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Thank you so much to all of last week’s guests! Here’s a summary with links to their pieces in case you missed any of them:

The Reader-Recommended Science Fiction/Fantasy Books by Women Project: In 2013, Renay started the recommendation list project linked on the sidebar—and it’s been a part of Women in SF&F Month ever since! Earlier this month, she revealed the latest list of recommended books by women including submissions from 2017, and once again, you can add up to 10 books by women that you read and loved in the last year so the list continues to grow!

Now, I’m excited to announce the final guests coming up next week, starting tomorrow:

Women in SF&F Month 2018 April 23-24 Schedule

April 23: Mary Fan (Flynn Nightsider and the Edge of Evil, Starswept, Jane Colt)
April 24: Ann Aguirre (Sirantha Jax, Ars Numina, Razorland, The Honors)

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Today, I’m thrilled to welcome Claire North! Claire North is a pseudonym for Catherine Webb, who has written several young adult speculative fiction novels including two Carnegie Medal finalists, Timekeepers and The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle. She is also Kate Griffin, who authored the Matthew Swift and Magicals Anonymous books—two related urban fantasy series set in the same version of London. As Claire North, she’s published the Arthur C. Clarke Award finalist The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Touch, the World Fantasy Award–winning novel The Sudden Appearance of Hope, and The End of the Day. Her next novel, 84K, will be released on May 22!

84K by Claire North The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Strong Women!

I went to see a man about writing for theatre.  “I’m a novelist,” I explained, “But I’m really interested in learning about playwriting.”

He talked for forty five minutes without pause, at the end of which he congratulated me on my clear yet silent intelligence, and invited me to go away and write “five strong women”.

My heart sunk.  Dear god spare me, I thought, but spare me from another goddamn strong woman.

Oh don’t get me wrong—more than ever we need empowering symbols of kick-ass awesome ladies.  We are in a world which still teaches girls not to fight, run or argue.  Our global leaders are especially charming on how important it is to possess women by their sexual organs.  But the power of stories is that they make you believe—not just know, but believe—that you can be awesome.  That you can change the world.  And in this sense the Strong Female Character is a blessing, an uplifting gift to future generations, and should be celebrated, amen.

However.  The tools we use to progress will after a while, hopefully, change the world enough that new tools are needed too, and I wonder if we aren’t coming up on that time.  After all, the Strong Yet Kind Beneath Their Traumas Male Character isn’t an idea we have ever felt the need to celebrate.  Men just are strong.  They just are confident, outgoing, assertive, brave—and if they’re not that is itself a source of great literary exploration and angst which I would argue is as oppressive to men as anything currently propagated against women.

The wholeness of male characters doesn’t need to be stated, they simply are; unless you genuinely believe that without a male Doctor Who, boys are going to grow up stunted because of the lack of any other male role models.  Because, wow, doesn’t Rey emasculate Star Wars by… you know… that way she sorta exists, the shadow of her boobies making it basically impossible to perceive the existence of Poe, Finn, Luke or Han?  Whatever next?  A Captain Marvel movie, taking it to 1 out of 18 MCU films starring women?  Goodread’s “best of science fiction list” containing fewer than 88% men, and more than three of the women being Ursula Le Guin—and more than three of her (awesome) books on that list not having male protagonists?  IT’S A CRAZY WORLD WE LIVE IN.

Slow exhale….

And here’s the nub of it.  A complexity is permitted to our Strong Men that is frequently denied to our Strong Women, because the female “strong” is itself often a trap that denies a place for true human depth.  Strength is not tenderness; compassion; kindness—all words that are associated with “feminine”, another concept that needs a serious bit of contemplation.  Instead we celebrate “strength” in an era where women still feel that they need to be extraordinary to compete with a male perfectly average.  Novels by female authors are reviewed less, rewarded less; and that’s just the book industry.  In our fiction and our lives, we fight for recognition, and become “ice queens” and “ball-breakers” and clichés of “strength” that simultaneously deny our complexity, imprison us in these labels.  Remember when Wonder Woman was released, and critics declared she was diminished by being beautiful, and sexy?  How did we get to this place, where to be a Strong Woman is also to be not sexual or vulnerable?  How did this idea which should have set us free, tie us up in so many knots?

