Spend enough time in the YA book world, and you’ll hear a writer—or several—speak with a stricken look about the stumbling process of writing a second book. Sometimes it happens on second published books. Sometimes it happens on second manuscripts, whether those books become agented or published or not. I wish I could tell you what it is about the second book that catches so many of us. I can’t.
But I can tell what it was for me.
Writing my second book, I told myself to be patient. Well, one part of myself: the queer part. I was already writing about characters of color, including Latinx characters that reflected my own experience. But I told myself this wasn’t the time to go further and include LGBTQ characters. I could do that on my third, or fourth book, when I’d earned it. Yes, this was how I thought, that incorporating two aspects of my identity into one book was something I had to earn.
So I wrote a very straight book…and, well, considering how I started this post, you can guess how it went. My critique partners patiently gave notes on different versions. My agent tried to shepherd me toward a better direction. My editor shared what was working and what wasn’t. But despite the help and advice of everyone I had in my corner, I kept turning out one forced, bloodless draft after another.
When my fear of writing a book I couldn’t stand behind overcame my fear of writing LGBTQ characters, I surrendered to this story. I gave in to its wishes. I made this book the queer, of-color book it wanted to be. A story about a Latina girl who grows roses from her wrist, and a transgender Pakistani-American boy who paints a hundred versions of the moon. A story in which they understand and love each other’s bodies, and in which they have sex on the page.
I turned in the book that had now become When the Moon was Ours, ready for someone to say, “We can’t publish this.” But what I heard instead was, “Yes, this is what this book was supposed to be.”
Until then, I hadn’t let this story be what it wanted to be, because I had been afraid of what I was. In the same way I sometimes feared there wasn’t space in the world for queer girls of color, I worried there wasn’t a place for this story I had in me.
This is what I’ve learned, not to resist what a story wants to be, especially if it’s because I’m afraid there is too much different about me for the world to accept. What’s at the heart of us is who we are. These are our stories. And when our stories ask us to speak from our hearts, from everything we are, they won’t let us go until we answer.
Anna-Marie McLemore was born in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, raised in the same town as the world’s largest wisteria vine, and taught by her family to hear la llorona in the Santa Ana winds. Her debut novel, THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS (out now from Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press), was a Junior Library Guild Selection, named to YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults list, and a finalist for the William C. Morris Debut Award. Her second novel, WHEN THE MOON WAS OURS, will be released on October 4, 2016, and WILD BEAUTY is forthcoming in 2017. You can find Anna-Marie at annamariemclemore.com or on Twitter @LaAnnaMarie.
As a writer, I always feel like my second books are stronger than my first. My stories naturally seem to be told in duologies, and with the sequel, it might be that I’m more comfortable with the characters, their motivations, and worlds. As someone who does not outline, my process is pretty intuitive. I knew that Sacrifice would be told from dual narrations (as Fury of the Phoenix was told): Skybright’s and Zhen Ni’s. It wasn’t until I finished the first draft that I realized that I needed to include Kai Sen as a main point of view. This allowed me to expand the lens into this world, and I enjoyed it as much as it challenged me as a writer. I love this story, and I’m so happy it’s finally out in the world! I share an excerpt from Sacrifice below and ordering information for personalized and/or signed copies with pre-order gift!
Someone opened the panel of her room quietly. “Zhen Ni?” a male voice whispered.
She smothered a scream. No man had ever been within her bedchamber, except for the doctor on rare occasions, and even then, she had been hidden behind silk drapes on her bed, offering her arm so the man could examine her pulse. No common man had ever been allowed within the inner quarters, unchaperoned much less, and in the dead of night. Blood pounded in her ears, and Zhen Ni gripped her dagger tighter, prepared to use it if she had to.
“It’s me. Kai Sen.”
Recognition dawned. She had thought the voice sounded familiar, but she hadn’t seen Kai Sen since they parted ways over half a year ago, after he had escorted her home from visiting Lan one last time. What in the goddess’s name was he doing here, breaking all rules of decorum? Her reputation could be compromised if he were caught.
Zhen Ni smiled in the dark then. It was a wonder anyone would take her as a wife at all. She was notoriously known as a stubborn runaway and truly didn’t give a donkey’s ass about decorum now, but she had behaved perfectly to please her parents since returning home. She held still in her dark corner, waiting to see what Kai Sen would do.
A bright flame ignited within the bedchamber. She squinted, thinking he had lit a lantern, but it appeared as if he cradled a ball of blue fire in his very palm. Astounded, Zhen Ni stared as Kai Sen drew to her empty bedside, peering down at the rumpled coverlet, then turned to survey the room.
