Okay, I finally dragged myself out of the twin hells and imposter syndrome and procrastination and decided to finally do an awards eligibility post. I had exactly one speculative short story published in 2021 (“The 74th District”, in Speculative City) — this year I have 7 short stories and 2 flashes, plus one essay! It’s really easy to keep moving the goalposts, but looking back on where I was this time last year, I’m actually really proud of how much I accomplished, and I might as well bite the bullet and throw my hat in the ring for the sake of it. Anyway, without further ado: a round-up of the US SFF awards eligible stories, plus bonus acknowledgements to the ineligible ones.
1. “Lay My Stomach On Your Scales“, Strange Horizons (about 5400 words)
I become forty eight kilograms lighter when I detach my head from my body. You shed a lot when you leave all the stupid fat and bones behind. I wish I could do something about the organs. I read that the human head alone is five kilograms. I would like to be five kilograms, but I can’t get rid of these organs. They trail along after me. With them I am an extra five and a half kilos. But ten and a half kilos is better than fifty eight and a half kilos. I wish my bones were hollow, like a bird.
Nonetheless, when I detach, I fly.
A teenage girl who detaches her head from her body crosses paths with the pretty popular girl who steals body parts. A penanggalan meets a Frankensteinesque story that’s also about being kind to your own flesh, girls’ schools, and Maggi Mee. I grew up in girls’ schools and I’m only just starting to revisit and explore them in fiction. (cw: eating disorders, body dysmorphia)
2. “Love Heart Soup“, Augur (about 2800 words)
Over the years, love on this day has tasted all kinds of ways: pungent; sour; scalding; salty; painfully, eye-wateringly sweet. Sometimes it tastes like nothing at all. Those days, she has to compensate with other flavours. Today when she tugs open her heart and drops its rough red seed into the broth, the way her mother taught her, the soup turns smooth and bitter all over.
Recommended by both Vanessa Fogg and Karen Burnham for Locus Magazine! An old woman brews soup on the anniversary of her sons’ death in a massacre. This story is a double homage: both to the victims of the Sook Ching Massacre during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore, and to my grandmother, who made her special 爱心汤 every special occasion.
3. “The Lighthouse Keeper’s Guide to Pulau Belakang Mati“, Flash Fiction Online (about 1000 words)
You seem disconcerted, checking your watch and looking upward. No, you’re not imagining it, the sun is now behind you. In retribution for the occupation, the jinn turned the sky around, so the sun no longer rose on their backs. You’ll become accustomed to it.
Flash fic is a long shot, but I do love this piece, and it’s a companion to the one above, with a different angle on the same history and the same beach. Pulau Belakang Mati translates roughly to the “island of behind death” in Malay, and during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore was used for killing grounds and comfort stations, among other things. It’s since been renamed Sentosa and holds things like resorts and Universal Studios, but the old name is much more interesting for speculative fiction. The story also incorporates a little trivia about Singapore’s dollar coins.
4. “Hundred-Handed One“, Uncanny (about 2300 words)
When the doctors tugged me from Ma I gripped on so tight with all my hundred hands that I left little handprints all over the umbilical cord. I grasped before I gasped. And then I was crying because they had to peel my fingers away, one by one, and swaddle ninety-eight of my hands in cloth so tight it felt like bumpy flesh against Ma’s breast, against the thin hospital gown. Are all babies this lumpy, she asked.
It’s all that flopping around in the womb, said Grandma, in her acerbic, to-the-point Teochew. Leaves a dent. Your milk will puff him back up.
Later she went to the feng shui man at the bottom of our block and asked what they had done to deserve this not-child.
This was my first pro sale! It was inspired by the Hecatoncheires of Greek mythology (yes, I was a percy jackson kid) as well as evolving from an old story I wrote about mermaids and shark finning: a child born with a hundred arms is cast out into the ocean, where they find themselves a new family with sharks. Ultimately the story became something a little darker, a little stranger, a little stream-of-consciousness, a little divine. Environmental commentary or religious trauma? Up for interpretation.
5. “Rooted“, Reckoning (about 1800 words)
The decades, like the roots, tangle themselves together, extend into murky depths. In her best sturdy shoes, Sik pads as quickly as she can over the silt. Her soles squelch in the softened edges. Brackish water laps at her feet, languid but somehow alive, thrumming with far-out currents. She thinks she catches the glint of crocodile eyes, but it sinks beneath the surface before she can be sure. Around the mud-flats, mottled brown crabs cling to the trees, make her mouth water with the pickled-vinegar memory, the porridge dinners. But no time for hearty meals now. She scuttles along.
