Ghosts and Fox Spirits: Janie Chang on the Power of Speculative Fiction

Interview by 
Yilin Wang
Janie Chang

Drawing on a long family history with thirty-six generations of recorded genealogy, Janie Chang writes historical fiction with a personal connection. She grew up listening to stories about life in a small Chinese town in the years before the Second World War and tales of ancestors who encountered dragons, ghosts, and immortals. Her first novel, Three Souls, was a finalist for the 2014 BC Book Prizes' Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and one of nine Canadian books nominated for the 2015 International Dublin Literary Award. Her second novel, Dragon Springs Road, was a Globe and Mail national bestseller and also received a nomination for the International Dublin Literary Award. 

I first saw Janie Chang read at a literary festival in 2017, where she shared a passage about the character Fox from Dragon Springs Road. This past summer, when I was travelling all over Mainland China and Hong Kong to do research for my own fantasy novel inspired by Chinese folklore and mythology, I brought her books along on my trip, letting her words accompany me on my travels and transport me to time periods that have long passed.

While on the road, I interviewed Janie Chang via email to chat with her about books, feminism, speculative fiction, and her writing inspiration.

ROOM: Your novels draw on not only family history, but also tales related to the supernatural, ghosts, and immortals. What appeals to you about stories of the
fantastic?

JC: Funny you should ask. In my current manuscript, one of the characters says that myths “are the darkest and brightest incarnations of who we are.” I believe that. Myths and tales of the supernatural might be fantasy, but they also delve into the truths of what it means to be human.  

ROOM: Three Souls, your first novel, is narrated through the point-of-view of a woman who is a ghost. You also mentioned in an interview with Bookslut that you “come from a family with a legacy of ghost stories.” For you personally, what is the power of ghost stories as a genre?

JC: I think the power of ghost stories is that they offer versions of the afterlife. We all wonder, don’t we? When you tell a ghost story, it awakens something—perhaps our primal need to understand death. You read it and some part of you wonders: could this be the story that really describes what it’s like after you die? It’s quite humbling to get emails from readers who say they lost someone dear and found Three Souls’ depiction of the afterlife very comforting. 

As a literary tool, ghosts are very malleable metaphors. In Three Souls, the condition of being a ghost also stands in for being female in a traditional Chinese family. The ghost couldn’t be seen or heard, and in many ways, that’s how it was for most women of that era. Like the ghost in the novel, they could only work behind the scenes to influence outcomes.

ROOM: In your most recent novel, Dragon Springs Road, the character Fox is very complex, mysterious, and wise. In your portrayal of her, you seem to challenge some Chinese folkloric tales about hulijing (beautiful fox spirits who transform into women to seduce men) and focus instead on older traditions that represent foxes as sages and counselors. What was your process for creating her character, and did you draw on any specific sources for inspiration?

JC: This is a great example of how research can shape both characters and plot. Initially my understanding of hulijing was that of anyone who grew up with the folktale/pop culture version of Fox spirits you’ve summarized in your question. 

But three thousand years ago, Foxes were considered wise beings, counselors to the earliest mythical kings of China. They were shapeshifters that could take on human forms both male and female. There were also accounts of Foxes aspiring to enlightenment that would let them transcend their earthly existence. But as Chinese culture became more patriarchal, Fox spirits fell out of favour. They were “betwixt and between,” not truly human or animal, male or female. They blurred the accepted lines between official and unofficial, private and public, moral and immoral in social and religious practices. By the seventeenth century, Fox spirits had been demoted to creatures that were demonic at worst, unreliable at best. Thus, they were considered suitable for worship only by the most marginalized members of society—women, the poor, sex workers, and actors, the abandoned. 

At the end of all this research, I knew I had to give Fox a purpose of her own and also give her back the dignity that had been stripped away from her kind over the centuries.

ROOM: Both of your novels explore the experiences and struggles of women shackled by the intersections of issues such as gender, class, social status, and race. What do you think speculative fiction can offer feminism, and vice versa?

