Conversations: We Do Stories To Escape And Also Confront Demons, with Sabrina Lunavong

Conversations: We Do Stories To Escape And Also Confront Demons, with Sabrina Lunavong

We’re back! Last month, I had a conversation with the super-wise protective angel/kickass writer Jennifer Elrod (“well I’m here to slap your brain” is something she recently told me) about writing for yourself and holding onto the heart of your writing versus/in spite of/within the market. Today, I’m joined by Sabrina Lunavong, one of the first people I met on Twitter! We met in the querying trenches, got agented a few months apart with YA books, and are now looking at writing some adult books (and writing for ourselves😌). 

I think, in terms of writing for yourself and drawing from what you have fun with or what you need to tell at the time, fiction can be either escapist or intensely real and cathartic. It can be a getaway or a means by which to explore and confront things that otherwise just build and tangle inside of you. Both can be equally motivating and equally important. So, hey Sab! As you go from one project (and genre!) to another, what have you recently been drawing on that keeps you excited to write, and what does fiction mean to you? 

Sabrina: Hello!! Thank you for spontaneously agreeing to indulge me in this topic, Wen. I’m so happy to be here. Fiction to me is like diving into a realm that you can briefly escape in. It’s a portal to another world, a glimpse into a life that is fueled by your imagination of how you interpret the text. As someone with a vivid imagination, I love how immersive music, books, and movies are to me. 

They serve as a constant source of creative energy that inspires me to write. For example, I can listen to a kickass song and if it resonates with me, suddenly my neurons are firing off and a scene is playing in my head. There’s a character, there’s dialogue, and I need to grab a pen to jot it down. Fiction is great because it leads to fandom. I’m a huge fan of many things and being in such communities gives my life great joy!

Wen: (Go on–what things are you a fan of?) But I totally resonate with what you’re saying about being energised by other media; I’m always jotting down stuff in my notes app and I’ve definitely gotten entire scenes or story ideas from coming across the right song or video at the right time–the book I signed my agent with was heavily inspired by Spring Awakening, and the book I’m revising now was inspired by something I learned from a Tiktok my friend sent me lol. Shoutout to Kim. Both times, I had a whole pitch (and a Pinterest board) within like a day of the initial spark. Why do you feel like you need to keep yourself in check? I think there’s something to be said about not overindulging at the expense of structure/plot/narrative, but (to bring back something from my convo with Jen) I think readers can pick up on when you’re passionate about something, and it makes them excited too. 

Fandom and community more generally are definitely some of the best parts of reading–getting to share that experience with others, to see a story resonate with someone else the way it did with you, and also just have fun with all the theories and headcanons and edits! I was on Wattpad and Tumblr for a solid few years and some of my earliest big original stories were inspired by things like Star Wars and Teen Titans and the teen spy genre (I will truly never reclaim that level of happiness again). I realised my heart was in original fic pretty quick, but I have a bunch of abandoned fanfics lying around and I still have a soft spot for a Fablehaven one I had a few chapters and a whole outline for. 

That was all before I started angst-writing fiction (at the age of like… 16-17), so that era of writing was particularly joyous like you said, because it was just creating within worlds I loved, especially since I hadn’t yet been burdened with awareness of craft. Or standards. Or expectations. Or The Market lol. Even though I think I write a lot more as exploration and catharsis now, I definitely remember that feeling of creating from escapism–and I also usually read or watch things as escapism! I can’t take too much realness all of the time, it gets depressing.

Sabrina: I feel like just the mention of Tumblr summons fond memories for many fans. Like you, I also had my start in fandom by joining the Tumblr community. I was a teenager and a major fan of the Grisha series LOL. The first book launch I attended, ever, was actually for SIX OF CROWS by Leigh Bardugo held at a library close to where I lived! That then led to me attending book festivals and many other launch parties for authors because of how much I loved the experience. 

As to what fandoms I’m currently floating around in, right now I’m a big fan of K-pop, anime, and Marvel movies. For example, I have a stan Twitter account for Stray Kids, I have Demon Slayer merch like art prints and keychains, and for every new Marvel movie released I use the opportunity to go watch them with my friends. I really enjoy the community aspect of memes, jokes, and the positive atmosphere that people bring when talking passionately about something that they love, and what you also love. There was that time I had a whole phase after watching Everything Everywhere All At Once. You were there to witness me crying and researching ardently everything I can discover about the movie because I loved it.

On that note, when I truly love something, I have different methods of showing my appreciation. I write original content, but I didn’t get into writing fanfiction until last month. I wrote it for fun and to give back to the community! It really helped my mental health and my brain was flooded with serotonin every time I posted a new chapter. There was no pressure involved because I got to write whenever I had free time and upload whenever I’m ready. 

