Posts Tagged mythology

WNDMG Wednesday – Author Shing Yin Khor

We Need Diverse MG
We Need Diverse MG

Artwork by Aixa Perez-Prado

WNDMG Author Interview with Shing Yin Khor

Featured in today’s WNDMG Wednesday, a WNDMG author interview with Shing Yin Khor about their graphic novel, THE LEGEND OF AUNTIE PO. (Penguin Random House, June 2021)

Shing Yin Khor Interview

About THE LEGEND OF AUNTIE PO

Part historical fiction, part magical realism, and 100 percent adventure. Thirteen-year-old Mei reimagines the myths of Paul Bunyan as starring a Chinese heroine while she works in a Sierra Nevada logging camp in 1885.

Shing Yin Khor Interview

MUF: Thanks so much for doing this interview with me – I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you about THE LEGEND OF AUNTIE PO. And I have to tell you, both my 9-year-old daughter and I enjoyed it immensely – she’s already reading it again! We’re grateful to you for bringing such a vibrant, creative book into the world.

What is the origin story for THE LEGEND OF AUNTIE PO? What is the significance of your decision to incorporate the Blue Ox?

SYK: My interest in the Paul Bunyan mythos goes back many years – it started with a fairly straightforward interest in logging history and this American myth, but as I learned more about early American history, especially in the Wild West, I realised how much history I didn’t know, or that was left deliberately untaught to me. A lot of these histories are glossed over in the popular American narrative. The popular conception of early American history, and especially that of Old West heroism is one full of white heroes and white individualism, which is more a matter of myth-building than historical fact. Often, marginalized groups are spoken of as a monolith, as a people rather than a collection of individual people, living a diversity of lives. This is not true now, and it wasn’t then either.

Shing Yin Khor Illustration

Paul Bunyan and the Blue Ox

SYK: The evolution of the Paul Bunyan myth feels like a microcosm of this history to me – it has become a story of individual strength, while the stories in the oral tradition are often far more about collective labor. Including Pei Pei(as the stand-in for Babe the Blue Ox) felt pretty compulsory to me, he’s just such a signifier of the Paul Bunyan myth, and I also just wanted a big goofy ox in the book.

I find American myth-building extremely compelling, and Paul Bunyan is probably the biggest American mythological figure, although probably a less generally destructive one than the myth we have made our “founding fathers” out to be. The American mythology dehumanizes and caricatures us. It tells us that indigenous people were “savages,” or healers, with no nuance for the individual, it tells us that enslaved people were “treated well,” it ignores the labor and death that this entire country was predicated on, and yes, some of the early Paul Bunyan stories are racist.

Shing Yin Khor Illustration

And to also know that these logging camps were filled with immigrants, and Black and Indigenous workers, that they had tons of Chinese and Japanese workers in them – at the center of this book is the simple question – what were the stories that we lost, because of the person that told them?

MUF: Why did you decide to set this story in a logging camp?

SYK: I am specifically interested in logging and forest history, and in the evolution of the Paul Bunyan mythos – a logging camp was the obvious choice.

The Power of Myth

MUF: A major theme of your book is the reclaiming of the power of myth and who gets to own it. How do you hope to empower your readers with this message?

SYK: I’m writing quite indulgently here – the reader I’m trying to write for is the 12 year old version for myself, not anyone else. I wrote this book to restore something to the young version of me, who only found books about brave imaginative kind white girls. I hope that young readers today won’t need to have that futile search because my fellow authors have already been writing them into history. I hope there are more books like this, especially those that center Black and Indigenous perspectives, but I am heartened that this book is coming out at a time where marginalized voices are centered more, even though I think the traditional publishing industry still has a very long way to go. I hope that this book assures young readers from marginalized communities that they can tell their own stories too, and I hope that the collective work of my elders and my peers and the work that I try my best to do now and in the coming years, will help to ease the path for them to center their own voices as storytellers and be their own protagonists.

The Chinese Story in Logging Camp History

MUF: One of the most painful moments in the book is drawn from the racial tension that followed the Chinese Exclusion Act—can you describe the experience of writing and researching that period?

SYK: The thing about doing research about any marginalized peoples, and especially if you are from the same group, is that you often get bogged down by the grief and trauma of the research. It is difficult, because a lot of the history is not well documented, and what is documented is often the violence of the time period against Chinese workers. 

