Today we are joined by Fonda Lee, author of the World Fantasy Award-winning “mob drama meets magic” epic fantasy Jade City, who discusses the importance of speculative books that created invented worlds as messy as our real one, filled with different cultures and differing experiences within those cultures. She begins, unexpectedly, with an ode to one of Star Trek’s least-heralded characters…
Alexander Rozhenko (son of Worf) was a minor character on Star Trek: The Next Generation, but he has long been, for me, one of the most unexpectedly memorable. Alexander is three-quarters Klingon, and has Klingon birth parents, but has lived among humans his entire life and never been to the Klingon homeworld. He goes by a human name. He likes jazz music and Wild West holodeck programs. Worf is constantly, overbearingly worried that his troubled son is “not Klingon enough.” Later in life, Alex is disparaged by fellow Klingons for his lack of battle prowess and overly human qualities. He struggles his whole life with determining what parts of his Klingon ancestry and his human upbringing truly comprise who he is as a person.
I felt for Alexander, son of Worf. As a Canadian-born child of immigrants who has never lived in Asia and who doesn’t speak the language of my grandparents (but who sure did watch a lot of Star Trek), I understood that the little Klingon boy and I had something in common. We’re both products of the wonderfully messy pattern of human (and Klingon) history, in which people leave behind the place of their ancestors for new lands and opportunities, creating divergent populations and cultures, encountering and mingling with others, creating new identities.
One of the things that has drawn me to science fiction over the years is the thematic exploration of diaspora. What happens when humankind takes to the stars and spreads far beyond its original homeland? How does the culture of the emigrants evolve? How does it interact with, assimilate into, and influence other groups that it comes into contact with? In what ways does it retain a connection to ancestry and tradition while carving out its own cultural identity? Planetary colonization and contact with alien species is a compelling context to explore some of these questions, and numerous science fiction authors have done so, with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series, James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse, and Becky Chambers The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet being only a few excellent examples.
I’ve found fewer stories of diaspora in fantasy. Epic fantasy, in particular, for so long rooted in settings analogous to medieval northern Europe, often offered a counter aesthetic: established cultural homogeneity—stories of birthright and blood nobility and people who could trace their ancestry back twenty generations to kings who had ruled over the same patch of land since the early mists of time. Magic was more often than not ancient, unchanging, and granted by destiny. Other cultures represented by elves, dwarves, and faerie folk were fundamentally different from humankind, often noble, but distinctly separate and essentially unknowable.
When my fantasy novel Jade City came out in 2017, some readers began commenting on how it felt almost “science fictional” in tone. Perhaps this was because it was set in an industrialized postwar secondary world with modern technology like cars and phones and guns. Perhaps it’s because the magic jade on the island of Kekon is treated so un-magically, as a scarce resource to be mined, sold, and fought over by governments and smugglers. In my mind, however, in writing an epic urban fantasy story about warring clans and succession, perhaps the most significant tradition I borrowed from science fiction is the recognition that cultures do not remain unchanged. Scientific advancement, human migration, politics, trade, modernization, and globalization exert powerful forces on all aspects of a society. Magic would be no exception.
My follow-up novel, Jade War, the second book in the Green Bone Saga, continues the family saga in Jade City but it is, in many ways, a story about diaspora.
Like most places in our own world, the fictional island of Kekon has been irrevocably affected by foreign contact, colonialism, war, and global commerce. People have emigrated, willingly or unwillingly, from Kekon to other countries, taking with them the cultural reverence for the magic jade of their homeland, but encountering people who fear, disdain, or greedily covet what is new and strange to them. The diaspora Kekonese exist in places where they are outnumbered, where laws and norms discriminate against their foreign traditions, where they are forgotten and even scorned by those back in the “old country.” They adapt; they build new communities, develop blended values and customs, adopt different measures of success. The hyphen-identity Kekonese in other countries are different from the Kekonese back on the island, and they are different from each other. I wanted to write a story that retained the perspective of my main characters but challenged their biases as well. I had created a fantasy culture; now I wanted to stretch it, to reject the assumptions of cultural monolith that plague our own world and the pages of our fiction, by exploring and acknowledging that there is not, contrary to the beliefs of some of my most persuasive main characters, one way to honor and wield the magic of one’s ancestors.
Like many moviegoers, I grieved the death of Killmonger at the end of Black Panther more than any villain in recent cinematic memory. As part of the underprivileged Wakandan diaspora, Killmonger’s cultural experience shaped his world view, and who could fault him for it? Among the many barriers it broke, Black Panther put a big-budget speculative fiction story of intra-diaspora conflict on the big screen, and at a time when issues relating to human migration and citizenship affect our political and cultural conversations more than ever. Photos of detained migrants are all over the news. American-born congresswomen are told to “go back to where they came from.” Pundits debate refugee policies and whether immigration is still something America values. Evolving societies are messy; I suspect magic would not change that.
It’s often been said that good speculative fiction holds up a mirror. It pulls us out of the specificity of our world and connects us with underlying human truths. If this is the case, then I expect and look forward to an increasing number of fantasy stories that broaden the bounds of the genre, depicting peoples and cultures in all their glorious, fraught, far-flung nuance.