Interview with Larissa Lai: Imagining the Critical Utopia of The Tiger Flu

Smriti Bansal/Midinette: Given its subject matter, The Tiger Flu is clearly a timely novel. More importantly, it engages with our present concerns about the environment in a really meaningful manner. The narrative not only challenges the popular (and infuriating) discourse of human exceptionalism, it also emphasizes the importance of making relations across race, gender, and species. It does so within a context where the worst of our anxieties have materialized. But when our present increasingly feels like a dystopia, I wonder, what is to be gained by looking towards a scarier future? As an extension of that, what drew you to speculative/dystopian fiction over other genres?

Larissa Lai: I actually don’t think of The Tiger Flu as a dystopia, although it certainly has dystopian elements. Critically speaking, this book is influenced by “critical utopia”, a concept propounded by the science fiction critic Tom Moylan a few years ago. (Moylan’s work was recommended to me by my friend Wendy Gay Pearson, a wonderful critic in her own right). Thinking about work of writers like Ursula Le Guin, Marge Piercy and Joanna Russ, Moylan suggests that the critical utopia might function not as a blueprint for the future but rather as a dream. His thought leans this way because of a recognition that the utopian dreams of the earlier centuries produced so much horror in the 20th—for instance, if we think about the dream of the worker’s paradise culminating in the Cultural Revolution in China, or Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia, just to mention two of many, many 20th century horrors. In a later book called Scraps of the Untainted Sky, largely citing the Italian speculative fiction critic Raffaella Baccolini, Moylan offers the notion of the critical dystopia which suggests that we need to write dystopias to retain hold on the critical impulses of writers like George Orwell (think 1984), who saw the totalitarian possibilities of dreams that were originally utopian. To push that important work further, I’ve recently been theorizing a concept I call “emergent insurgency” (see “Insurgent Utopias: How to Recognize the Knock at the Door” in Exploring the Fantastic: Genre, Ideology, and Popular Culture, edited by Ina Batzke, Eric Erbacher, Linda Heß, and Corinna Lenhardt) to suggest that we need to write both utopian and dystopian possibilities in order to dream, retain hold on a certain criticality, but also be attentive to the productive forces that might erupt unbidden from both our utopian labours and our dystopian critiques. So that is—politically and critically—what The Tiger Flu is trying to do. I hope it does this while still telling a good story!! I think to posit a scary future, given the horrors of the present, is the only thing one can do. Western rationalism combined with global capitalism (both human forces) are driving us to some pretty scary places. But I don’t dream of the rapture. I don’t embrace the death drive. So I do feel the need to write utopian possibility into my work, and that’s there in this novel too. However, I’m not a Pollyanna either. Moylan’s critical utopia makes sense to me. So I wrote flaws into my utopia. I wrote in a bit of good old-fashioned human nature.

SB: I’ve recently begun reading the works of eco-feminist scholars like Kim TallBear, Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing etc. The Tiger Flu felt really conversant with their recent work (like Making Kin Not Population, Staying With the Trouble, and Mushroom at the End of the World) on the discourse of the anthropocene. This book, like their work, also expresses a weariness of techno fixes, speculates on the future of our reproductive practices and centers interspecies kinship. You’ve mentioned in the book’s press materials that Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Joanna Russ etc. were influential voices in the writing of The Tiger Flu. Were you also thinking of the scholars mentioned above? If not, are there any specific works of fiction/nonfiction that informed your writing?

Lai: Le Guin, Butler, Russ and Wittig were my primary interlocutors. But yes, the writers you cite are all very much on my mind. I’m with the writers you name on boredom with techno fixes, interspecies kinship, and reimagining reproductive practice. I’m also interested in cross-racial kinship, and human/plant relations. Curiously, in relation to Anna Tsing, mushrooms had a much stronger presence in an earlier draft of the novel—Uncle Wai grew them in the walls of the family apartment. But things were getting a little hairy, so that’s an interest that will have to be shelved for later. (In the meantime, there is, of course, Hiromi Goto’s wonderful novel Chorus of Mushrooms). The Tiger Flu very much presents an image of a “blasted landscape full of life again, thanks to human-non-human collaboration.” (See Jenni Mölkänen’s review of Tsing’s book). My Grist sisters bear quite a bit in common with Tsing’s matsutake mushrooms, erupting in the wake of human-induced disaster. I’m also with Haraway on the ongoing fact of pain and joy, killing and resurgence. She says, “Staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matter, meanings.” This makes tons of sense to me, though, to be honest, I’m not very far into the book. I know TallBear’s work on genomics but haven’t read Making Kin Not Population. That’s a very promising title though—it makes sense to me to pursue relationships as a way of circumventing biopolitical control.