Part of my impetus for writing Auntie Po was actually learning how Chinese people were, in some ways, valued by the world beyond their own Chinese communities. The plot point where Ah Hao finds out that he was paid more than the white cook is a historical fact, that I encountered in Sue Fawn Chung’s Chinese in the Woods, which is just about the only academic book about working-class Chinese in the lumber industry in this era. This story of logging camp cooks sprang basically fully formed into my head when I read it – I already knew a lot about the Paul Bunyan mythos, and I knew a lot about the early American logging industry, but this book so clearly placed Chinese people in this history I was already interested in and made it feel like it was something I deserved to claim.

((Enjoying this WNDMG interview? Read this guest post from author Christina Li))

Today’s Bias

MUF: How do you feel that history connects to today’s awful bias against the Asian

community?

SYK: I don’t really feel like I have the ability to form complete thoughts about this yet. But it is clear to me that the only way we move forward is in solidarity with other marginalized peoples, especially Black and Indigenous people, and other people of color. Anti-Asian racism is not just a current issue, it is an ongoing pattern of institutional racism that this country has engaged in, rooted in white supremacy, that seeks to pit marginalized people against each other, which does not ever benefit any marginalized group, and only benefits white supremacy. A large part of my book is about Chinese people forced into navigating whiteness for their survival and comfort, and realizing the limits of what white-adjacency can bring them. Our histories are much more intertwined with other marginalized groups than the stereotypical Asian-American narratives suggest, and solidarity backed by solidarity action is our only way out of the model minority myth. 

Personal Resonance

MUF: What is the most meaningful part of the book for you personally?

SYK: Mei’s relationship with her dad is really important to me, because it’s really similar to my relationship with my own dad. We immigrated to the United States when I was 16, and even though we are a much more privileged family than a logging camp cook, it is so clear to me the sacrifices he made to give me a life where I could make art for a living. He was the first person in his family to go to college, his brothers and sisters pooled their money so he could go, being an artist was never an option for him. 

I also loved being able to write a queer character while not necessarily needing to make it a major part of the book! Mei is a queer character that exists in many intersections of experiences, just like many other queer people. Not every experience foregrounds queerness, it is just part of who she is as a person. 

Publishing Team of Color

MUF: As a creator of color in the graphic novel space, what was your experience on your path to publication? In your Acknowledgements page, you note that this book was finished in collaboration with a team that was entirely made up of people of color. Can you talk a little bit about what that means to you? 

SYK: I was already doing a lot of my own work, both self published and shorter works with online publishers, so the path to publication for this book was fairly straightforward. I had some early experiences in my early days as a writer, where I was often made to feel that the stories that were wanted from me in traditional publishing were about trauma, or confessional memoirs about even more trauma, and I was unenthusiastic about that. But because I was doing my own work, and had established enough of my own voice, my entire publication journey for The Legend of Auntie Po was with a team that was always on the same page about the sort of story that I was going to be telling. And of course, my book is coming out after so many other incredible marginalized authors and bloggers and editors have done the work of making publishing a more inclusive and welcoming space for a range of voices. I am extremely lucky, I am writing books about parts of the Asian American experience ten years after I first read MariNaomi Kiss and Tell, after Gene Luen Yang’s been making graphic novels for decades, after Kazu Kibushi’s Avatar series is wildly beloved. 

 Working with a team that is entirely composed of people of color(my agent, editor, art director – all of Kokila, my publisher), meant that while I had a lot of work to do on this book, the work that I did not have to do included things like “explaining racism” or “being nicer to the white characters.” Authors of color deserve to work with publishers and editors who understand their lived experiences. Working on this book has been a dream with them – the editorial team at Kokila is staffed with the most brilliant women of color, all of whom are thoughtful and incisive and philosophically devoted to centering stories like these in publishing.

MUF: What do you hope readers will take away from THE LEGEND OF AUNTIE PO?

I hope they will feel even more agency and urgency to tell their own stories.

Chickens and Cats

MUF: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you would like to share with our readers?

Every time I was stressed when drawing the book, I added a drawing of a cat or chicken to it. I think there are seven cats and four chickens, if you’d like to take a stab at finding them all.

MUF: I love that. Headed now to look for the cats and chickens. Thanks again, Shing, and congratulations!

