This story really spoke to me from my childhood! There was a game I played as a kid. I was terrified of Peter’s Numbers Adventure. It still kind of haunts me to this day, particularly an interaction where a clown’s severed head floats around like a balloon to sinister calliope music. Obviously, that feeling of a “cursed” image left its mark on me. What was the inspiration for The Dizzy Game and Wesley the Whale for you (is it Freddi Fish)?
Wild! And very much in the vein of the stuff I played. We were an educational CD-ROM family, for sure. I had them for English, typing, math, science, you name it. There was Spy Fox, ClueFinders, Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, and probably loads more I’m forgetting now. This story’s Wesley Whale was indeed inspired by the Freddi Fish series—good eye, fellow kelp seed seeker. With Dizzy Game, I was thinking about ESL games in particular and the pressures of assimilation more broadly. And this question of, what if language-learning games really were the tools of the devil?
First-generation kids face such a unique adjustment between trying to blend in as an “American” and trying to conserve their heritage. The tension between these two ideas is explicit in this story, and from my reading it’s what “The Dizzy Room” latches onto and weaponizes. May I ask how much of your personal experience bled into the pages of this story?
Oh, lots. Like the protagonist, Uly, I was born in the Soviet Union and immigrated to the US with my parents when I was young (it was Russia by the time we left). I felt that thing a lot of first-gen kids talk about feeling: neither here nor there, too Russian to be American, too American to be Russian, both and neither at once. I wasn’t embracing the beautiful, complex mess of self back then, either. Different and complicated felt like the last things you wanted to be, and I grasped at every opportunity to smooth my differences and complications away. Part of that was an acute obedience that, thankfully, I’ve mostly shaken off since. Finally, like Uly, I was an only child who early on came to consider our family computer my easiest and most tolerant friend. I would’ve been vulnerable to a thing like Dizzy Game, had it found me.
I have no clue how you made the Dizzy text, but I will say it freaks me out! Are there any real-world influences you drew from to visualize Dizzy?
I wanted to make something indecipherable. Like when you look at something and it just means absolutely nothing to you, but it’s not a neutral not-knowing—it comes with this sick feeling in your gut. Creating Dizzy involved a combination of manually running words through a simple invented cipher and using a couple of those distorted text generators. I didn’t know it at the time but turns out that versions of glitchy (or “Zalgo”) text get used in creepypasta sometimes to the same end: to convey the presence of the eldritch, sinister, or surreal.
I couldn’t help but think about endangered languages and the danger of lingual hegemony when reading “The Dizzy Room.” Did you draw from this real-world struggle in your writing?
As writers, we’re betting on the potential for language to be a force of good. In this story, I was exploring the potential of language as a force of evil. I was thinking about Russia’s long history of censorship and linguistic imperialism, as well as my own experiences growing up in the US and gradually recognizing the violence and exertion of dominance tied up in cultural assimilation and language loss. I’m also fascinated by the Zaum linguistic experiments of the Russian Futurist poets, like Kruchenykh’s “Dyr bul shchyl;” and by Aesopian language and other techniques used by Soviet and Russian writers and dissidents to evade censorship. I recently watched a documentary featuring Koryo-mar, an endangered dialect of Korean spoken by ethnic Koreans in the countries of the former Soviet Union. (My grandfather was Koryo-saram from Sakhalin Island, and was forcibly displaced during Stalin’s mass deportation of Koreans living in the Russian Far East.) So, yes: language, power, migration, and survival—in different corners of the world—are very much on my mind.
The ending was so cool to me, how the narrator has basically been turned into a sleeper agent for when Dizzy Game returns. What made you want to end it like this?
Dizzy Game dangled before Uly the promise of acceptance and belonging, and Uly grew desperate and reliant. She did everything the game told her to: she did her part to become “American,” sacrificing herself and others, and she would’ve done much more. Still, the game abandoned her. That’s the promise of assimilation, and it’s a dangerous and false one. She’ll keep waiting, and she won’t ever feel whole.
What do you have coming out for us to look forward to?
Stay tuned for a story about one declining empire’s elaborate matchmaking system in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. And “Bones in It,” about the world’s cleanest, meanest banya witch, is being reprinted in PseudoPod; it originally appeared in Lightspeed (bit.ly/3GO4JPX).
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