Two recent young adult books remix the classic Cinderella tale.
In Cinder, the familiar glass slipper story is set in a dystopian future Beijing 126 years after World War IV has ended. Cinder’s author, Marissa Meyer, is white. Meanwhile, Chinese-American author Malinda Lo award-winning 2010 retelling of Cinderella, Ash, takes place in a kingdom that resembles a fairy tale Europe.
What do these choices say about each author? How do their ethnic backgrounds affect their retellings?
Let’s start with Cinder. In the book, the remaining war-torn countries on Earth have united in a shared commonwealth. No wars have been fought since, but a deadly plague ravages the world.
Sixteen-year-old Cinder is a cyborg living with her stepmother Adri and her two stepsisters, Peony and Pearl, in New Beijing. She has no recollection of her old human life before the surgery that saved her from death but changed her into a cyborg. Like the original Cinderella story, Adri’s “care” under her stepmother consists of Adri berating Cinder and having her work so that the family, left penniless with her father’s death, has income. Legally, as a cyborg, Cinder is Adri’s property to do with as she pleases.
Unlike the traditional story, Cinder is a gifted mechanic. She is so talented that Kai, the Commonweath’s prince, seeks her out to repair his broken android. Even in the far-away future, however, Prince Kai assumes that the renowned mechanic Linh Cinder (remember that in China, the last name precedes the first) is a man. He is slightly astonished to find a teenage girl instead.
In addition to cyborgs being property, there is also the government-instituted cyborg draft, which selects cyborgs to become research subjects as scientists attempt to find a cure for the plague. None of the cyborgs survive this research. When Peony is stricken with letumosis and carted off to quarantine, Adri “volunteers” Cinder for plague research (incidentally collecting the gratitude payment offered to families who volunteer their cyborgs).
In the palace, Cinder encounters Prince Kai again. Unaware that she is a cyborg research subject, he asks her to the upcoming ball. Despite her growing attraction to the prince, she declines. Cinder fears that, once he learns that she is a cyborg, he will reject her. Although becoming a cyborg saves the lives of severe accident victims, the procedure renders them outcasts.
While Cinder is set in New Beijing, Meyer leaves Cinder’s ethnic identity unclear. Instead, Meyer focuses on Cinder’s body parts that have been replaced by metal and circuits, such as the too-small foot she is replacing when she first meets Prince Kai, and her inability to blush or cry. No description is given of her remaining human features, so readers are left to imagine Cinder’s ethnicity as they please.
Although Malinda Lo’s Ash is not a dystopic novel, I was intrigued by the contrast with her retelling and Meyer’s Cinder.
Lo, who was born in China and raised in the U.S., sets her tale in an imaginary kingdom that greatly resembles fairy tale Europe. Aisling, or Ash, is barely described. Her stepmother and stepsisters are not either, but with names like Lady Isobel, Ana and Clara, it is not a stretch for readers to imagine them as white, like the usual fairy tale depictions. Few of the characters are physically described. Is this Lo’s device for allowing readers to imagine the characters as they need them to appear?
In Ash, love is not limited to heterosexual love. At a Yule celebration, two women stumble away from the dancing, holding hands and kissing. No one bats an eye at them; instead, they are pulled back to the festivities. Ash herself explores her growing attraction to the King’s Huntress. Her only reason for hesitation is the difference in their classes. In Lo’s once-upon-a-time land, people are free to love one another regardless of gender. As Lo said in an interview with After Ellen, she wanted to create a fairy tale world—and that meant a world free of homophobia.
Given that Ash has an LGBT twist, I wondered whether Lo felt pressured to keep her characters racially ambiguous. Indeed, she’s talked about being concerned that pitching a book to publishers that centers on an LGBT twist and a main character of color wouldn’t go over well.
“I kind of envisioned Ash and Kaisa as being Asian. I describe Kaisa as having dark hair and green eyes, so she couldn’t be fully Asian, but she could be half Asian. And Ash as well. I didn’t describe it specifically partially because I thought the gay thing was going to be enough of a problem. I didn’t want to add race on top of that so I didn’t make the race obvious. I did tell my editor. She did know that I envisioned her as Asian and the book cover, I’m happy to say, does not exclude that possibility.”
As both a mom and reader of color, I would love to see YA books with LGBT protagonists of color. (I don’t think I read a single book with an LGBT protagonist of color when I was a tween or teen.) Lo’s follow-up novel Huntress (which I have yet to read) clarifies the Huntress’s Asian background, draws on Chinese culture and has an LGBT theme. My guess is that Ash’s success has given Lo more freedom to explore race and culture as well as sexuality in her follow-up novel without having to battle it out with her publisher.
Meyer, on the other hand, places her story in the far-off future, but keeps the romance heterosexual. Did that allow her more freedom to reenvision and racialize her characters? Meyer has stated that her original influence for the character of Cinder was Sailor Moon. I’m not sure what to think about the publishing world accepting a book set in futuristic Beijing written by a white author influenced by Japanese manga. (To be fair, Meyer is not the only white author to set a book in a reenvisioned Asia. And, unlike some of her fellow writers, she doesn’t butcher the culture in doing so.)
Finally, for us readers and writers of color, especially the younger ones for whom these books are intended, how do these racial representations (or lack thereof) influence how and what we write for our futures?