Mixed-race authors write fantasies with Asian and Middle Eastern heroes

Roshani Chokshi was shortlisted in February for a Nebula award for The Star- Touched Queen (2016), which is steeped in Hindu mythology and folklore.
Roshani Chokshi was shortlisted in February for a Nebula award for The Star- Touched Queen (2016), which is steeped in Hindu mythology and folklore. PHOTO: AMAN SHARMA

Authors Roshani Chokshi and Renee Ahdieh struggled to identify with the white protagonists of books they read growing up and have written stories that draw on their heritage

Young adult authors from mixed- race backgrounds are making their mark with fantasy worlds that draw not on European fairy tales or Greek myth, but on Sanskrit epic or samurai lore, and where the heroines are not blonde or blue-eyed but Asian or Middle Eastern.

Among these is best-selling Scottish-Korean-American author Renee Ahdieh, who drew on the Arabian Nights and her husband's Persian roots for the Scheherazadeinspired novel The Wrath And The Dawn (2015) and its sequel The Rose And The Dagger (2016). She is exploring feudal Japan in her new novel Flame In The Mist.

Writer Roshani Chokshi, an American of Indian-Filipino descent, was shortlisted in February for a Nebula award for The Star-Touched Queen (2016), which is steeped in Hindu mythology and folklore.

Chokshi, 26, the daughter of immigrants, had a happy childhood in Atlanta, Georgia, but also felt "pushed to the side".

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"As much as I loved reading, every single time I walked into a bookstore or library, I would look at the covers and not see somebody with a name like mine," she says.

The Star-Touched Queen was her first attempt to write her heritage. It blends elements of the Greek myth of Persephone, who is abducted by the king of the underworld Hades, with the Hindu myths that were her bedtime stories, such as the love story of Shiva and Parvati, and that of Savitri and Satyavan from the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata.

A love of anime and the films of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa inspired Renee Ahdieh (above) to set Flame In The Mist in feudal Japan.
A love of anime and the films of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa inspired Renee Ahdieh (above) to set Flame In The Mist in feudal Japan. PHOTO: CRYSTAL STOKES

Her first novel's heroine Maya, princess of the Bharata kingdom, is about to be sacrificed at her wedding as a political pawn, when she is given the chance to escape by becoming queen of the mysterious kingdom of Akaran, a dark, empty land of jewelled trees, sinister whispers and thousands of locked doors.

Publishers did not take to the manuscript at first, calling it unrelatable. "It was six months of very sweetly worded rejections," recalls Chokshi, who is based in North Carolina and in a long-term relationship. "The hardest one was 'I don't know where this story will live', like just the very idea of it was not important to the narrative out there. That hurt."

It has since become a New York Times best-selling title and was nominated for the Nebula's Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy. Its success enabled Chokshi to publish a sequel, A Crown Of Wishes, earlier this year.

The sequel centres on Maya's little sister Gauri, now a warrior princess. Exiled from Bharata, she strikes up a dubious alliance with enemy prince Vikram to enter a tournament in the fairy kingdom of Alaka in order to win a wish.

Chokshi is now working on a new young adult novel, The Gilded Wolves, which she describes as "Ocean's Eleven" set in 1889 La Belle Epoque Paris. It will have a Filipino main character and deal with France's legacy of colonialism.

Like Chokshi, Ahdieh, 33, struggled to identify with the white protagonists of children's books when she was growing up.

Born to a Scottish-American father and South Korean mother, she moved to Seoul from North Carolina when she was two weeks old and returned a few years later. She spent a lot of her youth "denying (her) Asian-ness" in order to assimilate into American culture.

Growing up in Seoul, she would watch a lot of Japanese anime. This, along with her love of the films of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, would later inspire her to set Flame In The Mist in feudal Japan.

In the novel, which draws on the bushido culture and is infused with a touch of magic, samurai's daughter Mariko is hijacked by bandits on her way to an arranged marriage.

Surviving the slaughter of her entourage, she disguises herself as a boy in order to infiltrate the Black Clan, a rebel band in the forest whom she believes is responsible for the massacre.

Ahdieh, who is married with no children, read Japanese literature such as the work of 17th-century ronin Miyamoto Musashi to get a better grasp of the era, and also watched an eight-hour BBC documentary about the making of a samurai sword.

She is next headed to a workshop in Oregon where she will learn from a Japanese-trained swordsmith how to forge her own katana (a traditional sword), as part of her preparation to write Flame's sequel. "I wanted to bring to life an East Asian world that children might not know much about," she says. "I wanted books for kids all over the world."

She recalls how, at a book signing for The Wrath And The Dawn, which prominently features Arab characters, she was approached by a young woman in a hijab. "She said she didn't realise she had been missing from a book until she saw herself in mine.

"She wanted to thank me because she was pregnant and she had just found out it was a girl and she said, 'My daughter will never have the experience of not having a fantasy book in which she is the main character.' She started to cry and so did I.

"When I was growing up, I needed to believe it was possible for a girl like me to slay a dragon or have a significant place in a world dominated by men. Only other young women with whom we can identify can show us that."

•Flame In The Mist ($18.40), The Wrath And The Dawn ($16.95) and The Rose And The Dagger ($16.95) by Renee Ahdieh; and The Star-Touched Queen ($18.94) and A Crown Of Wishes ($16.91) by Roshani Chokshi are available at Books Kinokuniya.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2017, with the headline 'Creating diverse fantasy worlds for all'. Print Edition | Subscribe