It took Emily X.R. Pan nearly a decade to write her debut novel The Astonishing Color of After. She’d initially conceived the book as a 40-year exploration of her grandmothers’ coming-of-age in Taiwan, but due to a lack of information about how she grew up, the author reworked her premise — and her genre. “It was adult literary. I tried middle-grade, I tried YA, I tried adult again,” she recalls. Compounding the difficulty of categorizing the book was the way her own life was seeping into the material. She lost her aunt to suicide in 2014 and refashioned the narrative to center on a Taiwanese-American teenager whose mother dies by suicide. The genre? YA.
Pan is one of many East Asian-American authors to recently make a splash in the YA space with highly original and culturally specific fiction. Her book is a relatively literary entry in the canon, a nearly 500-page novel set in Taiwan which combines mystical and realistic elements. The protagonist, Leigh, goes to be with her grandparents in Taiwan after her mother’s death, and — believing her mother has turned into a bird — seeks to find and speak with her, and in turn gain a better sense of self.
Pan had been toying around with the image — without any particular significance attached — of a person turning into a bird for a long time. And as her own grieving process made its way onto the page, she found that the image attained a rich emotional significance. The book is layered with Buddhist ideas, and Leigh’s belief of what happened to her mother reflects the religion’s concept of post-death spiritual limbo. “I didn’t want to write an intentionally Buddhist book at first because I was really nervous that it would seem too inaccessible to people,” Pan says. “I worried that the religious culture would alienate people.”
To her surprise, the opposite has happened — the novel debuted as a New York Times best-seller and has generated rave reviews. “This idea of faith around grief, or maybe being challenged in your faith around grief, is so universal,” Pan explains. “Even for people who are atheist or agnostic, they understand that when a death like that happens, you’re grasping so much to find something to believe to process what has happened.” In telling a story far more personal and specific than she ever thought she would, Pan touched a range of readers outside her experience, both adolescent and adult.
YA’s inclusivity push is riddled with examples like this: books including The Hate U Give, Children of Blood and Bone, and An Ember in the Ashes have reached huge audiences without sacrificing tenets of inclusion and authenticity. Pan’s book, like those aforementioned titles, hits key story points in the genre — a quest narrative, romance, friendship, self-discovery — but also manages to make accessible and compelling the kinds of themes and characters typically thought of as niche.
Pan didn’t set out to write a YA book until she found the genre the appropriate place for her commentary on Buddhism, grief, and identity. A fellow debut YA author this spring, Mary H.K. Choi (Emergency Contact), meanwhile knew exactly the demo she wanted to target. She’d worked on the magazine Missbehave in her mid-20s and, through it, discovered the excitement of reaching younger readers. She cites the recent, post-Parkland activism as evidence for the power of speaking to them. “Teens are effective transmitters of their own thoughts, and they command and deserve and really wield that agency in inspiring and important ways,” she says. “The reason why I write for younger people is that as surprised as the world is that young people are so brilliant, I’m not surprised.”
Choi’s novel, about the texting-based romance between a college freshman and a man in his early 20s, feels as light and sweet as Pan’s does pained and heartbreaking. They’re studies in alternating approaches, however, to similarly subversive storytelling. Emergency Contact vividly realizes Korean-American culture and explores microaggressions on a sharply recognizable level. Choi drew from her own experiences for the book. “I’ve definitely gotten a lot of things growing up where I’m ‘funny for an Asian girl’ or I’m ‘hot for an Asian,’” she explains. “Or that someone forgets ‘all the time’ that I’m not white. These are things that are handed to me as if they are compliments, but obviously they do nothing but erase me.” Choi intently pushed against stereotypes, for instance writing the young protagonist’s mother as the very opposite of a “Tiger Mom”: She’s a “MILF” who says “Yas!” instead of “Yes” and who can’t embarrass her daughter enough.
Choi weaves these experiences into a narrative rife with witty banter and steamy romantic chemistry; the YA frame doesn’t push the more challenging material to the margins, but rather renders it naturalistically potent. She’s found inspiration particularly in books such as The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas’ novel which tackles police brutality head-on, to understand the nuances of social commentary in YA fiction. “That’s what I mean by how nimble and sweet and deft some of these conversations can be in YA fiction,” she says. “If you think about how nuanced that is, it’s masterful. That’s what I love: You have YA as these trojan horses, of really disruptive and brave thinking.”
YA isn’t the only industry striving for greater diversity, of course, but authors within the field agree it’s ahead of the curve, and that its improvements over the last few years have been significant. Maurene Goo has been writing YA for the past five years and has noticed a quiet transformation in the industry. When she debuted in 2013, with a book about “a sassy Korean-American girl with very normal high school problems that weren’t all identity angst,” she didn’t think it would sell. “Fast forward to a few years later when I’m on submission with my second book, I Believe in a Thing Called Love, about a girl who uses Korean drama tropes to find love, and the K drama element is one of its biggest selling points,” she gushes. “Night and day.”
Goo’s new novel The Way You Make Me Feel (out May 8) centers on a teenager named Clara, and paints a vibrant portrait of Los Angeles, in particular honing in on the food truck industry. It’s a frothy, fun story with a fierce commitment to promoting multiculturalism — she wrote the book after the election, and so “was in a particularly … protective mood about immigrants and their value in this country” — and it reflects that same strategy of exploring social values through an enticing narrative. “Clara’s journey is ultimately about acceptance, empathy, and vulnerability and I think that the improvisational nature of living with so many cultures around you informs that kind of growth in a person,” Goo argues.
These authors know there’s still work to be done. “My experience as an Asian-American woman is going to be very, very different from the Asian-American woman who lives next door to me,” Pan explains. “The only way to get people seeing us not as a monolith is to have more of our stories out there.” She emphasizes that there remains “a lot to be desired” in the push for greater representation across the board — racial, cultural, gender, and sexual. Goo agrees, but finds, at least, that the path for East Asian authors to get published in YA is getting easier and more fruitful. “The discussion is there and I don’t think aspiring writers are feeling as discouraged about their chances of getting published because of writing marginalized characters,” she says. “For all the problems within our industry and the work we still have ahead, I feel like [children’s literature] has really been at the forefront of having the tough talks.”