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


  1. Have you read any Malinda Lo? She writes YA, and her novels Ash and Huntress are sort of what you're talking about (Asian characters in non-Asian setting, or at least non-stereotypical setting). I actually have only read Ash thus far. This one is a little challenging because it's a retelling of Cinderella with some British Faerie elements, and Ash (aka Cinderella) isn't described as Asian in the book. I just happened to have read something where Lo explained that she'd viewed Ash as Asian, and had left it intentionally vague. Otherwise, the book seemed a very European setting, so it was unfortunately all too easy to default to white characters.

    Another interesting book is Kate Elliott's Cold Fire, which is an alt-history with a Phoenecian main character living in England, which is populated by "Celtic" peoples and "Mande" (African) peoples. So not Asian, but I found it an interesting take on fantasy drawing on two cultures, one of which is rarely ever seen in fantasy.

    Oh, and maybe Aliette de Bodard's short story "Immersion" will help as an example? It's scifi and not fantasy and the characters are not physically described in any way that suggests they're Asian. Instead there are cultural details like food, names, etc. that led me to picture the characters as Asian. Anyway, it's also a really excellent story about dominant cultures versus sub-cultures and colonialism in a far-future Asianish setting. Added bonus: Probably the best sff short story I've ever read. (Also worth noting: de Bodard is Vietnamese, lives in France, and writes in English.)

    Here's the link:

    And goodness, this may be my longest blog comment ever. Anyway, hope this helps, and I'm looking forward to parts 2 & 3!

  2. So looking forward to Parts 2 and 3. Your blog posts are always thought-provoking and interesting. Plus, you're my online doppelganger for reals! I totally feel you on many of these points, though I myself love fantasy-fantasy, so I have no real qualms with things set in a fantasy version of Asia.

    Right now I'm reading a YA paranormal with an Asian American lead, but it's set in modern day America. So she says outright that she's Chinese American and a couple generations in at that. I'm afraid I haven't read anything that does what you want to do - have a fantasy with Asian protags that isn't set in an obviously ancient Asian land. 

    I'm actually kind of struggling with this now with my Camp NaNo novel, as well as struggling with the issue you mentioned of blending and mixing w/o having the world seem not researched. The story is set in a pseudo-Asian fantasy land, but obviously, I know more about Western mythology and history than I do about East Asian mythology and history. On the one hand, it's difficult because I'm having a hard time making the setting sound believably Asian without making it stereotypical, but I'm also trying to use my lesser knowledge of Asian myth to my advantage when it comes to blending my Eastern and Western influences. I think it might make it easier for me to create my own mythology and pick and choose the bits that work for the story. We'll see how it actually turns out though.

    I think you and I might both be suffering from Thinking Too Much about it. That's what makes me write so slowly; I'm being way too conscientious about the world-building and if it's too much or too little. I think we might just have to write it first and then go back and really edit and prune and smooth out everything after.

    Oh and if you figure out how to describe East Asian people w/o those stereotypical descriptors and make it clear they're Asian, please let me know. I am having so many issues with that right now. :P

  3. So. I have many, many thoughts. I will not even try to get them all in a comment. I will simply link to a recent comment of mine on a recent post of mine, both of which are toes dipped into this incredibly big, incredibly slippery pool:

    I look forward to reading more of your comments on this issue (as well as the post you linked to). Perhaps at the end I'll have whipped my own brain-mush into something coherent and succinct.

  4.  Thanks for your comment, Lura! I really appreciate all your suggestions/recommendations.

    I do know about Malinda Lo -- in fact, Part 2 of my post is pretty much dedicated to her blog posts, haha. I'll talk about her thoughts on Asianness in Ash and why I don't think her explanation works, and about how I think she did better in Huntress. But you'll see when the post goes up. :)

    Haven't read Cold Fire, but it sounds pretty interesting. I'll look into it.