I struggle a lot with imposter syndrome. So I did get super emotional to read the kind comments left behind on my fic. With every chapter uploaded, the readers encouraged me to keep writing because they were heavily invested. They laughed and cried and swooned, and I began to believe in myself and in my stories again. That no matter what I write, I hope that it gives someone joy and a chance to be whisked away into a story. 

Wen: Yeah, that feeling of being whisked away by a story is why I think a lot of us get into reading and then writing in the first place! I’m primarily a speculative writer, so that has the added layer of the literal fantastical–things you could never experience in real life (well, I have some caveats to that re folklore, but moving on), the magic and sense of wonder that draws so many of us to impossible worlds.

But I think most fiction to some extent is fantastical, and that’s what we love about it. Even in contemporary, or romances, there’s still an ideal there, whether it’s a necessary neatness to the world (for narrative’s sake), the promise of resolution and happy endings, the cinematic relationships and moments, or even just the characters saying something better than you ever could yourself. I think that polished, ordered quality to even realistic fiction is part of what makes it so comforting to run to, especially when real life feels extremely unpolished and out of control. Having that neat little world within 300 pages where I experience that same turbulence but with the promise of a safe landing is the escapist element for me, at least in realist fiction. Obviously in SFF, it’s just getting to experience something you literally never could in real life! (At least with romance there’s a chance lol)

And fanfic pulls double duty because it’s not only letting us escape from the real world into familiar, comfort characters–sometimes it even fixes the things you didn’t like about the original, or lets you play in a part of the original story that wasn’t in canon. Gonna admit I’ve never been a huge fanfic reader, but I’ve spent a fair share of time reading and writing them and there’s something that just feels so safe about it. (It’s also great for burnt-out attention span because it doesn’t need you to reorient to new stuff) 

On the other hand, though, I think there’s fiction as confrontation. There’s something about that controlled space that also becomes a safe realm in which to explore things you don’t feel able to in real life–excavating traumas, peeling back uncomfortable or tangled histories, working out the unknown, writing yourself the justice or closure you never received in real life. So many people have said that writing helped them understand their sexuality, or come to terms with some aspect of their past. 

I think that gets us into discourse territory re readers needing to separate textual elements from the author’s own views, like with what happened to Tamsyn Muir (and that was within fanfic too!) But that horse has been beaten to death. All I can say is that the safety of fiction provides both its capacity for escapism and confrontation, but that’s become increasingly blurred a) if we demand that authors signpost morals on the page b) when twitter virality has so much potential to obscure nuance or obliterate context entirely. I guess it kind of begs the everlasting question that we keep asking with identity discourses, and most recently with white fantasy discourse (Rings of Power, but also Star Wars, The Little Mermaid, etc, wherein real world diversity suddenly “threatens” the purity of the IP)–to what extent can we escape into fiction and leave behind the real world, and the real contexts of histories, identities, communities, and authorship?

(That is a gigantic question we don’t have space in this blog post to fully unpack. But something I had to acknowledge.)

Sabrina: (I don’t know where to segue without bringing up too much discourse, so hopefully I’m walking in the right direction. That is rather a big question.)

I think responsibility goes both ways: on the author and on the reader. For the author not to cross the line into appropriating or exploiting a community they’re not a part of, and for the reader not to jump to conclusions on who the author is as a person without knowing the full context. This is a weighted question because you don’t know. Maybe the author is in the right. Maybe the readers were correct. I can’t apply a general label on this because every situation and discourse is different. 

What I do know is that we all have different reasons for creating fiction, and using fiction as a gateway for escapism. It can be therapeutic to express yourself on page, to figure out your sexual identity through reading and writing, which is why it’s so important that marginalized communities see representation of themselves in the media. 

That’s why the fanfic community feels safe to me. You can be who you are, but you can also be anonymous, with a profile that doesn’t have your real name or your real appearance. For people questioning their identity or seeking content that’s targeted for them in mind as an audience, there are writers who might be going through the same thing, who are creating content for those like them!

It’s very much like a symbiotic relationship. The writer can express themselves, and the reader can consume content that will provide them with what they’re looking for. This is also important for those who are still struggling to figure out who they are as a person. It’s okay if you haven’t figured it out yet. There’s no age limitation for when you need to know. Whatever it is that you’re using fiction for, I hope that it brings what you were seeking for in the end.

Wen: I do think it goes both ways, and that it’s also way easier said than done. It’s the whole OwnVoices fallout, right, where representation–particularly queer rep–was being judged by what the author had publicly revealed about themselves. Tamsyn Muir had to come out as a CSA survivor in her response. Becky Albertalli and Rod Pulido felt pressured to come out after comments from readers and editors about not being OwnVoices (the titles of the posts are eerily similar, and also sad). Writers do go through the same process of questioning as the readers that might be coming to their work for the answers. We can’t appreciate how fiction helps us as readers without considering–and without demanding proof–how they might do the same thing for the authors.