I also really like William Connolly’s book The Fragility of Things and Facing the Planetary, where he talks about this idea of interlocking autopoietic systems and swarms. His thinking on autopoietic systems considers how one large system—like capitalism—might impinge upon and affect others—like river systems, if we think about the way we damage them in order to produce things like oil and hydroelectric power, pushing the earth’s waters to change their patterns, their relationship with the atmosphere, ocean currents, and so on. The Tiger Flu lays out the idea that human interference in genetic systems interlocking with its many other interferences—technological, extractive, colonial and neo-colonial—might give rise to new, self-organizing genetic systems beyond the control of rational science and economics. But in the world of the novel it is possible to influence the shifting genetic system in the way a writer influences and shifts the work of language. The Grist sister “groom” in the novel, Kirilow Groundsel, is, in a sense, a genetic and surgical artist.

Connolly’s thinking on swarming considers how we might band together from locations of very disparate and unequal difference to rectify the imbalances. Writers and intellectuals have their own special place in the swarm, of course, which is the work of imagination, story and critique.

SB: I thought that the character of the starfish Peristrophe Halliana was the most interesting in the book. Having read Never Let Me Go, I immediately compared her to the clone characters in Ishiguro’s novel. Like them, her entire existence revolves around serving someone else’s needs, someone in a higher position of power—i.e. the queen of the Grist Village/the recipient of Peristrophe’s organs. Like Ishiguro’s clones, Peristrophe also accepts this as her duty. But her very presence complicates the nature of the Grist Village as a kind of bountiful utopia away from the otherwise flu-ravaged cities. What does Peristrophe’s character represent for you?

Lai: There were clone characters in Salt Fish Girl also. But Never Let Me Go is an important intertext for me, along with the slightly trashy Michael Bay film The Island and the more serious Stephen Frears’ film Dirty, Pretty Things. For me, Peristrophe is a figure of the critical utopia. The necessity of Peristrophe is what makes Grist Village—the village of women—imperfect, but also interesting and very human even in its non-humanness. I’m so glad you liked her! Peristrophe is also related to the child in the dungeon at the bottom of the city in Ursula Le Guin’s Those Who Walk Away from Omelas. In that story, Omelas is a city in which everyone is happy and everything is fine but all that happiness and well-being depend upon the suffering of a single, tortured child who lives at the bottom of the city, never having seen daylight. Everyone knows about the child’s suffering and yet no one is permitted to speak of it. One by one, they begin to walk away.

I also think of Peristrophe as a figure of the unacknowledged scapegoat in contemporary progressive cultural communities—the one we must injure in order to retain our street cred. We’ve all been her, and perhaps we’ve also all hurt her too. At some level, Kirilow knows that there’s a problem with cutting Peristrophe to help Auntie Radix. For her—for both of them, actually—there’s a twisted erotics to it that makes it work. They have to make it work for the sisterhood to survive.

SB: I was grateful for the space that The Tiger Flu created. It felt special to inhabit a world primarily populated by queer female, POC, and indigenous characters. In the book, the tiger flu has decimated majority of the male population. Was the disease’s preference for men a means to create a narrative space dominated by women?

Lai: Yes. I was consciously writing against Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in which the woman kills herself at the start of the novel, ceding the story to the man and the boy. I wanted to write a story where the men are vulnerable and the women survive. This is, of course, also writing back to the feminist and/or lesbian separatist novels of Russ and Wittig in particular.

SB: After reading The Tiger Flu, I came across these two articles: “China Plans to Launch an ‘Artificial Moon’ to Light Up the Night Skies” (Meixler, Forbes) and “Massive extinct Caspian tigers to be ‘brought back to life’ half a century after hunters wiped them out” (Jones, Mirror). This is exactly what happened in the book! When writing, do you usually take elements from the news cycle as building blocks for the fictional world? For writers reading this, do you have any tips for world-building?

Lai: Thanks for the references to these articles! I didn’t know about them. I dreamt up the satellites Chang and Eng, as well as the de-extinction of the Caspian tiger, as the kinds of things that technoscience and patriarchy like to do. Already they are coming to pass! But yes, I try to keep at least somewhat on top of the news cycle, though clearly I do so imperfectly! I want my work to touch the world as we inhabit it. FYI there’s a book by Britt Wray called The Rise of the Necrofauna on de-extinction that I heard her speak about a few months ago. It’s on my shelf to read. Jurassic Park is also an intertext.

SB: How does your work as a professor of creative writing influence your own fiction and poetry?

Lai: I learn a lot from my students about the value of clarity. It is pretty cool to workshop students work too and to think with them about what works and does not work in narrative. I also teach classes in criticism. This year I’m doing one I call “Planetary Avant-Gardes.” A couple of years ago, I did one on Indigenous/diasporic relations. So I’m constantly in conversation with my students about issues in social and environmental justice and contemporary writing.

