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Reading the Abyss: Adult Themes in Young Adult Fiction

Recently, I’ve seen a lot of discussions about the future of Young Adult fiction, and particularly about how adult Young Adult should be. As a high school teacher, I have had the privilege of choosing books for our school library on multiple occasions for multiple school districts. Some school districts gave me nearly carte blanche discretion, and I packed those libraries with books from diverse authors, covering a wide variety of subjects, including race, LGBTQ issues, trauma, drug use, suicide, mental illness, basically the only books I avoided were those that were sexually explicit (because no matter how open minded your principal is, erotica in the school library is never going to fly) or depicted extreme gore.

Then, there was the school district where I tried to assign The Hate U Give to my 9th and 10th graders. I was gently pulled aside by the principal and the counselor and told that the book would not fly with the school board, and since one of my 9th graders had a mother on the school board, this book choice would cause trouble. I could not afford to lose my job, and Texas, my state, has no teacher’s unions that could help me fight, so I purchased multiple copies of the book, put them on my bookshelves and in the library, but I did not assign it as required reading.

The argument for more mature content in Young Adult fiction tends to rest upon the idea that teenagers experience heavy things, even traumatic things, on a day to day basis. If The Hate U Give is inappropriate for teenagers because of the themes surrounding police violence, then where does that leave the Black teenagers for whom police violence is not a fictional situation but an everyday reality? The same can be said for violence, depression, suicide, drug use, abuse, eating disorders. Teenagers experience these things, and pretending like these themes are too heavy for kids alienates those teenagers for whom daily life is a heavy thing, and deprives them of stories that could at the very least show them that they are not alone.

The counterargument tends to rest upon the idea that kids should not be exposed to certain harsh realities if they have not been already. Kids will learn soon enough that the world is a harsh place, so why make them grow up faster than necessary? Reading should provide an escape. In fact, the argument goes, exposure to certain ideas can even be damaging to young people, who are simply not mature enough to handle certain topics. Others even say that certain books glorify topics like eating disorders or suicide, making them more appealing to easily impressionable teenagers. The controversy surrounding the book and television show Thirteen Reasons Why came about in part because many felt it was an irresponsible portrayal of suicide. The character Hannah, who commits suicide, extracts revenge from beyond the grave, making each person who wronged her understand exactly how they contributed to her death. In this scenario suicide seems almost appealing. Should teenagers, particularly teenagers already prone to suicidal feelings, be reading books that make suicide seem like an appealing answer?

As a parent, a teacher, and a writer myself, not to mention someone who was once a teenager, I do not believe that sanitizing young adult books until they are fit for even the most conservative school library is necessary or even best practice for YA authors. It is certainly true that many teenagers have had experiences that mirror, or even eclipse, what appears in young adult novels. By the time I was eighteen I had had sex, done drugs, had a friend who OD’d, driven drunk, been chased by the cops, had a guy try to force himself on me, and another guy expose himself to me. My teenage experiences were, I think, relatively typical for a late Gen-X teenager, and I didn’t need YA books to teach me about those things because I had already learned them through experimenting.

In those days books written expressly for teenagers were few and far between. The generation before me had “issue” books, heavy Young Adult books that moralized on topics like drug use or eating disorders or teenage sex, written by the likes of Judy Blume and Lois Duncan. Kids of my generation, products of the 1970s-mid 80s low birthrates, had fewer options. We graduated straight from middle grades reads like A Wrinkle in Time and then went straight to mass market fiction: Clan of the Cave Bear or The Firm or Interview with the Vampire, books which are marketed to adults and contain content that is well, adult.  However, for the life of me I cannot remember anyone ever objecting to my reading material when I was a teenager. At that time the prevailing wisdom seemed to be, in all but the most sheltered communities, that reading anything at all was better than not reading.

I’m not here to say “well I read what was essentially caveman porn and I turned out fine,” but I can say with certainty that reading adult fiction was not what made me try drugs or get involved with sketchy guys. Those of us who were suburban teenagers in the 90s probably remember our parents’ economic anxiety, the crushing weight of their debts, the mortgages that were unsustainable, the lay-offs and the temporary jobs, the mixed messages – go to college, follow your dreams, but get a good job. What could we look forward to? If you were a young woman, you were taught that you could be whatever you wanted, but you were still assigned Home Economics class while the guys were assigned Shop. If you were LGBTQ, you were growing up in the era of “don’t ask don’t tell,” and you were expected to keep your identity and sexuality to yourself. If you were sexually assaulted, well you were probably “asking for it.”

The American Young Adult fiction market that re-emerged in the early 2000s has dominated publishing for nearly two decades now. Some of the first books to achieve mass popularity were, tellingly, dystopian fiction, that is, books that depicted horrific versions of the future and teens who fight to break free from systemic oppression. There has been a growing movement, since the mid 2010s, for young adult fiction to reflect a realistic demographic. Whereas previously, books published for teens focused almost solely on the experiences of straight white kids, publishing has made an effort to diversify, and publish books that reflect the experiences of BIPOC teens, LGBTQ teens, and disabled teens. Often, but not always, these books include trauma, because often the very act of existing as a Black person or a trans person or a disabled person in the USA is, in fact, traumatic. When a book like The Hate U Give is blocked by school boards with the intention of protecting (white) children from harsh reality or unpleasant topics, what happens instead is that the Black student who might read that book has their reality, their very existence, dismissed and denied.

