In the Watchful City is an amazing novella, a stories-within-a-story narrative that unfolds and expands in bright fractals. We were lucky enough to be able to grab some of S. Qiouyi Lu’s time in advance of the book’s release on August 31 and ask her some questions about her work and philosophy
What inspired this story?
The frame story and the individual stories within were all inspired by different things. I knew I wanted to write something set in a secondary world, and I wanted to explore the various regions and build some of the cultures and politics through narrative. So I had the idea of tying together a number of short stories via the conceit of a cabinet of curiosities.
The cabinet of curiosities itself was inspired by Terry Pratchett’s description of the thinking machine Hex, especially in the novel Making Money. By that point in the Discworld lore, Hex has become a filing cabinet that unfolds into an impossibly huge and complex repository of items. I added a twist to the aesthetic by making my cabinet of curiosities a Chinese-style lacquered curio cabinet with open, floating shelves displaying the artefacts. The term “qíjìtáng” (奇蹟堂) is a Mandarin term I invented as a direct translation of an older German term for cabinets of curiosities: “Wunderkammer,” or “wonder room.”
There are a number of stories within the larger story—do you have one you love most, or most identify with?
I identify with all the stories to some degree, as they all contain parts of me. I haven’t been asked as much about “The Sky and Everything Under,” though. It’s one of my favorites, but it might not be as straightforward of a narrative to readers as the other stories. It’s a tale of political intrigue told in an epistolary format, using not just letters, but also legal documents, intercepted memos, newspaper articles, interviews… at the same time, it’s also a love story, one that asks how much we’re willing to sacrifice for our convictions, and whether that sacrifice is worth it.
I adore epistolary stories and how they play with form. In this particular story, the epistolary format allowed me to dive deeply into the politics of the Skylands, a colonizer nation, from multiple perspectives: a ruler and his supportive general who wholesale believe in the empire; a treasonous ex-ruler who wants to dismantle everything the empire stands for, as he sees it as an oppressive institution; and a magistrate and detective who see a path to a more democratic political structure for the Skylands—though the subtext through the rest of the book suggests that that democracy didn’t turn out as progressive as they envisioned.
I don’t think I could have presented as many perspectives in such a compressed space with a non-epistolary format, so the structure was crucial to the storytelling here. I think “The Sky and Everything Under” is a piece that warrants rereads, and I hope that, upon each reread, the story unfolds like the cabinet of curiosities to reveal more connections and meaning.
I wrote “The Sky and Everything Under” in June of 2020, during the peak of the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd. I’m not typically one to write stories of political intrigue, but the narrative felt pressing to me in the moment. It was important to me to explore paths about the end of empire as a decolonial exercise.
Can you tell us a little about your writing process? What was essential to creating this novella?
I would say that I’m a prototypical “plantser”—someone who’s halfway between a meticulous planner and a wildly spontaneous pantser. I tend to cobble together notes and create a loose structure, but I don’t usually outline the specific beats within the story; I discover those as I’m writing. It’s crucial for me to collect inspiration, whether through images, quotes, music, concepts, and let the free association between that material guide my storytelling.
In the Watchful City did involve a little more outlining than my other work, in that I based the structure of the novel on the wuxing cycle, or the “Five Phases.” Unlike the four-element system commonly found in the West, Chinese philosophy incorporates five elements: water, earth, fire, wood, and metal. The biocyberpunk frame story represents wood; the weird western “A Death Made Manifold,” featuring funeral pyres and necromancy, represents fire; “As Dark As Hunger,” the mermaid story, represents water; “The Sky and Everything Under,” about the floating islands in the sky, represents earth; and “This Form I Hold Now,” with its steampunk aesthetic, represents metal. Each story begets its own reflection in the frame story based on that cycle. It’s a pretty complex outline unlike anything I’ve used before; I’ll probably release it as part of my Patreon offerings.
Anima is told that mutability is easy, that “what’s harder / is being yourself so completely / that there is still a ‘you’ / no matter the form you hold.” Institutions subsume the self even in the act of trying to do good, but I wonder if there is a place for a benevolent or neutral community for Anima or for you?
