Ken Liu has won three science fiction awards for best short story, but still cannot afford to write full-time.
CHINESE-AMERICAN writer Ken Liu has clinched a rare triple whammy by sweeping three of science fiction’s most prestigious awards for best short story: the Hugo, the Nebula and the World Fantasy Award.
And his post-apocalyptic tale Mono No Aware (2012) has just won this year’s Hugo Award for best short story.
But the 37-year-old litigation consultant has not written an actual book yet.
The story that scored the hattrick was The Paper Menagerie (2011), a heartrending tale about the child of an interracial marriage growing up in the United States and his relationship with his mother, a mail-order bride from China.
The tale was picked to be a part of this year’s Read! Singapore programme, and Liu was on the island across the Causeway earlier this month to participate in a series of public events in conjunction with the National Library Board’s initiative, which aims to encourage communal reading.
Liu has a personal connection to Singapore – his artist wife, Lisa Tang, was born in Singapore before moving to Hong Kong and later, the United States. But this trip marks Liu’s first to Singapore. His excitement at encountering the city state and its literary habits is palpable and he praised a local anthology of speculative fiction, Ayam Curtain, published last year by Math Paper Press.
He says of the collection: “It’s fascinating to read. The Singaporean speculative tradition is different. Singapore doesn’t conceive itself as the centre of the world or the one country that’s going to save the world, so there’s a different tone that comes out in the way speculative fiction is done. That’s refreshing to read.”
Liu, who has become increasingly prolific in the past few years, has emerged as a distinct voice resisting the tide of science fiction and speculative fiction written in the usual Anglo-American tradition.
For instance, Mono No Aware takes a wry dig at American dominance in popular culture: “In front of the classroom hangs a large American flag to which the children say their pledge every morning. To the sides of the American flag are two rows of smaller flags belonging to other nations.”
Citing the recent blockbuster sci-fi movie Pacific Rim, in which man-made robots clash with Godzilla-type monsters, he says: “There seems to be no irony in the fact that none of the supposedly more advanced robots by the other countries seem to do anything. It’s only the American robot that saves the day.”
It is because of this awareness that he takes great care in researching his work and pays close attention to the perspectives that researchers impose on their material.
He says: “I’m conscious of the fact that I’m sort of a bridging figure. I have my Chinese literary heritage and cultural background, so I’m comfortable with these things but, at the same time, I have to navigate the Anglo-American tradition, which has a self-centred view of what Asia and what being Chinese means.”
Liu was born in China and immigrated to the United States with his parents when he was 11. He received his bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard and later graduated from its law school. His mother is a pharmaceutical chemist who got a PhD in chemistry in the US, and he sometimes consults her on the science element of his stories. His father is a computer engineer.
His writing career began with a lot of rejection. After about six years of rejection letters, he was paid five cents a word for his first published short story, Carthaginian Rose (2002), and was thrilled at his first – if meagre – pay cheque of about US$100.
He guesses that one of his personal favourites, the short story Single-Bit Error (2009), collected more than 20 rejection slips before being accepted into a literary journal whose aim, ironically enough, was to publish outstanding works that had been rejected by other magazines.
He gained an epiphany from this, and from the translation work he had been doing for the Chinese science fiction market, which he feels helped him see his work in a new light.
He says: “It’s okay if you get rejected 20, 30 or 200 times... You don’t need everyone to like your story – you just need one person who really likes your story.”
He is also disarmingly unassuming about the meteoric trajectory his writing career has been taking.
He says with a laugh: “I’m very proud of (the awards) and I’m humbled by it all. But on a day-to-day basis, it doesn’t really do much ... It’s not like I can sell the award for money.”
Liu lives in Massachusetts with his wife and two daughters aged one and three. In between his day job and caring for his young charges, he has been crafting his first novel, on which he is collaborating with his wife.
He hopes to finish it by the end of the year and hints that they have created a world for an epic high fantasy, but not in the European, Tolkien tradition. Instead, their world is equipped with Tang dynasty-style technology and contains deconstructed historical legends, with magical creatures that are not the usual dragons or unicorns.
With all this in the pipeline, is being a full-time writer on the cards?
Liu says, tongue-in-cheek: “If I end up having a novel that sells really well and that allows me to pay for health insurance and mortgage without having to work at a day job, that would be great.” – The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network
To read a selection of Ken Liu’s work, go to kenliu.name.