I first read The Hobbit in middle school. Thus my love affair with fantasy began. Often I’d slip away carrying a tattered copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in one hand and a desire to escape my mostly white suburban community in the other. In the early 90’s talking about race was considered impolite. “I don’t see color,” was a popular phrase. This is an erasure. “I don’t see you,” was what that phrase really meant. (Side note: In the eighth grade, I formed an Asian girl gang—think less gang more squad. We were a proud six ranging from Persian to Japanese. Our cultural traditions were vastly different, but we were bound by a desire to connect to others of similar skin colors.)
Middle school was about the same time I began to write. Inspired by Middle Earth, I penned my own semi-plagiarized fantasy novels. A chosen girl with the powers to possess a dangerous magical sword must go on an epic journey to destroy it before it destroys the world. My cast of characters ranged from elves to dragons, to ogres. Any characters with a hint of humanity were white. Sound familiar?
Of course, I didn’t know it then, but I’d learned a powerful lesson from reading western driven fantasy novels. That for these stories to work I had to exclude myself—my skin color and cultural heritage—from the narrative. Only white characters went on adventures. Only white characters were heroes. Only white characters were published. This exclusion hurt me deeply. It made me feel unworthy. It influenced what paths I pursued. I saw my skin color as a limiting factor.
After high school, I pursued a degree in science then a master’s in teaching. I kept reading. Sometimes in the darkest parts of the night, I’d put my pen to paper. But still, I saw the publishing world as something for me to enjoy but not be a part of. How many of us have ever felt like we were on the outskirts? Race wasn’t the only exclusion factor. There were also socio-economic considerations. I viewed writing as a privilege. One I couldn’t afford at the time. But I do wonder if I might have considered writing seriously as a career if I’d seen more Asian authors, more Asian characters. I think I would have.
After a few years of teaching, I realized my heart really was in the written word. I decided to seek publication. My first published book had a white protagonist. I never felt quite connected to her. I realize now she was only a partial reflection of myself. Half-white and half-Japanese, I’d deliberately left out my other side in writing my first book. Also, my MC was an arsonist. So there’s that too.
The book landed me an agent and ended up going to auction. I don’t regret writing it. As a writer, you are always evolving. Part of the process is reflecting on what worked and what didn’t. For me, the sense of personal satisfaction was lacking. Not only that but I hadn’t considered my teenage self while writing it—the girl that had quietly longed to see herself reflected in the pages of the books she loved.
While discussing my next project with my agent, she asked: have you ever considered writing a Japanese inspired fantasy? I hadn’t. So entrenched were the biases from my formative years, I didn’t even think it a possibility. Most fantasies are dominated by western mythology. There are always exceptions to the rule (I have a great list of recommendations!). But by and large, fantasy books are plagued by European cultures and traditions that highlight perspectives of white characters and their communities. The reason I love fantasy is because it holds up a looking glass to the world we live in. It can unravel complex societal issues and challenge us to understand our history, problems, and differences. But if only some of the voices are represented only part of the story is being told. That’s why representation matters.
In case you didn’t figure it out, I did write an Asian inspired fantasy. It is called Empress of All Seasons, and it is the work I am most proud of. I wrote it for my teenage self, and my Asian girl gang—you’re worthy, you’re seen.