Like most worthwhile things, this talk started out with a conversation. My husband, Benjamin Inn, and I were in the car talking about the animated series Legend of Korra and Avatar, the Last Airbender. I had (wrongly) assumed that Ben would be a great fan, seeing as these series had brought together a variety of Asian influences. Spoiler alert, he’s not a fan. And to be honest, I was shocked. Ben’s a mighty contrarian, but he’s usually got fairly well articulated reasons for hating on beloved icons of pop-culture.
When we got down to it, the root of his irritation was that, in his opinion, they hadn’t actually done much new. For most of the series, we were dealing with the same 4 European elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. And, as much as Ang or Korra needs their team, the real, consequential, events of the story have to do with a chosen one, who is uniquely gifted and uniquely alone — an individual savior.
In the end, I disagree with his overall estimation of the series, but he does have a point. American fantasy writing has a European problem.
What’s the problem?
We tend to draw on the same Celtic, Norse, and Hellenic mythologies, use the same four elements, derive our beasties from the same old monsters that arise from the same old myths. And more detrimentally, we keep telling the same lone, chosen-one story about a noble savior who became who he/she is because they were born that way. We continue to see individuals as atomized, disconnected actors who live independently of both their human community and independently of basically all other life on earth. All of which leaves us — as writers — trying to create stories with complex, multi-layered problems, and trying to solve those problems with tired reiterations of Thor’s Hammer.
Conversely, Asian mythologies articulate a radically different worldview. Eastern storytelling describes a fundamentally different place for humankind in the world, and for the individual in society. Asian mythos generally focuses on community and team problem solving. The individual him/herself isn’t as important as his or her contribution to the group. And Asian heroes are basically the antithesis of the chosen-one — most heroes are heroes because they work their butts off and they consciously chose (despite all odds) to be nice and help people. And the gods in the pantheons of East Asia are either elemental spirits of wild nature who came into existence long before human beings, or they are human beings who underwent apotheosis by dint of their own hard work and determination.
These differences are important because writing speculative fiction and fantasy is one way that we, as artists, hack into the culture and subvert the traditions that limit our ability to interact with the world.
It’s also important from a pure storytelling perspective because the most fertile ground in any ecosystem is the liminal zone — the space in-between. Drawing from disparate cultures and mythologies opens new pathways and new possibilities for storytelling.
Who the heck am I
I’ve studied China’s history, language, and culture since the late 90s. Between 2000 and 2011 I worked and traveled all over Asia. I’ve lived in Beijing, Taipei, a tiny town called Magong off the Taiwanese coast, and I’ve lived in both urban and rural South Korea. I speak, read, and write at an upper intermediate level in Mandarin Chinese, and I can navigate reasonably well in basic travel Korean. Since 2011, I’ve been back to Asia usually for about a month almost every year, and Ben and I spend a lot of time on research trips in China, Korea, and Taiwan, visiting temples and other historical sites.
For this lecture I will be drawing from my own experience, from stories I was told by friends and elders in Taiwan, China, and Korea, and from published academic research.