It took Emily X.R. Pan nearly a decade to write her debut novel The Astonishing Color of After. She’d initially conceived the book as a 40-year exploration of her grandmothers’ coming-of-age in Taiwan, but due to a lack of information about how she grew up, the author reworked her premise — and her genre. “It was adult literary. I tried middle-grade, I tried YA, I tried adult again,” she recalls. Compounding the difficulty of categorizing the book was the way her own life was seeping into the material. She lost her aunt to suicide in 2014 and refashioned the narrative to center on a Taiwanese-American teenager whose mother dies by suicide. The genre? YA.
Pan is one of many East Asian-American authors to recently make a splash in the YA space with highly original and culturally specific fiction. Her book is a relatively literary entry in the canon, a nearly 500-page novel set in Taiwan which combines mystical and realistic elements. The protagonist, Leigh, goes to be with her grandparents in Taiwan after her mother’s death, and — believing her mother has turned into a bird — seeks to find and speak with her, and in turn gain a better sense of self.
Pan had been toying around with the image — without any particular significance attached — of a person turning into a bird for a long time. And as her own grieving process made its way onto the page, she found that the image attained a rich emotional significance. The book is layered with Buddhist ideas, and Leigh’s belief of what happened to her mother reflects the religion’s concept of post-death spiritual limbo. “I didn’t want to write an intentionally Buddhist book at first because I was really nervous that it would seem too inaccessible to people,” Pan says. “I worried that the religious culture would alienate people.”