The anxieties and uncertainties faced by teenagers in 2020 are not created by the fiction they read, instead, the fiction they read reflects their anxieties and uncertainties, and yes, their trauma. The cold and unforgiving truth of the matter is that coming of age in a capitalist system is to experience alienation and to be traumatized by the various ways that this system oppresses those within it. Teenagers in 2020 are living in times of unprecedented uncertainty. A global pandemic, the looming threat of fascism, the terror of impending climate disaster – teenagers today perhaps have the greatest reason for anxiety since those of the 1930s, and if the trend in the 2020s is for fiction to be of a darker sort, then it is easy to understand why. It is rather laughable to think that anything teens could read in a book might be more emotionally damaging than the times that they are living in, and the systems that shape them.

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Skipping Through Time: The Whys and Hows

Most books proceed through a chronological version of events at a relatively regular pace. An author might jump forward a few hours, or even a few days, but skipping over months or even years of the narrative is somewhat less common. In my current manuscript I ultimately decided upon a two year time jump near the beginning of the story. I decided upon this jump because I did not want to spend the first fifty or so pages trying to explain complicated backstory with conversations and internal dialogue. I tried. It turned out it was much more efficient, not to mention interesting, simply to show the events as they happened, then to jump forward to the inciting incident.

A time jump can be useful for avoiding repetition of similar incidents. Perhaps your characters are on a journey. While narrating a few key incidents along the way can be interesting, reading a detailed narration of every step of a long journey (especially in a pre-industrial world, wherein travel could take months) can easily become tedious. How many campfires can your characters sit around before they all start to read a bit the same? I have several points in my manuscript in which characters are traveling from point A to point B, and they all make use of time jumps to some extent. On the last leg of one journey I cover three days in one sentence: “we are on the road another three days before we arrive, just before nightfall on the third day.”

An author might also find a time jump useful if your character matures over the course of the novel, growing from a child to an adult. My two year time jump starts off with events that take place when the main character is a teenager, and when we rejoin her story, she is a young adult. The thing about growing up is that we all do it, and while a coming of age story has its place, if your intent is not to tell one, then there is not a lot of reason to recount the character’s whole childhood or adolescence. Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series does this well, starting off when Phedre is a young girl but skipping over great swaths of her childhood, only giving us select glimpses of important moments. We pick up the true thread of the story once Phedre grows into adulthood, although the backstory provided by the sections dealing with her childhood are integral to understanding her character.

So if you’ve decided you need a time jump, how will you execute it? When reading Kushiel’s Dart I was particularly impressed with the way that Carey handled her time jumps. Carey masterfully employs telling when telling is necessary, breaking the “show don’t tell” rule when telling is the best way to move the story forward. When Carey wants to avoid describing her main character’s encounter with a patron that would likely be much similar to a previous encounter, she writes “Of that assignation, perhaps the least said, the better. Suffice it to say that D’Essom’s ager had not cooled, and I was glad of it, for it suited my mood.” Sometimes a brief summary of the events skipped is enough so that the reader does not feel lost, a few lines, even a paragraph, depending on how much is skipped.

Other times, a more abrupt approach can work as well. If you’re skipping months or years, summarizing the events can take up too much space with little payoff. For my two year time jump I started the first post jump chapter with the header two years later. Occasionally I refer back to events that took place during those two years, just to give a sense that time did in fact pass. However, for all intents and purposes the intervening two years are fairly uneventful, so there’s no real need to linger over them (that’s why I skipped them in the first place after all).

Regardless of how you decide to execute your time jump, it is important to let your reader know that one is happening. Jumping forward in time with no warning is disorienting for the reader, even if you are only jumping forward a few days. Make sure that you find a way to signal the jump, either with a heading, a summary, or some combination of both. However, don’t be afraid of using time jumps. Many beginning writers make the mistake of over-narrating each and every detail, forgetting that readers are generally not interested in the minutiae of your character’s every day existence. A sure fire way to exceed your planned word count, not to mention slow your book’s pace, is to show the parts that you should be telling and recount the parts that you should be skipping.

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#Ownvoices, Authenticity, and Orientalism

I’ve written about authenticity before. It’s a topic that, no matter how often I write about it, never exhausts itself for me. A large part of my hate-on for the concept of authenticity comes from my years living in China, during which I was occasionally subjected to the rantings of fellow travelers who would express dismay that the city where I lived was too “Westernized.” Where is the “real China” they’d ask, hoping for some insider information, as if, by virtue of living in China for such a long time, I might know where the authenticity was hiding. Which village, which neighborhood, which experience, would give them the Instagrammable China they were hoping for. They didn’t endure twenty four hours of travel for Starbucks and Burger King after all.

This line of thinking always enraged me. Rich kids driving BMWs and sipping PSLs while wearing Gucci in Beijing were the real China, just as my sister in law selling leeks at the village market wearing a ratty blazer and sleeve protectors was also the real China. The criteria for authenticity is fairly straightforward: are you in China or does the experience involve Chinese people? Congrats, your experience is authentic.

The concept of authenticity, when applied to cultures and the products of those cultures has always had uncomfortable ties to colonialism and orientalism. The idea that cultures exist only to entertain and inform outsiders is not a new one, but this idea also intersects with publishing’s relatively recent emphasis on diversity in storytelling, and in particular, with the #ownvoices movement.

