Today I’m very excited to host another dear friend on our blog! I’ve known Amrita for about four years and can honestly tell she’s one of the most talented writers & poets I have ever met. So you can imagine how happy I was when she agreed to write about something close to her heart.
“Then they took the last step together, and when she kissed her, her mouth as warm as summer, the taste of her sweet and clear, she knew, at last, that she was home.”
— Malinda Lo, Ash
“She was no longer in her body; she felt free. She was as small as a drop of dew quivering on a spider’s web; she was a minute in an hour in a day in a million years.”
― Malinda Lo, Huntress
When I think back to the first books I can remember choosing for myself and loving as a child, they nearly all belong to the fantasy genre. I remember devouring classics like Ella Enchanted and Howl’s Moving Castle with an eagerness that assigned books for school fell short of evoking from me. While my parents’ lessons about the importance of literature turned me into a voracious reader very young, they tended to view sci fi and fantasy as nonsense, a waste of my time and education. But the pull I felt towards the genre stubbornly persisted all throughout childhood, and as I got older, these books became a kind of refuge for me.
As a South Asian-American and first generation immigrant growing up in a country where social circles were determined by one’s ability to conform and family demanded unwavering obedience, I treasured those moments I spent wrapped in universes where characters faced, I believed, vastly more interesting problems than mine. Perhaps it was the thrill of watching authors gradually unveil a new world with unique realities, or the suspense incited by a dangerous, winding quest. Unquestionably, the ample number of three-dimensional female heroines in fantasy added to my passion. After all, I had always felt most keenly aligned with the women in the books I read, regardless of the plot. I hungered for the journeys Enna takes in Shannon Hale’s excellent book Enna Burning, or the wisdom that Lady Fire possesses in Kristin Cashore’s Seven Kingdoms series.
But if there’s one fantasy author in particular I wish I knew about as a teenager, it would have to be Malinda Lo. Novels such as the acclaimed Ash are not only impeccably written and plotted–they are revolutionary for featuring lesbian and bisexual women of color as the protagonists. To some extent, I do think that if I knew about and had access to Lo’s writing when I was younger, certain things I struggled to understand about myself would have felt infinitely clearer. While I proclaimed myself a staunch ally and had several gay friends growing up, they were for the most part male and often white. The fact that Asian women like myself could love other women felt, frankly, too baffling to even imagine back then.
I often hear people in the LGBTQ community talking about experiencing their twenties or even their thirties as a kind of a delayed adolescence, because our actual adolescent periods often involved a great deal of repressed feelings and necessary caution. In some way, I feel this doubly as a girl brought up by a conservative but loving South Asian family, which meant both my movements and emotions felt constantly restricted. It was really only in my early twenties that I started to come to terms with my bisexuality and began engaging with LGBTQ media in earnest.
Amongst the books I was recommended by friends was Malinda Lo’s Ash, a Cinderella retelling in which the protagonist is a young woman of color and the archetypal figures in previous versions of the tale are transformed into stunningly complex characters in their own right. Ash, as the titular character, undergoes immense development over the course of the novel, and her experience of grief and longing for a different life feels movingly realistic. The romantic dynamic that gradually builds between Ash and Kaisa, the court’s huntress, a coveted and significant role, is sweet and magnetic and never sensationalized. Lo also adds a layer of magic to the typical Cinderella story with the inclusion of a fae society that interacts uneasily with the human population, neatly paralleling the two paths that Ash finds herself faced with in the novel. And the fact that the story centers on characters of color and a romance between two women rather than relegating them in the background or omitting them from the narrative entirely–this is a layer of magic in its own way.
Within a week of starting the book, I blazed through my reading of Ash, and found myself halfway through its prequel, Huntress, a very different yet equally absorbing fantasy novel featuring a romance between two girls. It felt correct, somehow, that the first gay female characters of color I’d ever read about were in fantasy novels. I had seen writers of fantasy expand and open up so many different avenues of existence in their work before, and this rang to me as another kind of expansion brought about in the genre. A truer one, as it acknowledged identities and relationships that were previously consigned to subtext and marginal readings instead of sticking to a pre-approved script.
In the years since, I have seen these two books mentioned so many times by people discussing LGBTQ novels written by Asian people that it seems they have become part of a new kind of canon–one determined not by hierarchical structures but by a welcoming community. And Malinda Lo has continued to write novels where LGBTQ characters of color exist as leads and love interests rather than tokens, such as her sci-fi Adaptation series. It is truly incredible to see the growing numbers of books published in recent years where representation features so prominently and the writer belongs to the community they write for. In no small part, Lo’s writing helped make this explosion of new talent possible, and I will always be grateful for the way her novels opened my mind to the possibilities present in my own life, an impact that undoubtedly many have experienced as well.
Amrita C. is a Bangladeshi-American writer. Her work has been published by Winter Tangerine, Augur Magazine, and Glass Poetry, and is forthcoming from Kajal Magazine and Cosmonauts Avenue. Her interests include social justice, stargazing and taking too many pictures of her cat.