Brave New World
JY Yang's twin novellas challenge social hierarchies amidst an Asian milieu – which includes Hokkien swear words
By Li-Min Lim
The Black Tides of Heaven
The Red Threads of Fortune
In her seminal essay "A Cyborg Manifesto" (1984), feminist literary scholar Donna Haraway suggests that when authors retell existing myths and stories, they have the power to challenge the social hierarchies embedded in them, and to express identities that have been discriminated against or labeled as "other" by mainstream culture. She refers to novels such as Joanna Russ's The Female Man (1975) and Octavia Butler's Dawn (1987), which subvert conventional representations of colonised communities and women of colour. Through fiction, Haraway argues, authors can stretch readers' imaginations towards a "utopian dream", where identities are not constrained to binaries between genders, or Western and non-Western cultures; instead, individuals are given the freedom to define themselves on their own terms.
Binary-defying and issues of identity are at the core of Singaporean author JY Yang's twin novellas, The Red Threads of Fortune and The Black Tides of Heaven, the latter of which is a finalist for the prestigious Nebula Award for Best Novella. The first two of Yang's planned Tensorate series, the novellas are set in an alternate world called Ea, where characters are born without gender, and traditional and modern tropes are intertwined.
Ea's aesthetic can be described as 'silkpunk', a term coined by American author Ken Liu to describe his fantasy epic The Grace of Kings (2015), and playfully combines Asian culture and science fiction. Ea strongly recalls the feudal empires of Asian history; much of it is ruled by the tyrannical Protector, Lady Sanao Hekate, who violently and indiscriminately kills all who appear to oppose her.
Our heroes are the twins Akeha and Mokoya, children of the Protector. Inseparable from birth, the twins' deep familial bond tides them through when they decide to defy their mother's oppressive rule. Each twin is referred to using the pronoun "they" instead of "he" or "she", as Akeha and Mokoya are not yet "confirmed". In Ea, people are born unsexed and only decide on their gender later, confirming this by undergoing the corresponding biological modifications.
Like another famous pair of sci-fi twins, Akeha and Mokoya are strong in manipulating an invisible force. Known as the Slack, the force through and within which Ea exists, it comprises five elements: earth, water, fire, metal, and forest. Those who gain mastery over these elements are able to manipulate physical objects. Akeha and Mokoya are trained to do so from young by the Head Abbott at the Grand Monastery, who takes them in as his pupils. Thus, textured by allusions to Asian culture and Chinese wuxia films, Yang's novellas plunge readers into a richly imaginative world set against a backdrop of political intrigue.
But at the heart of it all, Yang's novellas are fundamentally a tale about love, and about how the twins struggle to stay close to the people dear to them, even as the allegiances and identities they choose for themselves threaten to pull them apart.
Black Tides is set several years before the events of Red Threads, and tells the story of the twins' coming-of-age. Given away to the Grand Monastery when young to pay off a political debt, the twins grow up negotiating a complex relationship with their cold, distant mother. Black Tides features the quieter, stoic twin Akeha as protagonist, whose love for the brighter, effervescent twin Mokoya is challenged when the latter is discovered to have the abilities of a prophet, and is suddenly the object of their mother's attention.
With Akeha perpetually in Mokoya's shadow, the plot of Black Tides thickens when, in a pivotal scene, Mokoya reveals to Akeha her decision to be confirmed as a woman. The twins had made a childhood vow to remain identical twins forever; however, Akeha decides to be confirmed as a man instead, and must subsequently step out on his own and find his own purpose and identity apart from his sister.
Black Tides poignantly explores issues of identity and sexuality, and the impact that the characters' choices have on their relationships. The cogent way in which Yang depicts the twins' coming-of-age is perhaps informed by the author's personal experience: as an individual who identifies as queer and non-binary, Yang also uses the pronouns "they/them".
In this same vein, the second novella, Red Threads, touches on the nuances of gender identity in language and how this factors into relationships. While Black Tides was centred on Akeha, Red Threads is focused Mokoya, who is grappling with guilt and trauma after a tragedy that occurs at the end of Black Tides.
She is a far cry from her former self when she meets Rider, an enigmatic naga rider from the Quarterlands, whom she subsequently falls in love with. In depicting their relationship, the novella pauses where other fictions might gloss over to explain that Rider is non-binary and uses an "archaic, gender-neutral 'I'" from the Quarterlands, which Mokoya translates as the "they/them" pronouns used by unconfirmed children. In contrast, a former lover of Rider's callously uses the female pronouns "she/her", which Mokoya denounces.
