, the abusive member of the household is not the husband, but the husband’s jealous first wife). Out both of pity and desire, he takes her in, makes love to her, which is the most wonderful experience he’s ever had. As time goes on, though, his acquaintances notice that he grows paler and weaker, and that’s usually how you work out that the girl is a ghost. There are several variants of endings, but it’s a very common template–and you can see that I deliberately worked that into the story.

The one slight liberty I took with folklore was making the narrator be already married and with children: most of those female ghosts are actually “unfulfilled,” in the sense that they’re either virgin or childless. The insatiable need is often the hunger for the life they never had — and not for the one they used to have as in the story.

2009 Campbell Award finalist for Best New Writer, Writers of the Future winner. What’s next for Aliette de Bodard?

I have no idea. So far, it’s been a very exciting ride, especially 2009, which is the year I got nominated for the Campbell Award, reprinted in Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction, made my first break into the Big Three by selling a novelette to Asimov’s, and sold three novels to new HarperCollins imprint Angry Robot. I think all of that is going to be hard to top in 2010, but I’ll try my best *g*

As a lover of mythologies, Pre-Columbian and Non-Western, do you have a favorite among them?

I have to admit I’ve always been absurdly fond of Aztec mythology. It’s been very much maligned — mostly by the Spanish, who couldn’t wrap their heads around the concept of human sacrifice — but it’s one of the most rousing mythologies I’ve ever encountered.

It’s a very human-centric one: at heart, its basic concept is that the gods gave their lives to create the current age. They’ve in essence become bloodless corpses, which means that they’re powerless to do the one thing that matters: feeding the sun and the earth with their blood, and ensuring that the world continues from one day to the next. That role has now passed on to humans. It’s both a very empowering and a very scary thought: the gods are powerless, and it’s on mankind that rests the responsibility for averting the end of the world. It puts man at the centre of the universe, but it also gives him a tremendous burden.

What upcoming works can we expect from Aliette de Bodard in 2009/2010?

The big one is going to be my debut novel, Servant of the Underworld, a fantasy-mystery set in Aztec times, featuring death-priest-cum-investigator Acatl (and ghostly jaguars, bloodthirsty gods and fingernail-eating monsters).

I based it on a couple of short stories I wrote in the same universe (the first one being my Writers of the Future winning story, “Obsidian Shards”): the backdrop is that of the Aztec time period, but all the gods and monsters of the stories are real — and the universe constantly totters on the brink of destruction, with chaos only kept at bay through the magic of blood sacrifices. It’s a very fraught background for my main character Acatl: each of the magical offences he investigates could be the one that finally breaks the balance. Bringing together the little-used Aztec mythology and the suspenseful plot of a mystery novel makes for a wild, exciting ride with cool and unfamiliar elements.

Servant of the Underworld is set for a Spring 2010 release from Angry Robot.
(if you’re curious, you can learn more online at my website: http://www.aliettedebodard.com/novels/servant-of-the-underworld/).

I’ve also got work forthcoming in Asimov’s: an as-yet-untitled alternate history with a space centre in a monastery, Daoist philosophy, and forbidden love, which draws heavily on Chinese culture and ways of thought.

Rae Bryant is a short story author, poet, columnist, assistant editor for Fantasy Magazine, on staff with Weird Tales, and a reviewer for The Fix. She is a 2008 recipient of the Whidbey Writers’ Prize and editor nominated for StorySouth’s Million Writers Award. Her works have appeared or will soon be appearing in Fantasy Magazine, Weird Tales, Whidbey Writers MFA Zine, Literary Traveler, and Southern Fried Weirdness, among others. With a Bachelors in Humanities/English and Literature, Rae is currently a graduate student at Johns Hopkins finishing an M.A. in Writing. She lives in a little valley just outside Washington D.C. Read more about Rae at Raebryant.com.

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