Today I’m delighted to welcome fantasy author S. Jae-Jones! Wintersong, her New York Times bestselling debut novel just released earlier this year, is a young adult book starring a composer determined to free her sister from the clutches of the Goblin King (and will be followed by a companion novel, which is scheduled for release in 2018!). Her blog features some fantastic pieces on its origin and some of her inspirations, and you can read an excerpt from Wintersong on the Griffin Teen website.
Every day, I write with an albatross about my neck.
Most of the time, I don’t notice its weight, but whenever I speak of my book, I can feel it hanging there, transforming from an albatross to the elephant in the room everyone is too polite to discuss. I smile, I nod, I continue as though I don’t feel it there, sitting as heavy as denial upon my chest as I answer questions, sign books, and pose for pictures.
I am an American writer of Asian descent.
The first time I truly felt the weight of my albatross was at the launch party for Wintersong. After a successful panel with my fellow young adult fantasy authors Roshani Chokshi and Marie Lu, we opened up the floor to questions. We gave answers both earnest and glib to those who asked us where we got our inspiration, how we came to be published, what our writing process was like, until we got to the final question of the evening. A young woman—a teenager—raised her hand and asked, “How does being Asian influence your writing?”
And I had no answer, earnest or glib.
Like the three of us, this teenager was also of Asian descent. I watched her face, shining with hope and eagerness as Roshani and Marie gave their answers. The albatross about my neck stirred, flapping its wings and fanning the flames of my guilt. Roshani spoke of the tales of both her Indian and Filipino heritage she read about as a child, while Marie told an amazing story about witnessing the events of Tiananmen Square as a little girl and how that influenced the dystopian world of her novel, Legend.
I had nothing to say.
My debut novel has no overtly Asian elements. It was inspired by Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, and the myth of the Erl-king. It is set in late 18th century Bavaria and in a Germanic-influenced fantasy world populated with goblins and Lorelei. It is also the most personal and most me book I have ever written.
Those who know me know how I am a lover of all things dark, gothic, and Romantic (with a capital R). Percy Bysshe Shelley, Phantom of the Opera, German-language musicals, Flowers in the Attic, Jacques Cocteau films, Jane Eyre, Crimson Peak, Ann Radcliffe (with whom I share a birthday). I have an aesthetic, as the kids say, and I live that aesthetic to the hilt in the fashion choices I make, the movies I consume, and the books I read and write. It is a distinctly European aesthetic.
It is also mine.
I am the first generation born in America on my mother’s side. My mother is also the person responsible for my aesthetic. She passed her childhood favorites on to me: Pollyanna, Anne of Green Gables, Jane Austen. We spent long weekends marathoning BBC’s Pride & Prejudice with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. She confessed that her very first literary crush was Gilbert Blythe. Her major was English. She made sure I was fed a steady diet of literature and Korean food, feeding my brain as much as my heart.
What she never did was make me feel inadequate.
No, like the ancient mariner of Coleridge’s poem, this albatross is a burden of my own making. American identity is an incredibly fraught and complicated subject, especially as it is both intensely personal and unavoidably political. Where you belong, who claims you, what you claim, what you honor, what you absorb, some of these are choices you make, but others are foisted upon you by others. I thought I had resolved my sense of identity years ago, only to find myself litigating it over and over again.
Write what you know.
I wrote what I knew in my debut novel. I knew my love of classical music, of underworld stories, of sibling relationships, of all things creepy and unsettling. I am goth. I wrote my goth identity into a book. That was the easy part.
The hard part was defending it.
Publishing is a business of managing expectations. I was an acquiring editor at a Big 5 imprint before I became a writer, so I knew very well how to manage business expectations when it came to advances, royalties, print runs, etc. I can divorce my sense of worth from any number of zeroes, my personal self from my artistic output. I am not my book. Except when I am.
I could manage my own expectations, but what I did not expect was managing everyone else’s. The expectations carried by my face and my name. The cover apparently doesn’t match the insides. I feel guilty about that. Guilty, and afraid.
Writing fantasy when you are a non-white American writer can be like stepping through a minefield. If you don’t write from a non-white tradition, are you failing the identity you’ve claimed and that has claimed you? If you do write from the tradition of your ancestors, what if you get it wrong? English is my first language. It is the language in which I speak, think, and write. Korean is my milk tongue. I speak it badly, and with an American accent. Would I write Korean fantasy with one as well? The guilt comes from fear, and fear feeds the guilt.
If I wrote realistic contemporary fiction, would my guilt be less? If I wrote what I knew in a realistic way, I would write about a girl with a Korean mother and a white father, tennis clubs and cotillion, California sunshine and New York City skyscrapers. But my life is as much a fantasy for readers as my debut. I am a first-generation Asian-American, but the trappings of my life do not fit in with the typical narrative of immigrant children. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, where there is a sizeable Asian population, many of whom have been in America for generations. I grew up with a lot of mixed-race families, where the tension between the Old World and the New was not necessarily a clash of ideals, but one of amiable and occasionally intense negotiation. I have no charming and palatably exotic anecdotes of my mother misunderstanding some aspect of American culture I can relate on panels. I have no inspirational stories to give about overcoming or defying parental pressure to become a lawyer or a doctor. My parents encouraged my artistic pursuits and even offered to support me financially if I decided to become an animator or a writer. In short, I have no way to “prove” how my being Asian influences my writing, in either my life or in my work.
But perhaps I am looking at it through the looking glass, and right is left and left is right. Perhaps it is my writing that influences every part of me being Asian. I cannot parse and partition parts of myself for mainstream consumption, or even for other Asian-Americans. Every book I write explores some part of me. My love of classical music was the seed from which Wintersong sprang, but my love of classical music came from my mother. Writing this book helped me better understand me, how everything I am grows from a rich bed of influences, including all those piano lessons I took like a good little Asian girl.
I still write with an albatross about my neck, but book after book, story after story, I write it into freedom.
|S. Jae-Jones (called JJ) is an artist, an adrenaline junkie, and the NYT bestselling author of WINTERSONG (Thomas Dunne 2017). When not obsessing over books, she can be found jumping out of perfectly good airplanes, co-hosting the Pub(lishing) Crawl podcast, or playing dress-up. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she now lives in North Carolina, as well as many other places on the internet, including Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, and her blog.|