The #ownvoices hashtag was created as a way to highlight and amplify stories written by marginalized creators about characters that share those marginalizations. Increasingly, publishing and media in general have become aware of just how important representation is, particularly for children and teenagers, and #ownvoices is one way to ensure representation – that Black teenagers can read books that feature magical heroes that look like them, that Chinese-American kids like mine can see their culture represented in graphic novels, that Muslim children can read picture books about fasting for Ramadan. These representations, created by writers and artists who share the same background with the main characters, while not guaranteed to be 100% unproblematic, are usually less likely than those written by cultural outsiders to contain harmful stereotypes or outright racism.

Unfortunately though, we white folk are not. And, much like the travelers in China who complain about authenticity, white readers (and sometimes even publishing industry pros) often forget that the point of an #ownvoices book is not to educate white readers about another culture. A few weeks ago Arvin Ahmadi’s book How It All Blew Up was released. How It All Blew Up is a queer Muslim book by a queer Muslim author and yet many reviewers criticized the book for not being “Muslim enough.” One (non Muslim) reviewer said “I don’t really get how this can be labeled as a Muslim book, when that was not at all a main point, or even a side point in this book.” She was not alone in this sentiment. The popular criticism seemed to be that there was not enough “Muslim stuff” in the book. Ahmadi’s presentation of a relatively secular Muslim family was clearly not the exercise in cultural tourism that they expected. Ahmadi himself says, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, that “this is a religion of a billion people, so if you get five Muslim people together … they all practice differently. Some may be more secular, some may be more devout, and I would love to see that full range represented in queer Muslim stories.” Despite this, the (again, non-Muslim) reviewers seem to reject the notion that there is room in fiction for different kinds of Muslim representation.

Perhaps such reviewers should keep in mind that Ahmadi’s book was not written to educate non-Muslims about Islam. While education may be a happy by-product of #ownvoices writings, the assertion that such books must by their very nature adhere to an outsider’s concept of a culture, must satisfy the cultural outsider’s curiosity in order to be valid or useful, is an assertion that is rooted in orientalism. Just as the tourist exclaims that the big city is not the “real China” and demands that the country, which has existed for thousands of years on its own, satisfy their desire for a commodified cultural package, the reader devours #ownvoices novels as a cultural voyeur and demands the writer create an image of the culture which is suitably “exotic” and fascinating. To the cultural outsider a “good” diverse read should have just a hint of the “other,” perhaps foreign language words, some unfamiliar religious rituals, or a titillating cultural practice (see: white people’s love of novels about arranged marriages). Diverse reads that feature characters that just simply exist, rather than putting their marginalizations (and often, their oppression and trauma) on display find little welcome with these readers.

#Ownvoices is an important movement, and white readers can and should read diverse books by diverse authors. Reading and enjoying books is not the problem, but just as traveling should be done ethically and responsibly, so should reviewing. Cultural outsiders commenting on the authenticity of the culture represented, as if diverse books exist solely for their own edification, is bad enough. It is worse when publishers and agents insist upon a certain type of #ownvoices story, and pigeonhole the writer into a certain kind of representation. Chinese-American stories do not have to feature Tiger parents, Muslims do not have to be devout, Black stories do not have to be about police violence. And while they may feature these elements, if that is the story the writer wishes to tell, outsiders have no business dictating which narratives are and aren’t authentic to the cultures presented. The #ownvoices tag was not created so that white readers could be entertained by the “other,” with the expectation that writers satisfactorily perform their cultures for the cultural outsider. #Ownvoices creates non-harmful representation for the readers who truly need it, the kids, like mine, whose cultures are so often presented only in caricature. What does authenticity in representation mean to my twelve-year-old? “It means people who get it, mom.”

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Five Things That Writers Get Wrong About Character Motivation

I was recently listening to a writing podcast on character motivation in which one of the participants attempted to critique the (excellent) Priory of The Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon. Despite being only a handful of chapters into a book that is nearly 850 pages long, the speaker had strong opinions about the motivations of one of the characters. Wrong opinions. And what happens when someone is wrong on the internet? You blog about it, of course. The following list consists of some of the more egregious misconceptions about character development, and particularly motivation, that I have seen from fellow writers.

  1. Characters must start at a low place

What is true about characters is that they must change over the course of the narrative, but there is no rule that says that the change must be growth. A character who starts off the story at their peak literally has nowhere to go but down. The podcast I mentioned used Tane from Priory of the Orange Tree as an example — her character wants to be a dragon rider and at the start of the story she is poised to get what she wants. The podcaster assumed, incorrectly, that this would lead to a bland narrative where the character who is at her peak remains there, at her peak, nothing left to achieve. However, if her motivation is to be a dragonrider and she achieves that within the first few chapters, clearly she’s being set up for a fall, which is, in fact, what happens in Priory. Shortly upon gaining what she so desired, Tane loses almost everything. But this doesn’t make her less interesting, it makes her story more compelling. In fact, writing a character who has nowhere to go but down can sometimes be even more satisfying that writing a character who has to work their way out of a bad situation. People who have it all are not used to losing, so if you want to throw your character out of their comfort zone, let them fail. Give them everything, and then take it away and see how they react. The result is unlikely to be a boring narrative.

