Writer Larissa Lai’s new novel, The Tiger Flu (paperback, Kindle), has been called a feminist cyberpunk thriller. But in the following email interview about it, she not only discusses what inspired this story, but why it needs more than three words to describe it.
Photo Credit: Monique de St. Croix
I always like to start with a plot overview. So, what is The Tiger Flu about?
It’s about a woman from a village of clones called Kirilow Groundsel who goes to the big city after her lover has died. The lover, Peristrophe Halliana, was a “starfish,” which is a person capable of regenerating limbs and organs to assist others in the village when their limbs or organs fail. Kirilow arrives in Salt Water City just in time to encounter a flu epidemic that favors men. She needs to find another starfish and get out as soon as possible. But Kora, the starfish she’s found, is reluctant to leave her family behind, and in the meantime, there’s a group of flu sick men, who want them both for nefarious purposes.
Where did you get the idea for The Tiger Flu, and how different is the finished novel from that original concept?
The writing of this novel began with the idea of a colony of women clones. This came to me shortly after the publication of Salt Fish Girl in 2002.
The flu idea comes from a trip to Hong Kong at the height of the bird flu epidemic in 2003. The bird flu came into the public eye the same week of the second U.S. invasion of Iraq. I was there with my friend Rita Wong for the Hong Kong International Literary Festival. So many people were staying away because of the flu that we were subs on practically every other panel. It’s not that I wasn’t afraid of the flu. It was that the coverage of the flu in the mainstream press was so racist in its associate of Asians with contagion that I couldn’t not go. You might say I was driven by both hurt and fury. And it got me thinking “What if the flu were as specific in its biological targeting as the coverage of it was in its racial targeting?” This got me quickly on to thinking about some of the lesbian and/or feminist separatist novels of the 1970s, the utopias they imagined, and the problems that erupted out of initial utopian impulses. I’m thinking about Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Marge Piercy, Octavia Butler, and Monique Wittig in particular. Especially these days, I’m so conscious of how progressive community members can hurt each other from within. So then I thought, What if the women in Grist Village were biologically dependent on one another for survival? What if they were like the Graeae of Greek mythology who have only one eye among them, and they have to decide who gets to use it, and then, who gets to keep it? I wanted to track the interaction of concepts because the world we live in is produced that way. So I placed my tiger flu beside ideas of de-extinction and a cyberpunk upload. But many interactions are possible. I tried out a lot of pathways before settling on the one you hold in your hands. There are at least 1000 pages on the cutting room floor.
You started writing The Tiger Flu sixteen years ago, but it seems rather timely. How, if at all, did our current social and political situation influence this story?
I’m glad you think it’s timely. I’m always attentive to the social/political moment. When I started the novel, Dolly the Sheep was still a thing. She’s still in there. But regarding the phenomenon of communities destroying themselves from within though excess righteousness, it’s amazing how that’s come back around with such vengeance. I lived through a 1990s iteration in a way that was fairly formative. I think for me, it’s in the blood now. And as for corporate instrumentalism and the idea of money making itself, isn’t that an unfolding inherent in the idea of capital itself? That became fatal after Reagan and Thatcher? So in a way, I was just pursuing a logic. The moment we are in breaks my heart, but it doesn’t surprise me. I guess if I’d written the novel quicker it would have been prescient instead of timely.
So when you first started working on The Tiger Flu, did you set out to write a story that was politically and/or socially conscious or did you come up with the plot and, during the writing, realize it needed to be politically and socially conscious?
I’m allergic to didacticism, so I would never set out to write a political or social novel with the express purpose of making a point. But all novels are political and social, it’s just a question of whether the writer is aware of this fact and willing to work with it or not. I’m the kind that’s willing to work it with.
To mind my, the novel is a vehicle that carries political and social thought in tandem with plot, character, and setting. In a sense, plot, character and setting arepolitical and social thought. The writer’s job is to make the language work very, very hard so that the novel/vehicle carries as much freight as it can bear. The beauty of the form is that it can bear a lot. And in fact, it always does, whether the writer intends or not. The better the writer, the more control over the freight, at least to an extent. Too much control and you can also kill the novel. So in the final reckoning, there’s an imperative to balance between the exercise of control and the willingness to let the story and language do what they want.
The Tiger Flu has been called a feminist cyberpunk thriller. Is that how you see it? Or is there some sci-fi subgenre, or a combination of them, that you think describes the story better?
Fabulous question. I agreed to this term in consultation with my press’ publicity and marketing people. It holds because it is a feminist novel in the tradition of the writers I just named. It is also cyberpunk in the sense that The Matrix is still in there, though several generations on and much mutated. And it is a thriller because it’s plot-driven, with secrets pursued and revealed. But if I could have all and any words I wanted? Weirdo-bio-transplant-geno-planetary-cyber-oldchineseladypunk.
That’s a lot of words. Now, in the book, Kirilow and Peristrophe are queer women of color. What do you think someone like me — a straight white man — will get out of reading The Tiger Flu? Or rather, what do you hope we’ll get out of it?
