Welcome to the Rich in Color group discussion of A Thousand Beginnings and Endings! We’re over the moon about this short story anthology centering Asian stories by Asian authors. Read on for our roundtable chat and jump into the discussion on Twitter (twitter.com/rich_in_color)!
A Thousand Beginnings and Endings – Edited by Ellen Oh & Elsie Chapman
Star-crossed lovers, meddling immortals, feigned identities, battles of wits, and dire warnings. These are the stuff of fairy tale, myth, and folklore that have drawn us in for centuries. Fifteen bestselling and acclaimed authors re-imagine the folklore and mythology of East and South Asia in short stories that are by turns enchanting, heartbreaking, romantic, and passionate.
Compiled by We Need Diverse Books’s Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman, the authors included in this exquisite collection are: Renee Ahdieh, Sona Charaipotra, Preeti Chhibber, Roshani Chokshi, Aliette de Bodard, Melissa de la Cruz, Julie Kagawa, Rahul Kanakia, Lori M. Lee, E. C. Myers, Cindy Pon, Aisha Saeed, Shveta Thakrar, and Alyssa Wong.
A mountain loses her heart. Two sisters transform into birds to escape captivity. A young man learns the true meaning of sacrifice. A young woman takes up her mother’s mantle and leads the dead to their final resting place. From fantasy to science fiction to contemporary, from romance to tales of revenge, these stories will beguile readers from start to finish. For fans of Neil Gaiman’s Unnatural Creatures and Ameriie’s New York Times–bestselling Because You Love to Hate Me.
NOTE: Spoilers below!
A Thousand Beginnings and Endings has 15 stories total (whew!), and they’re all pretty incredible. Did you have a favorite? How did it speak to you?
JESSICA: All the stories were incredible, but if I had to pick a favorite, it’d be “Olivia’s Table” by Alyssa Wong. It hits all my favorite stuff: Family and the link between generations, the magic of food, and ghosts. It’s a story very much rooted in its setting, Arizona, and that’s reflected in the ghosts that visit Olivia’s banquet during the Ghost Festival. There’s Hopi women, Chinese miners, among others. The story really spoke to me as a Taiwanese American, especially since a big part of how I relate to my mother is through food.
The funny thing is that I actually didn’t know anything about the Hungry Ghost Festival growing up. I learned about it via wikipedia (much like in this comic by Jean Wei) after I came back from a summer visit to Taiwan as a college freshman and got curious. There’s something to be said here about what’s lost and what’s passed on between generations, and how that happens.
AUDREY: I loved “Olivia’s Table” for many of the same reasons you did. (It made me cry!) My paternal grandmother and aunt came to visit last month for the first time in five years, and so everyone got together and made tamales and spent a week eating the food that only my grandmother could make. “Olivia’s Table” hit my family and food feelings hard, and I loved that the story explicitly countered the “white cowboy” narrative that often gets pushed by Hollywood.
I also loved “Bullet, Butterfly” by Elsie Chapman and “Eyes Like Candlelight” by Julie Kagawa. I like my romances with some tragedy in them, clearly, and (coincidentally?) both featured government/government actions as the things that thwarted the young lovers. Despite the tragedies in both stories, the characters were able to reunite in other ways, and I found that a uplifting, too.
CRYSTAL: There are so many fantastic stories here that it’s difficult to choose just one. For straight up fun, I would choose “Girls Who Twirl and Other Dangers.” It made me smile and laugh so many times. Three friends are united in their plan for revenge on a jerk and hilarity follows. For bittersweetness, I’d have to go with “The Crimson Cloak.” It was definitely romantic in all of the right ways. Wonderful, lovely moments happen, but all is not perfect. It made me sigh and even cry a bit.
K. IMANI: I loved all of them, but if I had to choose, I would say “The Smile”. I loved that Yasmine, or rather Naseem, was realistic about her life in the castle and with Prince Kareem, which I found to be really powerful. Her strength when she was imprisoned in the tower really stood out to me as she decided not to give in and stand up for herself. By standing up to Prince Kareem, she knew she would face death and I found something so beautiful in that. I was moved by the fact that she was willing to die for what she believed in and for her freedom. The power in taking ownership for yourself and your future, as Naseem did, really stood out to me.