  1. Characters must always be in control

A lot of fuss is made about agency, and yes, it is true that it is generally more interesting to see a character actively make decisions than it is to see a character pushed around by the plot. That said, there are times when it is alright to have external factors act upon your character. In particular, if your character is the type of person who is always in control, taking away that control can lead to very interesting challenges. In my current manuscript I recently made a change in which I actually took away my character’s agency in one specific instance (instead of her making a rather unrealistic decision to go somewhere, I decided that she would be sent to said place) and the decision was absolutely better for the story. Sending her ironed out some pesky plot holes, but also gave her something to push back against.

  1. A character’s motivation is static

As your character changes, it is natural that their goals and motivations might change too. The character who wanted nothing more than to join the elite guard might get what she wants only to discover that the elite guard is awful, at which point she decides to change the elite guard from within. Your characters motivations can change, but what are less likely to change are your character’s core values. Jude, in The Folk of the Air series, throughout the series places tremendous value on the idea of home and belonging. This core value shapes her immediate motivations, which change throughout the series. Redemption arcs in particular can highlight a character’s shifting motivations, and sometimes even shifting values. Think about Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender, whose initial motivation is to hunt down the Avatar in order to end his exile, but who ultimately teams up with the Avatar to end the tyranny of his own people. So just as your character grows and changes, remember that their motivations will change along with them.

  1. Only young people have goals

Young protagonists are particularly common in fantasy, but it is important to remember that your older characters can have their own motivations as well, and those motivations do not always have to be centered on the younger characters. In fact, the older a person gets, the more likely it is that they will feel an urgency surrounding the things that motivate them. As a forty year old, I my motivation to write is stronger than it was when I was a twenty year old and felt I had plenty of time left to do things. Remember that you can have older characters that function as more than just mentors for the younger ones. And while we’re at it, it’s perfectly fine to write a main character who is older than twenty five. Older characters can have adventures too, and sometimes you might even find that it is easier to have a mature character make mature decisions than having to justify why a teenager is acting like they’re thirty five.

  1. Motivations must be altruistic in nature

While fantasy generally deals in high stakes, characters do not always have to be motivated to save the world or the kingdom out of their innate sense of justice and righteousness. Characters can be motivated in smaller, more personal ways. Perhaps the character wants to save the kingdom not because it’s the heroic thing to do, but because it’s the only place that has ever felt like home and they cannot bear the idea of losing it. Perhaps the character wants to save the world because they can’t stand the idea of their loved ones dying. Most of us can relate to more intimate motivations in ways that we don’t necessarily relate to entirely altruistic motivations. It is alright if your character is not entirely altruistic, and selfish motivations can be just as valid reasons for your characters to act as selfless ones are.

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Five Unexpected Fantasy Favorites

While I enjoy mainstream fantasy, I also enjoy finding hidden gems. Some are books from big publishers that have not gotten as much hype as they deserve, some are put out by small presses and independently published authors. While heavily hyped books have disappointed me again and again, it is often the books that I went into with no expectations that have impressed me the most.

Asperfell, by Jamie Thomas

Asperfell is a Gothic fantasy that is set largely in a magical prison complete with necromancy, blood magic, monsters and ghosts. From the very first page of Asperfell I was sucked in. Thomas’ writing style has a charming almost Austen-esque quality to it, and her characters are at once endearing and intriguing. There is something timeless about Asperfell that reminds me simultaneously of the classics of both genre fiction as well as the  19th century literary canon, with long sentences and more traditional diction. The plot was intriguing and if a few surprise reveals were a bit predictable, others took me genuinely by surprise. Asperfell immediately went to the top of my list of 2020 reads.

The Vortex Chronicles, by Elise Kova

This series is a follow up to Kova’s popular Air Awakens series, but where Air Awakes is a sweet but ultimately somewhat derivative hero’s journey tale, Vortex Visions takes the familiar format of a young woman on a quest to save the world and weaves in time loops, glyphic magic, and makes us question everything we thought we knew about the Air Awakens world. Elise Kova’s skills as a writer have grown since her debut series and I enjoyed the Vortex Chronicles even more than I enjoyed Air Awakens. In particular, in Vortex Kova’s main character, Vie, is clearly a strong character with agency all her own, and rather than letting herself be pushed around by the forces of fate, Vie takes matters into her own hands, even when it means breaking her own heart in the process.

Half a Soul, by Olivia Atwater

A fantasy set in Regency England about a young woman cursed by a faerie. Theodora Ettings only has half a soul, which means that she doesn’t feel emotions the same way most people do. Theodora has no hope of making her way in society unless the curse is removed, and that is exactly what she sets out to do, with the help of handsome and inappropriate Lord Elias Wilder. Half a Soul is an accomplished book with an interesting premise and a tone that alternates between lighthearted wit and serious fantasy.

The Merciful Crow/The Faithless Hawk, by Margaret Owen

This duology, although not independently published, rarely seems to make the big lists, despite these being easily my young adult favorite fantasy books in a great many years. This series deftly tackles big issues, like discrimination and class difference, setting them alongside more personal stories, like that of a young woman gaining independence and learning when and who to trust. The story and magic system are utterly original and the prose flows easily. I recommend this duology to pretty much everyone I come across.

Trick, by Natalia Jaster

This book is not a new release, but I couldn’t write a list of underrated books without including Trick. Trick is an enemies to lovers fantasy romance featuring Poet and Briar, a fool and a princess. Jaster’s prose is top notch, creating distinct voices for both Brian and Poet, and Poet’s sections in particular are filled with lovely musings from his point of view, written as reminiscence upon a particularly cherished period in his life. Poet is probably one of the most intriguing male leads I’ve ever read in a fantasy romance. He’s a court jester, bisexual, sharp-tongued, a single dad, a little bit fancy, and fiercely loyal. He’s an exceedingly fun character, but with a secret that makes it difficult for him to form close relationships. This book took me totally by surprise. I was expecting a middle of the road romance with a bit of smut, but I found lovely prose and intriguing characters too.

