Friday, August 31, 2012

End of August Wrap-Up

Whoa, this month just zoomed by! Here's how things went on the reading/writing for me in August:

Camp NaNoWriMo

Uh, yeah, that was kind of a... total fail. AGAIN. But I did write slightly more than last year, so that's something, I guess. At this rate, I should be able to win my first NaNo in, oh, about forty years or so. Sigh. Momentum is SO important! (Also, I got struck by another Shiny New Idea. Oops.)


These are the books I read in August: 

I was super excited about diving into this stack, but unfortunately I found most of them incredibly disappointing, including the two books I was most looking forward to reading. Turns out that reading them in order of ascending average Goodreads rating did NOT actually result in a similar increase in my reading experience.

Here's the books I read, average ratings on Goodreads, and my own rating with links to my status updates (may include spoilers):

1.The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson | 3.55 stars | DNF and 1 star from me
2.Dani Noir by Nova Ren Suma | 3.77 stars | 3 stars from me
3. Un Lun Dun by China Mieville | 3.78 stars | 3.5 stars from me
4. Wake by Lisa McMann | 3.78 stars | DNF and 1 star from me
5. A Fistful of Sky by Nina Kiriki Hoffman | 3.92 stars | 2.5 stars from me
6. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly | 3.97 stars | 4 stars from me
7. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland... by Catherynne M. Valente | 4.06 stars | 1.5 stars from me
8. I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak | 4.08 stars | DNF and 1 star from me
9. Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai | 4.09 stars | DNF and no rating from me
10. Ruby Red by Kerstin Gier | 4.14 stars | 2 stars from me

So yeah, like I mentioned in my Goodreads status update, it turned out that I didn't particularly like any of the books that had average ratings of >4 on Goodreads. Guess that means I have peculiar taste.

Anyway, this made me think about what kinds of things appeal to me or put me off in fiction. (Great post by Patricia C. Wrede on the subject!) The main categories that I think of when it comes to a book are: plot, character, writing, setting, and message. In order for me to enjoy a book, at least the plot or main character has to be stand-out excellent (by which I mean, a good match for my tastes) and the rest has to be decent-to-good.

So here's how my tastes usually run when it comes to books (though there are always exceptions):

I can love a book for plot alone. I tend to like mysteries a lot, and time travel stories with one consistent timeline (none of that changing history crap, thanks). I get impatient if nothing seems to be happening, or if things are happening too slowly, unless the other elements are strong enough to capture my interest. And no insta-love or love triangles, thanks. (See my post on romance pet peeves.) Plot holes and and cliffhangers also bother me a lot, and so does predictability (I was great at annoying my sister during family movie nights because I loved to predict what would happen next). Most of all, I am a sucker for really intricate, clever, twisty puzzle plots. Those are the best.

If the plot isn't mind-blowingly amazing, then I need to love the characters. I prefer to find them likable, admirable, intelligent, relatable, and engaging. I lose respect for protagonists that do stupid or hurtful things, and I tend to dislike feeling detached from the protagonist. I particularly despise characters who start doing dumb things because they've "fallen in love." I'm much more fond of sensible, capable, and funny characters who have a good grasp of logic. (No speshul snowflakes who whine a lot, thanks!) I also have a difficult time reading about characters who don't see the world, or social interactions, or themselves, the way most people do. For example, Jack in Room, Marcelo in Marcelo in the Real World, and Lia in Wintergirls. I think these are all worthwhile books that shed light on important issues, but they're just not enjoyable reading experiences for me. I know those characters don't see things the way I do, but it's frustrating for me to be able to see what they don't and not be able to do anything about it.

I am not a fan of description, lyrical, or flowery writing. I tend to prefer writing that's straightforward and clear, and doesn't call attention to itself. I care more about story than word-smithing, so I definitely notice when the writing is so over-the-top that it distracts me from my reading experience. I strongly dislike narrator interruptions, awkward and stunted prose, and overly creative/nonsensical metaphors. I do enjoy a gorgeous turn of phrase here and there, but great writing isn't enough to make me like a book if the rest was only ok (unlike with brilliant characters or plots). I don't think I have any strong preferences for POV or tense, other than my dislike of second person.

This, like writing, is something that would bother me if done badly, and best when it doesn't call too much attention to itself. I tend to skim description, I don't really notice if the details are on the sparse side, and I'd probably be bored by too much of it. I'm perfectly fine with filling things in myself, so setting only bothers me if there is so little there I have nothing to go on or if there are things that don't make any sense or if there is clearly a huge gaping hole that ought to be addressed but isn't. As long as the world building isn't too obviously lazy or implausible or unreasonable, I'll be fine.