These stories re-imagine mythology, fairy tales, and folklore from different Asian cultures. They range from stories set in the past (ish) to stories in the present and future. Did any stories from a particular time period (for lack of better term) stand out to you?
K. IMANI: This is an excellent question and hard to answer. I think, for me, I liked the blend of stories set in past(ish), present, and future. The diversity in story settings really showed how timeless these mythological stories are and that we can always gain meaning from them whether we lived 100 years ago or 100 years from now.
AUDREY: I will always be a sucker for stories set in “historical fantasy” worlds, so I was thrilled to see so many of them in this anthology. But I also love reimaginings set in the present and the future–I’m not picky when it comes to time periods.
In retrospect, I do wish that there were a few more stories set in the future, like “Steel Skin” or “Bullet, Butterfly,” because I think a lot of white American sci-fi steals a good chunk of its visual/aesthetic cues from Asian countries/media (especially East Asian). I’d love to see a broader view of the future as imagined by a wide selection of diasporic Asian authors, much like this was a folklore/myth/fairy tale anthology. (Maybe a sequel anthology? I would definitely buy that.)
JESSICA: I use “past (ish)” in the question above because, to be honest, I’m not sure what you call that particular setting of myths, fairy tales, and folklore, and I wouldn’t even say they’re all the same setting. But you know that vibe of “once upon a time” or “in a land far, far away” or “mukashi mukashi arutokoro ni”? Yeah. Roshani Chokshi’s “Forbidden Fruit” retelling of the stories of Maria Makiling really set the tone for the anthology. It’s beautiful and speaks to the long tradition of weaving stories with the land around us.
On the flip side, I also loved “Steel Skin” by Lori M. Lee, and how it set a Hmong folktale in a future of androids and bipods. The twist that Yer herself was an android, throwing into question her own memories and identity, really brought home the idea of what it means to be human and how grief and history ties into that. The futuristic setting was perfect for the story in that way.
CRYSTAL: I was also intrigued by Lori M. Lee’s story, “Steel Skin.” The story managed to twist in ways I hadn’t expected. I also enjoyed the idea of traditional tales pitching all the way into the future.
Another one that really got me with the setting was “Eyes Like Candlelight.” I was in Japan recently and visited more than one Inari shrine so vivid pictures of fox statues and the mountain forest filled my mind. The story itself was also overflowing with emotions. Foxes are certainly intriguing anytime, but with the romance and tragedy too, this story is very memorable.
Were there any common themes that you picked up on that carried across different stories?
CRYSTAL: I see through these stories that connections with others bring us joy, sorrow, and they can play a role in who we become. The people who touch us affect us in big and small ways. Parents obviously have a strong influence on who you are and who you will be. An example is In “Land of the Morning Calm,” Sun Moon and her mother are connected in unexpected ways and Sunny begins to see her mother within herself even though she is gone.
JESSICA: Two major threads that I picked up on were the themes of family and freedom. “Olivia’s Table” spoke to Olivia’s grief and relationship with her mother, demonstrated with the banquet she sets out for the ghosts. And “The Counting of Vermillion Beads” by Aliette De Bodard is a tale of siblings, Tam and Cam, whose bond is powerful and heartbreaking and heartening all at once. The two work as census girls for the emperor, with no true way out except through transformation and flight. The ending got me thinking about what it means to be truly free on your own terms, and what it means to have no home to go back to, unless you make a home yourself in the people you love.
K. IMANI: I have to agree with both of you on the themes of family and freedom. “Olivia’s Table” and “Land of the Morning Calm” both touched me in that both stories dealt with how a family moves on after the loss of an important member, but still connected to that person, which is so moving. I also feel like the theme of love was all the stories. And by love I mean all the different types of love – familial, romantic, platonic, and most importantly self. Which, when one thinks about it, mythological stories, fairy tales, and folktales are often lessons for personal growth, so having the theme of love, all the different types of love, and how they change us, how it helps be who we are, makes sense that it would be a theme throughout all the stories.
AUDREY: Family and freedom were definitely major themes within the anthology. Similarly, I noticed the recurring questions of when it was best to try to let go of the past/when it is best to move forward. Whether it was a parent’s death, a childhood grudge/slight, or a relationship you thought was love but maybe wasn’t, the question of how much the past did or should influence your present actions and your future was brought up a lot.