What do you think of when you think of Strong Woman in SF/Fantasy?  A great many male writers have sat down with the excellent and awesome intention of putting in more Strong Women, and the result is often… well… clad in leather with a sword.  Or a big gun.  Frequently monosyllabic.  Brisk bordering on arctic.  Words unnecessary.  Cutting.  Strong.

It’s not just male writers—women are also sucked into this with great ease, and I’m happy to hold my hands up and say I have definitely dabbled in these Strong Women tropes.  In the best situations, these ladies are kick-ass awesome, professionals who know what they want and how they’re going to get it.  In the worst, our literary women are secretly deeply motherly and caring beneath their steely exteriors and will at the end of the story find fulfilment by casting off their guns and ambitions and having a baby, because hurrah, fulfilment.  Motherly motherly fulfilment.  In the absolute, absolute worst case, the Strong Female Character is a victim of violent sexual abuse, which made them Hard Yet Pained, and which hugely traumatic experience is used to justify why they’re so Tough, rather than being Sensitive and Tender, as though sexual violence can just be thrown in as a bit of background colour.  Sometimes they’re strong for a few pages, the kindly yet brave heart of the story, until they’re brutally killed on page 7, thus provoking the man to learn by their awesome example.  Their awesome… dead… example.

So sure, there’s still a need for our Strong Female Character, because there’s still a huge battle to be fought for the hearts of tomorrow; but also a need to new conversations about what this means.  Happily, I’d argue that a great deal of the recent successful fiction both by and about women—such as N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, Naomi Alderman’s The Power, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series, Becky Chambers’ Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and Francis Hardinge’s The Lie Tree—are doing this awesomely.  Their characters are Strong in the male sense—in that they are permitted agency, choice, faced with challenges that they then must confront.  They grow, they learn, they make mistakes, they fall, they suffer, they pick themselves back up.  They defy labels.  They defy being pigeonholed into the box of “strong but won’t have sex unless tamed” or “strong and scarred by experience” or “strong and lonely” or… whichever box it is that permits no personality beyond the label.  They are people, whole and true.  And surely that is where the dream is going, and has always been going, and it is our duty as lovers of stories—and women too—to remember this.

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Today I am delighted to welcome Jeannette Ng! Under the Pendulum Sun, her debut novel, is gothic fantasy in which Victorian missionaries journey to Arcadia with plans to convert the fae to their religion. It was just released in October 2017—and, as was announced just a couple of weeks ago, Jeannette Ng is one of this year’s finalists for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer!

Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng

An Incomplete Taxonomy of Fairies, with examples

Mystical, mysterious and magnificent, everyone thinks they know fairies.

The word itself conjures up vivid images and subtle variations in spelling[1] can mean a world of difference. And so just as many (but not all) readers felt that there was something fundamentally un-vampire about sparkling in sunlight, any new incarnation of fairies needs one foot in the old.

Much of the reinvention of fairies is rooted in a need to explain their actions. Their fundamental Otherness and frequent actions as enablers of simple plots with superficially flimsy explanation result in a need to create a framework for that to make sense. After all, why is a sleeping curse on the child an appropriate retaliation for being snubbed to party? These new reasons often play on old themes, justifying their idiosyncratic actions of the fairies. Some are quite playful, such as J M Barrie explaining in Peter Pan that fairies are unable to feel more than one emotion at any time due to their diminutive size.

Fairies as Other

But any taxonomy of fairies must begin with their Otherness, held in contrast to the human and the normal. As the concept of the anchoring norm of society and story shifts, so do the fae with it. Many folkloric traditions, such as the Italian, have only female fairies. The chivalric romances of the middle ages are replete with fairy queens and fairy brides, each more powerful and beautiful than the last. Other stories have fairyland be a place of strange and opposite logic, existing beyond the boundaries of civilisation, beyond walls, behind mirrors and under the ground. Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin features fairies that are incomprehensibly alien, likened to the indecipherable Linear A[2].

