Interview with Jason Erik Lundberg

LONTAR is the world’s only biannual literary journal focusing on Southeast Asian speculative fiction. The journal was founded in 2012, in order to spread awareness of this literature to readers who might not normally be exposed to it, and to celebrate its existence and diversity within the region.

Jason Erik Lundberg is the Founding Editor of LONTAR. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, and has lived in Singapore since 2007. He is also the author and anthologist of more than 20 books for children and adults; in 2019, Epigram Books will release a “greatest hits” short-story collection spanning his 16-year career, and a new novella which received the 2013 Creation Grant from Singapore’s National Arts Council. He’s also the fiction editor at Epigram Books, an independent publisher based in Singapore, publishing thought-provoking and well-designed books since 2011.

Our editor Ram caught up with Jason for a chat over a hot cup of tea (with honey). Read on to know more about LONTAR, Jason’s work and views as an editor of speculative fiction, his perceptions of trends in this genre in the West and East and what got him sucked into magical worlds.

Ram: Do you remember the very first speculative fiction work that excited you?

Jason: I talked a bit about this in my chapbook called Embracing the Strange. When I was about 12 or so, I picked up Prelude to Foundation by Isaac Asimov; he had written three or four books in the Foundation series a while back, and then came back later and wrote a prelude to how it all started. That was actually the first science fiction book for adults that I picked up, and I did so almost on a whim because I had heard something about it and it looked kind of cool. That was the first book that got me sucked into science fiction properly.

“That was the first book that got me sucked into science fiction properly.” – Jason Erik Lundberg

Previously I had read stories for kids that were fantastical. Early on when I was a kid there was a book called Revolt on Alpha C by Robert Silverberg that I remember reading, but I remember nothing now about that book! Prelude to Foundation still sticks in my head because that was one of the catalysts that really got me into science fiction.

Ram: How about science fiction movies?

Jason: Star Wars is a big one! According to my parents I was in the audience for the first Star Wars movie. I was two years old! I’ve talked to them since then and I’m not sure if that actually did happen, but I’m going by that story. Back to the Future, Gremlins – I grew up watching these kinds of movies.

Ram: What do you think is the relation between mythology and science fiction? How important is mythology to write science fiction?

Jason: It’s all the same, really. Speculative fiction is any kind of writing that speculates. It’s writing that’s not of the real world that we know. This includes fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, slipstream, all of that stuff. People who are writing science fiction would naturally be more aware of mythology than people who don’t read it normally. It’s quite common to see people aware of mythologies who read science fiction than other types of fiction.

Lontar is the Indonesian word for a bound palm-leaf manuscript, which is among the oldest forms of written media, dating as far back as the fifth century BCE (and possibly earlier). They were used to record Buddhist sutras, law texts, epic mythic narratives, and treatises on a host of subjects such as astronomy, astrology, architecture, law, medicine and music. As such, this ancient form of writing is the perfect symbol for the curation of Southeast Asian speculative fiction: it is an early technology that revolutionised the dissemination of knowledge (it no longer had to be handed down exclusively in oral form), and it was used predominantly in India, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia and Laos.

The 10 issues of LONTAR

Ram: LONTAR is the first magazine to focus on speculative fiction in Southeast Asia. Is there any element that unifies speculative fiction of this region?

Jason: That’s a tough question. There’s one thing that’s very big in Singapore, the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia. It’s the idea of national identity. Who are we as Singaporeans or as Filipinos or as Thais? That’s one recurring theme I’ve seen a lot. In the US that’s not really a question. If you are born and live in the US and say, “I’m an American,” there’s a pretty clear idea of what that means. But it seems like a lot of countries in this area are still wrestling with that question, especially here in Singapore because it’s still a young country.

Ram: Do you happen to know about speculative fiction in the native languages of Southeast Asia? Do you have any future plans of encouraging speculative fiction in native languages?

Jason: I’m not monolingual but most languages that I do know are European ones. I have a lot less experience in languages of Southeast Asia. I know that speculative fiction is very strong in the Philippines, especially in English and also in Filipino. I would be very hard-pressed to comment about other countries. Accessibility is a problem. If there are writers who’re writing speculative fiction in Burmese or Indonesian, it’s hard for me to even know about that because how do you penetrate it to be aware of it? You’re always on the outside if you’re not even fluent in a language and only kind of aware of the people writing in it.

