"All and None of Those Places"

A Conversation Between Fantasy Authors Fonda Lee and K.S. Villoso

Photo: Elena Rose Photography / Mikhail Villoso

In The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, the new debut epic fantasy novel from K.S. Villoso, a queen of a divided land must unite her people. Jade City and Jade War -- now out in paperback -- are the first two volumes of Fonda Lee's "Green Bone Saga," an epic trilogy about family, honor, and those who live and die by the ancient laws of blood and jade. The two authors recently chatted with one another about their respective narrative approaches, creating Asian-inspired fantasy worlds, and Asian representation in publishing.

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Fonda Lee: Hi Kay! I'm reading The Wolf of Oren-Yaro right now and enjoying the hell out of it. Warlords, treachery, dangerous politics, a richly imagined Asia-inspired fantasy world... It's all very much up my alley!

Your main character, Queen Talyien, is a compelling mix of strong and vulnerable -- a hastily-crowned monarch trying to hold a kingdom together, an abandoned wife, a mother, a self-proclaimed bitch. How clear was Talyien to you when you started writing the book? What came to you first -- the world or the character?

K.S. Villoso: Thank you so much! The world definitely came first. I've been working on it since I was in my teens, in part to deal with homesickness after we moved to Canada. A big chunk of worldbuilding happened when I started writing my first fantasy novel during a six-month stay in the Philippines after I graduated high school. It gave me a chance to relish in the details I grew up with, the things I've missed while I was away, and the culture itself. It also provided me with a medium to explore certain issues or situations, as in the case of Jin-Sayeng, which is my reimagining of a pre-colonial Philippines that progressed without colonization.

Queen Talyien came roaring out of one of the pockets of conflict I wrote for this world. The conditions she was born into was very specific: daughter of a tyrant, a child created by people deluded into thinking they're doing the right thing, and someone who is meant to be the solution to a problem but is hated for it from the beginning. In many ways, her fierceness is an armour; when that armour is taken off, you see a side that's always been there, but which is difficult to sustain because of the society and structures she grew up with.

On this topic, part of what I really loved about Jade City was how the world-building and the characters formed this tight mesh -- one can't exist without the other. Shae, for example, left home to seek her own fortune, and her arc revolves around her return to family and duty. Many writers regard these elements as completely separate; and yet, as you've shown, culture and setting can form the roots for truly deep character work. Can you talk a bit about how you developed the secondary world of Kekon?

Lee: First of all, *fistbump* from a fellow Canadian!

You mentioned that your secondary fantasy world was inspired by a specific time and place: pre-colonial Philippines. In contrast, I developed Kekon as a deliberate amalgam. I wanted it to feel like a completely fictional Asian island nation that you couldn't pin down as being based on any one place. I’ve had readers ask me if Kekon is inspired by Hong Kong, or Japan, or Taiwan, or China, or Korea... and my answer is, "All and none of those places." The premise of Kekon is that it's unique in the world because it is the world's only source of magic jade. Its myths, history, culture, religion, and government are all inextricably influenced by this fact.

So I took what you might call "the Wakanda approach" to creating Kekon. In the same way that Wakanda in the Marvel universe is clearly a made-up African nation, I built Kekon from the ground up with a pan-Asian inspiration shot through with magic specific to my fantasy world. This meant being very selective in my language. I describe the food, the weapons, the architecture of Kekon in detail, yet I never use words like, "udon" or "katana" or "pagoda" that would anchor it to our world. Kekonese weather is based on Taiwan. The weapons on the Burmse dha (sword) and Indonesia kerambit (hooked knife). The naming conventions are partly Japanese and partly Chinese. And so on.

I suspect that this approach made so much sense to me because I'm a second-generation Asian American who has never lived in Asia, doesn't speak any language other than English, and could never call any place in Asia "home." Without personal ties to any specific place in Asia, I didn't feel inspired to tie my fictional nation to a particular place that was meaningful to me. I simply wanted to build my own Asian nation, the Asian nation of my imagination, compiled from pieces of real world culture and history and lovingly blended with my own pop-culture influences. It's also why the modern Kekonese diaspora is such a prominent part of the Green Bone Saga.

How about you? Would you say The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is influenced by other works, Western or Eastern?

Villoso: *fistbumps back* It's cold up here, eh?

That is amazing about Kekon. And yet despite you not basing it off an exact place, it felt real. It had a bit of a 80s Asian city vibe for me (80s being only as far as my memory goes). It felt very much like home!

I did a bit of a similar thing with not describing words that would anchor my worldbuilding to ours. The base is very much Filipino culture in my head, but for instance, I never say the words "kampilan" or "bolo" or "sisig," and I made up words for things like honorifics and even the magic. I think I really wanted to make a point that even though it's "inspired" by Filipino culture, it's also still fantasy. About half the geography of Jin-Sayeng is British Columbia, because I couldn't write fantasy and not add those gorgeous mountains in somewhere.

