The Dragon and the Stars: A Conversation with Derwin Mak

As authors and fans alike are quick to point out, the history of science fiction has been written mostly from the perspective of white middle-class males living in America. It’s close to the truth: the Golden Age of science fiction was dominated by white American male writers. But things have been improving. The last few decades have seen marvellous improvement — but only a few shining collections of culturally specific works have emerged. A new anthology edited by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi is one such collection. Titled The Dragon and the Stars, the stories within draw from traditional Chinese themes and folklore while offering reflections on the places where cultures mix. I met with Derwin Mak to discuss how the idea for the book came about — and why it was important.

As authors and fans alike are quick to point out, the history of science fiction has been written mostly from the perspective of white middle-class males living in America. It’s close to the truth: the Golden Age of science fiction was dominated by white American male writers. But things have been improving. The last few decades have seen marvellous improvement — but only a few shining collections of culturally specific works have emerged. A new anthology edited by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi is one such collection. Titled The Dragon and the Stars, the stories within draw from traditional Chinese themes and folklore while offering reflections on the places where cultures mix. I met with Derwin Mak to discuss how the idea for the book came about — and why it was important.

“Despite focusing on Canadian-Chinese writing,” Mak explains, “The Dragon and the Stars wasn’t conceived in either of those countries. It started in Yokohama Japan, where the World Science Fiction Convention was held in 2007. The location meant that, for the first time in the history of the conference, writers from mainland China could attend the event — including Professor Wu Yan of Beijing Normal University. He invited me to write an article about Canadian-Chinese science fiction writers. I agreed, and proceeded to interview Eric Choi, Tony Pi and a handful of others. The article was later translated into Chinese and printed in Science Fiction World — the most read science fiction magazine in the world.”

The connections Mak made while researching that article forged a small community of writers with similar experiences. Soon after, this group would become the core contributors to a new anthology that was designed to give a voice to science fiction authors writing from their own experience — as opposed to the secondhand depictions of Chinese identity common to science fiction.

“I had a New Year’s dinner with some of the writers and we were talking about how Chinese people were portrayed in science fiction. You know, usually not very positively, as villains like Ming the Merciless or as the young girlfriend of a hero. We had the idea to put together an anthology about Chinese themes written by Chinese people, people that grew up in a Chinese environment or with a Chinese family. That doesn’t happen very often. So Eric and I wrote the proposal, Julie Czerneda helped us pitch the idea to DAW books, and they jumped on it.

“We told the authors that there were no restrictions; they could write fantasy, science fiction, horror or humour, so long as there was some Chinese element to it. What we got was a real mix. William Wu’s story, ‘Goin’ Down to Anglotown,’ is nominated for a Sidewise Award for Alternate History. Another story, ‘The Man in the Moon’ by Crystal Gail Shangkuan Koo, is written in a South American magic realism style.”

The shorts in the collection span a wide spectrum of speculative fiction genres. In Mak’s own contribution to the anthology, “Polar Bear Carries the Mail,” he paints a touchingly realistic picture of cultural and political tension in the near future of the Canadian Arctic — masterfully erecting a fictional northern community full of competing desires, overlapping beliefs and the comical concessions made for cultural heritage. On the other side of the spectrum, E.L. Chen’s fantastic short, “Threes,” tells the story of a family living in Scarborough and an eldest daughter who is forced to come to terms with her supernatural past in a brilliant web of folklore, urbanism and conflicting identities.

Cultural or ethnic tension sometimes risks becoming a tired literary device, especially in science fiction. That’s not the case here — each story finds a way to weave elements of nationality (or what might be better described as ethnicity) into thoughtful and nuanced narratives. The collection avoids the themes of cultural displacement, bucking a trend which seems to be especially prevalent in the work of authors whose lives straddle multiple cultural identities.

“There are many other Chinese-Canadian and Chinese-American authors who do write about cultural displacement, fitting in, and being caught between two cultures — for example Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife and Joy Luck Club. That’s not really the case in this anthology — although there are a few stories about cultural issues in a multicultural society. My story, ‘Polar Bear Carries the Mail,’ depicts a classically Canadian bit of mild conflict between Chinese engineers and contractors, aboriginal peoples and southern white liberals who travel to the North to protest the building of a new spaceport.

“Most science fiction, at least in North America, is written from a white, liberal, city-dwelling background. What Eric and I hope this book will encourage, is for more people to write from the ethnic and cultural background. It doesn’t have to be about displacement. We hope that we will get more Canadian and hopefully American science fiction that comes from varied cultural backgrounds. The perspective does not need to be Chinese. I recently came across an anthology titled Cosmos Latinos, which is written from South American and Latin American perspectives. And of course if you grow up in places like Argentina, Columbia or Chile, where the regimes haven’t always been particularly nice and where poverty looks very different, and there is a long history of mixed identities, you have a very different outlook on the world than if you grew up in middle-class America.”

There are a small handful of other anthologies along these lines, and rumours that more are on their way. The more interesting speculation points at planned anthologies of science fiction written by the Jewish Diaspora and by Eastern Europeans who lived through the transitional democracies in the wake of the collapsing Soviet Union in the 1990s. And of course there are thousands of examples of individual books written with a unique cultural perspective in mind, experimenting with the overlap and adoption of ideas from one context to another. It’s a phenomenon that science fiction has hosted for a long time — and perhaps one that the genre is especially well suited to entertain.

“Science fiction is a very syncretic form — which is the ability of a discipline to take in ideas from elsewhere and meld it into their own. Christianity is a very good example, for taking in what was essentially a pre-Christian fertility festival and turning it into Easter, complete with the Easter bunny and eggs, right at the beginning of spring. And Christmas, I mean, no one really knows when Christ was born, but December is a convenient time because it coincides with a Roman festival. Science fiction is like that — it takes in a lot from preceding fantasies and mythologies. Star Wars is a good example — it’s a Medieval romance about rescuing a princess — crossed with faster than light travel and androids.”

Coincidentally, it’s rumoured that while writing Star Wars, George Lucas used Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces as a template. Campbell’s work was an attempt to outline the basic narrative structures that are shared between different mythologies, folklore and religions. He argued that not only do these stories borrow from each other, they use a limited set of “plot devices” that are ubiquitous even in pop culture.

“My recent novel, The Shrine of the Siren Stone, uses a lot of East-Asian Buddhist and Shinto mythology, and my first novel, The Moon Under Her Feet, pulls on Roman Catholic and Christian narratives. It explores the stories of Jesus and Mary, and what really happens in the process of transubstantiation as the bread and wine becomes the body of Jesus. I want to emphasize that I’m really not using the word ‘mythology’ here to suggest whether I think these stories are true or not, I’m suggesting that it’s ‘mythology’ in the sense that it’s a story or narrative about how people relate to the universe.

“I think of mythology as any ‘sacred narrative.’ I like that definition because it eliminates any value judgment as to whether the stories are true or not. Every mythology is (or was) someone’s holy truth. I think the reason I really like myths is the same as the reason I like science fiction: They are ultimately about how people relate to each other, and more importantly, how they relate to the universe. Whether it’s Ancient Greek, Judeo-Christian, Shinto or Buddhist, what’s important is how people relate to each other and to the universe — and I think that’s what makes good stories.”


Derwin Mak is a decorated volunteer with St. John’s Ambulance, a commonwealth volunteer first aid service. He works during the day as an accountant, and by night is a champion for culturally diverse science fiction and a rising star among Canada’s science fiction authors. The Dragon and the Stars, co-edited by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi, is available at all good bookstores.alt

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.