I don't think I would love a book solely because I agreed with its message, but messages I don't agree with can definitely kill a book for me. I think a lot of this has to do with characterization, as well — if the protagonist gets away with being petty, whiny, or useless, I'm not going to be happy about that. I'm not ok with misogynistic messages, either, and I'd be annoyed if superstition plays a positive part in the story (hate chosen one/prophecy plot lines). Also, I hate when authors attempt to bash me over the head with their messages. It pulls me out of the story and makes me feel manipulated, which will definitely cause me to think poorly of the book.

So yeah, I tend to be a pretty picky reader. I am also easily swayed by positive reviews. This usually results in me reading a lot of books I don't particularly like, which is unfortunate and why I adore negative reviews.


I think part of the reason I didn't write as many words for NaNo is because I got distracted by blogging as a semi-acceptable form of procrastination (even though it isn't really). But still, I'm glad I got these blog posts out there. I still have some drafts in the works and ideas I'd like to blog about, but my motivation will probably decrease once I stop seeing blogging as procrastination and as what I'm supposed to be doing. XD


I got a new bunny! And he is adorable! :D Meet Mochi:

Hope all of you enjoyed your August! :)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Portrayal of Science in YA Spec Fic

So, a (very long) while ago, I wrote a post on human cloning (which I put a lot of work into and think you may benefit from reading! :D *hint hint*) and promised a follow-up regarding my thoughts on science and YA spec fic.

Lest you think I'm a fiction-hater, let me say up front that I adore reading fiction, particularly fantasy. I love spec fic and think that imagination, creativity, and emotional resonance in stories are all important and valuable.

But I also love science and the way it allows us to understand the universe as it actually is, rather than viewing it through superstition or wishful thinking. In case you couldn't tell from my human cloning post, I am a big fan of rational thought.

Sometimes these two things come into conflict because people often confuse fiction for fact. I am all for writing about unicorns and elves and colonies on Mars,  because people, for the most part, do not confuse those as applicable to our reality. They're not going to read a book and start believing that we really do have unicorns and elves and colonies on Mars (at least, not yet), and that's why I'm perfectly ok with incredible, non-existent technology and other fantastical elements. But less obviously fictional elements can be more problematic. When fiction influences people's attitudes toward existing technologies or scientific concepts in such a way that contradicts reality as known through science, that's when I get annoyed.

Last year, I read a YA sci-fi novel and barely blinked at the alien or currently-non-existent technology. What really bugged me was when the author presented erroneous information about how mutations and genes work in a context that is relevant to issues today. (This really stuck out to me because, in college, I took a course on genetics and liked it so much I made it the emphasis of my molecular and cell biology major.) Not only was the explanation about how genes work not very relevant to the main plot, but it can be misconstrued as being scientific fact, thus encouraging unfounded fear of existing technologies. And this, to me, is both unfortunate and irresponsible.

And I'm not the only one who noticed this in the book. Here's a great post by Sean Wills about the importance of getting the science right, and I am in full agreement.

What intrigued me, though, was that the author chimed in in the comments section to say she didn't get anything wrong. Her statement of "genetically modified corn caused widespread sterility," as expressed in her novel, struck me as unscientific and incredible, so I was very interested in seeing her justification of her statement.

Ultimately, though, I found that her defense doesn't hold up to scrutiny. While the concepts she referenced were scientific, stringing up a number of truths does not necessarily mean that your conclusion is therefore also true and scientific, especially if each step in the argument is incredibly implausible and there are several missing steps.

If I were to do the same thing, here's how it'd look: "First of all, electromagnetic waves can affect the brain! Especially solar radiation. And frequent flyers are often exposed to solar radiation. And guess what, there's an area of the brain called Wernicke's area that controls use of speech! THEREFORE, in my sci-fi story that takes place in a future world where everyone's a constant jetsetter, it is TOTALLY PLAUSIBLE that a whole generation of people were exposed to excessive solar radiation that affected Wernicke's area in the brain, so they all got Wernicke's aphasia and walked around talking in a way that sounds totally nonsensical to us."