George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has fae-like beings who are literally named The Others. Malevolent and mysterious, they exist beyond the Wall and at first are said to be nothing more than fairy tales to scare children.

Otherness does not always necessitate horror as Robert Weinberg’s A Modern Magician features a changeling who is compelled to annoy all those around him with constant eating and assorted other behavioral quirks.

Fairies as People

Yet in stark contrast to the very alien fairies, sometimes they are just people. Despite their strange (or not) appearances, they behave with human logic. The fairies of Mercedes Lackey’s SERRAted Edge series may still fear iron and are incapable of creativity, but they are still very human in their behaviors and emotions. Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted has fairies with frivolous and sensible dispositions but both are relatably normal, with some even living as people.

Fairies as Predators and Parasites

Reports on real changelings are likely rooted in the people’s misunderstanding of neurodevelopmental disorders, paired with the belief that the real “healthy” child has been stolen away. This scrap of folklore has persisted from WB Yeats’ “The Stolen Child” to the 1986 film Labyrinth. Abduction or seduction away to fairyland has become a cornerstone to its idea.

Catherynne M. Valente’s beautiful Fairyland series opens with a Green Wind inviting September, a twelve year old girl, on a journey to the great sea that borders Fairyland. More sinister abductions are often paired with the theme of the fairy realm as predatory or parasitic. Fairies can feed off the passions of people and seek to induce them for their own satisfaction, such as in Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely series. Emma Newman’s Split Worlds novels have deeply unpleasant fairies that fit this mould, unable to leave their own realm and seeking entertainment from mortal playthings.

The Middle English Sir Orfeo stands at an intriguing intersection as it is a reworking of the Orpheus and Eurydice story from classical myth, but that Eurydice is not dead, but abducted to a fairyland inhabited by those thought to be dead but are not. It presents a fascinating early example of a hellish fairyland, strikingly raw in its imagery of men and women suspended in their moment of death, headless and limbless, drowning and burning.

Fairies as Abstract Concepts

The seasons or the elements are often woven in to explain the very fabric of these otherworldly beings. They are beholden to these large semi-abstract concepts, either acting in accordance with them or simply advancing the concept itself upon the mortal realm. Julie Kagawa’s The Iron Fey series features Winter and Summer Courts.

Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies puts another twist on the fairies as they are from a parasitic alternate dimension and cleave not to elemental concepts but ancient stories and tropes. The Fair Folk of White Wolf’s Exalted table top RPG are all about comporting themselves to what is narratively appropriate, manipulating others by magic or guile to fulfil the correct story role.

Fairies as Mirrors

The fairy court as a mirror to the mortal one has probably Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream to thank for popularising its trope, with many productions doublecasting Oberon and Titania with their earthly counterparts, Theseus and Hippolyta.

Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell uses this mirroring as scathing social critique. Lady Poole is bartered away by men into the fairy world of endless dancing and forced frivolity. Stephen Black finds himself the reluctant accomplice and servant to a fairy king. Their otherworldly bondage clearly parallels their earthly oppression.

Fairies can also be a bright, resplendent mirror as Edmund Spenser’s infamously long epic poem The Faeirie Queen was written to flatter Queen Elizabeth I[3]. Swaddled in layers of cloudy allegory, Gloriana rules as benevolent monarch over a court of virtuous knights.

[1] I hazard to say that the rule of thumb is that the more e’s you have the more malevolent they are. So a “fairy” is a sparkly pixie of childhood whimsy and the more faux archaic spelling of “faerie” and “fey” are the dark adult creatures. But there are many exceptions to this rule. Jim C. Hine’s engaging Princess series come to mind.

[2] Linear A being one of the yet undeciphered writing systems of the ancient world.

[3] And arguably criticise. It also has the dubious honour of being among the ten most boring classics that Jasper Fforde’s heroine is condemned to read.


About Under the Pendulum Sun
Catherine Helstone’s brother, Laon, has disappeared in Arcadia, legendary land of the magical fae. Desperate for news of him, she makes the perilous journey, but once there, she finds herself alone and isolated in the sinister house of Gethsemane. At last there comes news: her beloved brother is riding to be reunited with her soon – but the Queen of the Fae and her insane court are hard on his heels.

