Spirits Abroad and At Home

Welcome to Part 6 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were: Doctor Z Aung as moderator, Graci Kim, and Momi Mondal. The description for the panel was as follows:

Yōkai, manitou, aswang–these are some non-western spirits. Western SFF has mostly limited itself to European creatures. How do these natives of other lands’ stories compare to the more familiar ones? Can we learn about (and as writers, can we reveal) something about cultures by comparing their spirit tales?

At the panel, we were treated to the panelists comparing and contrasting the views of spirits from their native cultures, with Graci Kim representing Korean beliefs, Momi Mondal, the Bengali beliefs, and Doctor Z’s family’s Myanmar traditions.

While the panelists shared their knowledge based on their families and cultures, beliefs and traditions vary from family to family and from village to village and thus, are not intended to be a definitive statement on what all people from a culture believe or have believed in the past.

House Spirits

Traditionally, Korean house spirits are like deities — contained to a room or object. The Korean spirits are all about people fulfilling their expected role in society. The unmarried virgin ghost or unmarried bachelor. The evil ghost with a featureless face, haunting children, because she was unable to have children in life. These spirits inhibit a house, they don’t follow a family.

But not all spirits are ghosts.

In Burmese (Myanmar) culture, one prays to and gives offerings to house spirits. And there are spirits for houses, villages, and towns. These nature or house spirits are often people who died in service or tragically.

For the Bengali, the word for ghost means “dead humans”. Their only stories about animals are dead people coming back as such. They don’t have spirits that aren’t ghosts, because they have a polytheistic religion.

Originally, they had altars to their ancestors to watch over them, until other religions came in. Eventually, the concept of a heaven and hell were introduced to their stories. Their god stories are very different from their ghost stories, though.

Are The Spirits Positive/Protective?

In Korean tradition, the family watches over you. And dreams themselves can be messages from them. Graci Kim dreamed of her grandmother and gut pain. The dream went away when her granny was diagnosed with bowel cancer.

For the Bengali, their gods aren’t necessarily positive or protective, they just are.

In Burmese culture, ancestor worship is regional, rather than gods. Plus, Hindi gods are always good. You familiarize the god to yourself, and the gods are all family, so that shows in how they react. They’re like your family or network.

What Inspires The Darker Tales?

Some are inspired by loss — lost children, lost spouses, people who died before they could fulfil their role in society.

Some are inspired by urbanization — talking to someone in the dark and realizing later, it was a stranger, not who you thought it was. These tales remind you to be polite and welcoming to strangers… so you don’t tick off someone with power.

Others are inspired by tragic events — chinese migrant workers who died were bound tightly and sent home, and looked like they were marching home, inspiring ghost stories.

And others exist to reinforce social roles — Momi shared that she’s from a lower caste Indian background, (what used to be called untouchable), but was so integrated these days, she didn’t know it until later and didn’t really suffer much from discrimination. Yet, in the films and stories, the bad guy was almost always from that lower caste.

Writing Tips for Non-Western Spirits

When writing ‘the other’… no one is stopping you, they just ask that you have a level of respect for the culture it derives from.

The lived cultural experience lends an intimacy that research struggles to duplicate. Before you tell the story, ask yourself: is there someone better suited to write this.

American science-fiction publishers typically are looking for the big stories with the strong cultural influences, not necessarily explorations of internal cultural clashes, not involving Westerners. Small stories work better as short stories, while diaspora tales are a totally different sub-genre.

Recommended Reading

  • Zen Cho’s Spirits Abroad
  • Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride
  • F.C. Yee The Epic Crush of Genie Lo
  • NK Jemisin’s The Great Cities series
  • Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen

What do you bring to your writing from your culture?

What cultures do you like exploring in your writing?

World-Building: Economics

Welcome to Part 3 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the “Future Economics were Jesper Stage, Karl Schroeder, and Katherine Quevedo. While panel descriptions are always an idea of what the panel might be, and not a promise of what it will contain, they’re always a lovely teaser. For ‘Future Economics’, the description was as follows:

Will we ever fully disentangle from the physical? Blockchains, cryptocurrency, differently organic sentience. Will economic concepts of supply, demand, money, resources hold up? Evolve? Or be completely different?  And what might they look like?

Economics is usually seen as a dry topic, full of game theory and calculated systems.