My storytelling in general is very much Western-influenced. While maybe a cliched answer in this day and age, G.R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is the first thing that comes to mind (as I'm sure it would with many of this generation's fantasy writers). My narrative approach is heavily influenced by Robin Hobb's Farseer series. But I use details I'm familiar with, and themes that resonate more with me especially as someone who grew up in the East--family, duty, and sacrifice in particular. For most of my books, characters aren't driven by a desire for triumph or success, but by responsibilities and obligation towards community or society.

These themes are also prevalent in your work. How culturally significant was it for you to portray these themes?

LEE: Very significant! (And those themes are one reason I’m enjoying your book so much!) Like you, I’m heavily influenced by Western fantasy, but a lot of those stories are centered around the idea of the Chosen One and the individual Hero's Journey. From the start, my vision for the Green Bone Saga was that it would be a family saga. No matter the scope of international politics, magic, or trade, at its heart, this is the story of the Kaul family. And those themes that you mentioned -- family, duty, sacrifice -- are inextricably tied to each of the character's choices and thus their fate.

For each of the main characters, I also wanted to portray the conflict between personal needs and desires versus loyalty to clan and family. One of the things I try to do is put my characters in situations where there are no good choices and they’re forced to do things they never wanted to or to make enormous personal sacrifices. This idea can resonate with all people, but for Asian Americans in particular, I think the idea of sacrificing for one's family is especially resonant. Like many immigrants, my parents came to North America with very little and struggled for decades in a new country all for the sake of giving their children a better future. And that is a type of stoic heroism that we don’t often see reflected in the individual glory and triumph of Western-centric story tropes.

Your novel is also very much about familial relationships -- especially that between Talyien and her husband Rayyel. It seems that in fiction, it's uncommon to see Strong Female Characters who are also wives and mothers -- and Talyien is both. How much did you deliberately set out to write a different type of strong woman? How important was that to you?

Villoso: It's certainly different from a Western perspective, but in a sense, the type of strong woman I wrote about is the type I grew up with -- and in many ways, the type I am expected to be. You mentioned the stoic heroism, and this is very true with what's expected from Filipino women (the men too, but not to the same extent). Despite being colonized by two separate patriarchal cultures (Spain and the United States), Filipino culture retained a lot of its matriarchal roots, which includes giving women the bulk of the responsibility even (and especially if) the men neglect theirs. Many of us are taught that women are strong, and women know better, and when everything turns sideways we have to pick up the slack.

An all-too common story is the Filipino caregiver who leaves her children back home in order to watch over someone else's children overseas. Many do this under extreme family pressure to provide, because the pay is better than anything they can get back home and it allows them to sustain generations of family members. And they do this even if it means losing out on watching their children grow up, and living in terrible conditions. Many women I know, including my own mom, work tirelessly for the sake of their families ("family" includes extended family), with their own wants and needs pushed far into the background. And many of them are very accomplished in their education and their careers.

I wrote with the intention to explore inner strength that I think is not seen very often in Western literature. I know it's a source of frustration for some readers that Talyien, despite being physically capable, doesn't always solve her problems with violence. But the reality is many of the challenges she faces cannot be solved with violence. She can't just order her husband killed, tell her son to suck it up, and then watch the whole nation burn to momentarily make herself feel better. The glittering, shining prize in this story isn't triumph -- it's reconciliation, it's finding that balance between as you said, personal desires and your obligations to your family/community.

Talyien's journey, in many ways, reflected my state of mind when I first started writing the series. I had just been laid off from my job in civil design, which was an industry I had been working in for four years prior to that. I started looking for another job, but many of them were too far away to commute from the semi-rural area where we live, and the cost of childcare tacked on to that made it so I would be working for only something like $700 take home pay by the end. My family hadn't said anything, but I could feel the pressure to do something with my life mounting up. My mom was adamant that I take higher education, which could be taken part time at night and would potentially give me better pay. So I took a couple of classes... but halfway through chemistry class I suddenly admitted to myself I was terrible at this. I'm in engineering, but I have trouble with math. I keep mixing up numbers and failing tests, no matter how hard and rigorously I studied (I very possibly have dyscalculia, though I haven't had it checked). The only reason I even got that far was just sheer stubbornness.

Then I looked down at the back of my notebook, where I had scribbled a sort of outline for the story of The Wolf of Oren-Yaro without even really thinking about it. And it felt good. Effortless. Whenever I do just about anything else, I'm flailing, struggling just to get by, but when I'm writing a story, I feel like a fish in water. So I quit class, which was perhaps the first time I ever allowed myself to walk away from a thing I didn't like just because I didn't like it. And it felt like betraying my family. I think most Asian Americans would understand that exact sentiment. Like -- oh my God, I quit school to write a book! I traded a steady, higher-than-average paycheck for the hellish inconsistency of the creative arts! I was getting requests for interviews from my LinkedIn... and I told them no thank you! There wasn't any triumph or glory there... just this added pressure that since I now chose something for myself, I better not drag my family down with me. I better not fail.