Shing Yin Khor Bio PIcture

Photo Credit: Shing Yin Khor

Shing Yin Khor is a cartoonist and installation artist exploring the Americana mythos and new human rituals. A Malaysian-Chinese immigrant, and an American citizen since 2011, they are also the author of The American Dream?, a graphic novel about travelling Route 66.

Connect with Shing:

Website

 

 

Magic Systems for Non-Magicians

I’ve been thinking about magic systems lately. To be more accurate, author Brandon Sanderson has spent a lot of time thinking about magic systems and lately, I’ve been thinking about how to apply his theories to other types of writing.

Sanderson’s Laws are popular guides to writing in the fantasy genre. Sanderson distinguishes between hard magic systems and soft magic systems, with most applications of fictional magic falling somewhere in between. On the harder side of the spectrum, magic has strict rules that can’t be broken. On the softer side, anything goes and new rules seem to be created on the fly.

Sanderson’s Laws aren’t about those laws of magic, but offer guidance to authors on how to incorporate systems of magic into their storytelling.

Among the examples Sanderson uses to apply his rules are the fantasy systems in Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and…superheroes. In fact, he writes an extensive analysis of the laws of a universe that would allow Superman to exist.

We don’t often think about superhero worlds as fantasy, as they are usually grounded in our own reality, but they offer settings in which potions, spells, and monsters are replaced by mutation, lab accidents, and aliens. These worlds offer impossible events that operate within a system that can be described in terms of magic.

Currently, I’m working on a story inspired by Greek mythology and set in a Bronze Age society where the gods of Olympus are active and real. In this world, the magic system is made of gods. It operates just like any other fantasy work except that the magic system is sentient and made up of interlocking parts with clashing personalities beyond human control.

In Greek mythology, the rules of magic are defined by the personalities of the gods. The more strictly delineated the gods are, and the less likely the gods are to deviate from their standard behaviors, the more the system moves toward the harder side of Sanderson’s soft-magic to hard-magic spectrum.

The body of Greek mythology as a whole is a fairly soft magic system. The gods are fickle, unpredictable, inconsistent over multiple works, and are often constrained by the Fates. In such a system, one god or another can show up at any time to resolve any conflict, becoming a literal deus ex machina. For example, Athena showing up at the end of Homer’s Odyssey to end the cycle of vendetta between Odysseus and the families of all the people he killed.

The challenge within a specific work of mythic fantasy is to harden the magic system by providing more specific motivations and realms for each god, and better defining the extent to which the gods are willing or able to intervene in mortal affairs. In Homer’s Iliad, Zeus doesn’t just refrain from saving the life of Sarpedon. He defines a rule for all of the other gods to follow regarding the deaths of their own favored mortals.

I’m using this in my story by giving gods predictable personalities and sets of rules in which they operate. This makes their interventions in the mortal world seem more natural to the story, reducing the problem of deus ex machina plotting.

If Sanderson’s Laws of magic can by applies to superheroes and mythology, where else might they be applied outside the traditional realms of fantasy?

The speculative technology in a work of science fiction could be viewed, not just as an extension of current technology, but as a system in itself with elements that operate by a set of predictable laws. That way, a new program, process, or device will have a more natural introduction and will more naturally fit into the setting.

The landscape in a speculative political thriller can be viewed as a system under which the outcomes can be explained.

Or in a spy thriller, where the hero is reliant upon a set of gadgets to survive. As much as I enjoy the James Bond franchise, it always annoyed me that Q would gear Bond up before every mission with exactly the gadgets he would need in specific situations that couldn’t possibly have been foreseen by the scope of the assignment. By thinking of spy gadgets generally as a kind of magic system, they could be employed more realistically.

Spy writers, mythologists, and the writers of political thrillers may not dip into the critical analysis of works in the fantasy genre, but they should. This is just one example of how authors who write in one genre can benefit by examining the rules that seem, on the surface, to apply only to a different genre. No matter the genre, we’re all just telling stories.

Post-Apocalyptic vs Pre-Apocalyptic Fiction

I’ve blogged before about post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction. These are forward-looking horror stories that either extrapolate from present trends or presuppose some civilization-ending disaster, leading to a world that is darker and diminished from the one we recognize.