Dressed in a black sleeveless tunic, he seemed taller than she remembered and definitely bigger. Kai Sen had been all wiry muscle when they had traveled together but thin, still boyish in some ways. His time in the monastery since had filled his frame, as if he’d finally grown into his adult physique. He had looked strong before; now he looked powerful. She watched while the flickering flame danced across his face. Kai Sen’s dark eyebrows were knitted together as his alert eyes swept the large bedchamber. Zhen Ni could see why Skybright had been drawn to him—he was handsome. He exuded masculinity. Assuming a girl appreciated that sort of thing: rough hands and deep voice, the odd metallic tang of sweat. She knew from their travels together that he even smelled different.
Zhen Ni wasn’t attracted to these things.
For a brief moment, she remembered the soft curve of Lan’s neck bent over her embroidery, smelled the rose perfume she used to dab at the hollow of Lan’s throat, the scent sweet and mellow when she would kiss the same spot hours later … Zhen Ni blinked the memories away and whispered, “What are you doing here?”
Buy the Book:
Order from Mysterious Galaxy Books to get signed and personalized copies of Serpentine or Sacrifice, and choose a pre-order gift of your choice! Grace Fong’s gorgeous art of my girls Zhen Ni and Skybright magnet, or my hummingbird Chinese brush art card. You receive a gift for every book purchased AND you’re supporting my favorite indie book store!
Serpentine is also currently on sale across all ebook platforms for 99c. If you haven’t had a chance to read the first book yet, here’s the perfect opportunity for less than a buck! #nook#kindle#kobo#ibook#googleplay
I’ve lived with depression and suicidal ideation since I was a teenager, much of it stemming from an overwhelming need to live up to my parents and my own expectations, along with never feeling I was good enough, and never feeling like I fit in. I was ashamed of myself, ashamed that I was a burden on my family, ashamed that I had failed in every way: school, career, relationships, and more.
It was a long road to recovery with my depression, and it’s still a work in progress. There’s a huge stigma surrounding mental health, especially in the Asian American community where we were raised to “save face.” Learning the patience to work out what I needed emotionally from my family and friends and being able to voice it has been a long journey.
I escaped into books, devouring anything and everything, disappearing into endless possibilities of worlds, delighted in travelling alongside my favorite heroes as they saved the universe.
And yet at the same time I was always a spectator; I felt wrong and broken for being attracted to more than one gender, because I hardly ever saw it portrayed in novels, especially in speculative fiction. I wasn’t white or straight like the heroes of renown, and I had internalized that adventures and saving the world and falling in love and happy-ever-afters were not for people like me.
I started writing because I wanted to write the books I wish I could have read as a teenager. I want romance and adventure and fantasy and science fiction and horror and every genre imaginable.
My novel Not Your Sidekick began as a project that was born out of frustration. I was tired. I was tired of characters of color being sidelined in supporting roles, I was tired of stories where girls who fell in love with other girls were met with tragedy at every front.
I’ve always loved the superhero genre because there are so many ways you can talk about identity, super or otherwise. One of the things Jess struggles with in Not Your Sidekick is living up to expectations. Since she doesn’t think she’s going to get superpowers, she’s struggling to prove herself. Her parents are immigrants, and she and her siblings are the first born in this new country— similar to my own experience growing up, albeit Jess lives in the year 2132. This theme of redefining success really hits close to home for me, and I wanted to show how first-generation children really feel that pressure.
Not Your Sidekick is lighthearted and and often skirts the line of ridiculous. I don’t take myself too seriously, and the novel doesn’t either; I poke lots of fun at superhero tropes and secret identity shenanigans. While I touch on issues that are important to me, like the theme of expectations and defining your own success— I want most of all to bring joy and laughter and silliness and light. I want readers to have fun.
I hope readers will find joy in the novel, as I have bringing it to the world.
C.B. Lee is a bisexual writer, rock climber and hiking enthusiast based in California. She is a first-generation Asian American and has a BA in Sociology and Environmental Science, which occasionally comes in handy in her chosen career, but not usually. Lee enjoys reading, hiking and other outdoor pursuits. Her first novel, Seven Tears at High Tide, was published by Duet Books (Interlude Press) in 2015 and named a finalist for two Bisexual Book of the Year Awards. Ms. Lee is also a Lambda Literary Emerging LGBTQ Voices Fellow.
When I was in college, I started work on a novel about about a boy who travels into the afterlife to find his dead sister. It was set in a small mountain town similar to my own–it had the same smell of pine, the same dry heat, the same graveyards–and I poured into that manuscript so much of what I loved: beautiful prose, paragraphs that reverberated like the tolling of brass bells, magic (of course), grief, wonderfully twisty formatting.