How about you? How was your transition to becoming a full-time writer like? Did you encounter any specific challenges?

Lee: I've wanted to be a writer since I was about ten years old, but I only started taking those ambitions seriously and pursuing publication when I was in my 30s. I have very mixed feelings about the decade I spent in a corporate career beforehand; on one hand, it gave my family financial stability, particularly when my kids were little. When I did decide to transition to a creative career, I did so with a cushion under me. I was able to work as a freelance business consultant, on my own hours and terms, while I drafted my early novels. On the other hand, I wonder how much further along I would be, what other stories I could have written by now, if I'd been true to my artistic self sooner.

Like a lot of Asian parents, my mom and dad didn't really take creative careers seriously. Writing was something they suggested I treat as a hobby, or they thought of it as a skill that I could bend toward a normal career like, say, law or journalism. Now they're very supportive of my writing career, but I do not remember that being the case back when I was in high school!

Another reason I didn't think that writing was a "real job" for a long time was because I didn't see any role models. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, the only Asian American author I knew of was Amy Tan. I had no interest in writing the types of stories that she did, and I certainly didn't see any Asian American science fiction or fantasy authors. When I first started querying, I still couldn't name a lot of Asian American authors. Cindy Pon, Ken Liu, Malindo Lo... a handful of names at the most. Now it seems that there are so many of us! I'm quite certain the Green Bone Saga would not have been published ten years ago; these days, I could be kept busy for a very long time reading Asia-inspired and/or Asian-authored fantasy and science fiction novels alone. When I do school visits or speak at conferences, or appear at any sort of public event, I'm cognizant of the fact that things are better for the next generation and that there might be Asian American kids in the audience looking at me at that moment.

Did Asian and Asian American representation in the field affect you at all when you began your writing career?

Villoso: I think you have that quite right about how the market looked a decade ago. I started querying my novels fifteen years ago and felt like there was no interest in Asian-authored novels back then, at least those that didn't fit a certain mold. Case in point: I did not receive a single partial request or any interest from any agent or publisher. Well -- okay, maybe I got one that sort of sounded like it wasn't really their thing but sure, they'll take a look if they have time (I ended up not sending anything to that agency because it was the most deflating "maybe" I've ever received).

From where I was standing, it felt like the publishing industry's doors were completely shut to me. I puzzled over that for years. I tried to adjust the way I wrote and bent it in ways that were unnatural to try to fit in, to make it look more like the fantasy I was reading, the stories that were getting published year after year after year. That reflected negatively in my writing for a while, which grew stale and stilted and disjointed. I got really good at overthinking everything I did.

Not having much Asian representation in North American markets (and the number dwindles even more for Southeast Asian representation) made me question my own sanity. Who am I to think people would ever want to read my work? Who did I think I was? I started to believe this was never going to happen for me. I felt like someone running in a dark tunnel, and there was no light at the end of it, no one to guide me, no one to say "just keep going, you'll get there someday." Which eventually led to my decision, seven years of querying later, that I was better off in self-publishing waters, where I didn't have to wait for permission or for someone to tell me I'm good enough. That did push me back to a healthier state of mind, and without that pressure, I felt like my writing took off in ways that wouldn't have happened if I was still trying to make it marketable and relatable. I became very comfortable with my own voice.

But the market had changed so much since that self-publishing still ironically led to a publishing deal a few years later. On the plus side, I learned to channel all that frustration and rage into my stories. I am just really glad that things are changing now. There is still a lot of work to be done, but the industry -- I hope! -- is finally starting to recognize the wide variety of voices and stories they've missed out on all these years. My daughter is starting to lean into the creative arts and storytelling, too, and my hope is that if she decides to get into it professionally, there is a future here for her. I know there will always be challenges, but I hope the next generation of Asian American creatives is given the room and support to grow, and fly.

Lee: It's been a pleasure chatting with you, Kay, and good luck with the print launch of The Wolf of Oren-Yaro!

Villoso: Likewise -- this has been fun and an absolute honour to get the chance to chat with you. Best of luck for the upcoming Jade War paperback!

Fonda Lee is the World Fantasy Award-winning author of Jade City and the award-winning YA science fiction novels Zeroboxer, Exo, and Cross Fire. Born and raised in Canada, Lee is a black belt martial artist, a former corporate strategist, and action movie aficionado who now lives in Portland, Oregon with her family. You can visit her at fondalee.com or Twitter.

K.S. Villoso writes speculative fiction with a focus on deeply personal themes and character-driven narratives. Much of her work is inspired by her childhood in the slums of Taguig, Philippines. She is now living amidst the forest and mountains with her husband, children, and dogs in Anmore, BC. You can visit her at ksvilloso.com or on Twitter.

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