Since Ash was published last fall, it's been brought to my attention that some readers have gone into Ash expecting to find Asian characters in the book, and clues that Ash's world has Asian influences. This is because back in 2008, I blogged about race in fantasy novels and noted that I personally have always seen Ash and Kaisa as looking Asian. However, this has led to something of a misunderstanding, and I'd like to try to clear it up. This is part of what I wrote in 2008:
I’ve always envisioned both Cinderella and Charming, in my book, as Asians. For the few people who have read a draft of my book so far, this might come as a surprise, because that is never explicit in the story. But why should it be?
I do agree with Mitali Perkins’ third point when it comes to the specific case of Ash: Respect your readers’ right to cast the story. I do describe my main characters’ physical appearance, but not terribly specifically. I want readers to imagine the Charming that they would fall in love with, because everyone has different tastes.
So, let me break this down. When I wrote Ash, I had a mental image of what my characters looked like. In my imagination, they appeared to have Asian features. However, there is no Asia in Ash's world (it's a fantasy world), so there is no way they could actually be Asian. In addition, Ash's country and culture have only very distant ties to Chinese cultural tradition, and I'm pretty sure nobody except anthropologists would pick up on that link. So if you're looking for signs of Asian influence, it's unlikely that you'll find them.
When bloggers list Ash as a book that includes people of color, that's very kind of them, but honestly, I don't think it deserves to be in that category. That takes away from books that truly are are about race and ethnic diversity, or that engage overtly with those identities.
But also — and this is very important: My opinion is only my opinion. I think that sometimes readers tend to give too much credence to an author's thoughts about her own work. Every reader brings his or her background to a book, and a book's meaning is always a negotiation between the reader (and her experiences) and the story itself. What the author says outside the pages of the book is largely irrelevant.
The problem is, now we have the internet (not to mention the rest of the media!), and I have this blog. Many people are interested in "behind the scenes" details, and frankly, it can be extremely gratifying to be asked and very tempting to answer. However, I've learned that it's risky for an author to put their own beliefs about their work out there, and it has to be done consciously and deliberately.
For those who are still confused about why I see the characters as having Asian features, though, I will say this: It probably stems from the fact that I'm Chinese American and I live in a diverse place (California). There are Asian American faces next to Latinos next to white people next to African Americans, and yet we are all (mostly) Americans. This is the world I live in, and it makes sense to me that this is also the world I envisioned in my fiction.
But that doesn't mean you, the reader, have to read it that way. The book is out there. I hope readers will consider it independently of others' opinions, including my own.
If you have questions or feedback, I invite you to email me directly at mlo [at] malindalo [dot] com.