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Interview: Henry Lien on “Bilingual”

– Tell us a bit about “Bilingual.”

It is a story about a Japanese-American teenage girl who figures out a way to stop the dolphins in Taiji, Japan from being slaughtered every year by teaching them a meme to spread and warn each other with. It’s told almost entirely in tweets.

 

– What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

I wrote this story at Clarion West in 2012, under instructors Kelly Link and Gavin Grant. There were several reasons why I chose this particular story to write.

I had a vague idea that I wanted to write about dolphin communication. I had had some friends over for a dinner party. They told me that when their first child was born, he would spontaneously make whistles and clicks like a dolphin. They got the idea of offering their baby to dolphin research institutes around the world to be raised with dolphins so that he would grow up naturally bilingual and serve as a translator between the species. To no one’s stun, all the research institutes declined.

This idea morphed on my plane ride up to Clarion West, during which I watched on my iPad the Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove” about the effort to expose the truth of the annual slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan. https://www.facebook.com/TheCove It gutted me but also filled me with hope and a resolve to do my part for this cause. Like Akari, I knew that I could not just sit by and do nothing.

 

– What kind of research did you do for “Bilingual?”

Most of my stories involve a lot of research but this one dwarfed them all. I had to do what felt like a novel’s worth of research for this story. Needless to say, all of the links in the story are real and lead to articles that act like an extended Director’s Cut of the story. All of the remarkable things that Pippa and the other dolphins do in the story are based on actual documented behaviors observed in dolphins. I merely stitched them together into one story. Dolphins are truly astounding beings and we are so fortunate to share this planet with them.

The most difficult part was how to take the different bits and pieces about dolphin research and make them into an engineering project that would at least theoretically work. I am no engineer but I had publicly committed to writing this story before I figured out how I would construct the critical central engineering project. However, the more that I researched, the more that the plot and engineering resolved themselves. [SPOILER AHOY] The research that I found about dolphins’ understanding of grammar was the most valuable part because it allowed for me to hypothesize a way to isolate a phoneme that meant “tell others” to prod the dolphins to spread the meme and save themselves. [EXEUNT SPOILER] In addition to the dolphin research, I also had to do research about the intricacies of how Twitter worked, engineering, teenage girl culture, and marine park management.

 

– Why did you decide to construct your story out of tweets, and did you find that using this form of communication shaped the way you thought about how to write it?

It was spawned by the fact that I knew that the main character had to be a teenage girl.

I knew that if I was going to write a story about a practice that makes me very ashamed to be part of the human race, I had to have a main character who makes me very proud to be part of the human race. To achieve that, I felt instinctively that the protagonist had to be someone puny and seemingly powerless who does a brave and noble thing and stands down or outmaneuvers a vast enemy. That is how I decided that the protagonist had to be a teenage girl. And not one with magical powers or vast resources or a destiny as a chosen one. Just a girl.

There were a couple additional reasons why I was drawn to writing a teenage girl voice. I want all of my stories to be as different from each other as possible and at the time that I wrote this story, I had never attempted such a voice before. I wanted to write from a viewpoint that was far removed from my own because it requires greater empathy to write so far outside of yourself. I’m a middle-aged gay man with a receding hairline. Teenage girl voice seemed like a nice, distant viewpoint to attempt to write.

In order to push my powers of ventriloquism and empathy as hard as I could, I wanted to write the teenage girl voice using an authentic teenage girl medium of communication. Teenage girls used Twitter, which I knew about but had never used. Thus, it seemed inevitable that this story would be written as tweets.

Plus, the use of Twitter during the Arab Spring protests was still swirling in the zeitgeist at the time that I wrote and set this story. The use of Twitter by protesters to organize on the ground movements in real-time among a decentralized force felt so sweepingly romantic and like a defining phenomenon that future historians and novelists and game designers would evoke when writing period pieces about the early 21st century.

I also like writing stories that are hard to write and that put a lot of stress on my powers as a writer. Writing a story in tweets, especially one involving a lot of research and a complicated, unheard-of engineering project, especially when I had never used Twitter before, seemed like a good workout for my artistic muscles. I also liked the idea of having to convey not just an unusual plot but the spirit of an extraordinary girl with a huge personality through such a cramped format. It seemed like the sort of really hard task that Akari herself would be up for. Tackling such a difficult format actually helped me to get into character to write Akari.

I wanted to write a story where the format of the story itself emphasized the central theme. Twitter grants ordinary people more access to communicate with vast numbers of people, or with people who have great influence or fame, than any medium in history that I can think of. Thus, it felt very apt to use for a story that is all about communication. Further, learning to write in tweets and using current teenage girl slang felt very much like learning a new language. I wanted readers to get that experience as well, with the initial halting, awkward reading of the text eventually giving way to more fluidity. The format never got easier to read, but you became better at reading it. Further, I wanted the reader’s growing clarity in reading the format to function as a metaphor for dawning political awareness, as we watched the growth of Akari’s activism.

