JY Yang was born July 12, 1983 in Singapore. They studied molecular biology and worked as a research scientist before becoming a writer for animation and game studios, and they also worked in journalism and as a science communicator for Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology, and Research.
Yang began publishing stories in the small press in 2011 with “Captain Bells and The Sovereign State of Discordia” in The Steampowered Globe, an anthology of steampunk from Singapore, and has since published stories in publications including Clarkesworld, Fireside, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Tor.com, and Uncanny Magazine.
Yang attended Clarion West in 2013, and in 2015 they were awarded a postgraduate scholarship from the National Arts Council of Singapore to read their MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, Britain.
The Tensorate series began with novella The Black Tides of Heaven and continues in The Red Threads of Fortune (both 2017), with the next volume in the series due July 2018.
Excerpts from the interview:
“I don’t really come from a reading family. We didn’t have a library. The most reading material I got in my house when I was little was encyclopedias. I picked up the habit of reading on my own by spending a lot of time by myself at the school library. Reading was something that I personally enjoyed, and I read a lot when I was a kid. Growing up in Asia, reading is seen as a distraction from your studies. My parents would confiscate my books when I was a kid so I would do my homework and not read. I read when I could, but obviously I had to spend a lot of time on school work. If you want to raise a kid who actually loves academic work, don’t do that.
“I did not start reading science fiction until I was 12 or 13, mostly because I didn’t have access to it. In Singapore we have primary school, which is basically your elementary school, from ages seven to 12, and then you have secondary school, which may be middle school in America, from 13 to 16. In secondary school I made a couple of friends whose parents were nerds, so they were really into sci-fi and they introduced me to science fiction. I had already started reading Star Wars novelizations because I liked the Star Wars movies. That’s how I started with science fiction. My friend said, ‘You like Star Wars? Let me introduce you to Star Trek.’ That was not something you could actually get in Singapore in the ’90s. The only Star Trek you could get was The Next Generation, which was six or seven years delayed. Because my best friend’s parents were nerds they would let her stay up to watch it, so the next day she would relay the episode to me.
“My friend and I printed out the list of the Hugo and Nebula award-winners since the beginning of the awards and said, ‘We’re going to read all of these books.’ But a lot of them were not in print or we couldn’t find them in Singapore, so we just read as many as we could. We started with what we could find. Things like Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Kim Stanley Robinson, those were easy to find. Not all of them were that easy. On the early winners list, all of the classics we could find easily, and the ones that were published in the ’90s we could find easily, but the ones that were in between were hard to find. This was before Amazon and the internet. We had to rely on what they had stocked at Borders and libraries, which didn’t stock that many books. I think we managed to find 20 books on the list.
“In secondary school my best friends and I were known as the sci-fi nerds of our cohort. I wouldn’t say it was a subversive so much as unusual. We were just interested in stuff that was difficult to find at the time. I felt about reading science fiction the same way I felt about Star Trek and Star Wars, that it was an American thing, and very distant from me. Fiction was something I could consume, but it wasn’t something I could create by myself. It was up there, and I was down here, and I could just look up there.
“I didn’t start seriously trying to create a career in science fiction until I was 30, but I was always writing stories when I was a kid. As far back as I can remember I was always interested in telling stories. One of my earliest memories, it sounds terrible when I say it, is of being at a relative’s funeral with a blank sheet of paper, writing. I was very young, four or five years old, and the adults were trying to keep me from getting underfoot at the funeral. I didn’t know the word for ‘enemy’ at the time, so I wrote ‘worst friend.’ When I first got into sci-fi, I started writing Star Wars and Star Trek crossover fan fiction. This was before there we got access to fanfic on the internet, so I would write it on my computer and print it out and give it to my friends to read.
“How I got into writing as a career was really interesting and sideways. I was trained as a scientist. When I was young I wanted to be a doctor, but when I was 15 we went on all these visits to pathology labs, and I did a brief hospital work experience sort of thing, and I decided I’m too squeamish to be a doctor. I don’t like looking at bones and things – it gives me nightmares, so I switched to life sciences and became a molecular biologist, and that was my entire college. When I graduated, I started working as a research scientist in a protein-building lab.
