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What's In A Genre Name? The Trouble With 'Asian Fantasy'

Silver Phoenix, Empire of Sand, The Grace of Kings, The Poppy War, The Star-Touched Queen, Jade City.

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

But for all the wonderful escapism that fantasy provides, the genre historically has not been as wonderful at reflecting the diversity of stories and experiences that exist within our own world. For a long time, protagonists of color in fantasy novels were few and far between.

In recent years, the genre has undergone a noticeable shift. Authors of color are breaking onto the fantasy scene with stories that center BIPOC characters and draw inspiration from non-Western cultures. In particular, Asian fantasy is growing as a distinct sub-genre. These stories, which feature Asian main characters and take place in settings directly influenced and shaped by Asian cultures, have found critical acclaim, with many of the novels landing a place on TIME magazine's recent list of "The 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time."

However, not all Asian authors writing 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 that she finds "Asian fantasy" to be a reductive category.

"I think that Asian doesn't really make a lot of sense, either as a literary category or as an identity category. Obviously, there are a lot of different things that fall under the subcategory of Asian, including East Asian, including South Asians, Southeast Asian, Pacific Islander, for example," she says. "So when we call works just blanket 'Asian,' that belies an entire world of difference."

So while the growing popularity of Asian fantasy marks a positive turn towards a broader and more inclusive range of experiences in fantasy, it also raises important questions: Does it actually make sense to group novels by a geographic region, especially one that encompasses billions of people? Does the label "Asian fantasy" help or hurt Asian authors? Well, the answer depends on who you're asking.

[Silver Phoenix] came out in 2009 when the economy had just tanked and everybody really was failing as a debut author ... But, you know, what would they think made it fail? Of course, because it was Asian.

When author Cindy Pon released her debut novel, Silver Phoenix in 2009, the term "Asian fantasy" wasn't even a twinkle in the publishing industry's eye. According to Pon, the Chinese-inspired Silver Phoenix was the first Asian fantasy novel released in the young adult space. And she says being a trailblazer did her no favors.

"The fact that it was Asian fantasy, I think made publishers feel like it was niche, you know, like it's only targeted to a certain audience. And it's never going to be that big because it is Asian inspired," she says. "It got super lost, and also it wasn't picked up at Borders when Borders was alive. They skipped it ... As a young adult author, you want to be in the stores because kids actually still go into the stores to look at the books on the shelves," she says.

And when Silver Phoenix didn't succeed, Pon says that the book's reception was blamed on its Asianness. "It came out in 2009 when the economy had just tanked and everybody really was failing as a debut author. It was really hard that year. But, you know, what would they think made it fail? Of course, because it was Asian," she added.

Ultimately, Pon says that continuing her career as a young adult author meant leaving behind Asian fantasy as a genre, "The big publishers were like no more Asian fantasy from you, Cindy Pon, because you don't sell them, you know? Literally from their mouths, like, 'you're a great writer. I'm a fan, but I can't buy any more fantasy from you.'"

I think the emphasis on the Asianness of the books is exclusionary because whenever we see Asian fantasy ... what we really mean, I think subconsciously, is it's not American. And I refuse to accept that. 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 that drew from Asian traditions. Despite many people pointing to the first installment of the series as the first adult Asian fantasy novel, Liu stresses the point that The Grace of Kings is not "Asian fantasy" but rather "a story about American modernity reconceived as an epic fantasy using East Asian traditions." For Liu, labelling his work solely as "Asian" erases the fact that his novels are also American.

"To me, I think the emphasis on the Asianness of the books is exclusionary because whenever we say Asian fantasy or Asian something, what we really mean, I think subconsciously, is it's not American. And I refuse to accept that. My books are American fantasies. They're at the core of American fantasy. They are a new way of conceiving of 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 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 tell you anything about whether you're eating sushi or samosas.

"I think the term 'Asian fantasy' makes about as much sense as the term 'Asian food' in that it's useful insofar as it delineates a broad category of things that you could define as being different from the Western normative. But also, isn't particularly helpful because it doesn't tell you anything about whether you're eating sushi or samosas," she says

However, some authors do embrace the label.

"While I do agree that it erases a lot of nuance, the important thing to me is just that readers are able to find these stories," says Roshani Chokshi, author of Aru Shah and the End of Time and The Star-Touched Queen, a duology inspired by Hindu mythology. "And if the cost of that means grouping it under Asian fantasy so that it has good placement in some place like Barnes & Noble, or Amazon even or independent bookstores, then it bothers me less in the hopes that a reader will be able to find it and experience being able to see themselves."

While I do agree that it erases a lot of nuance, the important thing to me is just that readers are able to 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 feels the label does more good than harm. "It's a difficult one because I don't think there's a huge amount of South Asian fantasy that is getting acquired and promoted and published in the West," she says. "And I think it's also quite a necessary term, even though it's covering such a huge swathe of fiction, because it gives readers something to cling on to."

While some authors see the benefits of the Asian fantasy label right now, at a time when the sub-genre is still growing, they also acknowledge that they'd like to see the publishing industry embrace alternate ways of marketing and categorizing work by Asian authors.

So what does that actually look like?

One alternative proposed by Rebecca Kuang is to break down the Asian fantasy category with more specific and accurate labelling. "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 by this particular subgroup of being Asian. I think in particular, South Asian authors always get left out ... When people hear Asian, they just hear East Asian and maybe Southeast Asian, if we're feeling particularly diverse today. And I think the way you solve that is to celebrate everybody who's writing within that category," she says.

I often think it's more meaningful for me to tell people that my fantasy writing focuses on women and has a large level of romance and yearning ... than it is for me to say that it's Indian fantasy.

In contrast, other authors would like to see fantasy novels marketed based on their content, rather than their cultural inspirations.

"I often think it's more meaningful for me to tell people that my fantasy writing focuses on women and has a large level of romance and yearning because that will make it reach the correct audience than it is for me to say that it's Indian fantasy," says Tasha Suri.

As for Cindy Pon, who's been with the genre from the very beginning? She would love to see a day when people realize Asian stories aren't just of interest to other Asian people, "where we're not seen as a niche, where white librarians in Iowa won't be like, well, I have the one Asian kid and I can't be acquiring these books ... that's the best way to learn and be empathetic and learn about other people and other cultures. So why wouldn't you acquire broadly for, you know, from every population, for your population? So that is what I hope for."

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

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.