Here’s a thought: What if the big idea about a book isn’t something in particular — it’s about the absence of something in particular? Does that count? And what does it do to the story you’re telling?
The question is relevant to Malinda Lo, whose debut novel Ash is a retelling of the Cinderella story in a fantasy world that in some ways is a familiar one, but in one critical way is not. What is the difference and what are the implications of that difference? Lo is here to explain it all.
My debut novel, Ash, is a lesbian retelling of Cinderella. But the big idea behind it isn’t that Cinderella is a lesbian. The big idea is this: Nobody in the book cares that she’s a lesbian.
Let me explain.
My first draft of Ash was, I admit, a relatively straightforward — and straight — retelling of the fairy tale. Ash, the Cinderella character, fell in love with the prince. But then I asked a friend to read it, and she did me the biggest favor ever: She told me that Ash and the prince lacked chemistry. She also pointed out that Ash had a lot of chemistry with this other character in the book, who happened to be a woman.
Her feedback prompted me to look long and hard at that draft of Ash, and that was when I realized I had a choice: I could attempt to beef up the prince’s charm quotient, or I could take this book in the direction I had already subconsciously begun to go in, and rewrite it so that Ash falls in love with a woman.
I admit, the idea of writing a “lesbian Cinderella” freaked me out a little bit. I’m queer myself, and at the time I had just started writing for entertainment news site AfterEllen.com, covering mainstream representation of lesbians and bisexual women. It was blatantly obvious that the mainstream has a long way to go before LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people are adequately and fairly included in the media. I feared that by turning Ash into a lesbian Cinderella, it might become unsellable.
So I thought about it for a long time. On Friday, Oct. 1, 2004, I made a decision. I wrote in my journal: “I’m going to turn it into a lesbian Cinderella. That’s what wants to happen; I’ve just had to accept it.”
Once I started the revision, I faced another question: How does the world of Ash deal with homosexuality? It’s set in a fantasy world with an enchanted forest, complete with fairies based in Irish tradition. I had never read a single fantasy novel in which there were any queer characters. And if you’ve read any mainstream fantasy, most of the worlds are medieval in feel, including social mores. If I were to follow that tradition, Ash would have to struggle against a lot of homophobia.
But I had absolutely no desire to write a book full of medieval social customs. So I decided that in Ash’s world, homosexuality is entirely normal. People are more likely to be heterosexual, but nobody blinks when they see a same-sex couple. It is a natural and legitimate state of being.
That allowed me to write Ash as a fairy tale, not a coming-out story. That means that Ash only has to fall in love. When her love interest is another woman, it’s just as wonderful as it would be if she fell in love with a man.
I’m guessing that most if not all LGBT people understand that this is the true fairy tale: the idea that you could fall in love with someone of the same sex and only know the dizzying feeling of falling in love — untarnished by any of society’s disapproval. And you know what? Gay people need fairy tales, too.
Over the past few years especially, the gay rights movement has made some staggering leaps forward. We still have a long way to go before our world is as accepting of us as Ash’s world, but I think we’re moving in the right direction. Until then, I do hope that Ash can be part of that change for the better. It’s important for us to imagine a world in which we can love whomever we love, regardless of gender.