JC: Speculative fiction has been called “the literature of re-visioning.” In real world stories that try to deal with social justice, so many issues are so interconnected and conflated that their complexities can sometimes drag down the storytelling. But in the speculative fiction world, I feel it’s easier to create a world and control the narrative to write a story that isolates an issue and gives voice to its victims more effectively. In the books I’ve read by female SF authors, there’s more focus on how the imagined society can be made to work or not work, and less on space battles and game-changing technologies. Maybe it’s because writers who are “other” already live in an alternative society of sorts, a between-the-lines subtext kind of existence, where reality often bears little resemblance to the written laws of the land. In fact, you could say that for some writers, a society where they are not marginalized is already the stuff of fantasy. 

As for what feminism can offer SF, I have one word: material. It’s sad to say, but we will never lack for story material because feminism, which is about commitment to social justice, covers so much. Gender, class, and cultural differences are just the tip of the iceberg. In the article “Dystopian dreams: how feminist science fiction predicted the future,” the award-winning SF author Naomi Alderman said something which encapsulates for me that feeling of living in the subtext: “Nothing happens to men in the novel—I explain carefully to interviewers—that is not happening to a woman in our world today. So, is it dystopian? Well. Only if you’re a man.” 

ROOM: As a historical fiction writer, you do a lot of research by reading non-fiction about the time periods you portray. When it comes to the fantastical elements of your work, do you perform similar research, or how does your process differ?

JC: Whatever I write, I want the work to be immersive enough to pull the reader in, make them want to believe. The details matter, whether it’s a Fox spirit or characters who behave in a certain way, given their era, social class, gender, etc. 

I probably research for about six months on both the historical and fantasy elements to get a good grounding on the landscape of the era: belief systems, traditions, social issues, political influences. I want my novels to be as historically accurate as possible. Even the magical elements must be true to the beliefs of the time. But with the fantastic, you can be selective about what to use, how far to dig.  

ROOM: To what extent do you do ‘worldbuilding’ when working on your projects?

JC: It is worldbuilding, isn’t it, whether you are writing speculative or historical fiction? The worldbuilding I do is to evoke a certain era, and within that, create constructs that allow magical elements to exist credibly. In both Three Souls and Dragon Springs Road, that credibility comes from drawing from Chinese mythology and belief systems. Fortunately, Chinese culture is thousands of years old and there’s a lot to work with. 

All my historical novelist friends get annoyed when people say things like, “Well, you don’t need to do any worldbuilding, the history’s there already,” because really? You think reading a Wikipedia article is enough to make the world of the novel live and breathe?

ROOM: What are some of your favourite books of speculative fiction? 

JC: The Culture series by Iain M. Banks is the one I always throw at people who say speculative can’t be literary. I love Sheri S. Tepper for her eco-feminist themes, great storytelling, and her re-visioning of alternate societies. And lately, I want to read more by Nnedi Okorafor; her stories are infused with African culture and magic that deserve quality time and complete attention. And then there’s Dune, of course. 

ROOM: You have lived in so many places—Taiwan, the Philippines, Iran, Thailand, New Zealand, and Canada. Out of all the different places you have lived in, which place(s) do you find the most magical?

JC: It would be a tie between Iran and Taiwan. Iran, because we lived there when I was just old enough to appreciate ancient history: the mosques, the legendary cities of Shiraz and Isfahan; the Persian crown jewels and understanding for the first time that objects could be precious for the history they represented; walking up the Grand Stairway at Persepolis and thinking, Alexander the Great rode his horse up these steps. Taiwan, because one morning I looked up and saw the Goddess of Mercy in the clouds. She was moving very slowly across the sky, her head turning from side to side as if inspecting the city of Taipei. 

ROOM: Room magazine takes its name from Virginia Woolf’s quote that “It is necessary to have five hundred [pounds] a year and a room with a lock on the door if you are to write fiction or poetry.” Imagine for a moment you can write anywhere, surrounded by anything real or imaginary. What does your dream writing space look like?

JC: A circular room at the top of a tower with windows looking over the sea. The lower floors would be library space. It’s not hoarding if you have enough bookshelves.

Yilin Wang is a Vancouver-based writer, editor, and Chinese-to-English translator. Her writing has been published in Clarkesworld, Grain, Contemporary Verse 2, LooseLeaf Journal, The Tyee, Matador Network, and other publications, while her debut short story translation is forthcoming in Pathlight: New Chinese Writing. She is a member of Room’s editorial collective.

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