I hope that illustration conveys why her argument fell flat for me. All my links are "real science" too, but that doesn't make my conclusion any more scientific, due to the many gaps in logic, especially the lack of conclusive studies. While it is true that there are likely to be some risks to both genetically modified food and radiation exposure due to frequent air travel, negative portrayals of existing technology based on simplistic, implausible, and ultimately unrealistic cause-and-effect scenarios aren't helping anyone; rather, they merely spread misinformation and encourage unfounded fear. (No, you're not going to get Wernicke's aphasia through radiation exposure from frequent flying or become sterile from ingesting GM corn. Doesn't mean those things are perfectly safe (what is?), but there's no conclusive evidence about the negative effects. No reason for knee-jerk reactions, either.)

The funny thing, though, is that sometimes I don't even catch all the science!fails in novels. In another YA sci-fi novel, the author had character A give an explanation that defied the laws of physics and had character B accept it, no questions asked.

In my defense, it was incredibly obvious (to me) that there was no way any explanation character A gave at that point would actually be true, despite the fact that (or maybe because) it was set up to seem like a BIG SHOCKING REVEAL. (Due to my experience as a reader, I recognized that the reveal had to be fake for there to be somewhere for the plot to go for the rest of the trilogy. Plus, this novel in particular had an especially predictable plot.) So it's kind of funny that I didn't realize how unscientific the explanation was because I'd already dismissed it out of hand from a story perspective. It's possible the author meant for that exchange to showcase the lack of formal education/incredibly gullibility of character B, but I rather think that the author, like me, knew it was a fake explanation and so didn't think to check for scientific accuracy.

But still, fake science = BAD, because although I didn't notice it, a lot of other readers did, and for some of them, it interfered with their enjoyment of the book. And although it's not as horrible for people to have mistaken ideas about space travel as about genetic engineering (given the difference in exposure in most people's day-to-day life), it would kind of suck for some teen to get that wrong on a physics test, haha. (And yes, this author also had, ah, interesting ideas about genetics, and that bothered me WAY MORE than this physics slip up.)

So, even though it can sometimes be fun/funny to read about the fantastical science of writers' imaginations (recent read: Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake — not YA, but her ideas about genetic engineering are hilariously absurd), and sometimes most people don't notice, it's important to get the facts right. Most people can't tell fact from fiction in books and movies (I'm not always so great about it, either), and given the terrible state of science literacy in the US, I can't stress enough that I wish writers would be more conscientious about presenting science and technology as accurately as possible so as not to propagate unfounded fear/disgust of advancements.

Controversial scientific subjects like cloning and genetic modification should ideally have their merits and risks addressed scientifically and not according to writers' runaway imaginations. Fiction affects people's attitudes and thoughts, and I wish writers would take their ability to influence reader opinions more responsibly by not promoting counter-factual ideas (not to mention it really takes me out of the story when I notice scientific inaccuracies). Feel free to make up things and talk about technology that doesn't exist today if you're going to be all like THIS IS EVIL AND BAD in your book. (Also, read Sean Wills' post on genetics if you're going to be writing about that — yup, I discovered Sean Wills while researching for this post and I'm now a fan.) Fiction, creativity, and imagination should be celebrated and valued, but let's not be responsible for propagating lies and falsehoods about science and technology, mkay?

Friday, August 10, 2012

Part 2: Asian by Authorial Decree

This is my second post about some thoughts I had about YA Asian fantasy while I was half-asleep during last week's typhoon day. You can find Part 1 here if you haven't read it already. Also, quick warning: this one is LONG.

Part of my last post was about how to help readers identify characters in a fantasy as Asian without sticking to a mythical Ancient Asia as the setting. And when I was thinking about this instead of sleeping in like I'd planned to, I recalled a blog post by Malinda Lo that talked about race and Asianness in her lesbian Cinderella fantasy, Ash, which doesn't sound very Asian as far as the world-building. (Disclaimer: I have not read Ash. Curse you,  my sleep-addled brain, for prompting me to write blog posts about books I haven't read.)

Let's start out with some quotes from her post:
It’s been my experience that most humans in fantasy novels are white, and when you think about it, the descriptors that we Americans (or people of Earth) use about race simply do not apply in most fantasy fiction. There are no African Americans in fantasy because there is no Africa (usually). So what do you do?
I must disagree with what she's saying here about fantasy and race. Yes, most humans in fantasy novels are white. But just because everyone is white in most fantasies, that doesn't mean it's right or desirable. And I don't think the main reason for the overwhelming whiteness is because there are no useful words for race in fantasy fiction (for example, N.K. Jemisin does an awesome job writing about black people in fantasy). I think it's obvious that you don't have to use the word "African American" in your fantasy in order to include black characters, and I'm a little surprised she would think so.
So I guess I have two different rules. In a fantasy world where there is no racial distinction, describing race is unnecessary, although I see my characters through my Earthbound eyes as being Hapa. In Earthbound fiction, race cannot be left up to the reader’s imagination, because I believe it is fundamental to a character’s identity.
I absolutely do not buy her claim that there is no racial distinction in fantasy; there is no racial distinction only because EVERYONE IS FREAKIN WHITE. So yes, I agree, it's hard to do things differently from the way we've seen them done, and it's hard to figure out how to write PoCs in fantasy when there hasn't been tons and tons of precedents to draw upon, like there is for fantasies about white people. But that doesn't mean it's not possible. It just means it takes more work, and thought, and trial-and-error. (And I'm really glad that she did write PoCs into her second book, Huntress, which I'll cover later in this post.)

