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As soon as the pandemic hit last year, I did what any sane person would, diving right into my preferred coping mechanism: escapism via a fantasy novel. I’ve always loved fantasy because it takes you into new worlds full of adventure, magic, and morally ambiguous love interests. I guess if you’d rather be somewhere (really anywhere) where better to go than somewhere where magic is real?
For all the wonderful escapism that the imagination offers, the genre has historically not been so wonderful at reflecting the variety of stories and experiences that exist in our own world. For a long time, color protagonists in fantasy novels were few and far between.
The genre has changed noticeably in recent years. Color writers are breaking into the fantasy scene with stories that center BIPOC characters and draw inspiration from non-Western cultures. The Asian fantasy in particular is growing as an independent subgenre. These stories, which show main Asian characters and are set in environments that are directly influenced and shaped by Asian cultures, have met with great approval. Many of the novels land on TIME magazine’s most recent list “The 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time.”
However, not all Asian authors who write fantasy feel at home with the genre label. When I reached out to Rebecca F. Kuang, author of The Poppy War, a Hugo nominated fantasy trilogy inspired by Chinese history, she said she viewed “Asian Fantasy” as a reductive category.
“I don’t think Asians really make much sense as a literary category or an identity category. Obviously, there are a lot of different things that fall under the Asians sub-category, including East Asia, including South Asians, Southeast Asian, Pacific Islanders for example,” she says. “So when we refer to works as ‘Asian’ across the board, that’s a whole world full of differences.”
While the growing popularity of the Asian fantasy represents a positive twist towards a wider and broader range of experiences in the fantasy, it also raises important questions: Does it actually make sense to group novels by geographic region, particularly one that is billions encompassed by people? ? Does the Asian Fantasy label help or hurt Asian authors? The answer depends on who you ask.
[Silver Phoenix] came out in 2009 when the economy was just recovering and everyone was really failing as a debut writer … but you know what would you think it was going to fail? Because it was Asian, of course.
When writer Cindy Pon published her debut novel Silver Phoenix in 2009, the term “Asian fantasy” wasn’t even a wink to the publishing industry. According to Pon, the China-inspired Silver Phoenix was the first Asian fantasy novel to be published in the young adult sector. And she says being a trailblazer has done her a disservice.
“The fact that it was Asian Fantasy made publishers feel like it was a niche, you know, like it was only aimed at a certain audience. And it will never get that big because it’s Asian-inspired.” , she says. “It was super lost, and it wasn’t picked up from Borders when Borders was alive. You skipped it … As a young adult writer, you want to be in stores because kids actually still go to stores to look in the books on the shelves, “she says.
And when Silver Phoenix was unsuccessful, Pon said that receiving the book was attributed to his asianness. “It came out in 2009 when the economy was just bouncing and everyone was really failing as a debut writer. It was really tough this year. But you know, what would you think it was going to fail? Of course, because it was Asian,” she said added.
Ultimately, Pon says continuing her career as a young adult writer meant leaving the Asian fantasy genre behind: “The big publishers were like no Asian fantasy from you, Cindy Pon, because you weren’t selling it, you know? Literally out of their mouths like, “You’re a great writer. I’m a fan, but I can’t buy a fantasy from you anymore.” “
I think the emphasis on the Asianness of the books is exclusive because whenever we see Asian fantasy … what we really mean, I subconsciously, is that it is not American. And I refuse. My books are American fantasies.
Ken Liu, author of The Dandelion Dynasty series, was one of the first authors to publish an adult fantasy novel based on Asian traditions. Although many people point to the first part of the series as the first Asian adult fantasy novel, Liu emphasizes the point that The grace of kings is not an “Asian fantasy” but “a story about American modernism that has been conceived of as an epic fantasy using East Asian traditions”. For Liu, labeling his work solely as “Asian” erases the fact that his novels are also American.
“To me, the emphasis on the Asianness of the books is exclusive because when we say Asian Fantasy or something Asian we are subconsciously meaning that it is not American. And I refuse to accept that. My books are American Fantasies. You are at the core of American fantasy. They’re a new way of understanding American fantasy. So I’m not going to call them anything but American fantasy, ”he says.
For Fonda Lee, author of Jade Citythe label “Asian Fantasy” is largely unhelpful because it flattens the diversity of experiences.
I think the term “Asian fantasy” makes about as much sense as the term “Asian food” … it doesn’t say anything about whether you are eating sushi or samosas.
“I think the term ‘Asian fantasy’ makes about as much sense as the term ‘Asian food’ in that it is useful in that it describes a broad category of things that could be defined as different from the Western norm But neither is it. It’s not particularly helpful because it doesn’t tell you whether you’re eating sushi or samosas, “she says
However, some authors are in favor of the label.
“While I think this removes a lot of nuances, it is important to me that readers can find these stories,” says Roshani Chokshi, author of The star-touched queen, a duology inspired by Hindu mythology. “And if the cost is to group it under Asian Fantasy so it can be well placed in a place like Barnes & Noble, or even Amazon, or independent bookstores, then it bothers me less in hoping a reader will find it can. ” experience it and be able to see yourself. “
While I agree that this erases a lot of the nuances, the most important thing to me is that readers can find these stories.
Tasha Suri, author of Empire of Sand, Realm of Ash and the upcoming epic fantasy novel The Jasmine Throne, has mixed feelings – but ultimately believes the label does more good than harm. “It’s difficult because I don’t think there is a great deal of South Asian imagination being acquired, nurtured, and published in the West,” she says. “And I think it’s a pretty necessary term too, although it covers so much of the fiction, because it gives readers something to hold onto.”
While some writers are currently seeing the benefits of the Asian fantasy label, at a time when the subgenre is still growing, they also want the publishing industry to seek alternative ways of marketing and categorizing work by Asian writers.
What does that actually look like?
One alternative suggested by Rebecca Kuang is to break down the Asian fantasy category with a more specific and accurate labeling. “For example, instead of lists that are very broad, like ‘five books by Asian authors’, I like to see lists that are like five books of that particular subset of Asians. I think in particular that South Asian authors always get left out … When people hear Asians, they only hear East Asia and maybe Southeast Asia when we are feeling particularly diverse today. And I think the way you solve that is by celebrating everyone who writes in that category, “says you .
I often think it makes more sense for me to tell people that my fantasy writing is women centered and has a high level of romance and longing … than to tell me that it is Indian fantasy.
In contrast, other writers want fantasy novels to be marketed for their content rather than their cultural inspirations.
“I often think that it makes more sense for me to tell people that my fantasy writing is women-centered and has a high level of romance and longing because it reaches the right audience than if I say that it’s Indian fantasy. ” says Tasha Suri.
As for Cindy Pon, who was involved with the genre from the start? She’d love to see a day when people realize that Asian stories aren’t just of interest to other Asians, “where we’re not seen as a niche, where white librarians in Iowa won’t be like that, well, I have those An Asian kid and I can’t get these books … it’s the best way to learn to be empathetic and learn about other people and other cultures, so why not get something for every population in general? is what I hope for. “
This story was edited for radio by Petra Mayer and adapted for the Internet by Petra Mayer and Kalyani Saxena.