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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is Chloe Gong! Her New York Times bestselling debut novel, These Violent Delights, reimagines Romeo and Juliet in 1920s Shanghai and was a Junior Library Guild Selection, a 2020 Goodreads Choice Award finalist for Best Young Adult Fantasy and Science Fiction, and one of Barnes & Noble’s Best YA SF & Fantasy of 2020. The sequel, Our Violent Ends, is coming out on November 16!

These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong - Book Cover

Cover Art by Billelis
Cover Design by Sarah Creech
Our Violent Ends by Chloe Gong - Book Cover

Cover Art by Katt Phatt
Cover Design by Greg Stadnyk

The Mary Sue Club Is Still Taking Applicants

Anyone who has been around long enough in the young adult bookish world has heard the term Mary Sue. It was everywhere in the 2010s, especially during the paranormal romance era right off the heels of Twilight and the dystopian boom à la The Hunger Games. Teenage girl heroines were commonly accused of being a Mary Sue: too powerful than they had the right to be, or too special in a way that wasn’t deserved. If a girl inherited old family magic, then she was a Mary Sue. If a girl was thrown into a world she wasn’t familiar with and excelled at surviving in it, then she was a Mary Sue. Most importantly, if the girl was beautiful but she didn’t know it, then she was a Mary Sue.

It was the impact of misogyny, no doubt, because male protagonists got away with identical traits without the same slander. Where Divergent had a cascade of Goodreads reviews that decided Tris Prior was a Mary Sue and a special snowflake, Percy Jackson’s titular character was rarely critiqued negatively for being the chosen one and the hero of a prophecy. Books with boys in the starring role were allowed to be judged on craft and plot enjoyment, while books with girls had the added—oftentimes unconscious—pressure of making sure the protagonists were likeable or sensible or emotionally regulated enough to avoid the Mary Sue accusal. Constantly paired with the Mary Sue label was also the accusal “TSTL”: the snappy shorthand for “too stupid to live”. If the girl couldn’t figure out that her love interest was secretly evil soon enough, she was TSTL. If the girl couldn’t leave her whole life behind to save the world, she was TSTL. And amid it all, there was the double-edged whammy that the girl was expected to be perfect and know all these things to avoid being TSTL because she was a perfect Mary Sue, but she was also hated because she was a Mary Sue, so how could she ever be a real, realized person?

Eventually, as we moved out of the paranormal romance and dystopian boom, YA SFF also moved out of this archetype. There had always been the people who slammed Mary Sues for existing, but that didn’t stop YA SFF books from having them because it was cool and fun for teenagers to see their leading heroines as all powerful and desirable by their—usually multiple—love interests. But YA lives and breathes by its trends, and as happens with all trends, once it becomes too saturated, it’s not trendy anymore and people get bored of their archetypes. The Mary Sue was out. YA SFF was supposed to be new and fresh with different archetypes. Everyone had seen the Tris Priors and Clary Frays and Celaena Sardothiens already.

Then the We Need Diverse Books movement happened, and authors of color started breaking into YA SFF.

And our heroines, despite being entirely new in YA SFF—seeing the world entirely unlike the heroines of major YA series in the 2010s that got these Mary Sue accusations by virtue of a different cultural lens—started getting accusals: This is a Mary Sue. We’ve seen this before. We don’t need this.

But we do.

Growing up, I adored those YA heroines. I didn’t care that they got slandered as Mary Sues; they were badass and entertaining and got to go on the most heart-wrenching journeys. So what if she knew how to fight like a seasoned pro despite training for a week? So what if she was the country’s greatest assassin despite being 16 years old? YA SFF was about creating beautiful worlds and compelling characters and swoon-worthy romances, and as long as they delivered in the bucketload, I was invested. There’s a whole other essay to be written about how the interests of teenage girls always get devalued and the weaponization of Mary Sues was a way to demean the target audience, but I digress. Mary Sue was a term used to box in the powerful heroines that teenage girls liked. But it could not be denied that the Mary Sue was an emerging archetype, one that was taking off for a reason. And as with all gold rushes, it became quickly saturated… but with one big caveat. When we think back to all the major series of the 2010s, each and every heroine who gathered fans and adoring readers were white, which makes a huge difference on her creation as a character.

As I set out to write These Violent Delights, I wanted to pay homage to the characters I adored as a teen reader. I wanted to write Juliette Cai, my protagonist, with the Clary strength and the Celaena sass—but I also wanted her to be East Asian like me, because I had rarely seen that before. Again and again in the present-day market, we are told that YA SFF has been filled to the brim with the powerful, sassy teenage protagonist, and that we should write something different if we want to stand out in the market. But I looked around and I tried to find an East Asian version. We know the stereotypes that come with Asian female characters: she’s either quiet and submissive and won’t say a peep, or she’s the dragon lady, the brutal sword-wielding seductress. The shelves hadn’t allowed for nuanced, real representation. The shelves hadn’t allowed for the powerful, beautiful, funny East Asian leading protagonist—and I wanted to provide. The industry has saturated the white Mary Sue, but until we also have a thousand Juliette Cais running around, then the complete archetype is nowhere near saturation.

I loved the heroines of these books so much, but I couldn’t find myself in them. Until Asian characters have been allowed to save the world, to wield the prophecy, to fall in love and make bad choices, then surely we cannot move on from an archetype that the readership of YA SFF has always adored.

Photo of Chloe Gong
Photograph © JON STUDIO

Chloe Gong is an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, double-majoring in English and international relations. Born in Shanghai and raised in Auckland, New Zealand, she now lives at the top of a crumbling, ivory tower in Philadelphia (also known as student housing).

After devouring the entire YA section of her local library, she started writing her own novels at age 13 to keep herself entertained, and has been highly entertained ever since. Chloe has been known to mysteriously appear by chanting “Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s best plays and doesn’t deserve its slander in pop culture” into a mirror three times. These Violent Delights is her debut novel. You can find her on Twitter @TheChloeGong or check out her website at TheChloeGong.com.