I also do not agree with her distinction between how things work in fantasy and how things work on Earth; fantasy is written by and for people who are "Earthbound." Which means there are real-life implications of how race is (or isn't) described in a work of fiction, and why I think it's so important that there are more characters in fantasy that are identifiably PoCs.
I want readers to imagine the Charming that they would fall in love with, because everyone has different tastes. But for me, she’s Asian. Except she has green eyes, because, frankly, I’ve always liked green eyes and she’s Charming, you know, and that’s how I see her. So I guess to be specific using terms we are familiar with, she must be biracial, or Hapa. And so is Cinderella, because she has brown hair.
(Aha, so here's where the green eyes start sneaking in.) In this paragraph, she's saying that she wants readers to cast her characters themselves, and that for her she sees Charming as Asian. But, you know, biracial — because of the green eyes. Which makes no sense, because how am I supposed to cast Charming as an Asian with brown eyes if that's what I'd want? So the whole "let readers imagine whatever they want" thing doesn't really work because the text still gets in the way (although some people, it must be said, have no problem reading characters as white no matter what the text says). And I find it interesting that she says the characters must be biracial due to brown hair and green eyes, since it IS possible for Asians to have brown hair or green eyes, even if not biracial, as a reviewer points out later in this post (though it's certainly rare).

Honestly, the whole "up to the reader to decide" thing is problematic, because we read so many fantasies in which everyone is white that most readers, even PoCs, will assume everyone's white as the default. Which is why the solution is not to just leave out all descriptions and let it be completely up to the reader, because colorblindness = no racial distinction = everyone is white, and we already have more than enough of that.
Can you imagine how bizarre it would be to insert the term “biracial” in a fantasy novel? 
Actually, no, I do not think it would be bizarre at all. It's better than "half-breed," which is not all that uncommon in fantasy.
(In case anyone is wondering, I am also of a mixed-race background, which may be why I started out with that as the default option for my characters. There are other characters in the book who are distinctly Caucasian, though.)
Huh. How nice that there are characters who are distinctly Caucasian, so we don't get confused and accidentally cast them as PoCs in our minds. How about characters who are distinctly Asian? I know there are Asian characters in Huntress, which is supposed to take place in the same world as Ash, but hundreds of years before. Are there any distinctly Asian characters in Ash or did they all disappear by the time of Ash, à la Firefly? From what she says about the lack of racial distinction, though, I'm not optimistic; but maybe someone who's read the book can tell me what's in the book.

Although that blog post was the one I thought of that morning, Malinda Lo actually wrote an updated post on race in Ash, which clarifies some of her points. Though I have to say I'm still not fully on board with the newer version:
When I wrote Ash, I had a mental image of what my characters looked like. In my imagination, they appeared to have Asian features. However, there is no Asia in Ash’s world (it’s a fantasy world), so there is no way they could actually be Asian. 
I fail to follow the logic here. What, people in Ash's world can't be Asian because there is no Asia, but they can be "distinctly Caucasian"... uh, because the Caucus mountains exist in Ash's world? What? That makes no sense. Why can there NOT be any characters who share physical resemblance with people who, on this world, would be termed Asian, but there CAN be characters who share physical characteristics with people who, on this world, would be termed Caucasian, when it's a fantasy world without either Asia or Europe? It is totally unfair that all fantasylands that are not explicitly modeled off a particular time and place somewhere in Europe still tend to have all white characters, since that's the fantasyland default, whereas the only way to get Asian characters is to specifically model your world on somewhere in Asia (or an amalgamation of everything you can think of that sounds semi-Asian, which is even worse).
But also — and this is very important: My opinion is only my opinion. I think that sometimes readers tend to give too much credence to an author’s thoughts about her own work. Every reader brings his or her background to a book, and a book’s meaning is always a negotiation between the reader (and her experiences) and the story itself. What the author says outside the pages of the book is largely irrelevant.
Oh good; I'm in full agreement here. Yay! :)
For those who are still confused about why I see the characters as having Asian features, though, I will say this: It probably stems from the fact that I’m Chinese American and I live in a diverse place (California). There are Asian American faces next to Latinos next to white people next to African Americans, and yet we are all (mostly) Americans. This is the world I live in, and it makes sense to me that this is also the world I envisioned in my fiction.
Can someone let me know if the characters in Ash can actually be read as racially diverse? Or are they just racially diverse by authorial decree? Because that, to me, still wouldn't fly. Racially diverse in the author's head but not in the text = white in everyone else's heads. Which is really sad, and says a lot about our culture, but it just means that not talking about race in fantasy is not the answer.