Ram: What factors led to the growth of speculative fiction in Philippines?

Jason: There are many other people who could answer this question better than I, but I do think the American influence has had a lot to do with it. In most parts of the Philippines you can find people who speak English, and so they are also able to read in English the books brought over from the US. I’ve also been told by my Filipino friends that the supernatural is an everyday part of life for many people there, and so writers feel very comfortable writing about it.

Ram: Do you see any marked difference in speculative fiction writing between the West and the Southeast Asian region that LONTAR focuses on?

Jason: Not really, actually. This could be partly because most of the writers I’ve worked with have English as their first language or they’re effectively bilingual. They think and express themselves in English. Maybe the thinking and the exploration is very similar (to the West), but it could also be that writers are writers anywhere. You’re going to be always thinking about – specifically in science fiction and fantasy – the human condition, what makes us human, what matters in our relationships to each other. I think those are pretty universal themes. The pieces in LONTAR and their locales are different (compared to the West) but if you get to the root of the themes, it’s the same as what people are writing anywhere.

Ram: Do you think science fiction is more prevalent and popular in the West, as compared to the East?

Jason: I think so. It still seems to be a young genre in this region.

Ram: Why do you think it is so?

Jason: It’s hard to speak for the whole region. Let me tell you what I know about Singapore. Singaporeans are very pragmatic people. For many parents, high profile professions like doctors and lawyers have long been considered important and they paid well. In the last generation, this has loosened up a bit. More parents are saying, “If you want to be an artist, if you want to be a writer, that’s fine with us. Do your thing.”

But we’re also talking about the types of stories being written. In Singapore, the earlier novels and short stories were all about nation-building – this goes back to the point on national identity that I mentioned earlier – and so they tended to be based in the real world. Today, Singapore is quite prosperous – even though there’s still a wide gap in terms of inequality – and many people live comfortably. When that’s the case over many years, then writers tend to think more about those what-if questions.

In addition, writers are now writing more speculative fiction because they feel it’s okay to do that. For a long time they didn’t; it was just not acceptable to write science fiction or fantasy for a long time. But thankfully over the last 10-15 years, that has loosened up, there’s more acceptability and more avenues for speculative fiction. I’d like to think that I’ve played a small part in making that happen.

Jason is the series editor for Best New Singaporean Short Stories, editor of Fish Eats Lion (2012), and co-editor of A Field Guide to Surreal Botany (2008) and Scattered, Covered, Smothered (2004).

Ram: In the West, science has had numerous clashes with religion. In the East, science and religion have been comparatively at ease with each other. Do you think that could be a reason why science fiction was used as a tool in the West to indirectly revolt against religious dogma?

Jason: That’s a really interesting perspective, although I’m not sure I agree that the clashes haven’t been there in the East as well; it seems to be a pretty global thing.

Science is about observing and asking questions. A lot of religion is about, “These are the answers. This is how the world works. This is how you should behave.” What science fiction tends to do is ask, “What if it didn’t work that way? What if it worked in a different way?” So even in societies where science and religion have had an easier time, there has still been that tension between the two.

Ram: You mentioned in an interview that the literary magazine A Public Space was an inspiration for LONTAR. Any other magazines that you love reading?

Jason: I don’t get a lot of time to read for pleasure, because I read and edit novels for my day job, but if I’m at home and reading before bedtime, it’s usually a book and not a magazine. That said, I like A Public Place a lot. They’ve done a good thing from the very beginning – they have a country of focus in each issue. I truly admire that. They’re able to reach out to those countries and get stories, poems, comics and other works either in English or translated into English for every single issue. It’s a fantastic journal.

“I like A Public Place a lot. It’s a fantastic journal.” – Jason

There’s another one called Freeman’s. It’s a biannual magazine run by John Freeman, who used to be the editor of Granta in the UK. A lot of what he did with Granta he’s doing with this magazine as well. It’s a lot of long-form nonfiction, memoirs and fiction. His editorial eye is something that I aspire to, and he’s very good at the relationships he cultivates with his writers.

