During the “Must Know YA from AAPI Voices” panel during this year’s [email protected], an intimate and thoughtful discussion took place between three writers who have integrated the unique perspectives they grew up with into the characters they create. Penguin Random House Senior Marketing Director Caitlin Whalen sat down with Elizabeth Lim (Spin the Dawn, Six Crimson Cranes), Amelie Wen Zhao (Red Tigress) and Trung Lê “Trungles” Nguyễn (The Magic Fish) to talk world-building, cultural identity, filial piety and the power of fairy tales in bridging East and West divide.
Lim’s Six Crimson Cranes was based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans. A princess, whose six brothers are turned into cranes, has to break the curse with a shape-shifting dragon, a flying paper bird, and the boy she was supposed to marry, but rejected. Lim drew upon the fairy tales and Asian legends her father told her as a child. She incorporates much of this folklore into the western setting of Six Crimson Cranes.
When Whalen asked Lim how she found and harnessed the power of women, Lim related how her experiences as an aspiring female composer influenced her characterization of Shiori’anma. Lim was told she couldn’t make it in the field as an Asian American woman. Those words stuck with her and found its way into her stories.
Red Tigress is the second book to Zhao’s Blood Heir series in which Ana Mihailov, an exiled princess who can control blood is called a monster and shunned in her society. She meets a handsome con man while investigating her father’s murder. Together, they find out that there is more to the murder than originally thought.
Zhao, who was born in France, grew up in the international district of Beijing and attended college in New York, incorporated her multicultural upbringing and her characters’ backstory. When Whalen asked what Zhao hoped her audience would take away from the book, Zhao responded with:
“This is a book about outcasts and people who didn’t belong and as a Chinese diaspora who’s living across different countries, i kind of channeled my experiences with this and my thoughts. I’m kind of hoping readers who you’re who you are, and you’re beautiful because of it and you shouldn’t change because society doesn’t want you there.”
In The Magic Fish, Nguyễn “set out to tell a story along the lines of The Princess Bride, but got very, very heavy somewhere along the way.” He described the book as “a story about stories. It discusses queerness, immigration and how to address these things across a language barrier. I used the format of a graphic novel to explore the visual imagination of each of the characters who tell stories and fairy tales to each other.”
Nguyễn incorporated intergenerational strife into the story. Nguyễn was born in the Philippines and his family arrived in the United Status through a green card lottery as one of the last Vietnamese boat people. His characters use story “to connect with each other without losing out over language barriers.”
Nguyễn found the experience of world-building difficult because of the necessity to visually depict different points of views. For his story, Nguyễn had conducted research and delve into each character to imagine how they would react in a given situation.
Whalen asked Nguyễn about the symbolism of water, which plays a significant role in the story. Nguyễn explained:
“Much of the ways that water is used is sort of like this large and scary and mysterious space where we often find ourselves sort of floating, kind of in between two spaces and two shores that we understand really well. So water represents this. It’s usually thematically on the ways the characters are uncertain about where each other stands and which shore they essentially come from. Water is something you can’t speak through. It’s something you have to traverse. Water is something that’s both really beautiful and really devastating in the ways that it can separate you from the people you love.”
Whalen concluded the roundtable discussion in “Must Know YA from AAPI Voices” by asking what each writer looked forward to reading this summer. Zhao was looking forward to reading an arc of Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun. Lim was looking forward to Chan’s upcoming novel as well as Sue Lynn Tan’s Daughter of the Moon Goddess. Nguyen was reading Kiku Hughes’ Displacement and looking forward to Nic Stone’s Dear Justyce.
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