But when I met with my creative writing professor, a Japanese-American author, her main comments were these:
Why are you writing about a white boy? White boys write about themselves all the time.
Why don’t you write about a Chinese girl? A Japanese girl?
And my reaction was this:
I can write about whoever I want! This is the story I have to tell. The one about this small white town, the one about this white boy grappling with death.
You see, I’d been reading about white boys for years. I studied them in school. I joined them on their adventures in Narnia and Middle Earth and Hogwarts. I watched them battle super villains on TV. I knew white boy stories–perhaps, I think, even better than I knew my own. I could write white boy stories.
However, as with many first novels, it went nowhere. I didn’t even finish it. Didn’t know how. Didn’t feel that driving need to get to the end. As soon as I graduated, I let that story go.
Years later, I decided to give myself a real shot at being an author, and I thought about the stories I had to tell. The stories that I wouldn’t let go, no matter how difficult or challenging they got. The stories that were a part of me, at my glowing molten core, and wouldn’t let me go.
And I wrote The Reader.
There’s a lot of what I love in this book too: beautiful prose, cowboy-pirates and adventurers, magic (of course), loss, interesting formatting, long hikes through the forest and vast open spaces.
And a main character, Sefia, who looks like me.
To be clear, The Reader isn’t an Asian-inspired fantasy. If anything, the world is more like a heavily romanticized American wild west (which is also near and dear to my heart), and because it’s all made up, our categories of race don’t apply. I can’t say Sefia is Asian or Asian-American because Asia and America don’t exist. But she has straight black hair and teardrop-shaped eyes, and she’s small but mighty, which is generally how I feel about my own stature. She looks like me. (Although if you look closely, you’ll see some hints that in our world, she’d actually be biracial.)
I wrote her this way for a very specific reason.
Because ten years after my creative writing professor suggested I stop writing about white boys, I finally understood why.
When I was a kid, I clung to Trini the Yellow Ranger and Tina Nguyen from Ghostwriter and Mulan and Cho Chang because they were the only sci-fi/fantasy characters, out of all the books and comic books and TV shows and movies, who looked like me. And that made it nearly impossible to imagine myself in these stories. Because among the Goldilockses, Red Riding Hoods, Belles, Auroras, Wolverines, Raphaels, Susan Pevensies, Striders, Samwise Gamgees, Harry Potters, Hermiones, Lyras, and Wills, I–effectively–didn’t exist.
I had no story. I couldn’t even imagine having a story.
So when I set out to find the story I had to tell, I discovered that I needed to write a main character for me, and for girls like me–Asian and Asian-American girls who need more heroes who look like them, heroes whose image they could step into.
I wrote The Reader in 18 months, and not once did I feel like I wouldn’t finish it. I spent another 12 months revising it with my editor, and not once did I feel like I’d run out of power.
This story, with this character, was too important, too much a part of me, to let go.
I’m not sure if this will happen, but if there are readers out there who need this story the way I needed it when I was younger, I hope they find it. I hope it helps them, in some small way, to embrace their own stories, the ones they have at their glowing molten cores. The ones they have to tell.
Traci Chee is an author of speculative fiction for teens. An all-around word geek, she loves book arts and art books, poetry and paper crafts. She studied literature and creative writing at UC Santa Cruz and earned a master of arts degree from San Francisco State University. The Reader is her YA debut.
There’s a photograph and a biography at the end of this post. Check it out now if you want. What’s your first impression of the person represented there? A pale-skinned, bespectacled blonde. British. First published quite young. Likes animals. That’s usually enough to give people a strong idea that they know who I am. But it’s not all there is to know.
If there’s one thing fiction is brilliant at, it’s proving to readers that nothing is as it seems.
In 2014 my first urban fantasy and the opening novel of my trilogy came out in the US. The Name of the Blade presented readers with Mio Yamato, a British-born Japanese heroine who is good with swords and almost recklessly valiant, her supernatural and seemingly perfect boyfriend, and a smart-mouthed best friend, Jack. Mio’s parents are out of the country on holiday and it’s up to Mio and crew to save London before those pesky adults get back and ground Mio for unleashing the monsters of Japanese myth onto the streets. Cliché cliché cliché. Right?
Well, I hope that the first book proved the characters had inner life and unexpected depth, and their world was darker and more complex than that.
But in Darkness Hidden, the second book of the trilogy, it was really time to start ripping back the reader’s assumptions. Mio, still suffering from the events of the first book, becomes paralysed with fear of making the wrong decision again, and all her ass-kicking becomes a sort of avoidance technique to distract her from taking more meaningful action. The perfectly devoted supernatural boyfriend is revealed to be psychologically fragile, maybe even broken, a habitual liar who seeks to protect himself by keeping the full truth from Mio. Tough, protective, physically capable Jack is left vulnerable and hurt. And the parents I’d so conveniently dispensed with in the first book? Turn out to have a great deal more to offer the story than either readers or Mio expected in this one.
