Aliette de Bodard: Where Is It Written?

Aliette de Bodard was born November 10, 1982 in New York City to a Vietnamese mother and a French father. At age one she moved with her family to Paris, France, where she has lived ever since, apart from two years in London as a teenager. She attended the École Polytechnique, graduating in 2002 with a degree in applied mathematics, electronics, and computer science. She speaks both French and English fluently, and knows some Vietnamese, but writes her fiction in English.

De Bodard began publishing short fiction in 2006, and has since pub­lished many stories in publications including Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Interzone, The Year’s Best Science Fiction, and numerous other maga­zines and anthologies. “Obsidian Shards” was a quarterly winner in the Writers of the Future competition (2007). “The Jaguar House, in Shadow” (2010) and novella On a Red Station, Drifting (2012) were both finalists for Hugo and Nebula Awards; “The Shipmaker” (2010) and “Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight” (2015) won British Science Fiction Association Awards; “Shipbirth” (2011) and “The Breath of War” (2014) were Nebula Award finalists; “Immersion” (2012) won a Nebula Award; and “The Waiting Stars” (2013) won a Nebula Award and was a Hugo finalist. “Children of Thorns, Children of Water” (2017) was a Hugo Award finalst. Her stories have been collected in Scattered Among Strange Worlds (2012) and British Fantasy Award finalist Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight (2019).

Many of her short works take place in the Universe of Xuya, “set in a timeline where Asia became dominant, and where the space age has Confucian galactic empires of Vietnamese and Chinese inspiration.” The Universe of Xuya was a Hugo Award finalist for Best Series in 2019.

Her first novel was Servant of the Underworld (2010), beginning the Aztec noir historical fantasy Blood and Obsidian series, which also includes Harbinger of the Storm (2011) and Master of the House of Darts (2011). The Dominion of the Fallen series began with BSFA Award winner House of Shattered Wings (2015) and continued with The House of Binding Thorns (2017) and The House of Sundering Flames (2019). Short novel In the Vanisher’s Palace (2018) is a retell­ing of “Beauty and the Beast”.

De Bodard has published many novellas in recent years, among them The Citadel of Weeping Pearls (2017), Nebula Award and British Fantasy Award winner and Hugo and World Fantasy Award finalist The Tea Master and the Detective (2018), Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders (2020), Seven of Infinities (2020), and the forthcoming Fireheart Tiger (2021).

She lives with her family in Paris.

Excerpts from the interview:

“There are three mothers you see in fiction: the dead one, the estranged one, and the controlling, traumatic one. I wrote an article about this, but I’ve been ranting about it for a while. It’s very striking, especially as someone who has young children. I ask myself, ‘Okay, which movie doesn’t have dead mothers? Hey, that’s a really short list.’ Where are the parents? But especially, where are the mothers? The fathers tend to stick around, even if they’re distant, but why does nobody ever have a relationship with their mother? Oh, because they’re all dead.

“Motherhood and parenting are very devalued. It’s like, ‘Oh, well, anybody can be a parent.’ Okay. Good luck. There’s a particular kind of storytelling that tells you all the things you can’t do with young children. There are tons of things you can do with young children, but obviously if we’re talking about being in the middle of a battlefield, sure – don’t take a baby onto the battlefield. There’s a particular kind of plot that gets pushed as the one story worth telling, and all the other stories fall by the wayside. I would personally like to do a lot of things, but as a parent, there’s more than just myself to consider, and that’s fair. I signed up for this when I ‘signed’ the whole informal parenthood agreement, which is that I’m now responsible for two people who will one day become fully functioning adults and no longer need me, but who, right now, are not.

“A thing I try to do in my work is have parent-child relationships, and very often a mother-daughter relationship, because that’s a thing you don’t often see, aside from the controlling mother and the estranged mother. You don’t even often see characters with dead mothers – the mothers tend to just fade out. I want the complexity of that relationship on stage. It’s not that mothers are saints, but you can have a relationship with negative and positive points, and you can have a relationship even as an adult that can still be fraught or happy or something else for whatever reason. The relationship can just be there, because it needs to be. It’s hard to write those relationships, actually. When I start writing about a mother, my brain goes, ‘They should be dead, right?’ It comes from watching so much media where the parents, and especially the mothers, are absent. I started to internalize the idea that this is what the story should be about.

“When I wrote On a Red Station, Drifting, I thought, ‘I should blow up the station to finish the story.’ My brain was saying that because it was thinking of Hollywood movies. The other part of my brain, trying to put the plot together, was like, ‘But that makes no sense. That’s not the story you have to tell.’ I had to arm wrestle my brain. I’ve gotten past that stage, and now I think, ‘You know what? Where is it written that a story has to work that way?’ I read a book that suggested putting ‘Where is it written?’ in front of everything you think is a given. If you can pull it off, you can do anything. There are reasons to do things a certain way – the stories we’re most familiar with are the easiest to pull off in terms of readership, for one thing. If I write a mystery book where someone gets killed and a detec­tive is going to find out who killed them, I’m immediately falling into a familiar pattern that the readers are going to respond to. I’m not going to say that’s less challenging, because you can make it very challenging, but using that pattern frees you up to focus on other stuff. Breaking free of that pattern is not necessarily very easy. When I was writing Fireheart Tiger, I wanted to play with the classic ‘swept off her feet’ trope, so I let it look a little bit like that on the surface, but then you start to see the cracks. To me it’s very much a coming-of-age story, even though the character is no longer a teenager.

Fireheart Tiger is a romantic fantasy set in a world inspired by precolonial Vietnam, like 18th- to 19th-century. It follows a young princess who’s a diplomat. She’s in her homeland, and she finds that her old flame from the colonizing country she lived in when she was a child has come back and is now determined to court her again. That brings up all sorts of feelings. She’s also haunted by a fire that happened in that colo­nizing land when she was very young – she is literally haunted, not just in her dreams. Things just catch fire around her randomly. She’s been hiding her connection to the fires successfully so far, but everybody thinks, ‘That’s weird.’ It’s kind of The Goblin Emperor meets Howl’s Moving Castle, but with a sapphic love triangle and a postcolonial bent – which are two things I’m very interested in, obviously. Despite all that, it’s a very slim novella.

“What I wanted to chew on in that story was ideas about growing up and being an adult. For some people, and some very, very unhealthy re­lationships, you might functionally and biologi­cally be an adult, but you’re actually not grown up. Part of Thanh’s journey as the main character is slowly realizing what’s been happening, and that comes with a realization of who she is, what she needs, and what she wants. Figuring out those things can be really terrifying. I wanted to set that personal story against the political counterpart to those problems. Thanh’s home­land, Bình Hải, is kind of the analog of Vietnam in the 18th century – it’s very small, surrounded by aggressive regional powers, and has to enter into this relationship with a colonizing country that offers guns and silver to help maintain inde­pendence, but at a cost. The colonizing country says, ‘In exchange we want our people to be able to go everywhere in your country, and we want to be exempted from any kind of consequences for what we do.’ Those are all real things that happened at one point or another during the colonization of Southeast Asia. I didn’t neces­sarily take it all from Vietnam.”


Interview design by Francesca Myman.

Read the full interview in the March 2021 issue of Locus.

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