However, neither of these two magazines focuses on speculative fiction. That’s the weird thing! There’s one online magazine in the US called Lightspeed, which I like. Every so often I check their content, and hopefully now that LONTAR has published its last issue, I’ll have the chance to read it more often. I believe that’s edited by John Joseph Adams. I enjoy his work as an editor.

Ram: What would be your advice to a budding speculative fiction magazine like ours?

Jason: Just to be very very clear on what you want to accomplish from the start. For LONTAR, there was no previous speculative fiction journal about Southeast Asia, anywhere, ever. I felt like this was something that I wanted to put together. It was a niche to be filled. “This is what I want to accomplish. This is my mission for doing this.” So once your goal is clear, just do everything that you can to fulfill that.

I think it’s very smart to be publishing your magazine online. We would probably have gotten a lot more readers for LONTAR had we been online. But I’m such a big fan of print journals and magazines, and because I was very inspired by A Public Space – even down to ripping off their trim size – I really wanted it to be a print journal. That decision and focus may have lost me some readers, but that was the journal I wanted to create.

A lot of readers now want it all for free. All the big magazines like Lightspeed that I mentioned earlier, Clarkesworld and Uncanny, they’re all online and you can read their content for free. I think you’ll get more readers by putting it online.

Ram: What’s your word of advice for someone starting out to write speculative fiction today?

Jason: It’s the perennial advice: if you want to be a writer you have to read a lot. Not just in speculative fiction but in all kinds of fiction, and also in poetry and plays and graphic novels. The exposure to lots of different kinds of writing is very important. I was a teacher in Singapore for 4 years, and I also teach workshops at the Creative Arts programme every year (which is organised by the Gifted Education Branch of Singapore’s Ministry of Education), and one thing that I always tell students is to read lots and lots of different things. The way you write is going to be influenced by what you read.

For example, people who only read military science fiction will know military science fiction really well, but their story is going to sound the same as the ones already published. If they’re also reading Nabokov, the Bronte sisters, Neruda and/or Chris Ware, then they’re going to look at it in a different way and write it in a different way that may be fresh and interesting. Reading widely is very important.

When you’re beginning as a writer, you’re trying to find your own voice, which sometimes takes a very long time. Writing a lot is also important. A lot of it is experimentation. It’s about getting that practice, getting it ingrained in you – that’s important when you’re first starting out.

Jason is also a Buddhist lay practitioner in the Mahayana tradition, formally taking Refuge in 2008 and receiving his refuge name (Thubten Jangchub, which means “Enlightened Mind of the Buddha-Way”) from Venerable Thubten Chodron.

Ram: I learnt that you’ve taken refuge in Buddhism. Has it influenced your work as an editor in any way?

Jason: Absolutely. The way I approach editing is very much influenced by Buddhism. Instead of trying to impose my own views on a text, it’s more of a conversation. I always say this to writers, whether the text I’m editing is a novel, short story or anything else: “I’m the midwife. You’re the parent who’s birthing this, so I’m helping you elevate it to its best version.” I look at it as an act of service. I don’t want to step in the limelight and scream, “Hey! Look at me! I edited this!” It’s always nice to be recognised, but it’s about the writer. It’s about their work. That’s how I approach any editing that I do. “How can I help you make this work the best version of itself?”

Ram: Is there any current trend in speculative fiction that excites or disturbs you?

Jason: There was something that disturbed me a few years ago that still continues today, this pushback against inclusivity. There was a group of politically far-right writers and readers – very entitled people – who passed judgements on works by writers of colour, LGBT writers, writers with neuroatypical abilities: “This isn’t the kind of stuff I grew up with. This isn’t real science fiction.” You saw this happening in a lot of pop culture – in speculative fiction, gaming, comics and movies as well. There are very vocal people who’ve decided that they’re the arbiters of taste. They’re going to destroy everything that they think is going against what they think the real stuff should be. Thankfully in written science fiction it seems to have backed off a bit.

It’s this growing pushback against where the world is going and where it should be going – trying to hold on to whatever they have as hard as they can to the detriment of everybody else. And this conflict is something that’s always going to be there. I’m not sure if there’s any easy solution to it. We just have to keep trying to combat it every day with what we create, what we enjoy and what we put out to the world.

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