But economic systems do not exist in a vacuum. Here are:

5 Things To Consider When Designing Future (or Fantastical) Economic Systems

  1. Remember when looking at the model, that you must consider the humanity of the situation if you want both more nuanced and more accurate predictions
  2. Most of the labor in this world is not done for money — most labor is caretaking, and is usually done by women
  3. When IP (Intellectual property) is owned by a corporation, it is typically very secure. What about the people who create that IP?
    • Computer translation gets better by analysing translated works that are online, but what about the people who are doing the translations? Where is their compensation for training the automation that will eventually leave them jobless.
    • If Corporations are legally considered people and have a right to free speech, does that make them somehow potentially immortal beings?
  4. Where do the arts get their funding?
    • In this day and age, many get their funding through Patreon or similar entities — and projects get their funding based on popularity — both of the idea and the creator. This leads to success for those who are already successful and oftentimes nothing for those who have not yet had the opportunity for success.
  5. What are the roles for AI (artificial intelligence) and computers in the future?
    • Consider AIs representing natural resources like rivers/mountains/etc, programed to act in the resource’s best interests
    • What if google or facebook or what have you granted you a sort of ‘universal income’ for use of your picture and your data in their algorithms?
      • If you are unfamiliar with the concept of a ‘universal income’, in this day and age where more and more things are becoming automated, more and more jobs are almost more like ‘make-work’ than needed to sustain humanity or civilization. In such a world, it has been suggested that humanity itself makes one worthy of rent and food, with work something done because of a desire to do the job, a wish for purpose, or done for extra luxuries.

A world fantastic doesn’t have to be built on the economic principles that we live with today. Exploring the alternatives, and finding our way to the extrapolations of what that means for humanity can help create a world of nuance, with a core of truth holding it together.


What real world influences do you bring to world-building economics? What theories do you like to explore in your writing?

Accessible Magic

Welcome to Part 2 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were Petrea Mitchell as moderator, Andi C. Buchanan, and Taiyo Fujii.

How does a person with a speech impediment handle magical incantations? Dyslexic sorcery: scrambling runes a hazard? Is the autism spectrum an advantage if spellcasting requires visualizing complex shapes? Let’s mash mastery of magic and differently abled people together and see what we get.

In a lot of fantasy and science-fiction, they wave their hands and make magic or tech the “solution” to all disabilities. Let’s explore ways to use magic for accessibility and ways differently abled people could be better integrated into these stories.

Things That Are Usually Ignored

There are tons of ways accessibility could be impacted by magic or science. Here are a few:

  • potion allergy
  • inability to focus (ADHD), making magic either a challenge, or so hard that you need to veg for a day or two afterwards.
  • for intuitive magic, what about people who struggle with things that others claim are ‘intuitive’, like people with autism

Bad Tropes

There are tons of ways that people get disability in stories wrong. Tropes that are overdone and trite, and minimize the very real impact and communities that form around a shared bond.

  • Magic compensates for the disability… by erasing it. — i.e. Daredevil. The blind superhero with the superpower of… sight.
    • Note: there’s a different, and healthier vibe if the character purposely sacrifices an ability in order to get something else, like Odin and his eye. Assuming that the sacrifice doesn’t malign people who naturally have that disability.
  • No medical consent — they fix everything the way they believe your body ‘should’ work, without telling you about risks or giving you options
  • Having unhealthy work-arounds for a disability
  • The person who sacrificed themselves for the group — was dying anyway
  • The disability is fixed instantly with magic
    • Can be mitigated by showing the learning stage, the strength building, etc

Remember, when things are designed to be more accessible, they’re often more accessible for everyone, not just the group that the design was focused on. For example, curb cuts, where the sidewalk smoothly thins to meet the level of the road, make things easier for strollers (and bikes), not just wheelchair users.

Underutilized Tropes

Adding the concept of accessibility to your stories isn’t just a list of “things to avoid” and “wouldn’t it be nice”. Here are some ways you might explore different types of abilities.

  • Using magic/science as an adaptive technique, rather than a cure-all
  • Having something that isn’t a disability in this world be one in the story
    • Tone-deaf — if magic is music based
    • Color-blindness — if colors of things is important
    • Morning person — in a world that operates at night
  • Having the ability CAUSE a disability
    • In ‘My Hero Academia’, one of the characters is stronger than his bones can withstand… so he has to modify his fighting style
  • Having accessibility tools give more powers
    • Adaptive arms or an exoskeleton that makes magics possible that weren’t before – because of more digits or hands, etc.
  • For people who are more math focused, and less able to ‘visualize magic’, like so many do — More mathlike magic — working more like a computer program, with ‘if this, then that’ sort of branches

Adding people with different types of abilities and making things accessible to more people is a great way to populate your fictional world look more like the real world, and show ways we could do better.