I’m committed to diversity in my writing. Out of seven published YA novels, six have a protagonist who is a woman of colour (it will surprise no one that the single book with a white heroine is the most successful in terms of sales). Many of my books deal with mental illness and disability, and portray a whole spectrum of different sexualities and gender presentations. Sometimes people ask me why I ‘bother’ to do this, clearly assuming that my default must be the same as theirs — straight, white, able-bodied and cis. Surely it must be a lot of effort to include all these, you know, minorities and whatever?
It never crosses their mind that I might be among the minorities.
I don’t think authors should have to play privilege points in order to justify their choices. If someone wants to write books that are diverse, those books should be judged based on how good they are and nothing else.
But things aren’t always what they seem. That’s a good lesson for real life as well as fiction.
I hope readers will be intrigued and entertained by what I’ve attempted to do in Darkness Hidden — the gradual breaking down of what seemed at first to be the over-used tropes of urban fantasy. I hope they’ll come to see that their first impressions of the characters weren’t necessarily wrong, but that, just like in real life, what we can observe about a character at a single glance does not define them.
In choosing to write this particular series, which is set in contemporary London, has an all PoC cast, and pansexual, genderfluid and lesbian characters, I’m doing something that is vitally, personally important to me. Subverting the unquestioned assumptions I see in far too many YA novels. Taking characters whom all too often are pushed to the margins of the narrative, or even erased altogether, and offering them a voice, a point of view, and a story of their own.
I’m committed to diversity because I know how important it is to see your reflection in fiction growing up. I didn’t have that advantage, sadly.
What — not enough white-skinned blondes, you wonder? Oh yeah, plenty of those. But no one like me.
What my picture doesn’t show you, what my biography doesn’t reveal, is that I’m disabled, and have suffered with depression and anxiety all my life (I can quite clearly remember having my first suicidal thought when I was about eight). That my much-beloved family is mixed race. That I’m asexual, and after many years of work am now comfortable considering myself queer — although plenty of people (both gay and straight) like to tell me that I shouldn’t.
How many protagonists like me do you think I read about as a kid?
The best YA novels are not what they seem. They have unexpected depths and insights to offer that a reader will never discover unless they read on. And YA novelists — in fact, all people — are the same. Which means that, just as judging books by their cover is a bad idea, so is judging authors by their official biographies.
YA novelist Zoë Marriott lives on the bleak and windy East coast of Britain, in a house crowded with books, cats, and an eccentric sprocker named Finn (also known as the Devil Hound). Her folk and fairytale inspired fantasy novels are critically acclaimed and have been nominated for many awards, even winning a few, including a USBBY Outstanding International Book listing forThe Swan Kingdom, and the prestigious Sasakawa Prize for Shadows on the Moon.
Rainbow Rowell’s newest novel, Carry On, tells the story of Simon Snow, a boy wizard at a British boarding school — with a twist. Carry On is about characters that Rainbow first created for her novel Fangirl, but Fangirl wasn’t about those characters (well, not exactly). In Fangirl, college freshman Cath Avery spends much of her time writing fan fiction about Simon and his roommate Baz, who come from a Harry Potter-like series of novels written by the fictional Gemma T. Leslie. Cath’s magnum opus is also titled Carry On, but Rainbow’s novel isn’t Cath’s novel; it’s Rainbow’s version of the Simon Snow books.
Confused? Then forget about my attempt to explain Carry On’s meta origins, because you don’t have to understand any of that to enjoy this book. Carry On is a fantasy novel about a boy wizard named Simon, set in a fantasy world that is much like our own but with several key differences (magic being one of them). It’s about Simon’s identity as a chosen one, and how he struggles with that responsibility. It’s also about Simon’s first love, his roommate Baz, who happens to be a vampire. Their love story is a central element in Carry On, and it’s their love story that makes it clear that this is a Rainbow Rowell book.
Recently I had the pleasure of reading Carry On and asking Rainbow a few questions about her latest novel.
Malinda Lo: How would you describe Carry On?
Rainbow Rowell:Carry On is a chosen one story that’s also about chosen one stories. I think my UK editor Rachel Petty summed it up better than anyone else so far: “It’s is a love story to love stories and the power of words — it’s an homage to every ‘chosen one’ who ever had more on his mind than saving the world.”
