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Why the new wave of East Asian authors is targeting YA

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.”

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Book Review: When Wings Expand by Mehded Maryam Sinclair

By Mitali Chakravarty

When Wings Expand

Author: Mehded Maryam Sinclair
Publisher: The Islamic Foundation
Total number of pages: 217
Price: US$ 9.95
ISBN 978-0-86037-499-2

When Wings Expand is a novel in the epistolary technique that highlights a young girl’s battle to accept losing her mother to cancer, conquering her fears and anxieties with love and deep-rooted faith. Though the author, Mehded Maryam Sinclair, intended this to be a book that would be ‘about how fully and conscientiously practicing Muslims see and deal with their losses’ (http://productivemuslim.com/interview-with-maryam-sinclair/), her narrative has transcended the boundaries of a single faith to reach out to the hearts of all mankind.

The protagonist, as in Young Adult fiction, is a young teenager called Nur (‘sacred light’). Located in Canada, she is battling her sense of loss as her mother succumbs to cancer. With the legacy of her mother’s love and faith, Nur discovers that ‘what makes a person different is how they choose to deal with the pain’. She learns to build on her strengths, travels back to her mother’s home in Turkey and finds courage in the love that surrounds her and her family. After she returns to her home in Canada, she slowly learns to help her younger brother as well as other young cancer-afflicted patients and their families come to terms with their pain. Her journey towards recovery helps her conclude that ‘It seems life has gotten bigger, like more things are possible — it’s like pain is a smaller thing inside a much larger me.’ She exudes a sense of light and joy to sufferers around her, proving to them that after a loss wings can still expand, as does that of the butterfly coming out of a chrysalis.

The image of the chrysalis runs through the book. The body of the butterfly shrinks and the wings expand after it emerges from the pupa so that it can fly. Nur feels this is what love and faith does to sufferers. Love and faith shrinks the body of their grief so that the sufferers can grow wings and fly towards a better future.

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