Suggested Reading

The best way to learn about how differently abled people interact with the world is to read the books they populate. It’s also a great idea to read stories by writers with disabilities — even when that’s not the focus — because getting to know other perspectives is a great way to improve your world-building, your characterizations, plus broaden your own horizons.

“Away With The Wolves” by Sarah Gailey (Uncanny Magazine)

The Outside – by Ada Hoffmann

The Disabled People Destroy Fantasy edition of Uncanny Magazine

The Country Of The Blind – by HG Wells

Geometries of Belonging – By R.B. Lemberg (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Mooncakes – by Suzanne Walker  (Author), Wendy Xu (Illustrator)

First Dates by Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers (Translunar Travelers Lounge)


Do you have any thoughts on things I missed? Any pet peeves you’d like to add? Please do so!

Please let me know if you have any story suggestions.

Thank you for reading, and I’ll be back again next week with more writing tips and writerly musings.

Cultures and Their Myths

This is part 1 of my CoNZealand – WorldCon 77 notes.

The titular panel was called “Shared Common Myths” and the panel description was as follows: “How do myths and legends impact cultures around the world? Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell argued that the same stories underlie myths everywhere. Were they right, or are there fundamental differences between myths from around the world? “

The panelists were Helen Marshall (as moderator), Peadar Ó Guilín, Graci Kim, and Suyi Davies Okungbowa.

While the premise of the panel was the shared myths, the discussion instead demonstrated that the culture that births the story influences the myth far more than one would expect. While I am referencing all of these items as “myths”, many of them are sincere beliefs of their followers, and in this post, I am aiming to give them all the same level of respect.

Myths that more people should know about

In some Korean myths, in the beginning of time, Bear and Tiger both wanted to be human and prayed to Hwanung. The divine king told them to go into a cave with only mugwort leaves and garlic to eat. If they stayed in the darkness for 100 days and 100 nights, through the dark and cold and hunger, they would become human. It didn’t take long before Tiger left for food. But Bear became the first human — a beautiful woman.

The fascinating part is the foods it describes were so unexpected.

Another myth put forward was told in Laurie Anderson song ‘The Beginning of Memory’, based on Aristophanes’s ‘The Birds’. The Earth was originally covered in water, so birds would circle it endlessly. When Bird’s father died, there was no where to bury him, so, instead, she buried him in the back of her head — and that was the beginning of memory. The notion and contemplation of memory is fascinating.

For the Irish, their mythology talks about the interaction between two worlds in touching planes. In the ‘Voyage of Bran’, on a rough sea, Manannán mac Lir rode by on his chariot. Bran called out, “how do you wheel on the sea?” and Mac Lir replied, “it’s fields here for me.” In another Irish tale, a ship flies by and its anchor gets caught in a tree. A man swims down through the air to free the anchor and starts to drown. A farmer, seeing all this, cuts the anchor free. The man swims back up, the shipmates wave, and the ship sets sail once more. The ways the two worlds overlap, but differ in geography is fascinating.

In a West African creation myth, there is a God of Sky and a God of Water. Another god offers to create land. So, they give him a chain and a snail shell filled with dirt. The god climbs down the chain from the sky, and pours the dirt out of the shell, creating land and mountains and more. He’d brought other artifacts with him, and filled the land with humans, animals, and vegetation.

The Differences Between The Myth World and the Real World

The intersection of different or parallel worlds is always fascinating.

For the Irish, they claim to have beat the spirits that came before, the Tuatha De Dannann, and agreed to split the land with the losers. But not east to west, not north to south. The Irish took the top of the ground and granted their spirits the underground. And it is because of this trickery that the Irish spirits can be so antagonistic, and always trying to get the better of the rules. Spirits in other places may be kinder, or not, depending on the culture that birthed them.

In myths, there is often an underworld — beneath or beside our world. In some mythologies, the underworld/spirit world isn’t really another place, it’s a revolving door. In some Korean traditions, when you die you are wrapped in 7 layers of shrouds and, in the spirit realm, you are on trial for 49 days. And every 7 days, your descendents can perform rituals to help. Eventually, your spirit will be reincarnated.

Life and birth are different in spirit worlds. The ways gods are said to birth themselves or each other are not the mortal way.

The Basis Of Myth

A culture’s myths are based on one (or more) of three things:

  • what a people wants to be true
  • what a people believes is true
  • what a people fears is true

The further back in a culture’s history you find a created myth, the more likely that the myth is a way to make sense of the world around them, and a sense of self. As more cultures with their own believes intersect, you see more external values and morals being filtered into the stories. Many later myths that have been collected have been filtered through Christian/Muslim/Confucianistic/etc beliefs.