Just look at this AMAZING review of Ash by an Asian-Canadian, Yuan. Unlike me, she's actually read the book (XD), and here are some excerpts:
I’m not sure how much I was affected by the fact that I read this post by Malinda Lo wherein she said that she imagined her cast as Asian before having read the novel. I tried, and I tried to buy it, that the cast were Asian but I just couldn’t. I wrestled with this in myself and wondered why can’t I imagine this fairy tale world with people who look like me. It’s most definitely not because one of the girl has green eyes and the other girl is a brunette because I know Asians who have such features and they are most certainly not mixed. And I think, after reading Zetta Elliott’s review of Ash, a large part of it had to do with the way beauty is described in this novel. It felt to me like a very white standard of who is considered beautiful, from the “jeweled” glittering, awesomely coloured eyes to the “golden” silken hair to the “ethereal” paleness of the skin, all used as examples of beauty. This, plus the European-inspired pseudo-medieval setting made me equate the general populous of this novel as white. I’m so resigned and used to medieval fantasy excluding all non-white persons from their stories, and this novel failed to show a “medieval” fantasy that can include non-white characters. 
Though, as an aside, if I streeeeeeeeeetch my imagination, I can kind of picture Kaisa as Asian, due to her name and the bit about her being from the “South” which I may be reading too much into it. (Even I feel like I’m grasping at straws over this.) Though, any of these tiny little hopes were largely crushed by the eyes thing; her Very Awesome Green Eyes of Awesome is off-putting. (Not that I don’t think green eyes are nice, but it’s such a white beauty standard thing, to emphasize Awesomely Coloured Eyes.) 
YES YES YES, especially about what she says regarding green eyes and white beauty standards. ([spoiler alert] That's going to be the main point of Part 3 of my series, so keep that in mind, and stay tuned!)

So yeah, Ash is kind of a fail on the Asianness front, at least for me, based on her blog posts on the subject. But I kept looking for other mentions of race and fantasy on her blog after I read the previous two, and, believe it or not, read this awesome post on Huntress AFTER I'd written Part 1 of this series on my blog. (Good thing I found it, too, or I'd look like an idiot for criticizing her for Ash without giving her any credit for Huntress.) It's scary how much her post talks about the same things I talk about in mine.

I mean, look at this paragraph:
The Kingdom in Huntress is influenced by Chinese and Japanese culture, but it is not China or Japan. It is a fictional fantasy world that also must eventually become the fantasy world in Ash, because Huntress is set several centuries earlier. So it simply could not be the kind of “Asia” that exists in movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.1Also, there were elements of the fantasy world in Huntress that were simply not Chinese: there is no homophobia, for one thing, and there isn’t nearly as much sexism as there was in imperial China.
And that's exactly what I said I wanted! A world that's not China or Japan, but still has Asian influences, and not so strictly that it makes it difficult to tell the kind of story you want to tell. (Although I do wish she hadn't made it set in the same world as Ash because of the problematic issue of all the Asian people somehow disappearing.)

But I'm not sure how I feel about this:
I know that if the cover had depicted a white girl or even no girl at all, probably even more readers would never have guessed that the characters look Asian.
Hm. I don't know if the characters were specifically described as Asian-looking in the book (since I didn't read all of it — shame, I know) and she's making a statement about how easy it is to whitewash characters in our heads, or if she purposefully didn't emphasize the Asianness of her characters and this is exactly the effect she was going for. I have mixed feelings if it's the latter. On one hand, sure, it's good not to make Asianness super obvious by exoticizing it. But on the other hand, if the only reason people realize the characters are Asian is because of the cover, then is the author somehow failing to convey her vision through the actual text? Or is it the fault of our white-centric culture? How obvious should Asianness be?

