On avoiding the exotic in "Huntress"

Huntress by Malinda LoSince Huntress was published, I've noticed that some reviews mention that the reader didn't realize that many aspects of the fantasy world in the book are based in Chinese and Japanese culture, or that they only realized that because of the cover copy or the cover itself. This is really interesting and makes me think a few things. First, I am so glad that the Huntress cover has an Asian girl on it. I know that if the cover had depicted a white girl or even no girl at all, probably even more readers would never have guessed that the characters look Asian. Second, I never realized this line of the cover copy would be so important: "The exciting adventure prequel to … Ash is overflowing with lush Chinese influences, inspired by the I Ching …"

As much as I think a book should not be judged by its cover, the package that it's presented in, including the jacket illustration and the cover copy, is part of the book reading experience. It helps to set the scene for the reader before they even begin with the first sentence.

I noticed this recently when I was flipping through White Cat by Holly Black the other night and realized, to my total surprise, that the character Lila has short blond hair. I don't know why this didn't register with me when I read White Cat, especially because I'm a fan of girls with short blond hair. :) But apparently I always assumed Lila looked like the girl depicted on the cover of Red Glove. I think that I read White Cat after I had already seen the cover for Red Glove, so that may be why that image is so firmly stuck in my head.

Anyway, this makes me doubly grateful that my publisher was so thoughtful about the package that Huntress comes in. If you bought the hardcover, you'll know that there is a map of the Kingdom printed on the endpapers. While it was being designed, I communicated with my editor and the book designer about making sure that the illustrations on the map were not too typically European-inspired fantasy; I wanted to make sure that Asian elements were clearly depicted. The map illustrator, Dave Stevenson, added a phoenix and a Chinese unicorn to the map, as well as a Chinese-style boat and cottage.

Also, the book designer, Alison Impey, selected drop capital letters to begin each chapter that had a more Asian-like style than the drop caps used in Ash.

And yet, you'll notice that none of the elements of the Huntress package are over-the-top Asian in an exotic way. I very much wanted to avoid exoticism not only in the text but also in the design elements, and I'm so happy that the designers completely understood that when they were turning the book into a physical object.

However, the lack of exotic details in the text especially means that readers who aren't familiar with Chinese or Japanese traditions like kyudo or Taoism may not understand that's what I'm referencing. And honestly, that's OK with me. Here's why.

The Kingdom in Huntress is influenced by Chinese and Japanese culture, but it is not China or Japan. It is a fictional fantasy world that also must eventually become the fantasy world in Ash, because Huntress is set several centuries earlier. So it simply could not be the kind of "Asia" that exists in movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. ((Just want to note that I don't think there's anything wrong with those kinds of fantastic "Asia." They can be very entertaining and enjoyable to experience in film or books. But that's not what my intention was with Huntress.)) Also, there were elements of the fantasy world in Huntress that were simply not Chinese: there is no homophobia, for one thing, and there isn't nearly as much sexism as there was in imperial China.

What I wanted to create was a world that was philosophically and spiritually rooted in Chinese tradition, but was not at all exotic. In Huntress, those traditions include Taoism, qigong, Chinese medicine, divination, and kyudo. They're fairly directly represented in the book, but these are all beliefs or ritual practices, so it's harder to tell they're there if you're not already familiar with them.

Most importantly, I wanted readers to find Kaede's world normal, because it has to contrast significantly with the land of the Fairy Queen — and I wanted the fairy realm to seem totally foreign. That meant I had to remove the trappings of exoticism that are often associated with "Asian" elements.

What makes something exotic? It can certainly be philosophy or beliefs, but more often, I think exoticism resides in things you can actually see or hear. Clothing, food, music, architecture: these are the external markers of difference. So I decided to minimize, when possible, the descriptions of these things in Huntress, except when I was making a point. For example, when Taisin visits the royal palace, I describe some of the palace to show how luxurious it is compared to what she's accustomed to. When Taisin and Kaede dine with the king, he has a very grand feast of delicacies that ordinary folks don't get.

Otherwise, the things that might seem "exotic" to an outsider are actually considered "normal" to an insider. Kaede is an insider in her world, so she's not going to find most of it terribly exotic. The clothes she wears and the way the students at the Academy do their hair are pretty ordinary to her. The spiritual and philosophical beliefs that provide the backbone to the magic that Taisin practices aren't going to seem unusual to Taisin.

Hopefully, they don't seen too unusual to the reader, either. This can result in a few different reactions, of course. There are readers who won't see the Chinese influence at all because it's presented as entirely normal, and besides, they're reading a fantasy novel where magic happens — maybe it's all made up. And then there are readers who do see the Chinese influence and are excited by the fact that it's presented as normal. I've definitely gotten emails from readers who say they're Chinese and they really appreciated all the indicators of Chineseness in the story. There also may be readers who see the book package and realize that something about Huntress is based on Asian influences, and they might see some of those influences and miss others.

I think these are all perfectly valid ways of reading the book. My novel isn't meant to be a history lesson or a course in Chinese sociology. It's a novel, and it should be read as entertainment. I think the Chinese influences are clearly there for those who see them, and for those who don't, it's fine. It's just like the gay thing, actually. The story is certainly about two girls falling in love, but I made efforts to present it in a way that didn't turn it into an issue about sexual orientation.

I think it's a fine line, honestly, writing a book about something that's not mainstream (Asian-inspired fantasy or LGBT characters) but writing it in a mainstream style. This might be one of the most difficult aspects of writing non-European-based fantasy, because in the past, non-European-based fantasy worlds have been thoroughly and problematically exoticized. Readers are used to seeing Asian fantasy worlds filled with geishas and kung fu masters, which means presenting Asia as the norm can be a challenge.

Ultimately, I think my project with Huntress was a fairly Asian American one. I am Asian American, and I move through the world as an Asian American. Kaede's world has elements of both Asia and America in it, and I like that. I'm intrigued by hybrid cultures and moments of cultural intersection — like when Kaede encounters the fairies for the first time. That's why I almost got a Ph.D. in anthropology: because I am really interested in those spaces where differences intersect and change. That could, really, be an underlying theme to all my books, past, present, and future. And now I've gone totally off-track, so I'll leave it at that!