In high school I nursed wild ambitions of publishing a fantasy novel. The plot was muddy, but I knew my heroine. Her name was Elizia. She was a woman of color, and she spoke with all the outrageous, cringeworthy angst of a Brontë character. She was brave and intelligent and a born leader, a liberator of women and the poor who also dabbled with sorcery.
A few months into introductory fiction classes at Hopkins, my writing changed dramatically, and Elizia went into hiding. For the most part, it was for the better. I began cutting away vague flowery language. I began to find emotional weight in common, everyday things. My characters started talking a little bit more like real people, not pseudo-Shakespearean women, and I was able to draw out mildly interesting things out of my relatively uneventful life.
I’ve also internalized two apparent rules to serious literary writing. One, write what you know. Two, don’t write fantasy or sci-fi if you want to be taken seriously. In fact, avoid anything that requires the slightest suspension of disbelief.
Internalizing these rules has allowed me to refine my writing abilities. But these rules — particularly the latter — have been extremely constraining.
It’s not just that fantasy makes for a more effective form of escapism, though that’s certainly part of it. It’s also that I’m a minority. And to writers of color, academia’s rejection of fantasy and fantastical elements is yet another obstacle to achieving visibility and recognition.
Fiction instructors here adore realism. This isn’t surprising: Introductory to Fiction revolves around the modern American short story, which is steeped in realism. Yet what instructors here are slow to acknowledge is that there are plenty of works with elements of fantasy and science fiction that have literary merit. Works through which minorities have made indispensable contributions to literature.
Take magical realism, for example, which uses fantastical elements. It is a genre that has defined the Latin-American literary tradition, and Latin-American writers in turn have defined magical realism. Jorge Luis Borges, Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez are just some of these writers. They’re influential enough to have so-called merit in Western literary circles, and they also write fantasy. We just don’t read them as exhaustively as we do Ernest Hemingway or Flannery O’Connor.
Latin American writers aside, there are other writers of color that literary circles and critics admire who use elements of fantasy and surrealism in their stories. Salman Rushdie. Toni Morrison. Haruki Murakami. Louise Erdrich. Kazuo Ishiguro. The list goes on.
If your white sensibilities prevent you from acknowledging that these works with fantastical elements deserve as much recognition as overhyped white American writers like O’Connor and Raymond Carver, then consider “serious” white writers who have dabbled in fantasy and science fiction. George Orwell wrote 1984 and Animal Farm. Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World. Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 and Dandelion Wine. Look beyond American and British authors and remember the contributions of writers like Franz Kafka. If dystopian novels, allegorical books with talking animals and men transforming into giant insects don’t sound a little fantastical to you, then what is?
Maybe you think that writing fantasy or writing stories with fantastical elements is self-indulgent, even lazy. Maybe you come face to face with more plot holes than usual. Maybe as you’ve grown older you’ve lost your ability to suspend disbelief, and anything fantastical seems childish, nonsensical and convoluted.
But incorporating elements of fantasy can provide us with perspectives that rigorous realism cannot. A story can be subtle, innovative, critically acclaimed and fantastical. When you tell me that isn’t the case and that you cannot take fantasy seriously whatsoever — even in small doses — you’re also telling me that writers of color like Márquez and Morrison do not truly matter.
As Asian Americans, we have long been an invisible community. I want us to be more visible. I want characters who look like us and talk like us. But shove us and our characters into the damning corner of unyielding realism, and what can we explore?
I’ve tried to “write what I know” by exploring micro-aggressions, familial rifts and the cognitive dissonance that comes with having a foot in two cultures. These themes are familiar in Asian-American literature. They can be poignant and — if you’re in a predominantly white class with a white instructor — unique. And they’re important. But I can’t imagine that such narratives speak to the average American.
No one ever told me I had to explore these themes. There are certainly Asian and Asian-American writers who have achieved mainstream success without doing so. But once you have an Asian-American cast of characters, it’s difficult to avoid addressing these themes. If you manage not to make a big deal of your characters’ heritage, your readers sure as hell will. Try writing about your average abusive parent or misogynistic man who happens to have a last name like Kim or Lee, and some white reader will say, “oh, that’s because they’re Korean.” Or maybe they’ll notice the names of your characters, realize that their narrative can happen to any (white) character and complain that “this isn’t Korean/Asian enough.”
I can’t speak on behalf of all the writers of color as to why they found genres like magical realism to be a more suitable vehicle for their writing than the rigid realism of modern American literature. Perhaps their familiarity with more fantasy-friendly cultures was reason enough. But I can imagine that there are other writers — published and not — who have found the Western fixation on realism constraining for the same reasons that I do.
A little fantasy, a little more room for invention and imagination, could be liberating. If we’re supposed to be perpetual foreigners, why should we conform to the predominantly white American literary tradition of hyper-realism? If academia wants to be inclusive, why can’t they take a bit of magic more seriously?
And with a bit of magic, we can be more than perpetual foreigners. We can be anybody. In the end, perhaps even full-on fantasy, on the epic scale of Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones will be most liberating of all. How empowering would that be, if Jon Snow or the Mother of Dragons were Asian? If there were little white and black and brown and Asian Hobbits running around in harmony? To know that you too could save the world? How radical that would be? So what if that doesn’t ooze literary merit. What’s the point of literature or art, if it isn’t radical?
As I go forward, I hope that magic can prove a liberating force in my stories. Maybe I’ll venture my way through magical realism and pursue fantasy after all. I’ve spent the past couple of years thinking that Elizia was gone for good. Dead.
But maybe she’s only sleeping. Maybe it’s time for me to take her out of her little box.
Sarah Y. Kim is a junior double-majoring in Writing Seminars and International Studies from Walnut Creek, Calif. She is the Opinions Editor.