Here at The University of Calgary, I run an “un-centre” called The Insurgent Architects’ House for Creative Writing, which is a kind of lab to combine social and ecological thought with creative writing practice. With my students and colleagues, I run talks, readings and symposia in the space. Some of the symposia topics over the last five years include: Creole Métisse of French Canada, Me: A Symposium in Honour of Sharron Proulx-Turner; Black Lives Out West; The Littoral Contact Zone: Indigenous/Asian Relations from the Salish Sea to Treaty 7 Territories; Paper Hearts I: Gender and Power in Turtle Island/Canadian Literary Communities; Paper Hearts II: Gender and Power in Turtle Island/Canadian Literary Communities; Relational Innovations: Creative Writing as Social Practice; and Emergent Insurgencies: Social Justice, Contemporary Form. Here, my students, colleagues and I, along with our local, national and international guests have many interesting conversations about the role of writing in the social world, the practices and politics of building relationships across difference, how to fight structural inequity in the academy and beyond, and many other things. I learn a ton from these conversations—they really keep me on my toes and in the present moment.

SB: In an interview with Robyn L. Morris, you write that your project is “making a narrative mythological landscape for people like myself so we have something to hang our hats on when we come into the world.” I really admire that. But I did wonder—what about the element of myth is so important to you?

Lai: Every culture that I’ve ever encountered has a founding mythology of some kind. But as a diasporic subject, and as an immigrant, I find myth fraught because it so seldom places those who travel at the centre. So I want to produce a mythology for travelling people like myself, ones who inhabit multiple subjectivities and who feel partly at home in many places, but fully at home in none. We too need a history and a mythology and these are largely unwritten to date.

Also, I’m really interested in retrieving/producing a diasporic Chinese/Cantonese/Hakka women’s mythology. After so many millennia of Confucian patriarchy, we need to draw pre/non-Confucian figures up out of the past which in cyclical times is also always the future and the present, as a way to empower ourselves and, in this hideous historical moment, to offer other ways of being and becoming. The mythologies we retrieve or imagine can give us other ways of being together. They can also offer us better ways of being in relation to other racialized, gendered and embodied peoples. If I am to take the Truth and Reconciliation Commission seriously, then finding, making and teaching ways of being Chinese that are compatible and relational with the ways of being Blackfoot, Pikani and Kainai, then this seems really important. I don’t need to draw on Confucian, patriarchal and capitalist ways of being in relation if I have access to a mythology from my own (always shifting) culture(s) that offers a better way.

SB: Given everything that’s going on with the world right now, what place does pleasure occupy in your reading practice? When choosing a book, do you prioritize pleasure/entertainment or is it secondary to finding a work that is discussing ways to deal with the chaos of our time?

Lai: I’ve been working so hard and pushing so hard to get done all the things that need to get done in relation to my paid profession and in relation to social and political commitments, while at the same time maintaining my writing practice that, to be honest, when I’m looking to be entertained, I don’t read. I watch TV shows and movies. That said, I do find pleasure in my work—I’m lucky that way. I enjoy the fiction, poetry and criticism I read. All the more so if I think it will make a difference to our thinking and action in these difficult times. I guess I’m a geek like that.

 SB: As an extension of the question above, what should we pick up after reading The Tiger Flu? Do you have any recommendations for a book we should read, or maybe a film/TV show we could watch, or even an album we should listen to?

Lai: I really enjoyed Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse. Orphan Black would be a no-brainer. Books on my shelf: David Walton’s The Genius Plague and Saad Hossain’s Djinn City. Direct connections: Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, Monique Wittig’s Les Guérillères, Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series, Joanna Russ’ The Female Man. Blade Runner remains an important intertext for me, and I still love the Vangelis soundtrack from the original 1982 film. Other music: Portishead’s Dummy, Morcheeba’s Big Calm. I also listened to a lot of Tanya Tagaq when I was writing this.

SB: What’s next for you?

Lai: I’m working on a book length long poem called The Iron Goddess of Mercy that addresses Hong Kong history, family relationships, freedom of speech and call in/call out culture and its affective flows.


Read a review of The Tiger Flu here.

Larissa Lai Author Photo_credit_Monique de St. Croix
Photo credit: Monique de St. Croix

Larissa Lai is the author of The Tiger Flu, Salt Fish Girl and five other books. Recipient of an Astraea Award and finalist for seven more, she holds a Canada Research Chair at the University of Calgary and directs The Insurgent Architects’ House for Creative Writing there. The Tiger Flu is a finalist for the 2019 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction.

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