Books in this genre can help us to better appreciate the world we have and, in the best of cases, inspire us to action necessary to preserve and protect our actual future. They are prophecies that must not come true, and every time our society comes up with a fresh anxiety, the post-apocalyptic genre evolves to include it.

On a seemingly unrelated topic, I’ve been immersed in Greek mythology for the past few months for my current writing project. That’s not enough time to become an expert, but just enough to start making connections. The other day, it struck me that many stories of Greek mythology fall into a genre that’s the polar opposite of post-apocalyptic fiction. They are, if anything, pre-apocalyptic.

In the 8th Century BC, Hesiod defined five ages of mankind. He believed that he was living in the Fifth Age, and he regretted not being born instead into the Fourth Age, the Age of Heroes, where the bulk of classical Greek mythology is set.

In the works of Homer, there are constant references to how the Fourth Age heroes of the Trojan War were better, stronger, and more glorious than the Fifth Age men of living memory. The way Homer described it, three or four men of the Fifth Age would be required just to lift the weapons that Fourth Age heroes wielded to battle each other.

Hesiod and Homer were telling stories set in a past that was better than the present, before some civilization-ending disaster led to a world that’s now darker and diminished from the one that came before. They are writing about stories set on the other side of an apocalypse, but one that’s in the past instead of the future.

In stories of Greek mythology, the problems in heaven get resolved by the gods outsourcing their problems, and increasing human suffering in the process.

For example, the insubordination of Prometheus was a problem for Zeus. He couldn’t tolerate other immortals going behind his back, subverting his will, and gifting mortals with awesome new technologies like fire. Just punishing Prometheus, by having an eagle tear out his liver on a daily basis, was only a partial solution. To really fix the matter, Zeus created Pandora and her box of plagues in order to make mortal life more difficult.

The story of Pandora is the story of an apocalypse, told by people living after the fact.

Another problem for Zeus was a prophecy that Thetis would bear a son who would outshine his father. To avoid being overthrown exactly like he overthrew his father, and like his father overthrew his grandfather, Zeus breaks up with Thetis and introduces her to a mortal. The child of prophecy, Achilles, turns out to be greater than a man but less than a god, and Zeus’s kingship is saved, at the cost of a decade-long war that cost so much blood and treasure that all of human society collapsed.

The story of the Trojan War represents another apocalypse, and is also told by people living after the fact.

When archaeologists discovered Troy, the date of its destruction matched the time of the Late Bronze Age Collapse that toppled ancient civilizations like dominos from Italy to India. In the land that is now Greece, populations crashed, cities and farmland were destroyed or abandoned, technology regressed, culture regressed, skills and knowledge were lost, and writing all but disappeared.

The ensuing Dark Ages lasted for centuries. It was a post-apocalyptic time, during which the stories we know today as Greek mythology developed and spread through an oral tradition. These stories were a post-apocalyptic society’s backward look at the better, brighter times before the Late Bronze Age Collapse, and a means for which they tried to explain what happened and why.

These pre-apocalyptic stories weren’t meant for us, or for any audience at our position in civilization’s grand cycle of ebb and flow. We aren’t capable of fully relating to them. But still, something about them appeals to us.

Given the choice, any of us would rather be living in a Golden Age while reading about a post-apocalyptic age, rather than the other way around. It’s hard for us to even imagine being among a post-apocalyptic audience, hearing a tale that can only be told orally, because literacy is no longer a thing, about an actual Golden Age that has become a time of fading legends.

But maybe we need these stories as well, to remind us that history is a cycle. Unimaginable things have happened in the past, and can happen again if we ignore the warnings in our post-apocalyptic stories.

And on a less depressing note… Homeric trivia!

  • The Trojan Horse doesn’t actually appear in the Iliad. That scene happens in a separate part of the epic cycle that’s been lost to us.
  • Also not included in the Iliad, Achilles getting fatally shot in the ankle. That scene also happens in a part of the epic cycle that’s been lost to us.
  • The epic cycle included an army of women led across the plains of Troy by an Amazon queen named Penthesilia, and an African army led by King Memnon of Aethiopia. That has been lost to us as well.

So why does every adaptation of the Trojan War recreate the death of Achilles and the deployment of a giant wooden horse while completely ignoring the armies of Penthesilia and Memnon?

Discuss!