ML:Carry On is your first full-length fantasy novel, though you wrote several Simon/Baz scenes in Fangirl and you’ve also written fan fiction based on fantasy novels. However, you’re best known for your realistic fiction. What did you find to be the biggest challenges in writing fantasy instead of realistic fiction? And what aspects of fantasy came most easily for you?
RR: I’ve always read more fantasy and sci-fi than realistic fiction, but I never thought I could write it myself. It seemed too much to get my head around. When you write realistic fiction, all the walls are already built, in a way. The laws of gravity apply. Plus I was a newspaper journalist for so long that even realistic fiction felt like too much lying at first.
I think that the Simon Snow scenes in Fangirl were a way for me to experiment with writing fantasy without risking too much. To splash around in the water without leaving dry land.
But those were my favorite parts of the book to write. And the first six months of writing Carry On were the happiest I’ve been as an author.
I have read so much fantasy in my life. I realized that there were so many tropes and magical situations that I wanted to play with. Carry On was supposed to be a short story about Simon and Baz falling in love, but it quickly became this whole big story with eight different narrators.
The most challenging part was definitely the plot. This book reads like one of my books; it’s character driven and relationship-driven. But I wanted it to have a big plotty engine under the hood. And I wanted the plot to make sense. (Even though I love so many fantasies with plots that disintegrate when you look at them too closely…)
ML: Obviously, one aspect of fantasy that is not present in realistic fiction is magic. In Carry On, rather than turning magic spells into Latin words the way J. K. Rowling does in Harry Potter, you use everyday English phrases that are heavily weighted with meaning. The students at Watford in Carry On even take a class called Magic Words to teach them how to construct their spells with phrases ranging from “U can’t touch this” (only relevant if the target of the spell knows the song) to nursery rhymes. How did you develop this idea? It seems so ingenious and I wish I had thought of it! Words do have power, even in our world without magic.
RR: Thank you! Well, it’s a familiar idea, I think, that there’s magic in belief and recognition. In Peter Pan, it’s our belief in fairies that keeps Tinker Bell alive. And in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Bill Willingham’s Fables, regular people give gods and fairy tale characters power by telling their stories.
I don’t know how I came to this exactly — the idea that certain phrases would be more powerful the more that normal people say them.
It was so freeing to build the foundation for Carry On — the magical rules and the way the society worked — while I was writing Fangirl. Because there was no pressure! I felt like I was playing.
Once I had the Magic Words idea, it was so much fun to come up with the spells, and to think about what would make a powerful magician in Simon’s world. Like, one of the reasons Simon is such a crap mage is that, even though he has infinite power, he trips over his words.
Probably it’s not that surprising that someone like me would imagine a world where words are the most powerful currency. They’re my only currency!
ML: If the World of Mages existed and we lived it and you could do magic, what spell would you use to get through a difficult writing day?
RR: Ohhhh … Maybe “Coin a phrase!” That would be a super powerful spell. Like a wish for more wishes.
ML: You’re well known for the romances in your realistic novels, which are all heterosexual. The central romance in Carry On is between two boys. Did you have any worries (writing craft-wise or otherwise) about writing a same-sex love story?
RR: Well, I wanted to be thoughtful about it. I knew how I didn’t want it to feel: like a homoerotic tease, all subtext and nothing real; or fetishized.
But mostly I just wrote Simon and Baz falling in love the way I always write characters falling in love. I want my love stories to feel real. I want them to have depth and texture.
ML: As you and probably everybody out there knows, same-sex love stories hardly ever make it onto the bestseller lists. David Levithan and John Green’s Will Grayson, Will Grayson did, but only for a short time. Given your fan base, Carry On really does have a shot at making it onto those lists, and if it does, it certainly is poised to change a lot of publishers’ minds about same-sex stories. How do you feel about this?
RR: I hope it’s successful, of course. (I mean, of course.) And I’d love for it to be part of a huge wave of bestselling books about queer characters. But I try really hard not to think about the lists.
I wrote my two most popular books when I was in a place of not caring at all what would be successful — and not having any hope for success. After my first book, Attachments, didn’t do anything sales-wise, I wrote Eleanor & Park and especially Fangirl, feeling like I may as well write whatever I wanted because I couldn’t afford to keep going. I’d used up all my spare time and money and my family’s good will, and it felt very final.
Only later did people say things to me like, “Eighties stories don’t sell” and “Asian characters don’t sell” and “Fanfiction is a dirty word in publishing.” I wasn’t thinking about any of that when I was writing!
So the publishing lesson for me has been: Keep your head down. Don’t listen to conventional wisdom. Write the book that you want to spend a year of your life on.
Carry On was that book for me.
