The Big Idea: Jadie Jang
Posted on August 6, 2021 Posted by Athena Scalzi 5 Comments
Fantasy stories as often as not have their roots in reality, and for Monkey Around, author Jadie Jang wanted to root her book in her own lived reality — one other people might think they knew, but often only saw one aspect of.
When I first conceived of and outlined Monkey Around, we were in the middle of Obama’s second term, and the left was flagging. No one had any idea how bad it would get in a few years, and activists were (again … still) being treated as either once-in-a-lifetime heroes or Molotov-cocktail-throwing extremists you couldn’t have a beer with. I wanted to normalize the lives of the many, many people in our world who spend their lives and careers–and too often, their health–trying to better the world. And who drink beer doing it; how do you think those envelopes get licked?
Authors of standard urban fantasy, particularly paranormal detective stories, had packed the UF world full of magical police, protectors, and enforcers, and left it empty of protesters, organizers, and nonprofit admins. My own life was stocked with the latter. And (it’s been said often and I’ll say it again because it’s the case) they loaded their “urban” fantasies with overwhelmingly white characters, tokenizing characters of color, and avoiding, demonizing, often literally, or exotifying the parts of the city that belonged to people of color.
Around this time I was reading, among many others, Carrie Vaughn’s wonderful Kitty Norville urban fantasy series; the one in which a female werewolf starts a midnight call-in radio show for supernats; highly recommended! Book 9, Kitty’s Big Trouble takes place in San Francisco, features the Monkey King (playing a helpful, handsome, human-form god instead of the asshole, monkey-shaped trickster he really is,) and takes place partially in San Francisco’s Chinatown. During one scene, the first-person protagonist/narrator is walking through Chinatown, smelling the smells, hearing Chinese language tv and radio coming through the windows, and she says something about how Chinatown is a little piece of another country, right here in ours.
Vaughn wasn’t the first, or the millionth, and won’t be the last, to say this; and it wasn’t even the first time I’d read that bit in urban fantasy. But that was the first time I realized that, for me, it was untrue. In that moment, I realized that there were, at least, two Americas. The first was the white-dominated one I’d been seeing in mainstream UF…and in sitcoms, and on the Turner Classic Movie channel, and at Lake Wobegon, and in newspaper columns, and in the conceptions of everyone from the healthcare industry and sociologists, to Fox News and the Jan. 6 insurrectionists.
There was that America, to whom San Francisco Chinatown was a foreign country–almost like an embassy–and then there was the one I lived in, in coastal cities, where communities of color and of immigrants and of marginalized folks mixed and intersected, spoke a hundred languages, and switched codes many times daily. An America of ethnic enclaves, traditional and new, of movement and cultural ferment, of forced (not fashionable) cosmopolitanism, and of mutual, practical tolerance. Although my Chinese language skills are extremely poor, I wander in and out of San Francisco Chinatown as a normal part of my everyday life. (Granted, it’s usually a food-based part of my everyday life, but who doesn’t base their relationship with C-town on food?)
The Chinese language newspapers and tv shows you can hear through people’s windows are actually made in the U.S. for U.S. citizens and residents. The th-dropping accent you hear in the English spoken here is a Chinatown-specific accent spoken by people born and raised here. This isn’t a piece of China, and it isn’t just any Chinatown, either. This is San Francisco Chinatown, and it’s an aspect of America. In that America, I’m as American as baseball, Dodge Rams, and systemic white supremacy … or should I say I’m as American as fortune cookies, chimichangas, and Cuban sandwiches, all of which are American inventions.
Why, I asked myself—when the majority of the population of our country, and the majority of BIPOC, clusters on its shores and in increasingly multicultural cities, with a foot in traditional ethnic enclaves and a brain lobe in the long tail of the internet—why are we never seen as Americans, and never seen in books, except as exotic spice? No, it was time for urban fantasy, among many other literary genres, to grow up, and open up to the full range and potential of American urban centers.
Thus, the two ideas in my head–representing activists, and representing multiethnic America–flowed together. Not that they wouldn’t’ve anyway; the racial justice community in the Bay Area is literally where I live and work.
By 2016, and my second draft, it had become even more clear to me how important representing activism and representing people of color was in our pop culture; especially Mexicans and Chinese, since they had become, once again, scapegoats in the mouth of a certain presidential candidate. And when, in the immediate aftermath of the former-guy’s election, the whole world seemed to explode in protest, tracing the roots of our immediate activist moment and generation in a commercial genre novel seemed more important than any of the many fancy, artistic, literary projects floating in my head.
So I rewrote Monkey to happen during Occupy Oakland, a more radical, Bay-Area-flavored branch of the Occupy movement that included a groundswell from BIPOC participants to change the name from the colonizing “Occupy” to “Decolonize.” And I continued writing it from the point of view of someone like me: a Chinese American activist, interacting closely with both the Asian American and Chicanx/Latinx activist communities.
It’s been more than a handful of years since I first conceived of it, but Monkey Around has swung back around–yet again–to being topical. I signed with my publisher Solaris/Rebellion two weeks after the first COVID-19 lockdown announcement; and shortly thereafter, our incompetent-in-chief began making my community the scapegoat of his own failed health policies. The steep drop in commerce in SF Chinatown and other Asian American enclaves, plus the steep rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans, culminating in the Atlanta spa massacre, made it all the more clear to me how important it was to represent my community in both a realistic, and in a fun and accessible way.
I hope I’ve succeeded. I hope, more than anything, I’ve succeeded in humanizing and normalizing my community to my readers. The stakes in the book are a happy ending. The stakes in real life are no less.
Monkey Around: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
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This sounds awesome! Even the benevolent xenophobia/exoticizing is something I too am tired of.
I love your point about how SF Chinatown is not part of China, and is a very specific part of America. My cousin and I talked about this years ago after she moved to San Francisco from NYC. SF Chinatown is as different from NYC Chinatown as San Francisco is from New York. And neither were like, say, Beijing (where she also lived for a while). And Oakland is certainly its own place; it sure isn’t San Francisco. :)
The book sounds fun – I am putting it on my list!
I’m sold. I recently read Malinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club. This is not genre, but it’s very good. Teenage girl in 1950s SF Chinatown coming of age story and figuring out that she was a lesbian in the time of McCarthyism. I would recommend this to anyone interested in any of these intersections.
Writing a book a few years ago about subversives in American movies, I was struck by the WW II movies that warned viewers Little Tokyo in LA and similar communities were “occupied territory.” Heard the same kind of bullshit about Miami back in the 1980s (“Will the last one out please bring the flag.”).
Your book sounds good.