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The problem with the book category: Asian fantasy


Fantasy novels can be great at transporting readers to new and magical lands, but historically, they've been less than great at reflecting diversity in the real world. In recent years, something known as Asian fantasy has grown in popularity, but in this encore presentation, reporter Kalyani Saxena wonders if that's really the best term for this subgenre.


KALYANI SAXENA: When author Cindy Pon released her debut novel "Silver Phoenix" in 2009, the term Asian fantasy was barely a twinkle in the publishing industry's eye. Pon says the Chinese-inspired "Silver Phoenix" was the first young adult Asian fantasy novel, but being a trailblazer did her no favors.

CINDY PON: The fact that it was Asian fantasy, I think, made publishers feel like it was niche, you know, like that it's only targeted to a certain audience. In retrospect, I do think that it kind of got lost in a very big way.

SAXENA: Debuting during the Great Recession was hard for most authors, but according to Pon, publishers blame "Silver Phoenix's" lackluster reception on its Asianness. And while the label Asian fantasy has become a popular marketing tool in the decades since, authors are still grappling with whether that's actually a helpful niche. For Rebecca Kuang, author of "The Poppy War" trilogy, the term Asian is reductive.

REBECCA KUANG: Obviously, like, there are a lot of different things that fall under the subcategory of Asian, including East Asian, including South Asian, Southeast Asian - right? - like, Pacific Islander. So when we call works just blanket Asian, that belies an entire world of difference.

SAXENA: Fonda Lee, author of "The Green Bone Saga," says the term Asian fantasy makes about as much sense as the term Asian food.

FONDA LEE: It's useful insofar as it delineates a broad category of things that you could define as being different from the Western normative, but also isn't particularly helpful because it doesn't tell you anything about whether you're eating sushi or samosas.

SAXENA: But some authors do embrace the term Asian fantasy.

ROSHANI CHOKSHI: While I do agree that it erases a lot of nuance, the important thing to me is just that readers are able to find these stories.

SAXENA: That's Roshani Chokshi, the author of "The Star-Touched Queen," a duology inspired by Hindu mythology. She says that allowing books to be grouped under the Asian fantasy umbrella might give them better placement in bookstores and give readers a better chance at finding diverse fantasy. But even those authors who think the term Asian fantasy is helpful say they'd eventually like to see the publishing industry market Asian authors differently.

So what does that look like? Well, for some, that means breaking down the Asian fantasy category into more specific and accurate labeling. For others, like Tasha Suri, author of "Empire Of Sand," it means seeing fantasy novels marketed based on content rather than culture.

TASHA SURI: I often think it's more meaningful for me to tell people that my fantasy writing focuses on women and has a large level of romance and yearning because that will make it reach the correct audience than it is for me to say that it's Indian fantasy.

SAXENA: As for Cindy Pon, who's been with the genre from the very beginning...

PON: I'd like to see a future where, you know, white librarians in Iowa won't be like, well, I have the one, you know, Asian kid, and I can't be acquiring these books. And that's the best way to learn and be empathetic, you know, and learn about other people and other cultures. So why wouldn't you acquire broadly for - you know, from every population? And so that is what I hope for.

SAXENA: For NPR News, I'm Kalyani Saxena in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.