The stories we tell of ourselves — issue #35

The stories we tell of ourselves — issue #35


Writing stories as a child, I was always tempted to inhabit the bodies and worlds of others.

My characters ate treacle pudding and scones with clotted cream, bursting through attics and chimneys, generally being up to no good in locales vastly different from my own. No surprise, as the books I read were written mainly by authors from the West.

As I grew older, I discovered writers like Haresh Sharma, the cartoons of Lat and Miel, spent hours at my grandparents’ place devouring Bollywood movies. These opened my eyes to the possibilities of the Asian imagination. Better yet, they were stories of people like me.

I’ve recently joined Kontinentalist as editor, and I’m glad to have found a place where we centre our stories, confidently and without apology. I loved how our sci-fi story allowed us to pay tribute to storytellers who not only depict our lives as they are, but also remake the world to suggest what could be – can we address social ills, and live our fullest lives?

Yes, representation alone is not enough. In our recent microstory, we looked at literary awards to see how much recognition Southeast Asian women writers get (hint: also not enough).

Still, I think we have much to celebrate. Asian stories being part of pop culture would have been unthinkable when I was growing up. Today, my TikTok For You Page is full of relatable Asian content. What stories do you see yourselves in? Email us, we’d love to know.

Nabilah, Head Editor of Kontinentalist, and featured editor of the month.

Featured Story
What's the state of Southeast Asian sci-fi?
Today’s audiences know Dune, Blade Runner or Neuromancer – and they may notice that all too often, white characters take the lead while Asian culture and people are relegated to the background. When we first heard Imaginary Worlds’ podcast episodes on the zen of sci-fi and the depiction of futuristic worlds with Asian elements but without Asian leads, our team was inspired to fill in the gaps in representation, by honing in on our own region, Southeast Asia.

From the very start, we knew that we needed the broader community’s help to map the state of the region’s sci-fi. There is a wealth of information on Chinese and Japanese sci-fi titles, but pulling together research on Southeast Asian work was a much more daunting task. Looking back, we couldn’t have created this story without the creators and readers who pointed us in the right direction and contributed their knowledge.

One of the hardest parts of this story was tagging each work with their relevant shared tropes/themes crucial to each work – these eventually formed the basis for the country scatterplots. Special thanks goes to Joyce Chng and Victor Fernando Ocampo for their contributions to our database.

Aside from amassing a database of sci-fi works from the region and turning that into a visualisation, we set ourselves another challenge – to tell a data story as creative non-fiction, complete with the ups and downs of the Hero’s Journey, the common storytelling structure laid down by Joseph Campbell. Our main writer, Angel, used lush descriptions, exciting dialogue, and a sympathetic cast of characters to create the story’s narrative heart. She deftly takes us from one country to the next while sharing the history that birthed pivotal sci-fi titles. She and Griselda, who worked on the illustrations, also came up with another brilliant idea – to have the narrative double as alt text captions. Give the story a try using Assistive Text, it’s a completely different experience!
Infographic of the hero's journey or the monomyth by Campbell (1949).
The structure of the hero’s journey or the monomyth (Campbell, 1949). Image from Wikipedia.

Griselda rose to the challenge of turning our research into the history of different countries’ sci-fi scenes into comics. She read countless books, and scoured IMDB, Wikipedia, YouTube and Goodreads – all to bring you the story’s breathtaking illustrations that sum up the plot points and settings of each country’s key sci-fi works. Each mentor is inspired by a key personality or author from the six countries we’ve featured – can you guess who’s who?  
Griselda (our illustrator's) rendition of the sci-fi story main character, where she faces 6 other characters.
Griselda turned to the science fiction greats of past and present to guide our main character through the diverse worlds of Southeast Asian sci-fi.

As for the choose-your-own adventure design of the story and its implementation, we have Amanda and Aishah to thank! Allowing the reader to choose the country they wanted to dive into, as well as converting dialogue into text boxes (a nod to video games like Chinatown Detective Agency and comics like Trip to Tagaytay) allowed us to shorten the story’s scroll length and improve user experience. It was also their idea to represent the realities of being an Asian sci-fi creator as two roads leading to the same final outcome. This section drives home how crucial the role of readers and supporters are in promoting the works of Southeast Asian sci-fi creators. Last but not least, Amanda’s design concept of “retro-futurism” brought home another crucial plot point: how the past influences our visions of the future.
Screenshot of the 'choose your adventure' viz
Interactive elements in the story let you choose your own adventure.

Our database definitely isn’t exhaustive. Rather than being the main resource for all things Southeast Asian sci-fi, we have a different goal: to encourage readers to find new works similar to ones they already love. More importantly, we want to start a conversation around the unique charms of Southeast Asian sci-fi – you can start by visiting your local library or bookstore to discover new works. At the very least, we hope to show that SEA sci-fi is a mirror of the region’s diverse cultures, and a brand and genre in its own right.
Bianchi, writer for featured story section
...more from us
Cover image for Asian Representation in Movies story; featuring an illustration of 'Crazy Rich Asians'.
Today’s Hollywood films are claiming more racial diversity, but how representative are they, really?
Cover image for Asia's myths and monsters; a dark forest in hues of teal.
Were the first mermaids sighted in Korea, and are unicorns actually a Chinese invention? We explore the origins of Asia’s myths and monsters.

“Do things and tell people. Usually we do things and keep it to ourselves. But I recommend anyone who wants to start your personal project, make something and publish it, then get feedback. That will help you progress quickly, and show people your progress along the way. Don’t wait until it’s perfect.”


Stuff we love
Before the Internet Age, Indonesia’s queer communities were producing indie zines to organise and imagine better futures. Scroll 
What does Asianness in six decades of American sci-fi cinema look like? Artist Astria Suparak finds out. Explore 

Marvel’s Shang-Chi might’ve first appeared like a win for diversity, but did it just reproduce Asian stereotypes? Read 
Looking for a global collection of speculative fiction? Strange Horizons has got you covered. Read 

Did you know?
Illustration of Lord Rama pulling the bowstring. He is the main hero of the great epic Ramayana.

The Great Epic: Ramayana

A story that has crossed seas and mountains, and re-enacted in various languages, religions and art forms, the ancient Indian epic Ramayana has existed in Asia’s oral tradition since 1500 BC. It was composed some time in the fourth century BC by the sage Valmiki, who was born along the holy Ganges river. A winding tale of love and banishment, the Ramayana chronicles the life of Lord Rama over 24,000 verses, and is the first poem to be written in Sanskrit. Philosophical and ethical musings intersperse its lines, offering reflection and appreciation of this living performative tradition.