NEWS

Fantasy Books by Asian Authors Foster Resilience and Healing in AAPI Communities

drawing of two asian children in space

Verywell / Julie Bang

Key Takeaways

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has brought an increase in targeting for members of the AAPI communities.
  • Fantasy literature from Asian authors may provide a unique opportunity for AAPI communities to heal.
  • Authentic representation in literature can foster resilience for members of the AAPI communities.

AAPI communities have experienced more anti-Asian racism since the start of COVID-19. To cope with this violence, fantasy books from Asian authors may provide a temporary reprieve for members of AAPI communities.

From Marie Lu's nation of Kenettra in "The Young Elites" to F.C. Yee's Bay area suburb with mythological characters in "The Epic Crush of Genie Lo," splendid worldbuilding may offer a refuge from harm for Asian readers.

While reading may not be what first comes to mind to promote mental health and wellbeing, authentic representation from Asian authors may assist members of AAPI communities to foster healing and resilience.

Epic Worldbuilding from Asian Authors

Bibliotherapy has long had a history of promoting mental health. Unfortunately, there hasn't always been easy access to authentic representation in literature for AAPI communities.

Thanks to strides in more diverse publishing, readers can now navigate different planets in space in Pintip Dunn's "Star-Crossed," Edwin Peng's "Star City," Yoon Ha Lee's "Machineries of Empire," or Mary Fan's "Starswept."

If that does not resonate, readers have the option of delving into heaven and hell in Madhuri Pavamani's "Keeper" series, Roshani Chokshi's "Star-Touched Queen" series, or Sarwat Chadda's "Ash Mistry Chronicles."

Whether readers go back in time to Britain in Zen Cho's "Sorcerer to the Crown" or 100 years into the future in C.B. Lee's North American collective in the "Sidekick Squad" or to Fonda Lee's Asian-inspired metropolis island of Kekon in the "Green Bone Saga," fantasy from Asian authors may offer a variety of mental health benefits for members of the AAPI communities.

A 2019 publication found that applied fantasy may offer an innovative option to promote wellbeing through connections with other fans, alongside strategies for mental health, based on the literature.In this way, fantasy literature from Asian authors may offer many benefits.

Illuminating Narratives for AAPI Readers

Licensed psychologist and founder of Atlas PsychologyAmy Nasamran, PhD, says, "Many of the fantasy books written by Asian authors help empower readers and teach lessons in modern ways that go beyond what's been passed on to us through family values and cultural expectations."

Nasamran explains, "The storylines often explore themes that are salient and resonate with Asian American readers—themes like oppression, hierarchy and authority, taking a different path than the one prescribed by your family, balancing your own wants and needs versus sacrificing for the collective good, and the meaning of emotional strength."

Especially when coming from AAPI communities that may encourage respect for elders at the expense of oneself, Nasamran notes that fantasy from Asian authors may help members of AAPI communities to feel comfortable "challenging" the status quo within their families.

Nasamran highlights, "Readers can learn a lot from reading storylines that illuminate our reality as Asians Americans and the fusing of multiple cultures in many ways and answer some of these questions for us, or at least serve as a starting point for ongoing conversations and reflection." 

Given how empowering it can be for readers to see characters like themselves navigating situations and making hard decisions, Nasamran notes how it may help to normalize certain dilemmas, like when they may be encouraged to keep their heads down to avoid rocking the boat.

Amy Nasamran, PhD

Seeing characters who look like us and face similar struggles like us succeed and overcome hardship can be a nice counterbalance to the hate crimes we've experienced lately.

— Amy Nasamran, PhD

Nasamran explains, "It's important to start seeing strong characters who look like us and are similar to us! We don't get that often. One of the most important things I wish I could clarify is that the genre "Asian fantasy" may not do a great job at capturing its true essence."

Since categories can be reductive, Nasamran notes that readers from mixed-race or non-Asian cultures could benefit from the morals and takeaways, but they may skip over or not feel connected to a book labeled "Asian fantasy." "Don't judge a book by its genre name," she jokes.

Especially with the racism Asian Americans experience during COVID-19, Nasamran highlights how this has contributed to increases in depression and anxiety among Asian American parents and children. "Reading can sometimes be a temporary distraction from what can at times feel like an overwhelming, hateful, and hopeless world around us," she says.