Jeannette Ng Jeannette Ng is originally from Hong Kong but now lives in Durham, UK. Her MA in Medieval and Renaissance Studies fed into an interest in medieval and missionary theology, which in turn spawned her love for writing gothic fantasy with a theological twist. She runs live roleplay games and is active within the costuming community, running a popular blog.

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Today I’m thrilled to welcome Ausma Zehanat Khan to the blog! In addition to writing the award-winning mystery novel The Unquiet Dead and its sequels, she’s also the author of the fantasy series The Khorasan Archives. The first novel in this quartet, The Bloodprint, was released in October 2017, and the next book in the series, The Black Khan, will follow later this year—coming in October 2018!

The Bloodprint by Ausma Zehanat Khan The Black Khan by Ausma Zehanat Khan

The Companions of Hira

My fantasy series, The Khorasan Archives, explores many different themes, but is ultimately about the power and agency of women. The Bloodprint, the first book in the series, features a group of powerful women mystics known as the Council of Hira. They are led by the High Companion, Ilea, who is manipulative, duplicitous and full of secret schemes. But the true head of the Council is my main character, Arian, who is known as the First Oralist of Hira because she’s an expert linguist in a world where language is power.

In creating this women-only group, I tried to meld several different worlds and histories: seventh-century Arabia, more recent events in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, and adventures, miracles and tragedies along the fabled cities of the Silk Road. I also took liberties with the languages of these different regions, providing them with an overlay of English, our modern lingua franca.

I did this for many reasons but mainly because I’d grown up reading histories—particularly of religious traditions—that either excluded women’s voices altogether, or thought of them merely as a side note. I won’t go so far as to say that I re-wrote history—only that I imagined a possible alternate future of that history, where it is women who have the ability to deliver their world from overwhelming darkness.

In histories of seventh-century Arabia that describe the dawn of Islam, I’d come across the names of women in intriguing little glimpses—who with some rare exceptions, were mostly footnotes to a larger story of prophecy and empire. But I wanted to know who these women were and what they might have done if they’d held more power in their hands—or if history had recorded them as doing so. I was particularly interested in the wives of Muhammad, the messenger of Islam, so much so that they inspired my depictions of the women who form the Council of Hira.

So Psalm, the general of Hira’s Citadel was a nod to Umm Salamah, the wise counsellor on whom Muhammad relied for military or strategic advice. Ash, the Jurist, who rules on Hira’s laws, was inspired by Ayesha, a seminal figure who was considered a jurist in her own time, and an authoritative and esteemed source on religious disputations. Mask, Saw, Ware, Rain, Half-Seen, Dija and other members of my Council of Hira, all refer back to figures of this time period.

Some other nods to history or language in the series: the name Ilea is a play on the plural Arabic noun ‘Awliya’, loosely translated as ‘Friend of God’, a rank most often reserved to men. Sinnia, one of my lead characters, is named for Abyssinia—a place of tremendous significance in terms of early encounters between Islam and Christianity, when the Christian king of Abyssinia (the Negus) offered sanctuary to members of the first Muslim community who were fleeing the oppressive actions of the leading tribe of Mecca. My character Sinnia embodies all that was best about that historic interchange—curiosity, courage, wisdom, nobility—and infinite empathy.

Arian, on the other hand, has no single counterpart in history—she’s more of a composite. In modern times she might be a librarian, a linguist, a soldier or a human rights activist. I was thinking of the lawyers, journalists and human rights activists who stand against injustice in their societies. Certain notable women were in my mind. The famous Pakistani lawyer, Asma Jahangir, who dedicated her life to defending the rights of women and minorities. Malala Yousufzai, who was shot by the Taliban, and who is still speaking up for girls’ education around the globe. Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, Iran’s leading human rights advocate. And Nadia Murad, fighting to free Yazidi women and girls from ISIS captivity.