And on the other hand–sometimes authors also write things that don’t correlate to their own experiences at all! I think there’s a particular burden on marginalised writers to exploit and translate their trauma onto the page; this thread about diaspora teen poets stood out to me recently, especially in saying that readers can’t constantly be consuming trauma either. When it’s produced within or even for the “majority market”, it sometimes feels like a want for education/self-justification/emotional labour disguised as calls for authenticity, especially when that’s the main kind of story that gets bought or acclaimed. 

As powerful, necessary, and affirming as these stories can be (from The Hate U Give to Ocean Vuong to fantasy that directly draws on cultural canon) marginalised authors deserve the leeway to also write escapist stories, and readers from those communities deserve stories that don’t rehash trauma–stories that unashamedly imagine worlds where those traumas don’t exist at all, plots that don’t hinge on identity, or worlds that don’t need to be a factual primer on Culture And Mythology 101. Fraught Asian family stories will make me cry every time. But I’ve found the most joy in stories where that identity is more of a side note, and they’re just Doing Cool Things While Being Asian. (And sometimes they do both, like Everything Everywhere All At Once, and then I’m just left tangled up inside)

It doesn’t mean everyone in the community has to agree on whether they like the end result! Not a monolith etc etc. Some felt the Sharma sisters in Bridgerton, for example, were fun escapism into a more diverse Regency, while some thought the casting whitewashed the treatment of South Asians under British colonialism. I haven’t watched the show beyond seeing many… many… many snippets of Anthony and Kate–but I think having those conversations is a lot more meaningful than trying to put blanket rules either way on what people should and shouldn’t write. (Obviously this doesn’t apply to things that are blatantly or deliberately racist, etc; I mean, they have the right to write it, and we have the right to say fuck that)

Sabrina: You stated an important point that we aren’t a monolith and we don’t have to agree on everything! I feel like people from marginalised groups carry the burden of representing their entire community, but the truth is, our identities can’t be defined into a neat box. In the end, I think what we’re all trying to do is to find our community. The people who do understand what you’re trying to do with your work. The people who understand the heart of what you’re trying to accomplish. 

We gravitate toward fiction that speaks to us. That’s why I really adore the writing community on Twitter. We’re all there for the same reason, to express our words into a story, and I love seeing the aesthetics and snippets and pitch events where people can hype each other up. We can easily find others who share the same tastes through hashtags or a friend of a friend. In this community many people somewhat run in the same circles. I’m always pleasantly surprised to talk to someone, only to find out we have many mutuals in common! It’s such a small world on here haha. 

Wen: For sure–some of the best and most relieving parts of media are finding the other people who feel the same way! I think we’re getting to wrapping this up, so on that note let’s loop back with a fun question: What have you read, watched or listened to recently that you escaped into or otherwise spoke to you?

SABRINA: This is absolutely my favorite question because I love and enjoy a lot of things!! Currently I’m listening to a lot of Taylor Swift songs as I write my new WIP. I’m in my Reputation Era where I’m taking control of my life. No more waiting or second guessing or doubting myself haha. I’m still a huge Marvel fan so I’m planning to watch Thor: Love and Thunder on Disney+ this weekend since I finally got around to watching Loki! As for books, I’ve been reading a lot of fanfiction (I finished this 200K fic in one night because I was heavily invested and then had to wake up early for work), but I’ve been binge reading thrillers and they’re as addicting as candy. I was gripped by Truly Devious, You, and every book written by Karen McManus! 

Wen: So true. See you all October 21.

My constant escape world is probably Star Wars, but I’ve recently had a lot of fun with the mutant found family in Netflix’s The Imperfects and Becky Chambers’ Psalm for the Wild-Built, which was like a hopeful, gentle, solarpunk hug. Plus something about High School Musical: The Musical: The Series scratches my perfect theatre kid entertainment itch. I also finally read the second Kyoshi book (The Shadow of Kyoshi) and Fonda Lee’s Green Bone novella (The Jade Setter of Janloon) and both those worlds are always such a wonder to return to. I mean, Fonda Lee also likes to rip my heart out, but I think those books are a great example of stuff that both speaks to me and that I lose myself in.

Sabrina Lunavong is a reader, writer, and fangirl. She is a big fan of K-pop and rom-coms, and a big believer in chasing after your dreams. An adventurer at heart, she loves to travel and is a major foodie person. She reads across a wide range of genres, sometimes binge-reading entire books/fanfics late into the night. She likes to chat and make friends! You can find her on Twitter @SerenelySabrina.

Wen-yi Lee is a Clarion West graduate from Singapore who likes writing about girls with bite, feral nature, and ghosts. Her fiction has appeared in Uncanny, Strange Horizons, Anathema and others, and is forthcoming in various anthologies, while her non-fiction has appeared on Find her on Twitter at @wenyilee_ and on her newsletter here.

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