ML:Carry On isn’t exactly fan fiction since you created the story, but it is definitely a metafiction of some sort. So I have to ask you a meta question. Fandom often generates a lot of love for secondary characters — Draco in the Harry Potter series is one of the biggest examples of this. If someone were to write fan fiction based on Carry On, which secondary characters do you think would generate the most (and unexpected) fandom love? (My money’s on Ebb. Honestly, I’d like to read some fanfic about her.)
RR: Yes! I love that about fanfiction! I really think people are motivated to read and write fic because of what they don’t see in the stories they love. It’s about filling gaps and exploring the unexplored.
And, oh, I’m glad you like Ebb! I loved writing the adult characters. And I’ve already thought about writing more about Baz’s aunt and her ex. Like, how they hook up again and become vampire-hunters.
I’d also like to write a story about Ebb’s true love, and how that person reacts after the events of the book. (That was a hard sentence to write without spoilers.)
ML: Oh, I would so love to read that story! Will you be writing more fantasy in the future, or is it back to realism for you?
RR: Oh God, I don’t know. This is the first time in my writing career that I haven’t had at least the first draft of my next book written when my book was coming out. The future is wide open, I guess.
But my next project is a graphic novel. I have two outlines — one fantasy, one sci-fi.
I think I’d like to stay flexible, writing about teens sometimes and adults sometimes, and moving between genres and media. I want to keep feeling completely engaged by whatever I’m working on.
ML: I have one more question, and it’s a selfish one for me. You now write across adult and YA, fantasy and realistic fiction. I think that genre and category boundaries are useful for readers in terms of finding books, but how do they affect the way you write, if at all?
RR: I agree, they are useful for readers — and useful for marketing; you don’t want people to be confused about what you’re selling. Unfortunately, categories and genre don’t seem to be useful for me as a writer.
When I get done writing a book, the last thing I want is to start something similar. I want fresh air and a new challenge. And my ideas are all over the place.
So I’ve decided to just write what I feel driven to write, and to hope that my readers follow me — or that new readers find me.
I think I’m going to be a sharper creative person and a happier person if I keep moving.
Some of this comes, I think, out of my career so far. I was a newspaper columnist. Then I was an advertising creative director. I’m really glad that I kept taking risks and trying new things.
I’ve been lucky to work with a literary agent and editor who support and encourage me on this path.
Anna-Marie McLemore’s debut novel, The Weight of Feathers, tells the story of two rival families of traveling performers. In the midst of a bitter feud between the Palomas, who swim in a mermaid show, and the Corbeaus, who wear wings while dancing in the tallest trees, Lace Paloma and Cluck Corbeau confront not only their feelings for each other, but the truth about their families and themselves.
Right after “What made you tell a story about mermaids and winged tightrope walkers?” this is probably the book question I get asked most. And understandably so. Category classifications are hard enough, and magical realism defies labeling. It’s both a genre and not one. It’s as much a worldview as a category.
Magical realism is a literary and cultural language. I might be able to tell you its name, and its origins. But it’s hard for me to say what it sounds like because I grew up speaking it. I hesitate to give a brief, one-sentence definition of magical realism for the same reasons I hesitate to give a short definition of what it means to be Latina. I know what it feels like, but because it’s what I am, it’s hard for me to say how it differs from being something else. When the moon speaks in Lorca’s Blood Wedding, or when Tita turns to fire in Like Water for Chocolate, I take a deeper breath not because these things seem impossible, but because the moon’s words, and Tita’s desire, stay with me.
Okay, Anna-Marie, so you’re saying you can’t tell us what magical realism is?
Let’s look at this through the lens of a different question: How does magical realism differ from realistic fiction with supernatural elements, realistic fiction with fantastical elements, or even realistic fiction with touches of magic?
Though the distinctions can be as subtle and various as the differences between two cultures, here are the two main ones that come to mind: how the idea of the magical is handled, and the fact that magical realism has roots in oppression.
How the sense of the magical is handled
Magical realism isn’t just about seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary. In a culture of oppression, seeing the magical in the midst of the tragic, the unjust, the heartbreaking is a way of survival, for people, for communities, for cultures. We must find our magic where it lives, or we will lose it. Our spirits depend on not overlooking that which might be dismissed or ignored.
In magical realism, that sense of magic belongs not to individuals, but to communities. Characters may be worried over extraordinary events, but they’re not shocked or incredulous about them. The other side of this coin is the knowledge that oppression is a force that waits, and hovers. The world is more brutal than so many people believe, and more beautiful they than imagine.
Magical realism has roots in oppression
Take Lorca, one of my favorite authors of magical realism, who I mention above. In his late thirties, in the midst of the start of a war, he was executed for motives related to his politics and his sexual orientation. The pain and beauty threading through his work comes from the same places that made him a threat to those who ultimately ended his life. And this, heartbreakingly, is not an unfamiliar story. Some of the most transcendent art—magical realism and otherwise, literature and other forms—comes from artists all too familiar with oppression.
