Fantasy reimagined: Arab and Asian authors are rising globally by embracing their cultures

Sue Lynn Tan and Deena Mohamed break down what traps to avoid when approaching an ever-expanding genre

Authors Deena Mohamed and Sue Lynn Tan have each written stories based on mythical elements from their own culture. Photo: Emirates Airline Festival of Literature
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Fantasy literature has been undergoing a transformation. Historically dominated by European-centric stories, the genre has been expanding exponentially over the last five years.

Readership numbers have grown and there has also been an expansion of the type of stories being told. Contemporary fantasy outside of the Western canon is reimagining what the genre is capable of.

“If someone is reading about a completely different culture and they are engaged by it and understand it, it broadens their mind,” author Sue Lynn Tan tells The National.

The Chinese-Malaysian national who is lives in Hong Kong was one of the invited authors at this year’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, which concluded in Dubai today. She is the author of Daughter of the Moon Goddess and its sequel Heart of the Sun Warrior.

The novels are Tan’s take on the Chinese myth of Chang'e, a mortal who drank the immortal elixir of her husband, the famed archer Houyi, and became the moon goddess. Tan’s version centres around their daughter, Xingyin, who wasn’t in the original myth, being raised secretly on the moon before she sets off on a journey to discover herself and gets caught up in an epic love story of her own.

According to Wordsrated, an industry-based literature research platform, fantasy book sales grew by 45.3 per cent in 2023 compared to 2022 in the US and 23 per cent in the UK. One of the reasons attributed to the growth has been the quest for new settings, characters, stories and storytellers.

Both of Tan’s novels have become USA Today and Sunday Times bestsellers and have been translated into 16 languages. However, that doesn’t mean that Tan didn’t face challenges when her first book was submitted to publishers.

“It wasn't an easy sell,” she says. “Marketers in publishing didn't see it fitting the mould of what they thought Asian fantasy should be. This was something lives on a Chinese myth with a big romance element. It was something they were not sure about.”

It was the qualities publishers were dubious about that connected with readers. Tan’s approach was to be authentic to the characters and the story she wanted to write, without thinking about its place in the mind of the western reader.

“I simply wrote the story how it was,” she says. “I didn't think about fitting it in so much or what the story was supposed to be. I simply wanted Xingyin and all the characters to feel real. I wanted the world to be something people could easily come to and be immersed in.”

Her approach of not pandering her perspective towards the western reader is one that also worked for Egyptian graphic novelist Deena Mohamed. Another festival guest, she is author of Shubeik Lubeik (Your Wish is My Command). The initially self-published story was awarded Best Graphic Novel at the Grand Prize of the Cairo Comix Festival in 2017.

“My main goal was that I wanted Egyptians who read it to feel impacted, to feel a sense of not simply believability, but a connection to it,” she says.

Set in an alternate Cairo where wishes can be bought and sold, Shubeik Lubeik is an urban fantasy which draws inspiration from Arabic fairytales exploring themes of morality and power. It follows Aziza, a young woman struggling to make ends meet when she discovers a genie in a bottle and must face the consequences of her actions.

Mohamed illustrated and wrote the graphic novel first in Arabic before the English translation rights were acquired by Pantheon Books for North America and Granta for the UK. The English version, translated by Mohamed herself, was published in 2023 and has received positive reviews in The Washington Post and The New York Times. It has a current rating of 4.52 on Good Reads.

Before Shubeik Lubeik, Mohamed’s worked on web comic series that were both in English and Arabic. It was overwhelming to think about how different sets of readers would interpret facets of the story, so Mohamed did not consider westerners when she started work on it in Arabic.

“I don't think it's possible to write when you're constantly feeling like a tour guide for your reader,” she says. "A lot of people who work in both [languages] feel like you have to be an ambassador, but it can be a trap.”

Simply telling a story instead of having the western reader front of mind goes hand in hand with another approach that both authors took in the respective works – translating their own senses of cultural authenticity into the worlds they created.

Tan is a fan of fantasy Chinese dramas, enjoying different elements of stories in books and on screen, including the clothes, palaces, nature and music. These are all important elements in the world she wanted to recreate in her own writing.

“I wrote these books with the love for all these things,” Tan says. “I didn't question, at least not consciously, whether or not people would like or understand this world. I simply found so much to love in it that I wanted to share it.”

Like Tan, Mohamed wanted to give a real sense of place in her graphic novel. The light, colours, streets and buildings of Cairo come alive in Shubeik Lubeik and particularly the kiosks of the city. Mohamed recreated the kiosks of Cairo that sell drinks and confectionery using over-the-top branding. However, in her alternate Cairo, they are places where wishes are also sold.

“Every kiosk is also unique because the owner of the kiosk is the one who built it and I wanted to have these kiosks in my story because I liked drawing them, I like observing them,” she says. “Then I started thinking about what if it's a kiosk that sells a magical object? And what if this magical object is a wish?”

In both Mohamed and Tan’s novels, like other fantasy stories that connect with readers, they begin with an answer to a seemingly simple question – what if? What if the moon goddess had a secret daughter? What if kiosks sold wishes?

“We all have such a long culture of mythology and folklore,” Mohamed adds. “The stories we grew up with, technically, are fantasy. It's almost natural to have this parallel life of storytelling where things are slightly different.”

Whether lives on European legends that have been reimagined and explored countless times, or a story that stems from a culture outside of the Western canon, both Tan and Mohamed agree that there is something particular about fantasy that captivates readers like no other genre.

“Fantasy can be healing,” Tan says. “Sometimes to simply let yourself be transported and to lose yourself in wonder … when you're going to a new place, things are different and anything seems possible.”

Updated: February 07, 2024, 3:05 AM