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My Love Affair With the Editing Process

If you ask most writers what their favorite part of the writing process is, most would probably say worldbuilding, or plotting, or maybe drafting. Scant few would say editing and revising, in fact, many would probably say they dread editing, and why shouldn’t they? Editing has a reputation for being boring and tedious. Some people even farm the whole process out to others, paying editors to polish their manuscripts before they’ve ever crossed an agent’s desk. And yet, this is hands down my favorite part of the writing process.

I’ll confess, as a pantser, for me editing and revising is a slightly different process than it is for someone who outlines religiously. For a pantser, editing is often where you take the story that you’ve written and embellish, adding detail or, filling plot-holes and consistency issues. You know the characters and the story better, and you can shape your manuscript and watch it become the book you envisioned.

Sometimes, distance from the original material gives me new perspective. During the editing process a number of things became clear about my manuscript. I realized, for instance, that I’d started at the wrong point in the story, and wrote two new chapters earlier in the narrative. I realized that I’d made one character’s journey needlessly complicated, and that I could get her to the same place with one easy change. There are some simple and elegant ideas that didn’t come to me while drafting, but which, given a bit of distance, now seem obvious. Those sorts of revelations are the best.

I don’t mind the nitty gritty of editing either. I’ve always been a bit of a language nerd. Aside from English, I’ve learned four different languages, and I treat each one of them as a bit of a puzzle. English itself is no different. The editing process for me is like moving around pieces of a puzzle, trying to make each piece fit exactly right. For me, questions of syntax, including sentence length and word order, are simply a part of the puzzle. When I get the order correct, the sentences go from plain functioning words to a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

I don’t even mind cutting. I’ve always taken somewhat of a scorched earth approach when it comes to editing, and I generally resist sentimentality about my scenes. Since I’m an overwriter rather than an underwriter, I always relish the opportunity to cut length. While I have a discard folder where my favorite scenes live forever in posterity, I find that when I cut, the new version soon becomes just as beloved as the old.

Some writers seem to have an aversion to editing, perhaps based upon attachment to the first draft, or perhaps because they don’t really know where to start. Luckily I have excellent critique partners who are happy to point out the issues with my manuscript, and what’s more, who are happy to discuss the craft of writing with me and brainstorm all of the ways that I can make my story better. When I talk about the changes I want to make to my manuscript, I get excited about making those changes. I can see the potential there on the page, waiting for me to unlock it.

Editing is truly the part of the process where I see the manuscript transform into something that I can truly call a “book.” I won’t call it magic, since it is more satisfying than that. Each change that I make, each little tweak of the language or change to the story, each chapter cut or line of dialogue added, brings the book one step closer to completion. Editing is hard work of the best kind, like taking a good hike up a mountain trail, or a long swim in the ocean on a hot day, the kind of work that leaves no doubt about the worth of the task.

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Writing and the Search for Authenticity

 

I often witnessed a phenomenon among travelers who would visit the city in China where I lived for fifteen years. Encounters which would inevitably result in some wide eyed visitor complaining to me about how they had not expected China to have Wal Marts or Starbucks, and then asking me where they could go to see the “real China.”

For those of us who lived in China, the idea that the China we called home might somehow be less authentic than say, a village in a mist shrouded mountain, was somewhat laughable. If that was the real China, then was the China where I made my home somehow a “fake” China?

Of course what these travelers meant was that they expected China to meet their own expectations, often steeped in Orientalism, for a more “exotic” China. They wanted a China that was decidedly “East” to their “West,” something different and other. While they could accept that Chinese people wore jeans and t-shirts rather than qipao and high collared shirts, the fact that there was a Wal-Mart smack dab in the middle of the city was a bridge too far. China, they would proclaim, was being ruined by the West.

While I could appreciate concerns over cultural imperialism, the travelers rarely were concerned about that. Afterall, the same people who decried Wal-Mart in the city center would raise holy hell if their hotel had a squat toilet. The concessions that China was allowed to make to Western culture were the ones that made their lives more convenient. Above all, China itself should not interfere with the foreign traveler’s idealized version of China. China was to exist perpetually as it existed in the travelers minds – the exotic fantasy of mist covered mountains, kung-fu masters, ancient temples, peaked roofs – regardless of what the Chinese themselves wanted. The Chinese actually find Wal-Mart convenient and want to shop there? They enjoy their lattes? Too bad. China exists for the foreign travelers consumption, not as a place in and of itself.

This is the problem with the idea of authenticity. Recently in the book community we’ve seen reviews which criticize books written by non-white authors for not being instructive enough. What these reviews say, in essence, is that the culture and people depicted in the book do not get to exist as they are, but instead exist for the edification of the white reader. If a Chinese-American book does not depict a generational struggle, or describe Chinese food in loving detail, it is not “Chinese” enough, even though Chinese-Americans have varied experiences and are not a monolith. Just as China itself has no obligation to exist to serve the orientalist expectations of the foreign traveler, the Chinese-American (or Indian-American, Arab-American) writer has no obligation to exoticize their own culture for the entertainment of white readers.