    Ooh, I loved Aliette de Bodard's blog post on exporting USian culture, so I'm so glad you're bringing her short story to my attention! It sounds awesome and I'm super excited to read it. Thanks so much for sharing!

  5. Ugh, I totally know what you mean about Thinking Too Much! On one hand I feel like it can't be that complicated, I must be over-thinking it. But on the other hand there's no obvious solution or strategy if I DON'T think about it. :( But good advice about getting it out first and fixing it later. So far for my NaNo I've just been working on hammering out the plot and worrying about details later.

    YES to everything you say about the un-balanced-ness re: our knowledge of Eastern and Western mythology. Like now that I'm in Taiwan it's incredibly obvious how little I know about Chinese gods and wars and history and philosophy and celebrations, even though I grew up eating Chinese food and celebrating certain holidays and living with my conservative Asian parents. But I wonder if that means we can slip in Asian influences we ARE familiar with more subtly, since it's not stereotypical or exotic for us. And then I worry I'm just being to lazy to do real research. :P

    And descriptions are so impossible. Asian is so hard to describe since most wouldn't think of their skin as actually being yellow, so it's more challenging to convey than people with brown or dark skin. I'm afraid the answer might be cultural cues, but I really hope that's not the only way. I'll let you know if I ever think of or find anything that might help us with this issue!

  6. Ooh, can't wait to hear more of what you think as well. :) And yes, I'm guilty of assuming most of the people I read about in books are white, unless I have reason to think otherwise. It's already difficult to describe Asian characters in contemporary works, but in a fantasy world without the term "Asian," it's even harder to to specify without resorting to awkward descriptions or heavy-handed cultural clues.

  7. Whoa. I just read Immersion. So amazing and thought-provoking.

    Thank you for recommending it to me. :)

  8. GREAT post, Linda. As you know, I have also planned a YA fantasy starring Asian characters set in a world inspired by ancient China. I didn't set it in a "regular" fantasy word because it's the folklore and mythology of China in particular that I want to influence my story. I love the honor code, the benevolent dragons, the pagodas, the bad-ass queens who ruled China outright, and I want to bring those elements into my work. BUT, that being said, I also struggle in that I've been born and raised firmly in Western culture and know more about it than I know about East Asian culture. It's only natural. We grow up here, we read books featuring Western characters and Western situations, and of course we want to bring that into our writing as well. I don't think we could avoid it if we tried. I think the important thing here is to just write what we want to write. Someone is always gonna complain. Someone is always gonna wonder why our characters are Asian or why they aren't but are in an Asian fantasy. Someone is always gonna point out that our fantasy world is inaccurate to the details of ancient China... not recognizing that it's a FANTASY world, and it's OUR fantasy world, and we can do what the heck we want with it. For my story personally, I'm going to have characters of all races who come from all different countries (or kingdoms). And the story is going to be what matters.

  9. Thanks, Julie! :D Sometimes I have such a hard time when thinking about how to blend Asian and Western elements without messing up the Asian part. I worry about appropriation and not misrepresenting reality and how Western values and worldviews are so much more familiar to me. But thanks for the reminder to tell the story we want to tell. :)

  10. Do not crumble before the battering rams of insecurity and over analysis.

    Although a writer should indeed use history as a reference point in fantasy for internal consistency and intelligibility, a writer surely is not pigeon-holed into cloning a particular era, culture or civilization. If you're writing a time period equivilent to 200 B.C., with characters firing muzzle-loading cannons, that's fine, even though most cultures had no such technology. It was only until the Hundred Years' War England actually began utilizing power guns. However, few know Ancient China was already dabbling in black powder explosives thousands of years prior. So long as your world is internally consistent and absolutely plausible, you will be considered a gifted inventor and credible writer.

    It is actually expected to merely use history as a reference point, taking inspiration from a particular culture, era, civilization, or from many simultaneously. I'm mapping out a short story with ancient Maya, Aztec, Inca, Ancient China and Edo Feudal Japan influences for the setting, culture, and characters. Steal from one - plagiarism. Steal from many - research. See to it you breathe life into your world, give it identity, depth, engaging stories and memorable characters.

