I’ve wanted to set a story in Canada’s early days for some time now. Researching and re-learning about the mistreatment of anyone not of Western European ancestry fascinated me, and ignited a strong interest in covering that facet of my country’s roots. This is especially since enough people tend to write off our past transgressions and say how we all need to learn to “forgive and forget.” To me, this mantra was always in need of an adjustment; I’m privy to “always forgive, but never forget.” We were not exempt from the culture of exploitation, so why ignore it? Besides, even though we try to move from the past, we can’t escape it, and in the end it defines us.
When I caught wind of the Long Hidden anthology, the story wrote itself. Not all of “Diyu” was born from thoughts like those listed above, though. My interest in East Asian culture and mythology, particularly stories about the realm Diyu, helped create the story. Prolonged exposure to Hong Kong cinema helped to block many key moments in the narrative (in my mind, Wing and Benny’s introduction resembled a scene from a Shaw Brothers film). Plus, growing up with creature features like the Harryhausen-animated Sinbad films and Ridley Scott’s Alien meant that I had to put a monster into the mix, and what a monster he turned out to be.
People are going to wonder about “Diyu”‘s point, but I’m going to address the most pressing question on everyone’s mind right now: why in the blue Diyu is a white Canadian writing about a Chinese lead and his struggles in the new world? I’ve heard of writers coming under fire a lot for writing main characters who don’t fit the mould of their authors. Apparently being a representative from Category A doesn’t mean you can hope to understand the trials and tribulations of people from Category B. In fairness, this is true, but you don’t need to be hit by a bullet to know that getting shot would hurt.
Empathy be damned, though.
Part of this is thanks to my life in Toronto. Our race lines aren’t nearly as thick as they are in other parts of the world, and it is less common to find someone shunned for their sexual orientation here. A good chunk of my friends are from worlds far different from my own, and have experienced things that I never will. Over the years, I found myself hearing a lot about their lives and their troubles, sharing stories with them and finding common ground in our hobbies, interests, and mindsets. Nobody told them, though, that the dangerous thing about being friends with writers is that anything can inspire us. And thank god for that.
As a result of these interactions, a lot of my main characters are both male and female, from different cultural and racial backgrounds, are of different sexual orientations. My connection to these leads is personal. Xiao-Li reminds me of people I know, friends I love and care for with all my heart, and my stories and characters are my tributes to them.
And because I get bored easily, as writing straight Anglo male leads all the time can be wearisome.
As for the story itself, all you need to know is that there’s a reason why it’s called “Diyu”, and not something like “The Curious Canyon Caper”. I see the idea of Hell as being metaphorical for a state of being, an emotional and psychological prison that we build for ourselves and others. The idea of Diyu the place being an earthen prison suited the setting quite neatly, as our characters are tortured regularly and fenced in by the mile-high stone slabs. Even Mister Bunting and Benny, who claim to be in control of the situation, are miles from civilization and stuck in a part of the world that could come crashing down around them at any moment – especially if they put their explosives in the wrong place.
Beyond that, it is a story about monsters. This is about the monsters who oversee other people and see them as fodder, the ones who devalue human life and call it progress. And of course, it’s about the real monsters. The murderers and predators. Horrors that lurk in the darkness waiting to strike. The ones we have to stand up to, who make us abandon all divisive lines in order to fight back.
This was not a journey I made alone, and I’ll be damned if I ever say otherwise. To my comrade-in-arms Steven Ng, thank you for telling me about the Buddhist hell all those years ago. To the lovely XuanZii Chen, thank you for answering my questions about Buddhism while I was writing this story. To good old Eric-Emin Wood, thank you for reading the first draft and giving me your feedback. Finally, to Daniel José Older and Rose Fox, I’m very glad you enjoyed it and thank you for making it a part of the anthology. Just as Xiao-Li laid out his dynamite and released something impossible, so too did you all unearth a story that was sitting long hidden in my addled mind.