One of the key themes I was exploring in In the Watchful City is the idea that all of us have a story and some kind of heritage. I find that a lot of psychic pain in our contemporary era comes out of a loss of identity—a sense that who we are isn’t enough, or isn’t valid. I think that feeling of emptiness drives a lot of culturally appropriative behavior on a broader level—trying to take on other identities because we don’t feel our own is interesting enough—and also drives issues on a more intimate scale, like substance abuse and mental health issues stemming from people trying to fill a void in themselves because they’re dissatisfied with who they are.
It sounds trite to say “just be yourself,” but that’s actually a hugely radical notion in societies where certain manifestations of self are devalued or marginalized. At the same time, even those who aren’t on the margins are affected by this. For instance, I hope White readers of In the Watchful City leave with the realization that yes, they have a personal narrative and a heritage as well, something that is uniquely theirs and isn’t “boring,” something that’s worth claiming and exploring. We all come from somewhere, and, while we are all fluid and flexible beings, there are also aspects of ourselves that stay constant. It’s a radical act to accept who we are instead of constantly striving to be someone else and denying ourselves.
You wrote in the acknowledgements about finding your path to decolonized writing by writing for yourself. Can you talk more about this for others who would like to learn more about how to do the same?
I started writing creative fiction through fanfiction, particularly for Eastern media, such as anime and manga. Interestingly enough, I often pulled from my Chinese heritage when writing fanfiction, even when I was eleven and didn’t have much of a sense of racial or ethnic identity. I was responding to the representations of Chinese characters and culture that already existed in the media, and that readers were already receptive to, as they obviously had to be interested in non-Western media and cultures to be in the fandom in the first place.
But when I started writing non-fanfiction, in particular for a Western audience, where I almost never saw Asian characters (until 2005, with the release of Avatar: The Last Airbender), I defaulted to White characters. I didn’t realize that I was doing that until well into college, probably around 2010 or so. I had been working on a story set in Caltech, which has a large Asian-American student population. When I decided to make the story about Asian-American characters, I felt a strong sense of discomfort and strangeness. It took me a while to sit with that feeling and pick it apart to understand what was going on: I had internalized colonial norms about stories and what kind of people can be main characters.
Even after I worked through unlearning those norms, I would often hold myself back and try to write more conventional narratives. I would shy away from writing “weird” things, as I wasn’t sure if people would be receptive to it. I would have never thought that people would be interested in something as weird and unconventional as In the Watchful City. But it was one of my most fulfilling projects to write, and that definitely had to do with the fact that I’d written what I myself wanted to read, including a lengthy narrative with neopronouns.
Anima is able to find pleasure in ærself, but struggles to acknowledge sorrow. There has been a narrative (in America, in English) that encourages us to find solace and resistance in acts of joy—can you talk more about sorrow and pain (notably the foot binding!) as resistance?
It’s no secret that I’ve had my share of mental health struggles. I think we’ve become more open to expressing such struggles, but, when I was growing up, that wasn’t really something you would talk about, particularly as a second-generation Asian American. Focusing on having a positive attitude or always being optimistic would often end up just being silencing to me. While I think it’s important to engage in acts of joy, I feel that that focus can gloss over sorrow and pain. Sometimes, we simply need to sit with the hurt and have someone there who understands, who isn’t trying to redirect that energy into something else.
Being present with pain is a powerful tool to feel peace, and understanding how pain shapes us can help us accept ourselves and move forward. It’s when we’re constantly trying to avoid the pain or transform it into something else that we can take on even more self-destructive or self-sabotaging behaviors. Not that it’s necessary to go through pain, or that we need to wear pain as a badge of pride; but that pain and sorrow are part of the human experience, and allowing ourselves the space to feel it can be restorative in itself.
As for the footbinding in “This Form I Hold Now,” I see it as just another form of body modification, where pain is incidental in the broader goal of shaping ourselves into a form that holds meaning for us. When people see my piercings, my own real-life body modification, they often ask, “Did it hurt?” Yes, but the pain is transient. The way I’ve harnessed that experience and what I transform it into—turning the pain into adornment, into function—is what matters to me.