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“Asian Fantasy” is a popular category – but is it useful?  : NPR

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As soon as the pandemic hit last year, I did what any sane person would do and jumped right into my favorite coping mechanism: fantasy novel escape. I’ve always loved fantasy for the way it transports you to new worlds full of adventure, magic, and morally ambiguous love interests. I guess if you’d rather be somewhere (really anywhere) elsewhere, where better to go than a place where the magic is real?

But for all the wonderful escape that fantasy offers, the genre has historically not been so wonderful at reflecting the diversity of stories and experiences that exist in our own world. For a long time, the protagonists of color in fantasy novels were rare.

In recent years, the genre has undergone a noticeable change. Authors of color burst onto the fantasy stage with stories that center BIPOC characters and draw inspiration from non-Western cultures. In particular, Asian fantasy becomes a separate sub-genre. These stories, which feature main Asian characters and take place in contexts directly influenced and shaped by Asian cultures, have garnered critical acclaim, with many novels making TIME magazine’s recent list of the “100 Best Books”. fantastic of all time. ”

However, not all Asian fantasy writers feel at home with the genre label. When I contacted Rebecca F. Kuang, author of The poppy war, A Hugo-nominated fantasy trilogy and inspired by Chinese history, she said she found “Asian fantasy” to be a reductive category.

“I think Asia doesn’t really make much sense, either as a literary category or as an identity category. Obviously, there are a lot of different things that fall under the sub- category of Asians, including East Asians, including South Asians., From Southeast Asia, from the Pacific Islands, for example, ”she says.“ So when we call them simply “Asian” works, it belies a whole world of difference. “

So while the growing popularity of Asian fantasy marks a positive shift towards a wider and more inclusive range of fantasy experiences, it also raises important questions: does it really make sense to group novels by geographic region, in particular? one that encompasses billions of people? ? Does the “Asian Fantasy” Label Help or Hurt Asian Writers? Well the answer depends on who you ask.

When author Cindy Pon published her first novel, Silver phoenix in 2009, the term “asian fantasy” wasn’t even a nod to the publishing industry. According to Pon, Chinese inspiration Silver phoenix was the first Asian fantasy novel published in the young adult space. And she says being a trailblazer hasn’t done her a favor.

“The fact that it’s Asian fantasy, I think, made publishers feel like it was a niche, you know, like it was only aimed at a certain audience. And she’ll never be that tall because she’s Asian-inspired, ”she says. “It was super lost, and it also wasn’t picked up in Borders when Borders was alive. They skipped it… As a young adult author you want to be in the stores because the kids are going. still in stores to look at books on the shelves, ”she said.

And when Silver phoenix was unsuccessful, Pon says the book’s reception was blamed on its Asian character. “It came out in 2009, when the economy was just going down and everyone was really failing as first writer. It was really tough that year. But, you know, what would they think that l ‘Did it fail? Of course, because it was Asian, “she added.

Ultimately, Pon said that pursuing his career as a young adult author meant letting go of Asian fantasy as a genre, “The big publishers weren’t like you no longer owe Asian fantasy, Cindy Pon, because you don’t sell them, you know? Literally … out of their mouth, like, “you’re a great writer. I’m a fan, but I can’t buy you fancy any more. “”

Ken Liu, author of Dandelion dynasty series, was one of the first authors to publish a fantasy novel for adults drawing on Asian traditions. Despite many people pointing to the first installment in the series as the first Asian adult fantasy novel, Liu insists that Grace of kings is not an “Asian fantasy” but rather “a story about American modernity reimagined as an epic fantasy using East Asian traditions”. For Liu, calling his work only “Asian” erases the fact that his novels are also American.

“For me, I think the Asian focus of the books is exclusive because whenever we talk about Asian fantasy or something Asian, what we really mean, I subconsciously think, doesn’t is not American. And I refuse to accept this. My books are American Fantasies. They are at the heart of American fantasy. They are a new way of conceiving the American fantasy. So I’m not going to call them anything other than American fantasy, ”he says.

For Fonda Lee, author of Jade City, the label “Asian fantasy” is largely unnecessary because it flattens the diversity of experiences.

“I think the term ‘Asian fancy’ has as much meaning as the term ‘Asian cuisine’ in that it is useful in that it delineates a broad category of things that you might define as being different from the Western normative. It’s not particularly helpful because it doesn’t tell you anything about whether you’re eating sushi or samosas, ”she says.

However, some authors adopt the label.

“While I would agree that it erases a lot of nuance, the important thing to me is just that readers can find these stories,” says Roshani Chokshi, author of The queen touched by the stars, a duology inspired by Hindu mythology. “And if the cost of that involves lumping it together under Asian fantasy so that it’s well placed and in a place like Barnes & Noble, or even Amazon, or independent bookstores, it bothers me less in the hope that a reader will be able to find it and experience being able to see each other. “

Tasha Suri, author of Empire of Sand, kingdom of ashes, and the next epic-fantasy novel The Jasmine Throne, has mixed feelings – but ultimately feels the label does more good than harm. “It’s difficult because I don’t think there’s a huge amount of South Asian fantasy that’s being acquired, promoted and published in the West,” she says. “And I think that’s a very necessary term too, even though it covers so much of the fiction, because it gives readers something to hold onto.”

While some writers are seeing the benefits of the Asian fantasy label right now, as the subgenre continues to grow, they also agree that they would like to see the publishing industry embrace other marketing methods. and categorization of the work of Asian authors. .

So what does it actually look like?

An alternative proposed by Rebecca Kuang is to break down the Asian fantasy category with more specific and precise labeling. “For example, instead of very large lists, like ‘five books by Asian authors’, I like to see lists that look like five books from that particular subgroup of Asia. I think in particular that the authors South Asians always get left out … When people hear from Asia, they only hear East Asia and maybe Southeast Asia, so we feel especially diverse today. And I think the way you solve this problem is to celebrate everyone who writes in this category, ”she says.

On the other hand, other authors would like to see fantastic novels marketed based on their content rather than their cultural inspirations.

“I often think it’s more meaningful to me to tell people that my fantasy writing focuses on women and has a great level of romance and desire because it will make it reach the right audience than it is for me to say it’s Indian fantasy, “said Tasha Suri.

As for Cindy Pon, who has been in the genre from the very beginning? She would 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, well , i have an asian child and i cannot acquire these books … this is the best way to learn and empathize and learn more about other people and cultures. So why not acquire generally for, you know, all populations, for your population? So that’s what I hope. “

This story was edited for radio by Petra Mayer, and adapted for the web by Petra Mayer and Kalyani Saxena.

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