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Thoughts on writing stories set in “exotic” Southeast Asian locations

As someone who lived in Asia for seven years and has written stories set in Asia, I have some thoughts about do’s and don’ts about doing so. I think some of this is applicable about writing about any location you are unfamiliar with, but I’m focusing on my former home.

Do’s

  • I hope this is an obvious one, but DO YOUR HOMEWORK. To use an example from the TV show “The Handmaid’s Tale”–in season two June spends some time hiding out in the former headquarters of The Boston Globe. She asks where she is and is told the Back Bay. Three seconds of Googling told me that the headquarters an in the financial district and the printing presses (which are in the story) were in Dorchester (another neighborhood in Boston) but have since been moved to Taunton (another town far away). The show is set somewhere in the mid 2000’s based on the soundclip they used of the Red Sox winning the World Series. This isn’t a detail that would’ve been hard to get right. The Back Bay is a district that is famous for it’s beautiful historic brick townhouses, and would never be knocked down for a building like that. Does them getting that detail wrong affect the story? No, but it’s irritating and could have easily been done correctly. Things like weather make a difference–Singapore is so humid that it feels like a slap across the face everytime you exit a building like a mall which is over air-conditioned.
  • As a follow up to doing homework–bookmark things you will need to refer to again. If your research doesn’t involve physical books (like my research for Plunder), bookmark websites and photos that inspire you. Or create a Pinterest board, if that’s your style. I’m using a mix of physical notes with topics and stars to indicate something that my research has inspired for my revisions. When I wrote Capturing the Moment I referred to not only my guidebooks and art research books (for info about the temples and their carvings) and my memories, I had a file of photos I took that were going to show up in the book whether as actual photos Meg took or just places that she and RJ would visit.
  • Try involve a local character, if you can do so without resorting to stereotypes (more on that later in the don’ts section). Singapore, from the outside, is a rigid country full of laws like no chewing gum (it’s actually more nuanced than that) with the death penalty for drugs (but moreso if you’re poor and not white–white people get deported for the most part, not executed) and is famous for canning Michael Fay in the 90’s for graffiti-ing (again, more nuanced than that). It’s anti-lgbt. BUT I have queer friends, including a drag queen. BUT I have a good friend who is an anti-death penalty activist and independent journalist. BUT there are plenty of parents who worry about the test culture. Make them a well-rounded person. They don’t have to be a main character, but they should be there (see Darany and Saroj in Capturing the Moment).
  • Do slip in some education. Details like Foreign Domestic Workers (FDW’s, more frequently colloquially called maids or helpers) in Singapore are women who are from poorer countries (the Philippines, India, Myanmar, and Indonesia) and often who have children of their own only have the right to go home for a week every two years. If they switch jobs, the clock resets and sometimes they request the money it would cost to send them home instead of actually going so they can send it home to pay for homes or education. These women take care of other people’s children while almost never seeing their own. I mention that temple children can’t afford to go to school for the most part, so the children who are riding their bikes and wave to Meg are the lucky ones in CTM. You can do this without being didactic.
  • Accept that you’ll fuck something up. I’m sure that an expat from Cambodia could rip apart parts of Capturing the Moment, and that a sailor will be able to rip apart parts of Plunder. Doing homework doesn’t mean you’ll get it 100% right. Aim for your mistakes to be smaller ones like the location of the Boston Globe and not a racist stereotype.

 

Don’ts

  • Try to refrain from the word “exotic.” It’s a word with a lot of loaded meaning and is offensive to many people. It defines the world as white and western, often American=normal, and everything else as foreign and something to gawk at. As an example, it is often applied to my elder daughter who is too dark to pass as white and not dark enough for people to accurately pinpoint the other side of her heritage as Indian. (Which in and of itself is a stereotype. She’s darker than my father-in-law who isn’t half white, and Indian can range from white-passing to people who in the US would get classified as black). It is hurtful when I hear her called that, because it is dehumanizing. Food is exotic when it’s not what you’re used to, but it’s plain old everyday food to the people who live there. Same with the weather, the flora and fauna, and facets. You can describe how alien the environment is to your MC without using the word “exotic.” Do better.
  • Do not use stereotypes about countries. When talking about Singapore, it’s cheap to just say gum is banned. Note that having the trains run on time is key in a city that largely depends on public transit (cars are six figures plus another six figures in taxes), and that when people kept putting gum over the sensors, the doors weren’t closing properly and the trains got all fucked up. The easiest solution was to prohibit public consumption of gum–you can bring gum into the country from abroad (and abroad is a 30 minute drive into Malaysia, for example), and you can purchase smoking cessation gum with a prescription, but you can’t chew it in public. Talk instead about how complex the city state is–there are giant parks to protect the natural flora and hence fauna, there are sky scrapers, there are wet markets where you can buy live frogs/halal meat/fresh fruit/etc, there are diverse neighborhoods, and vast economic disparities. Even books like Crazy Rich Asians, which portrays life in Singapore is rife with its own problems–like ignoring non-Chinese characters–Singapore is incredibly ethnically diverse, but only Chinese people figure in CRA. DO YOUR HOMEWORK
  • Do not use racial or language cues as shorthand. Darany in Capturing the Moment does not speak perfect English. But his English isn’t broken either. This is a bit of a departure from real life as my drivers’ English was not as solid as Darany’s, but using broken English to show that someone isn’t a native speaker is cheap and disrespectful. Keep in mind that due to class or history, some people in Southeast Asia *are* native English speakers. English is the main language in Singapore. Parsis in India speak English as a first language. Wealthy families throughout SE Asia may speak English as a first language, or speak it fluently enough to pass for a native speaker. Darany is from a lower class, so his English is not perfect, and doesn’t include idioms that he wouldn’t know, but it’s not broken either.
  • Don’t forget that there is significant history in SE Asia. Colonizers like the British left their mark (especially see places like India/Pakistan, and Singapore/Malaysia) and is why English plays a bit part in the lives of SE Asians. The Japanese occupied a lot of SE Asia and the oldest generations remember what it was like to live through that occupation. When Lee Kuan Yew died, the entire country went into mourning because he was the founder of Singapore–the country is only just over 50 years old but at the same time, some institutions and history predate the independence by hundreds of years. History will play an important part of your story. I mention the civil war in Cambodia briefly because there are places like Artisans Angkor which uses the funds generated by the sale of handicrafts to train young people in the art forms that were almost lost because of the civil war. So even the existence of a store can mean some within it’s historic context.