I grew up reading Amy Tan’s novels, and of course the influence she has had on American literature, and the doors she opened for Asian-American writers are undeniable. However, as I grew older, and especially after I lived in China, I started to become a bit uncomfortable with the way white Americans would discuss her books. Amy Tan writes, for the most part, about the China of old. Her stories are evocative of those mist covered mountains, and call forth a sense of the “mystical orient.” Critical analysis of Tan’s work has accused her of self-Orientalism, and while it is a heavy criticism, I think it is hard to deny that Tan’s work is certainly, on some level, influenced by the way China is viewed though the the Western gaze. Still, she was a trailblazer for Asian-American literature, and writing at a time when the West barely viewed China at all, and when it died, it was undeniably through our own orientalist gaze.

Nowadays, however, Chinese-American writers are much more widely published, from YA romcoms like Loveboat Taipei, to literary fiction such as The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, to fantasy such as The Poppy War. Chinese-American literature does not have a mold that it must fit, any more than China itself has a mold it must fit. Readers who would criticize a book for not being “cultural” enough are missing the point. Chinese culture in 2020 is  Starbucks and Burger King just as much as it is Didi and WeChat, just as much as it is also, still, mist shrouded mountains and 5000 years of history. And non-white literature too, can be everything that white literature is, as well as many things that it is not. If you find yourself questioning the “authenticity” of a book you are reading, remember, there is no such thing as authentic culture. The idea of “authentic” culture is based upon expectations heaped upon that culture by outsiders. Culture simply is, and it cares nothing for your expectations.

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Do Your Research … But How?

Writers, when asking about writing characters outside of their own backgrounds, often get told “do your research.” This answer is deceptively simple, and appealing in its simplicity. White writers, upon reading that all they need to do is “do their research” and “consult a sensitivity reader,” may feel like they have the necessary materials at their fingertips. After all, how hard could “research” be? Most of us who graduated university wrote a research paper or two in our day. Some of us have even done dissertations. However, white writers, if we approach the research that is necessary to write acceptable POC representation the same way we approach the research necessary to write a term paper, we are bound to fail.

Wikipedia, scholarly articles, websites, even entire academic books, are simply not enough. The kind of research that is generally necessary in order to write another culture convincingly is the sort of research that would have you living and experiencing that culture, or getting as close as you possibly can, as a white person, to living and experiencing that culture. If the old adage “write what you know” holds true, then the white writer must know the culture that they choose to write about, and that knowledge cannot come from books, but from lived experience. The sort of knowledge that can be gleaned from a website, consuming media from the culture, or even reading academic journals may be fine for writing a research paper, which, after all, does not need to resonate emotionally with the audience, but a novel requires more.

Does this mean you have to spend decades living in a culture before you can write it? Not necessarily (although it would certainly be helpful), but it does mean, in my opinion, you have to be granted some degree of insider access to the culture, rather than using purely secondhand research. Painter Emily Carr, who was inspired by indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest and often included scenes from their villages in her landcape paintings, spent extended periods of time living in First Nation villages, living among the people and getting to know them personally.  S.A. Chakraborty, who wrote the Daevabad trilogy, is a white woman who converted to Islam long before she wrote her trilogy featuring a Muslim hero. While Chakraborty did not live in Egypt, the country where her story begins, as a Muslim woman as well as an Islamic scholar, she has first hand as well as academic knowledge of the religion and culture.

Consider, before writing outside of your own experience, that there are many writers out there who do have those experience and who are eager to tell their own stories. What makes you, someone whose knowledge is purely secondhand, a better person to write that story than a person whose knowledge comes from lived experience? Can you write it better, or if not better, can you do as good a job as someone who has firsthand knowledge of that culture? If not, are you willing to put in the work necessary to gain the firsthand knowledge needed?

Many of us do not like being told we cannot do something or cannot have something. When we are told “do research” we interpret “research” in terms that are most charitable towards ourselves. What is left unsaid is that often it may impossible for you to do the “research” necessary for you to do a culture justice. Personally, I would not attempt to write a book about the experience of being a Black person in the USA. I have not even lived in the United States for the majority of my adult life, and my experiences are so far removed from the reality of most Black Americans that any attempt on my behalf would be cobbled together from popular media, the internet, and consultations with sensitivity readers. I am a decent writer and I could possibly piece together something that was at the very least blandly inoffensive, but my account would be at best a pale imitation. Am I really the best person to be writing about what it is to be Black in America? Absolutely not. I will never be that person, because that experience is completely beyond my scope.

On the other hand, I have written copiously about the region of China, Yunnan, where I lived and made my home for fifteen years, as well as the Yunnanese people who live there. I have firsthand knowledge of the culture, I speak the language, and I have family members and friends who are from Yunnan. If I have a question about the region or the culture, I have multiple resources who are simply a text message away. I lived in villages and cities, and worked in environments where I was completely immersed in the culture. I was married in Yunnan and had my children there. I navigated the public school system when my kids started primary school, and had playdates with local moms. I was in every way immersed in Yunnanese life. While my family and friends cannot give me “permission” to write about their culture (an aside about permission: anyone seeking permission is inherently misguided. There is no counsel that grants such things, and if you are uncertain enough about your ability or suitability to write a culture that you go seeking permission, then you probably shouldn’t be writing that culture), they are excited that I am doing so, and are eager to help me get it right. There aren’t many Yunnanese people writing in English out there, and even fewer represent my family’s particular ethnic group, and they are happy to see their region on the page. And still, even with all of my experiences, all of my resources, I still might make mistakes and get things wrong. Now imagine if I only had the internet and books at my disposal?

