Do you love fiction with fantasy elements, but despair of writing a novel which will capture an editor or agent’s attention? Have you grown weary of the traditional fare – what Smart Bitch Sarah Wendell refers to as “vamptired”? If you’ve thought of turning to other cultures for literary inspiration, but been nervous about navigating cross-cultural lines, today’s post might hold special appeal.

Joining me are Shveta Thakrar (left) and Cindy Pon. The former is currently deep in revisions on her YA manuscript which features apsaras, South Asian celestial dancers who live in the Hindu realm of Svargalok, and nagas, half-snake/half-human shape-shifters.

The latter is the author of Silver Phoenix: Beyond the Kingdom of Xia — a young adult fantasy inspired by ancient China which made Booklist’s Top Ten SF/Fantasy Books for Youth 2009. Recently, Silver Phoenix was a subject of controversy when its paperback and sequel covers were revealed; some felt they exemplified a publishing trend toward whitewashing. Cindy’s sequel, Fury of the Phoenix, will be released March 29, 2011.

In other words, my two guests know of what they speak. They helped me remove my unwittingly-colonial foot from my unwittingly-imperialist mouth during this interview’s composition. Perhaps they can do the same for you.

First, a quick disclaimer: Below, the terms “mythology” and “folklore” are used in the technical sense of “sacred stories” and “knowledge of the people,” not in the colloquial sense of “untruths.” Use of the terms is not intended to cast any aspersions on the credence or truth of the ideas and beliefs.

Jan: Ladies, you’re fresh from Sirens 2010 and a panel designed to empower cultural diversity in fantasy and paranormal fiction. Who were your co-panelists, and how did you find your reception?

ST: Four of us took part: Andrea Horbinski, Valerie Frankel, Cindy, and I. Our panel, “Are There Faeries Outside Western Europe?”, discussed various fey from around the world and their presence in literature. (You can read a recap and download the handout here.) We were thrilled by the turnout; a good forty-five percent of the conference attendees showed up, and they asked wonderful questions, including what they could do and how to write respectfully. It’s clear that there’s a desire for fantasy fiction based on the lore of the whole world, not just one part, and that’s really exciting.

Cindy, can you tell us about resources for a writer who might wish to include non-Western mythologies and religions in their fiction?* 

CP: I honestly don’t think it’s any different than research you would do for Western mythologies. But I think there is a sense of familiarity for most writers in Western myth–since many of us grew up reading it, and to move beyond that into other cultures can be a little intimidating. I speak some Mandarin but only at the most elementary level (I came to the United States when I was six). So although I may have grown up hearing some of the more familiar traditions centered around holidays, I certainly didn’t know more myth than the average American. I did research online and looked at books available just as any other writer would.

People in academia or who are familiar and grew up with the culture and stories are definitely good resources as well. But all I used was the internet. In fact, the main book I used for inspiration for Silver Phoenix is unknown and unread by most Chinese, it is so ancient and obscure.

My advice would be, don’t let fear and unfamiliarity stop you from pushing yourself as a writer and broadening your horizons in all ways. My own endeavor as a writer is to constantly challenge myself with each new project.

Some of the beliefs or creatures our readers may wish to research and/or incorporate into their fiction are still part of living traditions and religions for other worlds. Can you give advice about balancing respect for another culture while possibly needing to adapt their stories for a particular manuscript?

ST: I’d say first and foremost, do your research. Start by familiarizing yourself with the traditions in question. For example, if a culture or group prefers their mythology not be used outside their traditions, really consider if it’s necessary to your story. (Of course, this won’t always be the case, but you can never go wrong being respectful.) Remember that none of this exists in a vacuum. If you then draw upon the folklore or mythology, remember you are borrowing, and act accordingly.

Sometimes you’ll have to adapt things to fit your story, and that’s fine; just make sure you know the source material, and then tread carefully. Think about what you want to change and why. Don’t take lazy shortcuts and portray all dark-skinned peoples/beings as evil, etc.; instead, create nuanced, complex worlds and characters that honor the original.

The main thing is to write with respect and remember that we’re all people, and all our stories matter. I can’t stress that enough. 

CP: I think with using elements that are current religions and traditions, one needs to especially be careful about how they are portraying and interpreting the story. But the fact of the matter is, no matter how much research you do and how respectfully you handle a topic, character, etc, you will probably offend someone. And this isn’t just in regards to the topics at hand (which one can see as being more sensitive) but happens for all authors in general, no matter what we write.

My advice from my own lessons learned with my debut publication is to write and send into the world what you can stand by. Know in your heart that this is the best you did in all ways for your novel — that you can believe in it and back it. Because once it’s out there, you can’t control the reader’s reaction to your story. They will often interpret it in ways you never intended — and that’s why reading is so personal for everyone.

Shveta, the process of writing story can change the writer him/herself, oftentimes for the better. In your case, your path to writing about non-Western fae was partly a decision to embrace your own ethnicity. Did the process help? If so, how? 

ST:  I was born and raised in America, and there were plenty of years when I didn’t think much about my heritage. But in doing research, I realized I need that connection. I need to be able to write about these things and share them both with readers who are familiar with them and readers who aren’t. I want everyone to see how we’re similar and different and to celebrate that — in fiction, in art, in life. If I had my way, we’d all take world folklore and mythology and comprehensive world history classes in school. Imagine how it would change the collective mindset if we really thought on a global level!

My personal journey hasn’t always been easy. I’ve wondered if one person could really make a difference. I’ve heard many examples of how publishing doesn’t necessarily embrace diversity. But I do believe every effort counts, and I’ve spoken to enough people who are curious and hungry for something new to know things are changing. I’m so glad to be part of that.

If people have questions about cultural diversity in general, and non-Western mythologies in particular, where would you like them to reach you?

CP: They are welcome to visit my blog and post comments or to contact me via email or Twitter. I’m a bit of an internet addict and am all over the web! The info is on my website. =)

Also, next April, both Malinda Lo and I will have Asian-inspired YA fantasies releasing: Huntress and Fury of the Phoenix. We thought this was a cause for celebration, and have worked hard to put together a Diversity Tour — specifically featuring ethnically-diverse authors and novels in the middle grade and young adult genres.

We’d love for your readership to visit our Diversity in Young Adult Fiction website (DIYA)! They can sign up for our mailing list so they won’t miss future updates. 

ST: Readers are certainly welcome to contact me via my LiveJournal in comments or private messages, but I’d also like to point out some excellent resources: 

Jan again: Many thanks to you both for being here today and for the helpful references. Shveta, good luck with your revisions and Cindy, woot for your sequel’s release!

Peeps, Cindy and Shveta have agreed to answer your questions today, as best they can. Please make yourselves at home in the comment section! 

About Jan O'Hara

Jan O'Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer here at Writer Unboxed, she hopes one day soon to become unqualified for the position.