Am I saying that white/straight/cis writers can’t write magical realism? Absolutely not, no more than I’d say that a writer from one culture can’t write a character from another culture. (I recently swooned with joy when a white writer told me she’d taken special care to be respectful of the origins of magical realism when she wrote her novel.) Like a language, magical realism can be learned.
But like a language, it takes work. And though there are no limits to who can enjoy reading or who can write magical realism, it’s a language that might sometimes come a little quicker to those from marginalized groups. Being familiar with oppression, of any kind, can leave you more open to the idea that the magical belongs to everyone, and that trying to possess it is often an insidious incarnation of privilege.
Where Our Magic Lives
I’m blessed not to have grown up during the times of unrest that bore so many beautiful works of magical realism. But I come from cultures of oppression that taught me this world. It’s a world where magic is more heartening or frightening than it is surprising. Where you are always both yourself, and a single facet of your jagged, shimmering community. Magical realism is a place where magic spreads, and endures, and refuses to fit in any single set of hands.
A few book recommendations
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. Traditional magical realism against the landscape of familial closeness and conflict. Not technically YA, but I read it as a teen, and it was one of the books that made me a reader. It shares themes of becoming your own and making your own choices with many of my favorite YA books.
Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall. For an example of classical magical realism, play special attention to how the girls in this sister-story interact with la llorona, a mythical figure who takes on a different persona than how she’s historically cast.
The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma. Nova Ren Suma’s novels defy genre; it’s one of many reasons she’s one of my favorite authors. In her latest, you’ll find hints of magical realism mixed in with other elements that are uniquely her own.
Thank you to Diversity in YA for having me, and thank you to everyone for stopping by and reading one queer Latina’s take on magical realism. Un abrazo fuerte, and happy reading!
Anna-Marie McLemore was born in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, raised in the same town as the world’s largest wisteria vine, and taught by her family to hear la llorona in the Santa Ana winds. She is a Lambda Literary fellow, and her work has been featured by The Portland Review, Camera Obscura, and the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press) is her first novel. You can find Anna-Marie at annamariemclemore.com or on Twitter @LaAnnaMarie.
Code-switching refers to the practice of switching back and forth between two or more languages, or between two dialects of the same language. When I was a child, we spoke both English and Danish in our house because my mother is Danish and my father Danish-American. Out shopping my mother would often switch into Danish if she wanted to say something she didn’t want the people around us to understand.
Code-switching also refers to switching between “identities,” in both cultural and interpersonal situations.
My family has lived in the state of Hawaii for thirteen years. Originally settled by Polynesian seafarers (and later illegally annexed by the USA), Hawaii became an increasingly mixed community in the 19th and 20th centuries. Because English was the second language of many of the immigrants but also the only one they all had in common, a creole English called “pidgin” developed that incorporated elements of Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and Tagalog. (Here’s a 4 minute excerpt from a documentary on pidgin by my friend Marlene Booth and her co-director Kanalu Young: Hawaii Pidgin The Voice of Hawaii.)
While it is absolutely common today to hear people switching from Standard English to pidgin and back again, the use (or non-use) of pidgin also became a marker of status and assimilation as well as a means of discrimination. Decades ago, schools in Hawaii were segregated in part according to speech. My friend Gin recalls how her older sisters schooled her in Standard English when she was five so she could “test into” the “academic” elementary school instead of the school where the pidgin speakers were sent. This is a form of code switching as well.
In Court of Fives, code-switching is a constant part of the heroine’s life. I wanted to explore what it would be like for a girl who not only code switches between languages but also between cultural expectations and sub-cultures.
Jessamy’s parents come from different ethnicities, Saroese and Efean (also called Patrons and Commoners in the book). She knows both languages, is fluent in both, and can switch easily between the two in contrast to most of the population, who only speak either Saroese or Efean depending on their ethnicity.
But because Efea is a conquered country, and because the Saroese are the conquerers, she also must negotiate a far trickier form of code-switching: That between the class divide created by the privileged and powerful Patrons and the conquered and looked-down-upon Commoners.
Raised by a Patron father, Jessamy and her three sisters are expected to behave like Patron girls in their speech and their conduct in both private and public. The eldest and youngest sister look enough like their father that they can “pass” as Patron girls, but the situation for Jessamy and her twin Bettany is particularly complex because they are obviously mixed. To look at them is to see they have one Saroese and one Efean parent, a pairing not approved of and fairly uncommon in this society because it is literally illegal for a Patron to marry a Commoner. At the same time, even when Jes speaks Efean to Commoners, they can tell by her looks and speech and behavior clues that she “acts like a Patron,” and they see these ways of acting as pretentious and delusional (because what is the point of acting like a Patron when no Patron will actually accept you as one).
