Asian Lesbians Against the World: An Interview with Natasha Ngan

Natasha Ngan is the author New York Times bestseller Girls of Paper and Fire, a young adult fantasy series about the romance between two young women kept as the concubines of a brutal king. She spoke to AfterEllen about the new sequel, Girls of Storm and Shadow.

AE: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. I’d just like to say how wonderful it feels to read fantasy books built around a romance between two women of color.

NN: Aww, thank you.

AE: Often it’s white characters who are most visible in gay and lesbian fiction, and even if there are lesbian characters they’ve historically been paired off with white partners. Did you make a conscious decision to partner Lei with a woman sharing a similar background?

NN: Yes. From the get go, I wanted this book to be Asian lesbians against the world. I had the freedom to do that because I’d written a book that didn’t sell. So with Girls I had the freedom to throw in absolutely everything that I wanted to, and write something that felt something completely authentic to me. I had in my head that this book also might not sell, so why not do everything that I want to see – things that are scary. Because it was definitely scary to write a book that was so ‘diverse’, in terms of the reality of publishing.

AE: Definitely. There’s a lot riding on representation in fiction.

NN: Especially in Young Adult.

AE: How do readers generally respond to the romance between Lei and Wren?

NN: Really well, which is lovely. I still get messages every day, especially from young girls who are reading this and telling me ‘ thank you, this is the first time I’d seen a female-female romance in YA.’ Especially in fantasy as well. It wasn’t an ‘issues’ book, it wasn’t a contemporary story.

And then, on the other hand, I have those Amazon reviews where people are very upset. I’ve even seen reviews where people have said that they’d thought and expected it was going to be a romance between Lei and the Bull King.

AE: Oh no….

NN: Yeah. They would really rather young people read about a girl falling in love with her rapist than a woman?

AE: The bar is so low when it comes to expectations of heterosexual relationships in fiction.

NN: It is, isn’t it. That’s so sad.

AE: In Girls of Storm and Shadow, you introduce more same-sex relationships. There’s Bo and Merrin, as well as the revelation about Wren’s father Kentai Hanno and Shifu Caen. Not to mention Wren’s ex, General Lova. Why do you believe this representation matters?

NN: It wasn’t a conscious decision to pair off those characters. It just felt natural. It feels natural because I have so many queer friends in my life and I am queer myself. I feel like our fiction should represent real life, and it’s sad that the norm for everything is a hetero relationship.

I didn’t write Girls until I was 23 and I’d only just been figuring out my own sexuality. And I realized that the reason I hadn’t realized earlier in a very explicit way that I was attracted to women, as well as men, was because I’d lived in a society which told me that I was straight from a young age. So I explained my feelings towards other girls away from the fact that I was attracted to them and it was more ‘oh, just because I find them beautiful.’ I realized that was society putting its limitations on me, which I had absorbed and internalized.

I think it’s important, especially reading books when you’re young, to have as much diversity and real representation of the world – and all the different options that you may have. To have that moment when you realize ‘ah, that’s what I’ve been feeling!’ I think that’s important because I didn’t read about female/female romance when I was young.

AE: In Girls of Paper and Fire, the Paper Girls are quite deliberately cut off from the world when they’re being kept at court as the Bull King’s Concubines. Now that they’re out in the world, we get to see more of the clan politics and interspecies dynamics that were hinted at before. When you were writing Girls of Storm and Shadow, did you find that shift challenging?

NN: No. It was such a delight to be able to expand the world in that way. I’d had that understanding of world’s politics – the different clans and how castes interacted – before in Girls, but we only see hints of it in the first book. It was super fun to say ‘let’s go here!’ and ‘I want to see this clan here’, to be able to go there and bring their world to life. It was very fun and very freeing.

AE: You studied geography at Cambridge – did what you learned there come in handy constructing such an elaborate and in-depth kingdom?

NN: I’m not sure if my degree has helped in terms of world-building in an explicit way. I think it more reflects my interest in societies and my love of world-building. At Cambridge we had some amazing subjects, and in my last year I studied things like the social geography of the Arctic regions and social engagement with nature. I think it was more that I’ve always loved the world and understanding it.