Writing characters from cultures other than our own is something that not every writer can do, and we need to accept our own limitations. Yes, do your research, yes consult your sensitivity readers, but most of all, know your limits. The sort of research that must be done in order to write a culture outside of your own is not the kind of research that can be done without dedicating years of your life to the endeavor. If you’re not up to the task, then there is no disgrace in sticking to what you know.

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Choosing (and writing) Your Battles

If I have one weakness when it comes to writing fantasy or historical fiction, it would be my absolute reluctance to write battle scenes. My reluctance is something I come by naturally — I’m no fighter myself, and I’m fairly conflict averse. Despite being married to a guy who is a total military buff, I have never really much cared for the nitty gritty of war. Action movies aren’t really my style, and when I read battle scenes on the page, I often skim. Nothing bores me faster than reading drawn out battle choreography.

This poses a problem for me, considering I write fantasy, and battles are a fairly well established fantasy tradition. Even books that focus more on political intrigue often feature an epic battle or two. So how does an avowed battle-hater handle battles, aside from avoiding them altogether?

Well, first of all, lots of fantasy writers don’t realize this, but avoiding battles is in fact a viable strategy. Think of conflicts that could take the place of the final battle. Daniel Abraham, for instance, has a financial audit as his final showdown in the first book The Dagger and the Coin series. Last year’s YA fantasy by Elizabeth Lim, Spin the Dawn, has a dressmaking competition, sort of like Project Runway, as its main conflict.  Political intrigue — think assassination, poisonings, coups — can also be just as thrilling as a good battle. The main conflicts in Holly Black’s Folk of the Air series, for instance, revolve around the political schemes of the main character Jude, who must outwit the faeries of Elfhame in order to secure her status. In Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, the mode of conflict is the enchantment of coins rather than a battle to the death. Juliet Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest, the first book in the Sevenwaters series, has the main character spinning shirts made out of nettles in order to remove a curse. All of these represent instances where writers chose ways to escalate and resolve conflicts without the resorting to the epic battle cliche.

Furthermore, recently I have seen quite a few agents and editors recently putting what they call “quiet fantasy” on their wishlists. “Quiet fantasy,” or “cozy fantasy” (close kin to “cozy mystery”) is fantasy with relatively lower stakes, that might revolve around issues of a rather more personal nature. These books are the opposite of grimdark, in that they tend to involve less killing, fewer gory battles, end on a more hopeful note. Marie Lu’s The Kingdom of Back, for instance, revolves around one young girl’s quest to be remembered. If your manuscript is relatively more character driven, and involves close, personal stakes, then consider that trying to shoehorn in an epic battle might just be completely out of place.

But what if you need a battle? You’ve avoided it as long as you can, but there’s no avoiding it any longer. What can a battle hater do? First of all, let go of the idea that yo must include detailed battle choreography. While some people do battle choreography very well, not everyone can, or should. If you’re not a fighter yourself, have never seen battle, and are not dedicated to watching hours upon hours of videos studying the techniques of the fight, then you’re better off taking a different approach. One of my favorite passages about battle comes from Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom. While Cornwell often does describe battles in vivid detail, in this particular passage he uses telling, rather than showing, to great effect:

“What is there to say of the battle that the West Saxons said happened at a place called Aesc’s Hill? … The poets could fill a thousand lines telling what happened, but battle is battle. Men die. In the shield wall it is sweat, terror, cramps, half blows, full bows, screaming and cruel death.”

Moreso than all of the detailed battle choreography, this passage stuck with me. Why? Because it describes so perfectly the utter mundanity and ultimate sameness of war. When it comes down to it, killing people in a brutal way is not a glorious business, and in a lot of ways one battle is only different from another battle insofar as who lives and who dies.

It might come as a surprise that my favorite book is The Things They Carried, considering how much I hate battles, but like Cornwell above, Tim O’Brien avoids battle choreography. O’Brien focuses on the emotions of the battle, namely terror.

“For the most part they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity. Now and then, however, there were times of panic, when they squealed or wanted to squeal but couldn’t, when they twitched and made moaning sounds and covered their heads and said Dear Jesus and flopped around on the earth and fired their weapons blindly and cringed and sobbed and begged for the noise to stop and went wild and made stupid promises to themselves and to God and to their mothers and fathers, hoping not to die.”

This passage is raw and real and more so than any detailed description of whose sword went where, shows the sheer horror of battle. O’Brien, himself a Vietnam War veteran, knows that battle is terrifying, and he brings us there right along with him, to that place of terror. While detailed battle choreography is often bloody and brutal, it often lacks emotional impact.

I would argue that choreographed battle scenes are in fact, less impactful than a masterful depiction of a battle without writing a single battle “move.” Someone like me, who hates battles, can still write a great battle scene by zeroing in on the emotions — fear, rage, sorrow — that should naturally follow when writing about war and death.