A number of the contributors to this anthology have previously published works of fiction. Have you read them? Did you see any connections or common themes between any particular author’s short story and previous writing?
JESSICA: Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve been over the moon about Cindy Pon’s Taipei sci-fi thriller Want for, like, the last year. I really enjoy Cindy Pon’s writing, from Silver Phoenix to Serpentine to Want, because it’s all so deeply rooted in cultural stories and their settings. Her short story “The Crimson Cloak” is no different. I’ve read a few other short stories by Alyssa Wong (“Olivia’s Table”), and the one that stood out to me is “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” which, be warned, is haunting and fairly brutal. It touches on family and loss and a whole lot more that I don’t think I’m equipped to talk about without sounding totally silly. And after reading “The Counting of Vermillion Beads,” I’m reminded that I really, really need to read Aliette De Bodard’s other works: The House of Shattered Wings, and The Tea Master and the Detective. So much to read…
CRYSTAL: I too love Cindy Pon’s work and thoroughly enjoyed her story here. Another author who has revisited a theme is Aisha Saeed. Her novels, Written in the Stars and Amal Unbound, also feature young women who are trapped and appear to have no choices. Again, this character doesn’t see an easy road ahead, but bravely steps out anyway.
AUDREY: Another fan of Cindy Pon here! I’ve also read Elsie Chapman’s Along the Indigo, Lori M. Lee’s Gates of Thread and Stone and The Infinite, Sona Charaipotra’s Tiny Pretty Things, and Renée Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn. Off the top of my head, some of the crossover themes I can think of are family secrets, problems with siblings, and potentially doomed/star-crossed love.
K. IMANI: I’m fourthing being a fan of Cindy Pon’s. “The Crimson Cloak” really reminded me of her “Silver Phoenix” duology with the fantastical way she described the setting and Hongyun’s voice. I’ve read a number of the authors in this anthology so I was happy to read short stories by them. I think many of the themes I’ve seen in these authors books and in these stories is the theme of being true to one’s self and loving one’s self.
A Thousand Beginnings and Endings is unique just by virtue of what it is: A short story anthology centering Asian narratives by diasporic Asian writers. What does this anthology mean to you? And what are some other anthologies you’d like to see in the future?
JESSICA: This anthology means so much. I’m so happy that it exists – diasporic Asian writers writing Asian stories! Yes! I remember back in college, when I first joined Rich in Color, there were a spate of YA books that were “Asian-inspired” but written by white authors — some were good, some were, well, somewhat racist. And looking around, there just weren’t that many Asian YA books by Asian authors (Cindy Pon and Ellen Oh, among others, were some of the few). It was really discouraging and honestly, infuriating. I’m happy that the library of stories like these have expanded since then. In terms of anthologies, I want more of this. Here’s to the future!
CRYSTAL: This anthology helps to fill a gap in young adult lit. I’ve always been a big fan of traditional tale re-tellings, but they have lacked diversity for sure. This means there have been tons of Cinderellas, Snow Whites,and Beautys, but very few nine tailed foxes in my life. Not only have I been missing out, but so many people haven’t had the chance to see stories from their cultures on the page. More collections like this are essential. More stand-alone novel re-tellings from a wide variety of cultures would also be fabulous – hopefully from #ownvoices authors.
K. IMANI: Like Crystal and Jessica, I agree this anthology definitely fills a huge gap in YA lit. I can tell writing these stories meant a lot to all the authors with the care and beauty from each of the stories. I really enjoyed learning about mythological, fairy tales, and folk tales that are different from cultures and the author’s interpretation of these stories. As for what I’d like to see, more collections from a variety of backgrounds and even stand alone stories as well, much like the Richard Riordan presents series. It would make our literature more inclusive and reflective of our diverse world.
AUDREY: This anthology was great. I loved seeing diasporic Asian authors tackling their own cultures, and the subtlety, nuance, and detail they put into their short stories was breathtaking. I’m thrilled that there are teens today who will be able to read this book and finally see themselves and their families represented. As I mentioned before, I’d love to see a specifically sci-fi YA anthology for diasporic Asian writers, but I’d honestly love to see a similar folktale/mythology anthology for Latinx folk. (Call me selfish.) After a stressful month, this anthology made me want to get back into reading again and made me even hungrier for #ownvoices narratives.