Nasamran explains, "Seeing characters who look like us and face similar struggles like us succeed and overcome hardship can be a nice counterbalance to the hate crimes we've experienced lately."

Authentic representation can feel empowering, according to Nasamran. "It can make learning about complex concepts or making hard decisions easier when you can have successful characters as inspiration," she says.

Highlighting Our Differences as Strengths

Ariel Landrum, MA, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist, certified art therapist, and the clinical director of Guidance Teletherapy, says, “Appropriate representation matters. The two primary reasons why representation is important are inclusivity and perception."

Landrum explains, "Seeing people who look, act, and experience life like us in media makes us feel included in society and reinforces positive views of ourselves, as well as the things we can and want to achieve in society."

When authentic representation is spearheaded by stories and writers who are a part of the AAPI communities, Landrum notes how these authors may get to highlight their differences as strengths. "Lack of representation is harmful to many marginalized communities," she says.

Landrum highlights, "Not seeing ourselves perpetuates the experience of feeling invisible, unwanted, and unimportant. Misrepresentation of marginalized communities comes with even more damaging consequences."

Given how inauthentic representation often uses stereotypes, Landrum notes how it can perpetuate discrimination and othering, as she identifies examples like the model minority myth, "the forever foreigner," "the tiger mom," "the lotus blossom," or "the Asian best friend."

Landrum explains, "AAPI is not a monolith. Our experiences, understanding, and opinions may differ from others in our community. The more diverse our stories, the more society will see us individually."

Since a narrative is a powerful tool, Landrum notes how compassionate, heroic characters can be models for good. "Themes of grief and love can normalize emotions of pain, confusion, curiosity, and surprise," she says.

Ariel Landrum, MA, LMFT

When stories are written by those not in the community, they often encourage unity among differing Asian heritage groups, as if they are a monolith, pushing a Western-Imperialist narrative.

— Ariel Landrum, MA, LMFT

Landrum highlights, "Fantasy, magic, mysticism, and the supernatural are all cultural elements integral to many Asian communities. We often teach through metaphor and narrative. Culture is also integral to the hero's journey. It informs the position, values, and beliefs of the hero."

As popular media starts to embrace stories written by Asian authors, Landrum notes they will start to learn the narrative devices used by the community that are different from the Western style. "When the culture matches our own, wrapped in familiar fantastical environments, creatures, and interactions, it increases a sense of belonging," she says.

For a tangible example of a narrative technique, Landrum identifies that of fate and destiny represented in spatial coincidences, which is found in Javanese wayang. "The idea is that characters from different times all come together in the same place. This way narratives can span generations while being tied to a certain location," she says.

Landrum explains how an understanding of the AAPI experience includes how trust is complicated due to expansive histories of colonization. "When stories are written by those not in the community, they often encourage unity among differing Asian heritage groups, as if they are a monolith, pushing a Western-Imperialist narrative," she says.

Unity needs to be worked on, especially when years of prejudice divide groups, according to Landrum. "Those in the community will highlight unity with self, family, and community, and understand that neighboring nations and colonies are their own culture and heritage," she says. 

Landrum highlights, "Many Asian communities have been culturally raised with the collectivist philosophy that encourages and practices helping each other. Culturally trusting those in our community may look like aid during natural disasters, meals made for neighbors, or taking in children from family members who are not able to care for them."

In this way, Landrum notes how authentic representation of collectivist cultures from Asian authors can show diverse narratives that do not solely focus on the exceptionalism of the individual, or a supporting cast that develops a one-sided relationship with the protagonist.

What This Means For You

Fantasy literature from Asian authors may offer mental health benefits for readers of many diverse communities. If you are new to this genre, Landrum recommends graphic novels like "Lunar Boy," "The Magic Fish," and "Carmina: A Filipino-American Urban Mythology."

1 Source
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  1. Mackenzie A, Wall T, Poole S. Applied fantasy and well-being. In: Leal Filho W, Wall T, Azul AM, Brandli L, Özuyar PG, eds. Good Health and Well-Being. Springer International Publishing; 2020:16-28. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-95681-7_80

By Krystal Jagoo
 Krystal Kavita Jagoo is a social worker, committed to anti-oppressive practice.