    Setting is the "main character" to any fiction I write. Genuine characters are a result of a unique setting. The setting dictates their evolution, religion, philosophy, culture, society, etc.

    For Eastern settings, I recommend reading Manga. Take Naruto for example. Eastern inspired, it's within a fantasy realm divided by nations with city-state "villages" build of supernatural and paranormal Ninja. Although Naruto takes direct inspirations from Eastern culture and period, it resembles no actual Eastern culture or period. If the characters were merely Ninja from Feudal Japan, they wouldn't actually be supernatural and paranormal - they'd be peasant farmers in smock tattered garb attempting to wrestle fully armored Samurai. Naruto's universe, despite some faults, is unique, evocative, and internally consistent. Ninja do not freely act as wizards - they utilize hand seals to manipulate the natural Chakra their bodily organs produce to perform supernatural feats. Because of the setting, these Ninja are unique - from philosophy, religion, culture, society, government, etc.

    I'll leave you with a quote from one of the greatest speculative writers of the modern era: (George RR Martin - On Fantasy) "The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real … for a moment at least … that long magic moment before we wake.

    Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?

    We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.

    They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to middle Earth."

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  12. Wow, thanks for this incredibly detailed and thoughtful comment! I really appreciate your tips about drawing from different cultures as long as there's internal consistency and plausibility. Especially love your point about ninjas as farmers wrestling in the mud. (Oh wait, I think the mud part was just my imagination. Haha.) But yeah, I think I do tend to over-think things and overwhelm myself. Thanks for the great comment! :D

  13. Well,i'm black ,so i can see somewhat where you are coming from.Now ,I am too writing a fantasy story set in a non-african couterpart setting,but the character is of that descent.(writing two novels,the other is science fantasy with an asian american mc) I say,make it where as though in the world is a clear cultural mash up.As unfortionate as it is,we are born equal but not treated equal.If your mc is not in an asian fantasy counter part,it should first be established that the character is 'foreign' ,pointed out by the natives of said land.This doesn't have to be an all out klan session,but it should be established.

    Second,a community.don't let your character be the only one in that situation ,as they stand out too much and emotional support and relation should be made.This also means,your character has a place in this society,and not seen as 'too foreign' (you know ,like chinese vs. chinese american...i'm in philadelphia and there's a china town here.not like the rest of the city,but i know damn well it don't look like china).

    Some good advice : play the elder scrolls oblivion and skyrim.

    For this,I'll use the redgaurds (aka,the black people,african/north african).

    First off,their 'America' is Tamriel.

    There are many different races in Tamriel,including Redgaurds.Some of their names sound like names it's from their homeplace of Hammerfel,examples:Sadr,Nazir ,Hammerfel names.Nazir even still dresses like he's from Hammerfel,and mentions it.

    Sadr,is thouroughly a citizen of Skyrim.he has adopted Skyrim's way of dress,and way of life.It's like they are differnt generations.

    Then,in the elder scrolls oblivion,there is actually a redgaurd mage:note that the redgaurds are against the use of magic.his name is Trayvond .Redgaurd name,non-redgaurd custom.And though he uses magick,he only uses destruction spells,as the other stuff 'plays with people's minds',which is against red gaurd beleif.

    The characters have different levels of assimilation into the dominant culture of the country,as are people who migrate to america.Aou are asian american,so you are not completely like your homeland counterparts.just like if somebody asked me to speak african,i'm gonna look at you stupid.

    I have been looking around for this too,as i am writing a japanese american as the central character if the novel.He speak a little bit of japanese ,can read it but can't write it to save his life.His favorite food is pizza,and he still has a japanese name and that's about it;he's pretty damn american.Why? Because thes story takes place in america,why not? And I can relate best to other americans,so for now,that's what's going on.