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This week of Women in SF&F Month starts with a guest post by A. Y. Chao! Her upcoming fantasy book set in 1930s China, Shanghai Immortal, is described as “a stunningly rich novel with a snarky, irreverent main character struggling to reconcile her mixed heritage—it’s not easy being half vampire and half hulijing fox spirit—whilst solving a mystery concerning the King’s Dragon Pearl and accidentally falling in love.” The UK edition of her novel will be released on June 1, and it will also be published in the US and Canada on October 31. I’m thrilled she’s here today to discuss erasure and identity in “Mirrors and Doorways.”

Cover of Shanghai Immortal by A. Y. Chao

Mirrors and Doorways

“[W]hen I didn’t see myself in a mirror, I smashed it and saw myself in the pieces.” Diana Pho, “Breaking Mirrors”, jimchines.com

Erasure is an insidious thing. Identity—from the individual to an entire culture—is treated as if it doesn’t exist. It says: You don’t matter. You’re not wanted. You don’t belong.

But enough of that. We’re here to talk about me.[1]

I was born in the foothills of Alberta, Canada—a transition zone, or as I like to think of it, a melding space between the prairies and the Rocky Mountains. Neither completely one nor the other, but something which embraced both. My Chinese Canadian diaspora identity is much the same—created in a melding space where the traditions and cultural values my immigrant parents brought with them were woven together with local traditions and social mores.

We celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving with Butterball turkeys from Safeway roasted with 臘肉糯米飯[2] stuffing. Christmas came with stars atop decorated trees and 紅包[3] galore. We celebrated Lunar New Year with dancing lions, and to the delight of children and singletons, even more 紅包[4].

My identity however was entirely absent in popular culture and literature. I was a teen who laughed raucously at Saturday Night Live’s “Church Lady.” I listened to New Order, a-ha, and Jacky Cheung. I was respectful to my elders. I didn’t roll my eyes at my grandmother (even though I wanted to) when she insisted I go to church because otherwise, not only would I burn in Hell but also how would I ever meet a husband?

My parents, like many Chinese parents, showed their love through acts of service and sacrifice. They also skied, played golf and mahjong, watched ballet, and liked to dance. But in Western media, I never saw parents like mine, or kids like me. The collective mirror of popular culture erased us. When they did give us space in the mirror, what peered back was ugly and distorted: a sidekick, an object of mockery stripped of dignity; Mickey Rooney in yellowface, Long Duck Dong.

How was it that I swooned over Sixteen Candles, sighed wistfully at Audrey Hepburn’s gamine fragility in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, despite the dreadful rep and enjoyed the countless books, films and TV shows set in worlds where I simply didn’t exist? I lacked the vocabulary to pin-point the dissonance and discomfort I felt. I lacked the understanding that I was not alone in those feelings. (That epiphany would come much, much later.) I did not lack, however, the ability—learned by necessity—to smash the mirror, turning a carefully blind eye to the edges that would draw blood, and pick out only those shards where I might see myself.

“That was how I learned to survive; by seeing myself in the pieces I could, even if I didn’t exactly, see me.” Diana Pho, ibid.

In 1989, I read Amy Tan’s blockbuster hit The Joy Luck Club. It was the first book where I didn’t have to shatter the story into tiny bits to find myself. The 1993 movie that followed with a full-on Chinese cast of gorgeous, glamourous women blew. my. mind. It was the first time I’d seen my community portrayed by Hollywood in a way that didn’t denigrate. Sure, it wasn’t exactly the community I grew up with, because Amy Tan’s writing is informed by her lived experience, not mine. There are a billion Chinese people and its diaspora is huge[5] and varied, hence why not a monolith deserves to be a truth universally acknowledged.

It wasn’t until the recent windfall of books with Chinese casts (naming only a handful of many: Fonda Lee’s Jade City, Cindy Pon’s Want, R F Kuang’s The Poppy War, Sue Lynn Tan’s Daughter of the Moon Goddess, Andrea Stewart’s Bone Shard Daughter, Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun, and Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow) that I felt seen and understood how bereft I had been. In these stories, I no longer have to scrabble in the dirt for shards of mirror.

“We are all products of our context. We are all descendants of something and someone.” Daniel Kwan, 2023 Oscars “Everything Everywhere All at Once” Best Director acceptance speech

My own writing is fuelled by my lived experience—the sour hot mixture of defiance and guilt when faced with parental disappointment (yes, even as an adult!), the visceral rejection of the ‘only boys do that’ scoldings, the joy and comfort in that quiet love language typical of older generation Chinese, my somewhat dark, somewhat arch, often in the toilet, Canadian sense of humour. I wanted to see myself in my writing and offer my mirror to others, in the hopes they can find themselves in the story without needing to sift through broken shards.

While this article is ostensibly about me, in truth, it is about all the women who came before me: my mother’s indefatigable spirit and support, who taught me to love my dual heritage; the authors who paved the way by writing their truths; the readers who opened their hearts and embraced our stories; the editors who fought to open publishing’s doors, who bought and published our stories, especially the ones who never said, oh we already have one of those; and the entrepreneurs who created a space and demand for diverse voices[6] and their stories. I see you. I am here because of you.

Together, we’re creating a kaleidoscope of representation and wedging the door wide open. Come on in.

You matter. You’re wanted. You belong.

[1] Because self-representation and context matter.

[2] Pork belly and sticky rice (larou nuomifan).

[3] Red envelopes (hong bao) also known as laisee, are festive gifts filled with cold hard cash. When you greet your elders with 恭喜發財 (gong xi fa cai) Happy New Year! during Lunar New Year, children and singletons receive a hong bao. A somewhat cheeky rhyme I never dared use with my elders but would exchange with my cousins went 恭喜發財 紅包拿來 (gong xi fa cai, hong bao na lai) which means Happy New Year! Bring me hong bao! which has definite Show me the money! vibes.

[4] As Ronny Chieng would say, “Hope you get rich.”

[5] 60 million if you count descendants.

[6] I’ve written mostly about Chinese diaspora representation, but the growth of nuanced representation goes hand in hand with overall diversity in publishing. Shout out to Illumicrate and FairyLoot, UK SFF subscription book boxes founded by, respectively, Daphne Tong and Anissa de Gomery, two incredible women who have created space for diverse voices and a healthy demand for diverse stories.

Photo of A. Y. Chao A. Y. Chao is the author of Shanghai Immortal (Hodderscape, 2023). This fantasy novel stars the gloriously snarky Lady Jing, an outcast noble in the court of the king of Shanghai’s nether realm, who sets out to uncover a conspiracy to steal the Dragon Pearl, and finds her own identity—and a little love—in the process.

Born in Canada, A. Y. Chao lives in the UK with her husband and daughter. She is a recovering lawyer with a xiaolongbao habit and a predilection for knitting.