While this is a relatively small detail in the novella's action-packed plot, it makes a subtle but meaningful point about how language is closely linked to the expression of identity, which in turn reflects the degree of care and affection between the characters in addressing each other. Mokoya's relationship with Rider, which forms the backbone of Red Threads, therefore adds to the representation of queer romance in Asian speculative fiction, and invites readers to reflect on love and its various expressions.
As a standalone publication, however, Red Threads falls short beside its twin Black Tides. Although Yang has said in interviews that there is no prescribed order for reading the novellas, Red Threads is less impactful when read first, as it is difficult to empathise with Mokoya's pain in Red Threads without having first seen the significance of what she has lost in Black Tides.
In terms of pacing, Red Threads is faster as it is written in media res, plunging readers directly into the action as Mokoya scours the Gusai desert on a reconnaissance mission. However, the novella's fast pace risks losing readers in the many invented terms encountered: readers are expected to quickly understand that Mokoya is a Tensor, or one who is trained in the manipulation of the Slack, and that she is involved in a rebellion against her mother's government, the Protectorate. In contrast, readers are eased into these facts in Black Tides.
But perhaps the most unfortunate thing about Red Threads is that the familial relationship between Mokoya and Akeha takes a back seat, with Akeha playing a smaller role, which does not seem commensurate with his significance to Mokoya as portrayed in Black Tides. Hence, in the same way that the level-headed Akeha anchors his wilder twin Mokoya, Black Tides provides the foundation that allows Red Threads to run full-tilt into the new world Yang has imagined, and the novellas should similarly be taken together.
Nonetheless, both novellas display Yang's interesting worldbuilding, which appears to spring from a uniquely South-east Asian imagination. Ea's cultural diversity is clear from the world map (illustrated by Serene Maylon) that can be found just after the title pages of both novellas. Chengbee, the site of the twins' youth, is the capital of the nation Kuanjin, which encapsulates other towns and cities with Chinese-sounding names such as Haifeng, Jixiang, and Ruyi. South of Kuanjin is Katau Kebang, the home of Mokoya's ally Adi, who peppers her speech with Malay. ("You gila or what?" she scolds Mokoya for a mad stunt Mokoya pulls in the Gusai desert.) Finally, the character Thennjay Satyaparathnam is the descendant of people from Antam Gaur, where city names such as Matapur and Atharayabad have a South Asian ring. Yet, Yang does not lift wholesale from existing cultures; rather, the nations of Ea serve as rough analogues, touch points of familiarity, that ease readers into a new world.
A particularly arresting feature of Yang's Ea is that the characters speak some variant of Singlish, Singapore's own creole that reflects our multicultural heritage. (Or readers may also identify it as Manglish, the Malaysian equivalent.) For readers in postcolonial Asia used to a diet of imported, Western literatures, it is almost uncanny seeing Singlish words nestled boldly in a book released by a New York publisher. While invented languages have become a common trope in fantasy fiction, Yang's tongue-in-cheek borrowing of Singaporean culture manages to break ground by achieving two things at once: creating a world alive with fresh imagery, while also situating it boldly as silkpunk in its playful rebellion against both the Western literary tradition of high fantasy and the Asian myths and legends of old.
Yang skillfully allows snippets of Singapore to bleed through unadulterated and uncensored — "Cheebye," swears Mokoya within the first two pages of Red Threads — while translating into standard English other aspects for international consumption. In one scene in Black Tides, set in the lively marketplace of Chengbee, "[c]raftswomen rub elbows with men selling candied nuts in paper cones". Any Singaporean would recognise the candied nuts as a common, local street snack, kacang puteh; but even without this inside knowledge, the scene stands vividly on its own.
As new additions to Singapore's growing body of speculative fiction, Yang's novellas are refreshing in how they contribute to a larger conversation on identity politics. And, socio-political relevance aside, they are also fun and entertaining. Through deftly written prose and thoughtful worldbuilding, Yang has created a fantasy world that is personal and distinctive, where stories of love, hope, tragedy and trauma unfurl with real poignancy.QLRS Vol. 17 No. 2 Apr 2018