I challenge writers, both battle averse as well as battle lovers, to look at conflict in fantasy from different angles. The epic fight pitting good against evil with armies tens of thousands strong is in a lot of ways by now a fantasy cliche. I challenge you to find new and inventive ways of resolving conflicts on the page. If you do need to write violent conflicts, I challenge you to think about battles, really think about them. Speak with veterans, people who have seen war, and ask them about the emotions they feel. Ask them what they remember. If you can’t speak with veterans, read first hand accounts. Fighting is about much more than cool moves, it is complex and emotional, and the skilled writer will be able to convey that to the reader.

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A Dubious Fascination: Culture as Commodity

Recently, on a writer’s forum that I moderate, someone asked the very salient question, “how can you tell the difference between having an interest or enthusiasm for another culture, and fetishizing that culture?” I myself have had some experience with straddling the lines that exist between consumption, appreciation, and experience, and have enough to say on the topic to fill multiple articles, but first, some context.

I moved to China when I was twenty-three years old after spending four years in university learning first Japanese and then Mandarin Chinese. I took my first Japanese class in high school, and at that point I certainly had no deep understanding of Japanese culture. My desire to learn Asian languages was driven mostly by a desire to do something different. Plus, I’d run out of Spanish classes to take by my senior year in high school but foreign language had always been my best subject. Doing a year without studying a language seemed inconceivable, so I chose Japanese. If they’d offered Vietnamese or Arabic or Igbo, I’d certainly just as soon have taken those. I wanted to learn something that wasn’t the usual Spanish French and occasionally German that my peers were all learning.

As a teenager and young college student I certainly engaged in some degree of fetishization. I was consuming foreign cultures as if they were the cure to that mid-90s suburban boredom that I felt so keenly as a teenager. Heck, eager for a break in the monotony, I even heckled my parents until they agreed to let us host a Japanese exchange student for a year. I took a trip to Japan after winning an essay contest, and I took first prize in the Japanese speech competition, and learned to like Japanese food, music, and dramas (I never did get into anime, however).  And when the Japanese language lost its luster for me, I turned to Chinese. It wasn’t until much much later, after living in China for close to two decades, that I was able to see my past behaviors as problematic. By that time I’d long since ceased being “fascinated” by my host culture. China was simply the place where I lived, and Chinese culture was the culture that I was living in — beloved, complex, often infuriating,  just like my own.

Realize that unless you immerse yourself in a culture (and sometimes you can do that, but other times, you can’t), your perceptions of that culture are usually largely based upon a commodified version of that culture, and in turn you treat that culture as product to be consumed. We must examine why we are “fascinated” by a culture, or the products of that culture. Is the fascination rooted in othering? Certainly, for teenage me, my desire for an escape from the monotony of American suburban culture, and my impulse to find that escape in Asian cultures was rooted in othering.  Usually when we speak of being fascinated by a foreign culture we mean we are fascinated because the culture is different in a way that we can enjoy from afar, and then set aside when we are through. It is treated as an expendable commodity, and the culture is made to serve us, rather than existing on its own, separate from our own perceptions and expectations of it.

Understand too that when you “other” a different culture, your implicit statement is that the culture is lesser than your own. It is something to enjoy, a pastime, but something that you ultimately set aside at the end of the day in favor of your own “superior” culture and its values. Think about the adjectives you might use to describe the other culture, and contrast them to the adjectives you would use to describe your own. Oftentimes this will reveal those implicit biases about those cultures. Do you call it exotic? Quaint? Fascinating? Colorful? Are the people humble? Generous? Kind?  How about the food? Is it an adventure? Crazy? While seemingly innocuous, those statements carry with them a distinct undertone of superiority. The message is “this is a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to stay.” They tell us that this place is different from our own homeland, good for a diversion, but not suitable for those with more gentle tastes. This language of othering is extremely harmful, as are the attitudes which prop up the language. T

Of course, enjoying other cultures as commodities doesn’t make you an evil bad person. Many of us enjoy traveling, learning new languages, and experiencing new cultures. However, the impulse is not something that should go unexamined. Consider what you mean when you say that you appreciate a culture. Have you lived in that culture? Interacted meaningfully with people from that culture? Do all of your interactions involve consuming, and does that consumption benefit the culture itself? When possible, rather than seeking out surface level ways to interact with a culture, you should interact in a meaningful way that actually benefits the culture, or at the very least, does little harm. “Appreciating” Japanese culture by eating sushi or watching anime is not, on the surface, harmful, but nor are they really meaningful ways of engaging with Japan. If you like the commercial products produced by this culture then consider that perhaps you just like anime, or sushi, instead of claiming to appreciate Japanese culture.

I critiqued the work of a young man who was writing a Chinese-based fantasy and yet the entirety of his engagement with Chinese culture came from C-dramas. Still, he claimed to appreciate Chinese culture. It goes without saying that while he created a world that looked, on the outside, somewhat Chinese, it was at best a surface level replica. I found his world to be a pale imitation, something that shared at best some shallow similarities with ancient China. As it turned out, he enjoyed C-Dramas and particularly the aesthetic of long haired men in flowy robes, but knew little about actual Chinese culture. His China was a pre-packaged imitation China, not the real deal.

For us writers, this is a particularly important lesson to learn. Interacting with a culture in a non-harmful way goes beyond simply avoiding appropriating from said culture — writers must be mindful of how we engage with a culture on the page. Here is the kicker — you can do all of your research, treat the culture respectfully, engage with sensitivity readers and still have your work be based upon a version of the culture that does not exist except in the mind of the author as consumer. Writers in particular must be wary of borrowing from cultures they have merely consumed, rather than engaged with and experienced in a meaningful way.