In writing Larisa and Elena, two important characters in my series who are Basmachi warriors, I was thinking of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and Russian human rights activist, Natalia Estemirova, both of whom were assassinated as a result of their courageous work. Larisa and Elena are also named after two human rights advocates from Uzbekistan.

In the real world, the agency of women is often eclipsed in favor of stories and histories that ignore their contributions. With The Bloodprint and The Khorasan Archives, I try to reclaim that space for the women who shape my books—with characters who are inspired by bold, captivating figures from both the past and the present.

Ausma Zehanat Khan
April 6, 2018

Ausma Zehanat Khan Ausma Zehanat Khan is a British-born Canadian living in the United States, whose own parents are heirs to a complex story of migration to and from three different continents. A former adjunct professor at American and Canadian universities, she holds a Ph.D. in International Human Rights Law, with the 1995 Srebrenica massacre as the main subject of her dissertation. Previously the Editor in Chief of Muslim Girl Magazine, Ausma Zehanat Khan has moved frequently, traveled extensively, and written compulsively. She is the author of the Esa Khattak/Rachel Getty mystery series, in chronological order: The Unquiet Dead, The Language of Secrets, A Death in Sarajevo, Among the Ruins, A Dangerous Crossing. She is also the author of The Khorasan Archives fantasy series published by Harper Voyager. Out now, The Bloodprint is the first book in the series.

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Today’s guest is fantasy author Melissa Caruso! Her Venetian-inspired debut novel, The Tethered Mage, is the story of a young noblewoman who accidentally breaks the rules to save her city—and accidentally binds herself to a fire mage while doing so. It was one of my favorite books of 2017, largely due to these two women and the fantastic world, and I ended up staying up until 2:00 one morning finishing it since I could not put it down. The second book in the Swords and Fire trilogy, The Defiant Heir, will be released on April 24 (one week from today!) in the US and on April 26 in the UK—and it is absolutely wonderful!

The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso

Fighting in Ballgowns

The first time I fought in a fancy gown was an accident. My larp (live action roleplaying) character had just gotten married, and I hadn’t had time to change out of my wedding dress when undead attacked. I scooped up my sword and shield and leaped into the fray, and I made an incredible discovery: I could do battle in my gown just fine. It was so much fun that I fought in that dress all night, until it got too cold and I had to go put on something warmer.

I shouldn’t have been surprised that you could fight in a dress. After all, if you look at the warrior garb of various cultures and time periods throughout history, you see an awful lot of robes, skirts, long tunics, and big swishy pants. But I’d devoured fantasy stories with warrior heroines all through my childhood and teen years, and they’d pretty much all fought in trousers. Some of those characters had to disguise themselves as boys to be allowed to fight at all; some shunned dresses and traditionally girly things across the board. Others had nothing in particular against fancy gowns, but donned breeches for practical reasons.

I can think of only a few exceptions from that era. Princess Leia didn’t hesitate to wield her blaster in a dress, and She-Ra had that kind of Romanesque tennis skirt thing going on. But overwhelmingly, any female characters who were serious about fighting put away their dresses and pulled on the most boring-looking men’s clothes they could find—either that, or steel underwear.

I loved (and still love!) those characters, but as a kid I wanted to have it all. I drew women in gorgeous, flowing gowns with flaming swords. I dressed up my Barbies in their fanciest evening dresses and put them through imaginary adventures. The ongoing story I told myself at night before falling asleep featured a unicorn-riding, sword-wielding princess, and I assure you she was fabulously gowned throughout her various feats of daring and heroism. I didn’t care if it was realistic, because it was awesome.

And then I discovered it actually could be realistic, with the right dress.

Twenty years after that first time fighting in a dress, with much more experience in the subject, I posted a Twitter thread on what I’d found worked and what didn’t, using Disney princess dresses as examples. I fired off that thread on a whim, just for fun, since I’m the sort of person who spends time thinking about things like which Disney princess dresses are the most and least fightable. I didn’t expect it to go viral. But it did, because apparently I’m not the only one who thinks the idea of swordfights in ballgowns is pretty cool.

