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