There was mention of the story of a mythological firefly creature that conveyed what people needed to do to be safe from malaria — that was created after the mosquito was introduced (inadvertently) by the colonizers.

Absorption versus Changed Myths

Myths have always changed and evolved, that is the nature of oral traditions. Plus, there are some myths are changed by outside influences, and some myths from outside cultures absorbed and rewritten with native influences.

In Korea, every family had its own spirits, and then Confucianism made them into family ancestors. Things are interpreted by where you live and your culture.

In Christian church art, they often made the paintings and the images of the stories they were trying to teach filled with flora and fauna very local to the area, so that the people could see themselves in the story.

The Power of Modern Myths

By creating and rewriting myths, you can create a sense of community. You can bring the culture you were born into and make it more accessible, or more relevent to current issues and concerns.

Disasters and war and trade have always influences myths and changed both their nuances and their focus. They give us a way to cope with the truth.

Today? The pandemic is likely going to spawn tales and myths for generations.


What are your favorite myths? Have you ever created one or your own or rewritten one? I know I love to.

Creative Couples – Working Together

Some people work with partners. And some people like to work with their romantic partner. But whether you’re romantically involved or not, there’s techniques that could work for you.

At WorldCon2019, Heidi Goody led the working couples of Peter Morwood and Diane Duane, plus Delia Sherman and Ellen Kushner in discussing how to maintain working and romantic relationships — with the same person.

Maintain Separate Offices

In rural Ireland, Duane’s office is the living room and Morwood’s is the second bedroom.

When they’re working on a project together, they stay in their room and don’t talk. When it’s time to fraternize or collaborate, they meet in the kitchen.

In New York City, Sherman and Kushner mostly write separately — by hand — in their studies on opposite sides of the apartment. (They left Boston because they were “tired of being the most colorful couple in the room.”) They like to take long walks and discuss character building, writing theory, or whatever they’re working on.

Both couples find it hard to stop talking shop, but Sherman and Kushner find it helps to have other passions.

Duane and Morwood’s biggest interruptions are the neighbor’s loud sheep. Known to the neighbors as “The Trekkie’s”, they’re considered boring because they don’t raise sheep or horses.

How Their Writing Partnerships Began

On Morwood and Duane’s honeymoon, her book was late, so they wrote it together. It helps that Duane is a big outliner, especially for screen. As she says, screen writing is very formulaic.

For Sherman and Kushner, a year or so after they moved in together, they learned to negotiate through writing. But for them, it is the ‘Spirit of Fun!’ Like playing Barbies together.

Sharing Drafts and Blending Portions

Some people consider their drafts sacred, others see theirs as horrible piles of —

Duane never shows her rough draft to another human soul. The next draft though is fine.

Morwood doesn’t count how many drafts he goes through. As he says, “I’m a professional.”

Sherman and Kushner typically have interweaving plotlines, with Kushner woking on the more social scenes, while Sherman works on the academic ones (when they started collaborating, she had just graduated and had scores to settle.)

When writing each other’s characters, the other keeps the veto power. They do their best to keep personal ego out of the story — only really argueing over semicolons.

When it comes time to edit, Sherman reads aloud to Kushner, her bits and the printouts. Although, Sherman is stronger on description, while Kushner does dialogue, when they revise drafts, they overwrite each other. By 5 drafts in it’s fully blended.

Morwood and Duane work together similarly. Plus, they’re pretty good literary mimics. One usually has veto power. Duane is best at plotting and screen writing. Morwood has veto power on fight scenes and tactics.

Just remember when collaborating, there are competing needs for validation, love, and “listen to MY story.”

Music to Collaborate to?

Duane stopped listening to music — it interfered with her dialogue. But movies work fine for her as background.

Kushner used to listen to music, although it couldn’t be in English or had to be something she knew inside and out. Now, she writes at home in silence.

Morwood listens to tons of things, but turns off his Audible when writing dialogue. He likes to have Dragon Naturally Speaking play back his dialogue to him.

Sherman and Duane both like to write in cafes, with that background chatter, gathering faces for characters. If Sherman can’t have that, she needs complete silence.

When deadlines are piling up, Duane will go to a friend’s flat in the middle of no-where-Switzerland for weeks, while Kushner will head off to a friend’s house. The change of location helps with productivity. No chores — or partner — around to distract.


Collaboration can be a tricky beast. Have you worked on a collaborative work? What techniques worked best for you?

Have you worked with a romantic partner? Did it strain your relationship?