The fact is, there’s nothing about a dress that makes it inimical to badassery. Skirts can be a problem if they’re long enough to trip on, sure, but plenty aren’t. Despite what you might think from watching Pirates of the Caribbean, corsets are also fine, so long as you don’t lace them too tightly. The real key in battle gown selection is to avoid problematic sleeves: nothing too tight, too dangly, or off the shoulder, so you can have a free and full range of motion.

Okoye’s dress that she wears undercover at the club in Black Panther is a fantastic example of a gown that is both fabulous and fightable, and I’m sure it will surprise no one that I absolutely love that scene. Seeing her kicking butt in all that gorgeous, flowing fabric was just what I always wanted ever since I drew all those warrior princesses as a little girl. There are some other great examples of heroines who do battle in fancy dresses now that weren’t around when I was a kid, too, from Vin in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books to Celaena Sardothien in Sarah Maas’s Throne of Glass series. I love that we’re seeing more characters who fight without rejecting everything feminine, and I hope their numbers continue to grow.

Even in some of these stories, however, I’m struck by the difference between the often solitary heroines and my experience as one of a large and ever-growing number of female and nonbinary fighters in my larp community. I’ve often sat in a room with friends chatting about what to wear to the upcoming ball, with all the exclaiming over embroidery and fabrics that might evoke scorn in a certain type of stereotypical warrior woman—except that we also discuss whether a sword belt will spoil the waistline, or if a skirt might need hemming to be combat-ready, or whether a bulky sleeve style will fit through a shield strap. I’d love to see more of that kind of scene in stories, where a combination of traditionally feminine things and adventure draws women together, instead of setting them apart from “other girls.”

There was never any reason we couldn’t have both. James Bond dresses up in a tux and gets into all kinds of scrapes; we can do the same in evening gowns. We can dance into the night in fabulous princess dresses and then, when the clock strikes twelve, fend off assassins with a rapier rather than taking the carriage home. You don’t have to dress like a boy to be the best knight in the land—though you can, of course, if you want to.

After all, I like a good badass pants-wearing heroine, too. In THE TETHERED MAGE and its sequels, one of my main characters prefers breeches and the other prefers skirts (though of course I couldn’t resist an action scene or two where they’re both in gowns for fancy occasions). Sometimes your character does need to dress like a man to break out of gender roles in a patriarchal society, or simply finds pants more comfortable. Heck, I wear them most of the time myself.

But other times, there is absolutely no reason not to have swordfights in ballgowns. Because Kid Me was right, and that’s awesome.

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Today, I am delighted to welcome R.F. Kuang to the blog! The Poppy War, her upcoming debut novel and the first book in a new trilogy, is epic military fantasy inspired by twentieth century Chinese history, particularly the Second Sino-Japanese War. While waiting for The Poppy War to release in a couple of weeks—on May 1!—you can read the fantastic first chapter of the book on the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, as well as R.F. Kuang’s essay below.

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Be a Bitch, Eat the Peach

There’s a Chinese legend about the Moon Lady so ubiquitous that you must have heard it in some shape or form. Here is how it goes. Chang’e is a beautiful girl whose husband, the archer Hou Yi, shoots down the nine suns scorching the earth dry (just roll with it) until only one sun remains. The gods in their gratitude gift Hou Yi a peach of immortality, but Chang’e, wicked girl, steals the peach when her husband is away and devours the whole thing.

Alas, the peach was not meant for one mortal to consume alone. Its potency burns the mortality out of Chang’e’s body. She becomes a celestial spirit, too light to stay on our world, and she floats away until she lands on the moon where she’s trapped forever.

Chang’e was selfish. Chang’e wanted too much. So Chang’e is sentenced to an eternity in the cold and dark, alone with her misery.

This is the lesson meant for little Chinese girls. Because even if we’re about a hundred years out and a thousand miles away from the land of foot-binding and customs dictating daughters are worth less than suckling pigs, we’re still raised within a culture that praises filial piety, docility, and submissiveness. Play by the rules until you get a husband. Keep quiet, keep your eyes down, do your work, and obey. Don’t be selfish. Don’t be greedy. Don’t want too much.

