ASH in Korean, and other thoughts on Cinderella

Last Friday I got a package in the mail that contained several copies of a new edition of Ash — translated into Korean (!) and published by Imagine Books. Here it is: Korean edition of ASH, published by Imagine Books

To say that I did not expect to see my first novel translated into Korean is a massive understatement: before I held this version in my own hands I would have argued that it would be impossible to see this book in any Asian language at all. (Note: Ash is a lesbian retelling of Cinderella.) I’m Chinese by birth, and I would love more than anything to have my novel translated into Chinese, because then my mother could read it. But since being gay isn’t exactly widely accepted in China, I’ve long known that is a fantasy right now — although I’m holding out hope that some publisher in Taiwan, which is much more open to gay people, might buy the rights someday.

However, Korea? To be honest, I don’t know much about Korea’s stance on gay folks, although I have a good friend who is Korean and a lesbian, and I know for a fact that there totally are gay people there (spoiler: we’re everywhere). I suspect that Korea is much more open to gay people than the People’s Republic of China, and now I have this book in my hands, and … wow.

Did you notice that the illustration of the girl on the cover looks Asian? The moment I noticed that, I had to sit down. You see, in my imagination, the main character looks Asian. That’s not clear in the book, and I’ve written before about why it’s OK if you (the reader) didn’t get that from the text. To me, though, Ash looks Asian, and I’ve never seen that represented in an illustration before this Korean cover. It was astonishing. I felt like crying.

And the illustration is so wonderful! I can point out all the details from the illustration that are in the book. There’s Kaisa on the black horse, and there’s Sidhean on the white horse, and on the back cover there’s a book on the forest floor with a mini-illustration of Ash kneeling at her mother’s grave (at least that’s how I see it). And the forest itself! It is so lovely.

I emailed a picture of the Korean edition to my dad, and he immediately replied, “Interesting how the cover has an Asian theme.” Yes! It totally does! Thank you, Imagine Books in Korea, for giving me that — for giving my book back to me in a form that I had seen only in my own imagination before.

Receiving the Korean edition of Ash at this point in time — March 2015 — is especially timely for me because right now a lot of folks are talking about Cinderella again. Disney has just released a new, live-action version of Cinderella, and I’ve seen Ash included in a number of articles that recommend Cinderella retellings in the wake of the Disney movie. Here’s one from Barnes & Noble; here’s one from YALSA’s The Hub; and here’s one from BookBub.

Ever since Ash was published four and a half years ago, I’ve encountered mixed reactions to the idea of Cinderella. For many people, this fairy tale seems particularly anti-feminist, since it appears to be about a girl who suffers in silence and then gets saved by marrying a handsome, rich prince. Every time I talk about why I wrote Ash, I mention this interpretation of the fairy tale. The thing is: This was never my interpretation of it.

As a little girl, I loved Cinderella because I identified with her. I did not have a wicked stepmother who forced me to work as a servant in my own home, but I had a difficult relationship with my parents. I love them, and now that I’m an adult I understand much more about why things happened in my childhood the way they did. But Cinderella showed me that a girl could endure an awful childhood, and that she could emerge from it through finding love. To me, Prince Charming was a symbol. Frankly, everything in a fairy tale is a symbol, and I think I recognized that on a subconscious level even as a child. I didn’t want to grow up to marry Prince Charming — I wanted to grow up and get out.

All of the heroines of my childhood did that: Cinderella, Amy March (yes, Amy not Jo of Little Women), Harry from Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword. All of these girls also found true love when they emerged from childhood, and I wanted that too. Prince Charming is the symbol of that: love.

In earlier versions of Cinderella, the prince is a symbol for something other than or in addition to love. He is a symbol of economic freedom, because marriage was often a girl’s only path to wealth and a kind of independence. Making a good marriage was today’s equivalent of a successful career. I haven’t seen the new Disney version of Cinderella because after I wrote Ash, I stopped reading or watching all Cinderellas. I’ve written the version that was right for me, and I don’t feel the need to read or see any others. From what I understand, though, the new Disney version is a fairly straightforward remake of the 1950 animated film, so it’s probably still old-fashioned with regard to Prince Charming ((It amuses me that according to this Time review of the movie, Cinderella convinces the prince to spare a stag’s life, whereas in my Ash, Ash herself goes hunting and the stag dies!)) and marriage.

I understand why people might see this latest Cinderella and bristle at its do-good representation of girls and romanticization of marriage. I do think Cinderella needs to be updated, and there have been many interesting remakes and retellings of it. Obviously, I don’t believe that girls today should set their sights on marrying well in order to secure their happiness, but I also think plenty of girls understand they’re probably not going to marry a prince and live in a castle.

When I was a little girl, the version of Cinderella I loved the best was the 1950 Disney version, but I don’t think it taught me to wait for a prince. For me, Cinderella was a fantasy about surviving something horrible and finding love at the end of it. When you’re in a dark place, you need those kinds of fantasies. I got a message of empowerment out of it, not of reward for being subserviant. That is the Cinderella story I fell in love with, and that is the Cinderella story I told in Ash. It just goes to show that even with a story as well known as Cinderella, not everyone will read it the same way.