Barely squeaking out of flash fiction territory – a quiet little story about (another) old woman seeking her last moments in the mangroves. Elegy and homage in part to my grandparents’ generation to whom the city is now unrecognisable, and in part to the native mangrove forests of the island, most of which have been cleared over the decades for urban development.
6. “First Strikes the Lightning“, Anathema Magazine (about 4000 words)
She squats and places her palm on the rail.
The charge surges through her like a long-lost lover. She tempers it and breathes, settling into its racing flows. The electricity runs through the city. It sees every building, every population. The sheer abundance of it now, and the sheer convenience, almost makes up for everything else.
The electricity remembers his hum. She sees where he boards the train and sees where he gets off.
There you are, Nik.
Two star-crossed, reincarnating immortals who are increasingly tired of existence, and only have each other in the end. In hindsight, I’d love to write a longer piece about them, because I love their dynamic so much and because reincarnating immortals give you so much material to play with. But here it is in a compact form, an ode to quiet survival and companionship despite it all.
7. “Wok Lung Hei“, Tree & Stone (about 1000 words)
One day Ruby Peach will be as big as Papa’s dragon Scarlet Willow, as long as a river when it sleeps and tall as a house when it cooks. Papa floats over it on his whirring clockwork kitchen. All the metal in the kitchen gleams: the chopper, ice boxes that store the meat and the leaves, the teeth of the stove, and of course, Papa’s wok, big as a shield and tossed with both hands over the dragon’s fiery breath. Everything goes into it: budding vegetables that glisten with frying garlic and oyster glaze; flat rice noodles that unfurl to the flame, thickening and charring and soaking in sauces; rice tossed with the silver yolk of nightingale egg; meat that crackles and leaps in its own fat; all lowered down on clicking gears to the hungry patrons below. When Scarlet Willow tilts its head back and breathes, fire leaps over the wok like dancing pillars reaching to the heavens, the roar loud enough to reach the gods. When the fifty-eight dragons of the market all breathe at once, it is like the sun has come down to earth.
I wrote this little flash in one short after a dinner with my dad, where he mentioned that one interpretation of wok hei, the wok char, was dragon’s breath. I have no idea where he got that from or who has ever said that, but it was an image that grabbed me, and I spiralled out this vignette-y piece about a dragon night market. “Lung” is a different pronunciation of 龙, or “dragon”.
These are the stories that I don’t think qualify for US awards, for category or country of origin reasons, but since this is also my yearly round-up I have to include them.
While we can’t transcribe English cultural and medical discourses onto other myths, it says something about the universality of these fears that so many ghosts are women who sprung from some kind of poisoned female sexuality or maternity. The langsuir, La Llorona, the South Asian churel, even Medusa: all cursed by their infanticide or their sexual transgressions, made mythic in their terrible grief. They represent the pervasive, evidently cross-cultural anxiety about the destructive power of the unfettered feminine. In Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, we have the pontianak.
“Wife, Skin, Keeper, Slick“, Fish Eats Lion Redux (Epigram Books)
Completing the household is a man and a woman. Actually, there are three women, if you count the maids. But besides the maids, there is a woman who is like spun spring showers, and a man with her skin buried deep in the garden.
Reviewed in The Straits Times. A Singaporean otter spin on the selkie myth, where a man finds a skin and keeps its owner captive. It’s about objectification and fetishisation and power and also about human and masculine relationships with nature and the feminine, and also inspired by the otters that run rampant eating rich people’s koi. It’s very much a monstrous feminine story.
“That Is Their Tragedy“, Fright 1 (Epigram Books/Storytel)
My fingers instinctively open the catch and find the dried umbilical cord inside, still curled the way I left it. I curl my knees up as far as they’ll go and feel a pulse thudding against them. Mine or the baby’s, I don’t know. I put one end of the cord between my lips and breathe deep through it. It expands and deflates like a lung. The air I suck in is thin, tastes a little like blood. I gulp it down until my heart stops racing, until I feel safe again.
About overattachment, symbiosis, and girls who quite literally bud from their mothers. The title is of course taken from the Oscar Wilde quote: “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy.” I have plenty of pregnancy and motherhood fears and it comes to fruition here.
If you’ve made it all the way here, that’s it! I don’t know whether I’ll be able to keep up the same stats for next year. I’m drowning in wanting to write novels right now, but I also still have a pile of short fiction things I would love to get to. I do have a few stories already on deck that have been bought and will (likely?) be published next year, so that backlog will probably furnish most of my next year’s list (including a Wonderland story, a Jennifer’s Body esque story, a Rafflesia story and a Maximum Ride esque story).