It’s hard not to internalize these lessons when the only Asian girls you see reflected in books and shows are bland, lifeless caricatures with no internal drives of their own (because, of course, why would white creators give them that?). Consider Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon—oversexualized, dainty Oriental flowers who live and die for their white men. Consider Cho Chang—grief-stricken, hysterical, a pale imitation of a real person whose only purpose was to give Harry some kissing practice before he moved on to the white girl of his dreams. If the Asian girls in movies didn’t toe the docile, love-struck archetype, then they were cast as deviant Dragon Ladies—prostitutes, over-sexualized kung fu masters, the filthy dirty whores of the east.

Then there was Azula.


Azula, princess of the Fire Nation, daughter of Fire Lord Ozai and Ursa, maniacal bitch, conqueror of the world, my heart. Azula, whose hair and eyebrow game is always on fucking point; whose Ember Island outfit is such bikini goals that I’ve been searching for anything similar in stores for years; who, in Ty Lee’s words, is without sarcasm “the most beautiful, smartest, perfect girl in the world.”

Where have you been my whole life?

Azula gives no shits. Azula doesn’t care if you think she’s pretty. Azula wants the world and she’ll burn it down to make it hers. Azula claws her way to everything she wants. Azula is pure, unadulterated rage and ambition; she knows she’s a monster and she owns that.

(And twelve-year-old me resonated so deeply with how Azula, the second child, the girl, had to fight so hard for recognition in Zuko’s shadow. She was the obvious prodigy and still she had to constantly prove that she was stronger, better, faster, smarter. Do you know what it’s like to be a Chinese girl with an older brother? Your entire culture is wired to tell you you’re redundant, irrelevant. Azula approached Zuko with a murderous, jealous rage and boy, I felt that.)

Azula doesn’t win, of course. The narrative punishes her—not because she’s ambitious, but because she would honestly make a terrible ruler no matter how good she was at leading troops. But still we got to watch her wild climb to power over several delicious seasons, and wow, was that shit affirming.

Please understand how ground-shattering it is to tell an Asian girl: what if you took what you wanted?
What if you were selfish?
What if you raged, and left ashes in your wake?

The women of The Poppy War—Rin, Venka, Jima, Daji, Tearza—are not “strong” women. (Strong is such a boring adjective, and it’s usually code for men who gave a bland female character some nominal fighting skills and now want their feminism brownie points.) They are not pretty, they are not docile, they do not flutter their lashes to gain salvation from white soldiers.

They want power, they kick down doors to get it, and they are more than occasionally assholes. Radical, isn’t it?

There is a different, lesser-known version of the Moon Lady myth where Chang’e doesn’t eat the peach out of selfishness, but sacrifice. Her husband is a tyrant, a murderer. She’s terrified of him. She wants to save the world from the threat of Hou Yi’s immortal presence and the only way she can do it is to doom herself. In this supposedly feminist version, Chang’e is the hero and the martyr.

Should we prefer that version? I suppose it’s marginally better. But already we are brought up inside this culture that teaches us that pain and sacrifice make a woman, that the way we prove our virtue is to spill our own blood. And I have had enough of hurting to save others.

Here is the version I like best. Chang’e didn’t make a mistake. She knew that the peach was meant to be shared, that a half portion would grant immortal life, but a full portion would strip away her humanity.

She wasn’t interested in humanity. She wanted to be a goddess.

Now she rules the sky, and look—we worship her beauty every night.

That’s the lesson that little Chinese girls should learn. Take the peach. Shove it in your mouth—the whole thing. Let the juice drip down your lips and laugh as the mortal weight falls away from your bones. But don’t settle for the moon. Take the stars. They’re right there in front of you, and my God, they will burn so bright.

Rebecca F Kuang studies modern Chinese history at Georgetown University, and will be pursuing her graduate studies at the University of Cambridge as a Marshall Scholar. She graduated from the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2016 and the CSSF Novel Writers Workshop in 2017. Her debut novel The Poppy War is about empire, drugs, shamanism, and China’s bloody twentieth century and comes out with Harper Voyager in May. She tweets at @kuangrf and blogs at www.rfkuang.com.