In Conversation with Novelist Audrey Chin

Extract of an interview on the ‘Essence of the Gothic’ with Singaporean novelist Audrey Chin

What is Gothic literature? Is there a difference between the modern and Victorian variety? Or the Asian and European ones? And why is it considered part of the literature of subversion? I’m a neophyte to the genre. Indeed, I would not have known to even ask these questions until I submitted my MS for a review at the UK Literary Consultancy under the National Arts Council Manuscript Assessment Scheme managed by SingLit Station. They sent it to Gothic scholar and author Stephen Carver, who opened my eyes to my ignorance.  

AC:  You taught in Japan for a number of years. Are there classical and modern Japanese works which might be considered Gothic? What about other Asian works? How are they the same, and different from European Gothic stories.

SC: Yeah, I was in Fukui Prefecture on the west coast, between Osaka and Kyoto. Fukui City’s quite big, but the region’s predominantly rural and full of legends. (I have a book of them collected by Jinzaemon Kimura.) One night, I saw an old woman in traditional dress pushing an ancient hoop-frame bicycle toward the shrine on the top of Mount Asuwa while I was walking down. She was wearing an old-fashioned gasmask and seemed totally oblivious to my presence. I’ve never managed to entirely shift the thought that I’d just seen a ghost from the night the Americans bombed the city in World War II…

I don’t know as much about Japanese and East Asian Gothic as I should. If anything, I’m better on the movies. Like a lot of westerners, my first experience of Japanese Gothic were the ghost stories of Lafcadio Hearn, received secondhand through Masaki Kobayashi’s 1965 movie Kwaidan. Hearn moved to Japan from the US, married and became a Japanese citizen. He wrote extensively about Japanese culture around the turn of the century and translated and transcribed many folk tales and legends. The best of these are collected in Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904). Some of these are amazing, but Hearn as an anthologist was infuriating, muddling up fiction with non-fiction as if desperate to pull in copy to fill a book. Kwaidan, for example, veers off at one point into a study of insects. Another good introduction is Japanese Gothic Tales byKyōka Izumi (1873–1939), a beautiful blend of supernatural Romanticism and Modernism. For more contemporary Japanese Gothic, the writer most people will probably know is Koji Suzuki, the author of the Ring novels.

I don’t know a lot about Chinese literature, but I can heartily recommend Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling (1740). Again, I’m ashamed to say I came to it through the movies, specifically Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), which is loosely adapted from one of Pu’s tales. This was part of the renaissance in Hong Kong cinema and produced some remarkable ghost stories. My favourite is Rouge (1988) directed by Stanley Kwan, from the novel by Lilian Lee (Li Pi-Hua). I defy anyone to get through the third act without crying.

As to the relationship between the Asian and the European Gothic traditions, I’d say there was a lot of convergent evolution, with similar art being produced while practitioners had no knowledge of each other. There’s something archetypal about Gothic motifs and symbols. As the form is based around the human universals of sex, cruelty, obsession, violence and death, similar stories are going to develop along with human culture, and pretty much every society believes in ghosts and demons. My guess is that European literature made its way to China along with the British East India Company, and to Japan after the Meiji Restoration. But the European stories would be feeding into a much older literary culture, especially in China, the Xia dynasty rising while the British were still living in caves. There are certainly common themes and settings in many of the stories, but also many differences. There’s more tragedy in the Asian stories I’ve read, and women often have more agency than their European counterparts, becoming supernatural instruments of vengeance, which is what’s going on in The Ash House. And just as European Gothic is a multifaceted form incorporating elements of Christian and pre-Christian myth, Enlightenment philosophy, revolutionary politics and Romantic individualism, the East Asian Gothic will necessarily draw on Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism.

AC:  After reviewing my MS for TLC, you very kindly accepted my request to blurb my novel The Ash House, mentioning that it was a ‘an original addition to the literature of subversion’. That sounds really impressive. Now if I only knew what ‘the literature of subversion’ is. Would you care to enlighten us, perhaps with examples from authors you’ve written about.

SC: Well, isn’t all the best stuff subversive? This goes back to the theory of Gothic literature being transgressive through its revolt against Realism, which demands certainty and presupposes some sort of natural order to human society just as the omniscient narrator controls the text like God surveying the world. But real life is much more complicated. Constructed meaning is always going to be contingent, but it’s sad how much this still freaks people out. Gothic fiction, then, comes along and undercuts this fragile sense of stability, offering multiple interpretations of phenomena and warning of screaming chasms of madness below. (Remember the ‘dark epiphany’?) As a predominantly psychological form, the Gothic also explores drives and desires not usually admitted in polite society, its subject frequently taboo. It’s often the vehicle for political commentary and satire, too. The Marquis De Sade used it to mock Church and State, and in Frankenstein Mary Shelley challenged patriarchal authority right up to God. At a less metaphysical level, Gothic fiction is always going to be subversive through its content as well, which is all about sexuality and violence, delivered in an aesthetically extreme way.

AC:  Do you see those subversive themes in your own fiction?

SC: I hope so. I am nothing if not an ageing punk rocker! I am by nature iconoclastic and have always been drawn to art that’s considered extreme, radical, subversive, and transgressive. The kind of subjects that appeal to me, as both a storyteller and an academic, tend to be outsiders. My current book (The Opium Eaters) is about drug use and creativity in the long 19th century, held together by the life of that great literary pariah, Thomas De Quincey. Before that, I wrote about the 19th Century Underworld, so: gamblers, beggars, bare-knuckle fighters, pornographers, prostitutes, revolutionaries, thieves, and murderers. In my fiction, my protagonists tend to be a similar type, not criminals necessarily, but social outcasts. I’m also, rather obviously, drawn to the Gothic in pretty much everything I write. It’s just how I see the world.

To read the full interview please click here

For details of Audrey’s books please click here

For more details of my writing please see my website

Information on Audrey’s forthcoming novel, THE ASH HOUSE (Penguin), can be found here

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