And also, what influenced her thoughts on race in fantasy? (And in a direction I can get on board with!) How did she come to change her mind about people being allowed to look Asian in a fantasy world that doesn't have Asia in it? What happened to her "let readers cast the characters how they like" idea — can they still do that with an Asian girl on the cover?

Lots of questions, as you can see. But I'm mostly just happy that there's another fantasy with Asian people in it and an Asian girl on the cover. Because that is AWESOME and necessary (regardless of my personal feelings for the actual story).

And I love what she says about exoticism:
What makes something exotic? It can certainly be philosophy or beliefs, but more often, I think exoticism resides in things you can actually see or hear. Clothing, food, music, architecture: these are the external markers of difference. So I decided to minimize, when possible, the descriptions of these things in Huntress, except when I was making a point. For example, when Taisin visits the royal palace, I describe some of the palace to show how luxurious it is compared to what she’s accustomed to. When Taisin and Kaede dine with the king, he has a very grand feast of delicacies that ordinary folks don’t get.
Otherwise, the things that might seem “exotic” to an outsider are actually considered “normal” to an insider. Kaede is an insider in her world, so she’s not going to find most of it terribly exotic. The clothes she wears and the way the students at the Academy do their hair are pretty ordinary to her. The spiritual and philosophical beliefs that provide the backbone to the magic that Taisin practices aren’t going to seem unusual to Taisin.
That's a great point about writing descriptions in general. It should be in your character's PoV, and people don't usually pay a lot of attention to things that are normal and ordinary for them. This is awesome advice about bringing in Asian influences without making them too exotic.
Hopefully, they don’t seen too unusual to the reader, either. This can result in a few different reactions, of course. There are readers who won’t see the Chinese influence at all because it’s presented as entirely normal, and besides, they’re reading a fantasy novel where magic happens — maybe it’s all made up. 
I'd have to disagree a tiny bit here, though. Just because something is normal to the characters doesn't mean it's going to be normal to the readers, since sometimes authors use this technique to shock readers with how desensitized or accustomed characters may be to situations that are disgusting or horrific to the reader.

However, I love the idea that Asianness doesn't have to feel exotic, because there's so much made-up and strange elements in fantasy anyway that readers are more accepting of unfamiliar concepts and influences, which definitely helps when you want to work in concepts or world-building that aren't already known to the majority of readers — which can be Asian-inspired.

But hands-down, here is my favorite excerpt from all three of her blog posts:
Ultimately, I think my project with Huntress was a fairly Asian American one. I am Asian American, and I move through the world as an Asian American. Kaede’s world has elements of both Asia and America in it, and I like that. 
And that is EXACTLY what I want for myself, too. I love that she's writing fantasies as an Asian American and admire her for the evolution of her thoughts regarding race in fantasy. I hope that I'll also be able to write fantasies that reflect my worldview and experiences as an Asian American. It's not easy, as there isn't a whole lot of precedent, but I'm excited that Asian-American fantasies featuring Asian characters have been growing in number, and I can't wait to read more of the novels in this category. And one day, maybe, I'll add my own to the number.

What are your thoughts about race in fantasy? Do you automatically cast everyone as white when you read, unless (or maybe, regardless of whether) race is otherwise specified/suggested? Or do you try to read all characters who are not specifically described as white as PoCs because that's how much you're hoping for PoC representation?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Part I: Asian-American Fantasy

So remember how in my last post I mentioned the very high probability of getting a day off from work because of Typhoon Saola? Well, work and classes did end up getting canceled in Taipei last Thursday, which is awesome as I strongly prefer snuggling in my dry, warm bed to braving the storm in order to get to work. I'd fully planned on sleeping in, but somehow I woke briefly in the morning, started thinking about my Camp NaNo project, then about YA Asian fantasies, then about green eyes in said fantasies. And as I laid in my bed and thought about these things, I got angrier and angrier, to the point I couldn't fall back asleep — which I'm usually awesome at (much to the annoyance of my parents).

Since my cryptic tweet wasn't rant-y enough for me to feel like I've fully expressed my thoughts on this topic, here is part one of my long, rambly blog post on some of my thoughts regarding reading and writing Asian-influenced fantasies. I originally dumped everything in one post, but it turned out SUUUUUPER long, so out of consideration I split it into a series of three posts. (Aww, so sweet.) I'll get to green eyes in parts 2 and 3; part 1 is more general. (And if you want to see my previous post on this subject, see: For My Fifteen-Year-Old Self.)