So, yes, I can and do describe Court of Fives as “Little Women meets American Ninja Warrior in a fantasy society inspired by ancient Egypt.” It is definitely a fantasy novel about sisterhood and family loyalty in the wake of treachery, a conquered country ruled within a rigid social hierarchy, a popular game called the Fives that’s more than it seems, and one girl’s challenge to run the Fives even though it is forbidden to her.
But embedded in that story is a girl caught between, who code switches as a constant and regular part of her life, and doesn’t quite have a place in either of her parent cultures. Jessamy has to find her own path, and it’s not going to be an easy road.
Kate Elliott has been writing stories since she was nine years old, which has led her to believe that writing, like breathing, keeps her alive. She is the author of over twenty science fiction and fantasy novels, including her YA debut Court of Fives, as well as Cold Magic, Spirit Gate, King’s Dragon, Jaran, and her short fiction collection, The Very Best of Kate Elliott. A new epic fantasy, Black Wolves, arrives in November. She lives in Hawaii. She lives in Hawaii with her spouse, paddles with outrigger canoe club Ka Māmalahoe, and nurses along an aging schnauzer. Her website is at www.kateelliott.com.
In Wonders of the Invisible World, seventeen-year-old Aidan Lockwood is drawn into a generations-old conflict, in which he discovers his secret family history, an unseen spirit world, and unexpected love with another boy.
When I was a teenager, I had a hard time finding myself in books. By that I mean that, in so many of the novels and short stories I read, I couldn’t find characters that were like me in several specific ways. Queer, rural, from a working class family. Sometimes I’d come across a character that displayed one or occasionally two of those character facets (generally rural and working class), but I couldn’t find characters that embodied all of these at once. It all resulted in making me feel invisible, to some extent. Unseen. Unseeable. Ungettable: maybe even to myself.
Because, don’t get me wrong here, I wasn’t consciously looking for myself in fiction. That’s a largely unconscious drive that I think motivates a lot of readers of fiction. When people say they can’t relate to a character, I sometimes think what they mean is that the characters presented in a story didn’t have lives or experiences that resemble their own. Fiction read in this way seems like a narcissistic activity: the reader looking to find his or her own image in the reflecting pool of literature. And fiction read in this way can also seem, on the surface, to be at cross-purposes to what reading fiction is supposed to do, which is to open the reader up to the lives and experiences of people who are unlike them, in order to grow more aware and to develop a broader scope of compassion.
However, for a young person, finding themselves in a novel can be the first encounter they have with facets of themselves that begin to explain why they feel the way they do about anything. For me, it wasn’t until I was in college that I was able to find characters in books and films that didn’t necessarily reflect myself so much as open a door into unexplored parts of myself. And walking through that door allowed me to discover the full shape of who I was, and who I’ve become.
In Wonders of the Invisible World, I wanted to create a character who doesn’t know himself, but who goes on a journey of self-discovery that, while frightening, turns out to reward him with a greater connectedness to the world around him. Aidan Lockwood has parts of himself that have been hidden away, parts that other people would rather he not display, parts that even he doesn’t understand and is afraid to engage with. In doing the work to uncover the secret parts of himself, though, Aidan also discovers the secret history of his family, and through his family the history of his community. There’s an old curse, a haunting figure of a red-bearded man wearing a black suit, a white stag, a dead apple tree that keeps talking to him, a best friend who he can’t initially remember, and visions that come to him unbidden: stuff that can be really scary, especially to someone who has lived a closely circumscribed life in a remote, rural town. But by the end of his story, Aidan Lockwood finds more wonders in the world, and within himself, than anything worth hiding.
I hope his story can serve as a touchstone for readers who are trying to find themselves in this hard to navigate world. It’s the kind of book I wish I could have come across when I was doing that: trying to grow up, trying to grow into myself in the best possible ways, in the ways that make life wondrous and wonderful.
Christopher Barzak’s fiction includes the award winning adult novel, One for Sorrow, which was recently made into the major motion picture, Jamie Marks is Dead, the Nebula Award finalist, The Love We Share Without Knowing, and the short story collection Before and Afterlives, which won the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Collection. Christopher grew up in rural Ohio, has lived in a southern California beach town, the capital of Michigan, and has taught English outside of Tokyo, Japan. Currently he teaches fiction writing in the Northeast Ohio MFA program at Youngstown State University. Learn more about Chris at christopherbarzak.com.