Reflecting cross-cultural experience in fiction


03 May 2024
Fantasy author Salinee Goldenberg looks at what she got wrong writing from diaspora

As a biracial kid born and raised in the United States, I grew up entrenched in American culture, but my mother always made sure we knew where we came from. On Saturdays, we went to festive Buddhist temples where we’d beg for pocket change to buy fireworks and ice cream. On Sundays, house parties filled with music and the din of aunties gossiping, while endless plates of food materialized on every countertop. The uncles watched football and played cards, while me and all my cousins ran wild in the streets. But we always remembered to kick off our muddy shoes before coming back inside to eat.

At some point, I couldn’t follow those animated plotlines between my mother and her friends anymore. The conversations around picnic tables, shouted to be heard above the temple music, began to fade into noise. Even though Thai was my first language, English grew stronger and beat it down into my subconscious, no doubt bolstered by the influence of white-washed public school.

It was the 90s – my classmates mocked my name, my food, my eyes. I didn’t have an accent like the ESL kids, and sometimes looked towards them with envy. At least they had a place together. I was American, but not American enough, and my compatriots ridiculed me to the point of being ashamed of my culture. My heart breaks for that little girl, who was made to feel ugly and alien simply for existing, who felt like she had to leave her hybrid language at home.

Looking different and being treated differently pushes you either way – to the top out of pure spite, or out the door in search of a more accepting community. At first I excelled in school and sports. Straight As, travel-soccer stardom, GT programs; I wasn’t satisfied just blending in, I wanted to stand out. But I hit my head against the ceiling with enough instances of discrimination and microaggressions to shatter any faith I had that America was some kind of level playing field. So I did what disenchanted kids do: shaved my head, got kicked out of high school, and sought refuge in punk rock.

Even though my debut novel, The Last Phi Hunter, is inspired by Thai folklore and culture, it’s not a Thai novel. I didn’t grow up there, I don’t know what it's like to live there, other than my visits to see family every few years. In Thailand, I’m a luk krueng, which literally translates to 'half-child'. I know I’m loved, and I know I’m accepted, but there’s a connection my cousins have that I’ll never be part of, no matter how well I learn the language. It’s not just the way I stammer my pigeon-Thai —it’s the way I dress and the way I walk, the unconsciously obnoxious and entitled American mannerisms which will immediately peg me as a farang, a foreigner.

So when it came time to write The Last Phi Hunter, I did a ton of research like any writer should when writing the other, and with so little representation of Thailand in the SFF literary world, it felt like the stakes were even higher to get it right. I focused on the Ayutthaya period as a base, but also found a lot of inspiration leading up to Rama V, when Siam was under the threat of colonization.

I listened to my mother’s ghost stories, I read about Thai necromancy, Buddhist mythology, Hindu legends. An overarching aesthetic began to form. I imagined a world of karmic magic, of forest gods making deals with ghost hunters in exchange for blood, and feuding royals far away, whose presence could be sensed with the destruction of the natural world. I saw something fresh and exciting, through a lens tinted by western influences.

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It felt natural to explore the story from the perspective of an outsider. The main character, Ex, is someone who once felt like he belonged, but became an outcast , and forged his own path to belonging. He’s a war-orphaned child of rebels, and never quite assimilated into the society that condemned his parents. Joining the Phi Hunters guild connected him to the mystical beliefs that were strong in his village, and gave him a sense of purpose. But as the Kingdom of Suyoram moves into modernization and condemns what they deem to be superstition, support for the Phi hunting trade is dying off and Ex must learn to adapt. To do such a thing he has to open his heart and decide what is worth saving from his world, and what he must let go.

I knew I’d get some details wrong – if it were a Thai historical fantasy. But this is a world imagined by a half-Asian half-Caucasian former star-student, punk rock alumni who really doesn’t give a shit about slipping in an anachronistic term or two. You really think they’re speaking English in the Kingdom of Suyoram? I’m just the translator here, and it all rings true to me. As long as the characters remember to take their shoes off when they come home.

The Last Phi Hunter by Salinee Goldenberg is published by Angry Robot (£9.99)


Fantasy fiction offers so much more than escapism, says The Crow Folk author Mark Stay. Read his thoughts here