[Note: when I use the word "Asian" I'm often referring specifically to "East Asian," but sometimes writing it out the more specific, longer way is awkward, so in most cases I leave out the "East."]

I want to write a fantasy with Asian characters, but I don't want to write a fantasy version of one specific time and place in Asia.

I'm not saying it's a bad thing to take inspiration from a particular culture/time/place. Writers do so with non-Asian influences, too, setting their stories in fantasy versions of Renaissance Italy, Medieval France, or Victorian Britain. But in most cases when a fantasy world doesn't correspond to one specific era or place in history, everyone's automatically white, because that's how it goes in generic fantasyland. Which makes me think the main hint for readers that the characters in a fantasy could possibly look similar to East Asians in our world is if the story takes place in a world recognizable as fantasy Japan/China/Korea. Another case of white = generic/normal, PoC = specific/exotic.

Which kind of sucks. I wonder if I could pull off writing Asian-looking characters that aren't set in a fantasy version of ancient China or Japan or Korea. That's my goal, because I love fantasy and would like to read something that includes representations of Asian-Americans. I mean, I'm Taiwanese-American and grew up in the States with first-generation immigrant parents, and I still occasionally get culture shock living in Taiwan. I don't want to write a fantasy set in Ancient China just so I can have Asian characters — many of the values and worldviews and traditions of that period would feel largely foreign and unfamiliar to me, not to mention rather bothersome for the kind of protagonists and plots I like. I want setting and characters that appeal to my imagination, which has been influenced by both Western and Eastern cultures.

But there's a risk in not sticking to one particular time and place (and researching the hell out of it) as inspiration for an Asian fantasy. After all, there are writers who don't know anything about Asian cultures, don't do their research, and just pick out all the Asian-sounding elements they can think of (I mean, it's all the same as long as it's somewhat Asian, right? Who cares if those elements come from all different countries and time periods? Or aren't even authentically Asian?) and throw them together for that exotic Oriental feel (ugh). And then they end up looking like idiots who have no respect for other cultures and only appropriated Asianness because they wanted an exotic atmosphere. And I definitely don't want to be one of those writers. But I also don't think that the only acceptable way to write Asian-inspired fantasy is to stick to what's historically true during one particular dynasty in one particular country, because that would be totally unfair given all the fantasies out there that don't directly correspond to any particular time or place in history.

So, I'm not sure how to balance everything. I want to make up my own fantasyland with both Western and Asian influences, and still convey to readers that the characters are not white people who all just happen to have dark hair and brown eyes. (Or, like, at least most of the readers. As evidenced by recent events, there are people who will think all the characters are white no matter what you do.) And I don't want to have to describe anyone as having "almond-shaped eyes and pineapple-colored skin" (uh, not that people actually use pineapple as a description, but you know what I mean). I can probably increase the chances my characters will read as Asian by putting more obviously Asian elements into the world-building, but I'm not sure how I can do so without coming across as an irresponsible masher-upper or making it so overwhelmed with traditional Asian culture that it no longer feels mine.

And some people might ask, "But why would anyone bother making their characters anything other than white if they're in a made-up fantasyland that's not obviously a mythic historical Asia? It only makes sense to have Asian protagonists in clearly Asian-inspired fantasies with strictly Asian cultures and values.* Anything else should just have white characters." And then I will want to rip out my hair, which may prompt them to feel bad enough that they say, "Well, you can throw in an Asian secondary character/sidekick, if you insist."

Sigh. Anyway, I'm unsure how to do the world-building correctly to get the effect I want. Or maybe I'm just over-thinking it and it's actually not as complicated as I'm making it out to be.

If you have any thoughts/comments/suggestions on this topic, it'd be greatly appreciated! I definitely don't have all the answers, so any ideas would be awesome. Also, can you think of any examples of Asian protags in fantasy that's not set in a mythical version of Ancient China/Japan/Korea? Did it work for you, and what clued you in to the characters' ethnicity?

*And sometimes, even when it's clear the world/culture/characters are all Asian, they still get whitewashed. Ugh.

P.S. Here is an AMAZING post about writing non-Eurocentric fantasy that you should read: I Didn't Dream of Dragons.

P.P.S. Part 2 can be read here. Part 3 coming soon! I know I say "soon" all the time, but this time I specifically mean that I will get them both up by the end of next week.

P.P.P.S. Also, I totally need to get back to actually writing my Camp NaNo project, rather than writing about writing it. :P

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

August Updates

Happy August, everyone! I know I said I'd write a post about science and YA to follow up on my post on human cloning, and while I did get distracted (for, oh, a few months), I've outlined it and wrote part of a rough draft. So, hopefully that will get done before the Apocalypse hits in December, ha.