None of this is meant to discourage you from writing about Southeast Asia. It is a wonderful part of the world in which to set a story. You don’t have to visit it to write about it. But you do need to do your homework and stay respectful.

Even More Cambodia Photos (and a giveaway)

On Saturday, I shared photos of monks in honor of Vesak Day, and yesterday I posted photos of places that were featured in Capturing the Moment. Today I’m going to share a few last photos from my 2014 trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia. These are photos of things and places and people that/who do not appear in the book. All photos that feature a person were taken with their consent. If you wish to use a photo, please ask.

 

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As I shared yesterday, while schools are free in Cambodia, many children do not attend because they can’t afford the uniforms or textbooks. Children whose parents make a living at the temples, such as Angkor Wat, are often to put to work at a young age, selling postcards and other trinkets. Some are able to go to school (as school is a half-day program) and work, while others never get the chance. If you’re interested in helping out these children, you can

  • donate to the Cambodian School Project
  • shop the online store of Artisans of Angkor--a non-governmental agency that trains and employs over 1300 Cambodians to learn the art forms that were nearly wiped out by decades of warfare. I can attest that these are beautifully made products–I have a number of them in my house. (And yes, if you read the book and are wondering–I own both a linga & yuni, and mango massage oil)

If you haven’t entered it, don’t forget my Amazon giveaway for Capturing the Moment.

Happy Vesak Day (and a giveaway)

Two years ago today I was in Cambodia, exploring the sites that would eventually form the setting for my book Capturing the Moment.

In honor of that anniversary, which happens/happened to coincide with Vesak Day (Buddha’s birthday), I’m sharing some of my photos of Buddhist monks, taken in Siem Reap, Cambodia. (If you want a copy of a photo or want to use a photo, just ask.)

In honor of Vesak Day, there was a grand gathering and procession of monks around Siem Reap. It happened to start at my hotel, which was a great opportunity to take some photos. In honor of the gathering, though, I ran into monks everywhere–at the temples, on the street, teachers taking their students around, and so forth. You’ll notice a lot of children–Cambodia is still a very poor country. If your son becomes a monk, he’ll be fed, clothed, and educated. Many families choose this path for their sons.

This is just a small sampling of my photos.

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I’m also giving away ten copies of Capturing the Moment on kindle (US residents 18+ only, sorry). Enter the Amazon Giveaway here.

updated so I could add captions!

WIP: RJ and Megan’s Story

Here’s what you need to know about my work in progress.

Six years ago Arjun (RJ) and Megan each broke the other’s heart.  Even with the passage of time, they’re still not over each other.

RJ crashes Megan’s vacation in Siem Reap, Cambodia with the assistance of her sister. Due to delayed canceled flights, Megan is there for only one day instead of her planned four. He’s got 24 hours to show her that he’s grown up and is worthy of a second chance. Megan decides that what she needs is one last fling with RJ so she can get him out her system once and for all.

Will he win her back, or is she too scared that he’ll just break her heart again?

Angkor Wat at Dawn

Photo credit: me

When I saw a call for stories set in different cities throughout the world, I immediately thought of Siem Reap, Cambodia.  I fulfilled my dream of seeing Angkor Wat in May of 2014, and fell in love with the city in the process.  I drew heavily on my experiences there when writing this novella.

I finished the first draft late last week and will be editing it over the course of the next few at which point I’ll be asking friends to beta read (friends–poke me if you think you might want to) while I send off the pitch and first 5k words to the call.