Finally, I wanted to write a Twitter story where the characters’ use of Twitter was itself critical to the plot. I wanted to write a story where Twitter wasn’t used to merely report the story’s events, Twitter was used to achieve the story’s events. [MINOR SPOILERS AHOY] Thus, the recruitment, formation, and coordination of the dolphin posse girls was accomplished through Twitter itself. Further, I wanted to build in a subtle metafictional layer. I wanted the reader’s experience of reading the text to be put under the same stresses that Akari was experiencing in the plot. Thus, just as the reader began to gain traction in reading the unusual format, she was thrown the additional challenge of deciphering the frantic misspellings in the climactic final act. Those misspellings were actually the product of the challenges Akari was facing in the plot itself as she was having to tweet through Siri on the fly while evading Seatopia Security. The stress put on Akari in the plot manifested in the stress put on the reader’s ability to read the text she was producing. [EXEUNT MINOR SPOILERS] Thus, I really was striving for a complete and natural synthesis among format, theme, and plot.

 

– How feasible do you think Akari’s experiments might be in deciphering dolphin language?

I intended this more as a thought experiment or at best a proof of concept prototype than as an actual blueprint. However, I think that the theoretical basis is solid because the research it’s built on is solid. I think that we’ll probably figure out that dolphin language is composed of a number of simultaneous factors beyond just sound and involves organs beyond just ears and eyes. For example, dolphins “hear” rebounding echolocation sound waves mostly as vibrations in their teeth and that information gets processed in their brains into three-dimensional images. Thus, in a very real way, dolphins “see” with their teeth. Completely alien to our ideas of sensory input and communication. Thus, any effective meme or attempts to communicate with dolphins should probably take advantage of the full repertoire of senses, powers, and body parts that contribute to dolphin language. However, that doesn’t mean that dolphins would not be able to understand a crude message such as the one that Akari came up with in the dolphin meme. For story purposes, I wanted the message to be crude, improvised, and urgently captured on the fly, to convey the sense of desperate struggle to communicate across impossible odds that was the central theme of the story.

 

– Was this story personal for you in any way, and if so, how?

I believe that it is a noble thing to write stories about kindness, hope, and goodness. It’s also a lot harder to write a convincing story about these things than a cheaply dark or cynical story.

In addition, I’m vegan and I love animals deeply. I knew that I wanted to write more stories starring some of the other non-human beings that we share the planet with. I believe firmly that in 50 years, the future will look back on a lot of our current practices and thinking about animals with shame, revulsion, and stun at the breathtaking arrogance of humans and our sense of privilege and entitlement. I’m hoping to write stories that might do a little part to usher history along and make the future arrive a little sooner. I also believe that animals make humans better humans and that animals make us ask important questions about what it means to be human.

Further, I have a particular interest in the idea of communication across impossible divides. My former partner died of cancer in 2005. Before he died, I devised a logical, working system to continue communicating with him after he died. It all went wildly awry, but in the best possible way. I won’t go into it more here because I actually wrote a true story about it called “Supplemental Declaration of Henry Lien” that Sofia Samatar bought for Interfictions. However, I’ll just say that after that experience, I developed a deep belief that with enough ingenuity, hope, and heart, we can learn to communicate and make connections across even the most seemingly unspannable of divides.

For these reasons, “Bilingual” is intensely personal to me. If I never have another short story published, I will be content because this one means that much to me. It is my “E.T.”

 

– Anything else you’d like to add?

I think about the future a lot. Not how to predict it but how to shape it.

If readers would like to learn more about the efforts to stop the slaughter and exploitation of dolphins and other cetaceans around the world, they can visit https://www.facebook.com/ricobarrysdolphinproject

I believe that people who feel that the slaughter of dolphins or their lifelong confinement and suffering for our entertainment is justifiable will land squarely on the wrong side of history.

You can’t stop the future. You can only decide if you’re going to be part of it.

“Bilingual” appears in the March/April 2015 issue of F&SF.

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One Response to “Interview: Henry Lien on “Bilingual””

  1. Henry Lien | Interview with Me in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Regarding “Bilingual” on March 31st, 2015

    […] I discuss the complexities of writing a story in tweets; how dolphins see with their teeth; why a middle-aged gay man with a receding hairline felt compelled to channel a teenage girl; how my friends offered their baby to be raised with dolphins; and how the ghost of my dead partner compelled me to write this story. Spoilers in the interview are accordingly flagged. Click here to read the interview: F&SF […]

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