But it's probably not going to get done during August, because, guess what, I'm participating in Camp NaNoWriMo again! I don't know why I keep signing up for these things when I always fail, but hope springs eternal, I suppose. And even though I didn't win last year, I still learned some valuable lessons that I will do my best to apply this time around.

This year I'm especially excited about my awesome cabinmates. Our camp counselor will be posting a feature on our cabin, so I'll link you once that's up so you can be envious at the amazing people I get to NaNo with. :)

Update: Find out more about all the members of the Tiger Tea Tent at Camp Counselor Sophia's blog!

Meanwhile, I'm showing them all up by being currently in FIRST PLACE with regard to word count. Eighteen words, baby! And yes, I am totally cheating because August 1st arrived for me 13-15 hours before it did for all my other cabinmates, and it is actually excruciatingly pathetic that I only managed eighteen words in that time. But hey, this is my one opportunity to take the lead, because in a few hours I will be very behind. Unless they all make the very wise decision of sleeping instead of pouncing on their NaNo projects when the clock strikes midnight, in which case I will get to keep my lead as I deviously write while they're all in bed! But somehow I really doubt that's going to happen, especially given our camp counselor's insomniac tendencies. At least that means there'll be someone to keep me company!

And I am definitely exploiting any advantages this time difference thing grants me, because it can be very annoying to deal with the rest of the time. Like that time when we were planning to submit our cabinmate requests at the same time, except the discussion took place from 4 to 8 a.m. in my time zone. Which I obviously missed due to my habit of waking up after 9 a.m. on weekdays. Oops. But I made up for it by waking up at 8:30 a.m. on my usually-reserved-for-sleeping-in Saturday (huge sacrifice, I'm telling you! nevermind that I went straight back to bed afterward...) and it all worked out, so YAY! :D

In other news, it's typhoon season! Typhoon Saola is likely to be passing through northern Taiwan later this evening, so there's a good chance we'll get the day off tomorrow (instead of snow days, we get typhoon days, whee). I've never encountered a typhoon day since I started working in Taiwan, so I'm really hoping we get the day off tomorrow. I mean, who wouldn't rather stay at home under nice warm blankets than have to go to work? Besides, it'd be the perfect time for me to get a good start on my Camp NaNo project. :)

That is, if I don't get sidetracked by this gorgeous stack of MG/YA hardcovers I've checked out from the Taipei Public Library:

I know, right? What was I thinking, checking out all these books when I'm supposed to be spewing words out like crazy? Sigh. Why does the library have so many awesome books?

The good news is that I'm on my fifth book already (I did abandon a couple of them part way through). I had a really hard time deciding which order I was going to read these books in because they all looked so good, so I decided to read them in ascending average GoodReads rating, haha. I was hoping that meant my reading experience would improve as I go, and it did seem to work for the first three books, but the fourth book broke the pattern. Ah, well.

Here are the books and the order in which I'm reading them:

1. The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson | 3.55 stars on GoodReads | DNF and 1 star from me
2. Dani Noir by Nova Ren Suma | 3.77 stars on GoodReads | 3 stars from me
3. Un Lun Dun by China Mieville | 3.78 stars on GoodReads | 3.5 stars from me
4. Wake by Lisa McMann | 3.78 stars on GoodReads | DNF and 1 star from me
5. A Fistful of Sky by Nina Kiriki Hoffman | 3.92 stars on Goodreads | currently reading
6. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly | 3.97 stars on Goodreads
7. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland... by Catherynne M. Valente | 4.06 stars on GoodReads
8. I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak | 4.08 stars on GoodReads
9. Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai | 4.09 stars on GoodReads
10. Ruby Red by Kerstin Gier | 4.14 stars on GoodReads

I'm particularly excited to read I Am the Messenger (yup, giving Zusak another chance despite not having loved The Book Thief as much as everyone else did) and Ruby Red (heard soooo many good things about this one!). Recently I've been writing more GoodRead status updates and ratings as I read, so if you're curious about my thoughts on these books, feel free to check out my GoodReads profile.

So yeah, that's what I'll be up to during the month of August — dodging typhoons, procrastinating on my NaNo project by cuddling with a book, and hanging out with my amazing cabinmates. (And, you know, writing. Hopefully.)

Got any exciting plans for August? Have you read any of the books I checked out, and what did you think of it?