In the excerpt below, Megan is reeling from the surprise of seeing RJ.  She’s just arrived in Siem Reap, and has rushed to Angkor Wat to shoot the temple at dawn (see my photo above). She’s taken refuge in the tent stalls next to the lake. (See below)  The wedding mentioned is Rachel’s–her sister, and one of his closest friends from college–the person who introduced them in the first place.

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photo credit: me

I can’t believe he’s here. This is almost as bad as if he were at the wedding.

“Oh. My. God. The wedding.” The bottle froze halfway to her lips. “Where is he?”

Meg scanned the crowd of tourists that were now crawling over Angkor Wat. Where had he gone? Was he invited to the wedding? She pulled out her cell phone to ask Rachel the question she’d never thought to ask before now. There was no signal.

Rachel, did you invite Arjun to your wedding? How could you?

Picking the bottle back up, and suddenly wishing it was a beer, Meg took a swig of the soda.

“Want to share that?”

She choked on the liquid, coughing and gasping. RJ’s hand pounded rhythmically on her back.

“Stop that! I’m—” Meg fought her way through another coughing fit. “Fine!” She tried to pull it together. Panting a bit, she took another cautious sip. What had been blissfully cool relief was now cloying sweetness. Disgusted, she put the bottle down.

“Why are you here? Don’t feed me any of your charming bullshit.”

He gave her a lazy smile. “Rachel told me you’d be here.”

Traitor!

“And you decided to just gate crash my dream vacation as a way to catch up? If you wanted to get in touch with me to warn me you’d be at the wedding, you could’ve just used Facebook like a normal person.”

“This wasn’t just your dream vacation, remember?”

RJ and Meg curled on his bed, daydreaming about where they would travel. They had always ended up in Asia—scuba diving in Indonesia, Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, the Golden Temple of Amritsar in India, the elephant sanctuary in Chang Mai, Thailand, and more.

Junior year he’d given her a poster of Angkor Wat at dawn as an end of term gift. It had lived on walls in dorm rooms and apartments ever since. Angkor Wat had come to symbolize all their dreams for the future. When they’d talked of getting married, spending their Honeymoon in Cambodia had been a given.

After the break-up she’d burned the poster.

“You’re unreal.” Meg shook her head in disbelief.

“Spend the day with me.”

“Why should I?”

“Because if you don’t, you’ll always wonder what it would have been like. I’m not going to pester you during Rachel’s wedding. Besides you’d be too busy to flirt with me if I’m a welcome surprise. And too much of a lady to curse me out in front of everyone if I’m not.” He flashed her an impudent smile. A dimple winked at her from both cheeks.

He knew her too well.

You know you would’ve been picturing him here with you even before you knew he was here. Now that he is, can you really walk away? Have you ever had much willpower when it came to those dimples?

“Just because I agree to hang out with you today and let you try to sweet talk your way into my panties doesn’t mean you’re going to succeed, RJ.”

He leaned forward and whispered in her ear, “Just remember that I’m not the one who brought up the idea of me getting into your panties. You are.”

I hope you’re curious to know what happens next…

Linga

Ever since I first heard about Angkor Wat, I’ve wanted to visit it.  This past Mother’s Day my husband and kids gave me a weekend solo trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia.

During the period when the temples around Angkor Wat were built, Cambodia was still a Hindu country, although it shifted to Buddhism over time.  There’s a lot of sexual and sensual imagery in Hinduism, and I found myself contemplating the following…

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I had ambitions to go visit the River of a Thousand Lingas, but due to a knee injury the hike was beyond my ability at the time.  However, just because I couldn’t go visit the lingas didn’t mean I couldn’t buy one.  So when I stopped in at Artisans of Angkor, I was very happy to see this among other sculptures

linga 1

Symbolizing the role of Shiva in creation, the Linga is the phallus of the god and it expresses the idea of fertility and prosperity. This shape is the emblem which mostly represent god Shiva in the temples which are dedicated to him. It is here completed by the Yoni, representing a stylized female sex, and thus evokes the mystery of the Two becoming One.

In Cambodia’s culture, the Linga is made of three completely different branches which symbolize the Brahmanic trinity: the cubic base represents Brahma, the creator and ancestor; the octagonal middle branch represents Vishnu, the curator, and the top part epitomizes Shiva, who is the ultimate power that can create and destroy.

This piece, which displays contemporary straight lines, is still widely used in the decoration of some places in Cambodia.

(Description from the Artisans of Angkor page)

 

linga 3

I was debating between two sizes when my guide came over to me.  He was maybe ten to fifteen years older than me, and I could tell that he was embarrassed.  The poor guy had no idea that I’m an erotica author and knew exactly what I was looking at.

“Do you know what that is?” he asked me.  I could tell how much he didn’t want to explain sexual imagery to the naive stay at home mommy tourist.

“Yes,” I said and turned back to the display, allowing him to make his escape.

linga 2

 

I could almost feel him exhale when I finally picked a Linga and moved on to less scandalous merchandise.