“I had a LiveJournal at the time, as you do when you’re a nerd and like writing or reading fiction. Someone I knew worked in Singapore for an animation studio, and he messaged me on LiveJournal and said, ‘I feel like you know what a good story is. How would you like to try freelancing for my company?’ It’s changing, but at the time there were not a lot of writers in Singapore who wrote poppy stuff like science fiction. A lot of it was poetry or literary writing. So I freelanced with the animation studio for a year before quitting my job as a lab rat and becoming a full-time writer. After that I bounced through a bunch of studios – I was in a game studio, and I was in a comic studio that didn’t do comics when I was there. It was an interesting studio, because my boss’s idea was to package IPs and sell them to Hollywood. He was trying to sell ideas to Hollywood, as if Hollywood had a shortage of idea people. The company folded – I wonder why – but that’s how I got into writing. Since I was in these writing groups, I came across a bunch of writers and I started working on prose fiction. I did a story for a local friend’s steampunk anthology, and Ann VanderMeer asked to have a look at it. She decided to reprint it in Steampunk Revolution. That was the point where I started to think I could write stories that Americans would want to read, so I started moseying into writing prose SF for an international audience. Because of that, I started to get to know people in the sci-fi world. I applied to Clarion West and got in, and through Clarion West I got to meet people. Because of Clarion I got into the habit of writing short stories, submitting them to magazines, and then selling them and getting them published. People would say, ‘I read your story on Strange Horizons‘ or whatever. They would follow me on Twitter and I started talking to people there and things happened.
“There is definitely a perception among Singapore writers that sci-fi is very much still Western Anglophone. I can say this because I briefly worked as a science communicator for Singapore’s head research agency, A*STAR. One of the research institutes in A*STAR ran a science fiction writing competition for 17- and 18-year-olds. I read through the anthology of winning stories by the students, who are Singaporean students, but the protagonists are white and the stories are people specifically set in America, or America in the future. It was so obvious. I think 80% of the stories in the anthology had zero specifically Asian characters at all. They were generic people with generic white people names, and not very specified settings, or they were specifically white people, European people with European names – not necessarily white, but based on what I read I’m pretty sure they were imagining white people in these roles. It was quite sad for me to read that, because I was like, ‘Yeah, this is still a mindset that permeates.’ In Singapore we are just overwhelmed by Western Anglophone media. We watch HBO, Game of Thrones, Hollywood films. If you went to a DVD store (when we still had DVD stores), you had World Cinema, Asian Cinema, European Cinema, and then Horror, Action, Thriller, etc. – those are all Hollywood films, because that is the default. If you make a film in Hollywood, it doesn’t get put in World Cinema. It doesn’t get defined by where it’s from, while cinema from every other part of the world gets defined by where it’s from. Even Asian Cinema, when we’re from Asia. Local Cinema gets its own section because it’s not normal movies – normal movies are made by Americans in Hollywood, and sometimes in the UK. That’s the way it is with books as well, and pop music. Everything we consume is American or British or sometimes Australian.
“I don’t know how to write poetry. I was on the Writing Excuses cruise recently, and one of the instructors was Jasper Fforde, [edit — this was incorrectly cited as Jeffrey Ford in the original transcript] and he gave a lecture that was about the last five percent – how you can get your prose to pop. You can write perfectly decent prose, but he was talking about ways you can get your mind to come up with interesting prose. He admitted that this is something you can’t actually teach. You have to generate it from your mind. One of the things he talked about was looking at things interestingly or differently. He gave some examples – one of them was a joke off the internet about how if you’re standing behind someone at the ATM at night, to show them you’re not a threat, you can give them a gentle kiss on the neck. He asked what part of that makes the text sparkle? It’s the word ‘gentle,’ because exaggerates the entire sentiment of the joke. He suggests doing wordplay on a daily basis, and coming up with new terms. That’s something I do.”