Um, new modes of identification? And narrative pleasure, I hope. If people like me can read men’s fiction and identify with the white male protagonists and still have fun and learn a thing or two, there’s no reason why the glove can’t fit the other hand. I think men who read woman-centered fiction well learn compassion and self-reflection, always individually inflected, depending on the man. I hope they do anyway, because these things are in very short supply these days.
The Tiger Flu is not your first novel. Were there any writers or specific stories that were a big influence on The Tiger Flu but not on your previous novels, Salt Fish Girl or When Fox Is A Thousand? Or, for that matter, any of your other writings?
I was specifically writing back to Le Guin, Butler, Piercy, Wittig, and Russ in this novel. The other novels were in conversation with other writers and literary histories. This novel is also a response to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. In that novel, the woman kills herself before the action begins, and the story is about the man and the boy. I thought, we need novels in which the men die before the story begins, and the women go on and live. Though as you’ve read, I couldn’t in good conscience kill all the men. I’m generous like that.
How about such non-literary influences, such as movies, TV shows, or video games? Did any of those have a big impact on The Tiger Flu?
Always Blade Runner. The new-ish Battlestar Galactica and Orphan Black came out after my Grist Sisters had already been conceived, and of course, after Salt Fish Girlwhich treats related themes, but before The Tiger Flu was published. I did watch them. I tried to steer away from them rather than into them. Not because I didn’t like them — I think Orphan Black is brilliant — but I’m trying to stay original.
The Tiger Flu also responds, though at a bit of a remove, to the heroes quests my childhood: Star Wars, The Lord Of The Rings, Dune. Though I guess these are still literary, since I read The Lord Of The Rings and Dune as books, before they were movies.
And this will be my last question about influences. Along with these novels, you’ve also written two books of poetry: sybil unrest with Rita Wong, and Automaton Biographies. How, if at all, has writing poetry impacted what you wrote in The Tiger Flu?
Writing poetry really taught me to open my ear. It’s made me acutely attentive to sound. It’s also taught me to hear the layers of language and to listen for multiple meanings in words. It’s taught me how to hear voices. It’s also taught me about the economy of language. Poetry is amazing stuff.
Now, as you probably know, some cyberpunk novels are stand-alone stories, while others are parts of larger sagas. What isThe Tiger Flu?
I’m not sure yet. There are two other novels that I can envision coming out of it; as I mentioned, there is a lot of material on the cutting room floor. But nothing’s been swept into the trash yet. I guess it depends a bit on how this one does.
Earlier we talked about the movies, TV shows, and video games that inspired The Tiger Flu. But has there been any interest in adapting it into a movie, show, or game?
Ha ha. I would love this. I seem to be a binge Netflixer, so I would love to see it become a TV series. HBO-style with lots of mucus and cliffhangers.
If The Tiger Flu was going to be made into a TV show, who would you like to see them cast in the main roles and why them?
I would love it if Joan Chen [The Last Emperor] played Auntie Radix. I would like Awkwafina [Crazy Rich Asians] to play Kirilow Groundsel, and Margaret Cho to be Glorybind Groundsel. Zhang Ziyi [Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon] would play as Kora. Sandra Oh [Grey’s Anatomy] could be Bombyx Mori, Sook-Yin Lee [Shortbus] could be Corydalis Ambigua, and a CGI Sean Young [Blade Runner] to play Calyx Kaki. And Maggie Cheung  could have whatever role she wants. Of course, they’d all have to look alike because they are clones, but that could be made to work, right? I would like Wong Kar Wai [Chungking Express], Tsui Hark [Once Upon A Time In China], Ridley Scott [Alien], or Patricia Rozema [Mansfield Park] to direct. Why do I not rule the world so I could make this happen?!
A video game could be fun too. Single shooter, in the role of a doubler, with the goal being to birth as many Grist sister puppies as possible.
Alternately, it could be one of those treasure hunting games. The player is a groom exploring Salt Water City looking for half-sisters to bring back to New Grist Village, and harvesting organs as she goes.
Finally, if someone enjoyed The Tiger Flu, which of your other novels would you recommend they read next and why that?
The closest to The Tiger Flu is Salt Fish Girl, which readers might enjoy because it addresses some of the same themes: human cloning, corporate interference in the human body, relationships among people who don’t believe in the same things. That novel also has a mythic element. One of the main characters is the snake Goddess, Nu Wu, said to have made the first people out of mud from the bank of the Yellow River. However, I’d like to encourage readers to read sybil unrest,which was a poetry collaboration I did with my good friend Rita Wong. It has its beginnings at that same literary festival in Hong Kong. There’s a lot of play with language, sound, pop culture and contemporary politics. The voices that you hear in The Tiger Flu have echoes there. Also, it’s a book that holds up an active, affectionate, contentious sisterhood; a sense of life lived together in spite of differences.