AE: One of the most interesting parts of this series is the demons. There’s Moon caste, which are pure demon, and the Steel caste, which are a kind of demon/human hybrid. How did you come up with these characters, and the caste system they’re at the top of?

NN: The caste system was a way to explore the hierarchies of power in an explicit way. In the world of Ikhara, the hierarchies – you can see them, they’re a visual thing. You can see a Moon demon and understand immediately that they have more power than a human and I think we definitely have that in our own world looking along the lines of ethnicity. I wanted to explore power in a very visual way.

It also came from my love of anime growing up reading lots of manga where you have lots of animalistic people or races. I’ve always loved that. I think it’s so fun. And it’s something we have quite a lot of in different Asian mythologies, so it felt very natural to explore. I liked how the different characters dictated what form the demon would be. The Bull King could have been a tiger or a lion – maybe something very powerful. But it’s fun to see how their forms influence their personalities and vice versa.

AE: Throughout both books there are stunning, carefully choreographed combat scenes. When Wren whips out her sword or invokes magic, you know something mega is going down. What was your inspiration for her fighting style?

NN: Definitely all the Wuxia films I watched growing up. I used to watch a lot of Chinese soap operas with my granddad – he would have them on all the time in our house in Malaysia, and I just loved the fighting style. I think it’s so imaginative and evocative. I like the kind of magic where it’s an everyday, almost normal part of life.

AE: So many visual elements of this book, like those fight scenes and the clothes and gorgeous locations like the Cloud Palace, make me hope to see this series adapted for film or TV. If the series was adapted for screen, do you have any actors in mind to play your characters?

NN: No. I think it’s nice when the new generation are brought in. The only thing I’ve always been very sure about, if there ever was an adaptation, would be that they’d have to be of Asian ethnicity. That’s always been important to me – even on the book cover, with the two girls, making sure that the representation is right. I also could imagine it as an animation – that would be really fun.

AE: Through Girls of Storm and Shadow, Lei has to deal with the aftermath of the sexual violence she experienced in Girls of Paper and Fire. We see that trauma manifest in her nightmares, intrusive thoughts, and the times when she uses alcohol to numb. Despite how many girls around the world experience it, these themes aren’t often explored in YA fiction. What did you want to achieve in writing about it?

NN: I think that it’s so important to talk about things that are uncomfortable. As a survivor myself, growing up I didn’t have books or media that really explored the after-effects of trauma. From a survivor’s perspective, rape was something that happened in isolation – it happened and was never spoken about again. Anyone who has been through something like that will understand that it’s something that shapes you. It stays with you for years and years – I guess a lifetime.

For me it was important that if I was handling this subject, that I didn’t just write it off lightly and it helped being a survivor because I myself knew the life-long impacts being a survivor has and wanted to show them on page. It was definitely a hard thing to do. In many ways, it made the books less commercial than they could have been – maybe less easy reading.

But the messages I’ve had from other survivors have been so heart-warming. It was humbling to hear that the book was doing what I wanted – to provide a kind of space for them to think about what happened to them and feel represented. Like they weren’t just forgotten about.

AE: Like Girls of Paper and Fire, Girls of Storm and Shadow is a fiercely political novel. As well as a kick-ass adventure, you deal with really difficult things like male violence against women and girls, homophobia, and caste hierarchies. How do you manage to strike that balance between incredible storytelling and a meaningful message?

NN: You never quite know when you’re writing, but I spent a lot of time before writing doing world-building. I’m very much a pantser, so I don’t plan my books beforehand. I like to spend time living in the world, researching and trying to understand all the ins and outs. It comes from that. If you create a world, it’s going to be political. There’s no way of getting around it. In every society, there are hierarchies of power. It feels natural for me to explore those things as well as the action aspects of the plot.

AE: And, finally, what about Girls of Storm and Shadow are you most proud of?

NN: That I did it! It was the hardest thing I’ve ever written. It was my first sequel, and they’re very different from the opening of a trilogy. I had to start from a certain moment and make sure we got to a certain moment in the end. Again, I don’t plan, so that was pretty difficult. I had to write it in three or four months. That was tough. So I’m proud it exists!