Emily X.R. Pan is the author of The Astonishing Color of After, which received numerous accolades. She is also the co-creator of the Foreshadow anthology and the founding editor-in-chief of Bodega Magazine. Pan’s latest book, An Arrow to the Moon, is a mashup of Romeo and Juliet and Chinese mythology, following Hunter and Luna as they navigate their familial obligations, their family’s rivalry, and their budding feelings for each other amid unexplained phenomena. PW spoke with Pan about Chinese myths, finding one’s identity, and what didn’t end up making the final draft.
What was the catalyst for this novel?
I grew up hearing my dad tell me the mythology of Houyi and Chang’e, traditional tales from Chinese mythology. When I was in school or at the library, I would always see various retellings of Greek or Egyptian or Norse myths, but never any of the stories my parents told me. For a long time, I was confused: “Did my dad make up these stories?” “What was going on?” I always knew I wanted to do some version of the story of Houyi and Chang’e, the divine archer and the goddess of the moon.
I also wanted to do a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, the first Shakespeare play that I read rather than saw performed. I did end up watching various performances of it. I’m a fan of the Baz Luhrmann film; the fish tank scene in my book was meant to be a fun little nod. But it was the first one where I read it in book form. I was immediately taken in by Shakespeare’s play on words and how devastating it was. But when you go back and reread or re-watch Romeo and Juliet, Juliet has no agency. There’s all this terrible stuff happening to her, while Romeo is really whiny. Both of them are kind of insufferable characters and really immature, but the story is a classic. I wanted the retelling to feel true to Romeo and Juliet because so many retellings are broad. I wanted something that matched the feeling of distance between them and their families, capturing how their families felt about their communities and politics. I wanted the sense that everything was crumbling around them. And I wanted to write an ending that reflected the ending of the play, but in my own way. I think a lot of the time people do a Romeo and Juliet retelling and then they end up happily ever after. And I think, “Is that even a Romeo and Juliet retelling?”
It occurred to me that both Romeo and Juliet and Houyi and Chang’e are star-crossed, doomed love stories. The perfect mashup. It’s interesting because people always ask me about the cultural influences, either religion or mythology. And they ask how Chinese and Taiwanese my stories are. But this book is aggressively American. It is meant to be the stories of two immigrant children who are completely American. They’re growing up in Asian American diaspora. Juliet’s parents technically have her best interest at heart when they want to marry her off. It’s considered a good match in their eyes. And they’re worrying about the reputation of the family. There were a lot of ways in which I could take the Asian American diaspora experience and have it mirror Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, aligning with what their families want them to think and do. Which, I think, is a very common experience for children of immigrants especially.
Within your book, you touch upon the conflict between Taiwan and China, specifically the struggle of identity of people from those areas. Given the political climate, what do you hope readers will take away from your book?
I wanted to hold space for both the readers who might have the same background as Hunter and Luna and might identify themselves as Taiwanese, and the readers who might identify themselves as Chinese. I have a lot of Asian American friends who are in those two different categories. For me, it’s been a question of trying to figure out how I personally identify because these debates happen within my own extended family. There are people in my family who are like, “No, we are absolutely Chinese, that is what we are.” And then there are people in my family who are like, “No, we’re clearly Taiwanese; it’s its own culture.” And that’s something that I haven’t seen addressed in that amount of specificity. I also wanted to explain a little bit to readers who don’t know anything about the nuances and the tension there.
Even with The Astonishing Color of After, I see people writing about how the main character goes to China and I’m like, “No, the main character goes to Taiwan.” It was a very delicate topic for me to handle because I am still trying to figure out my own identity. I consider myself both. I call myself Taiwanese and Chinese and I have a lot of different reasons why I do so, but it’s what feels most accurate to me based on how I was raised and the specific cultures on both sides of my family. That was something that was really important for me to present to readers.
What are some characteristics of your culture you wish you could see represented that are lacking in the industry?
I want to see more of everything, not just the parts of my cultural identity that resonate with me, but everybody—everyone else who identifies as Taiwanese American or Chinese American or both. We need more so there isn’t this sense of our identity being monolithic. We need more representation so when there is harmful representation, it doesn’t feel as devastating because there are so many other resources out there. If we have a wealth of books that feature main characters who are of these cultural backgrounds, doing different things, making different decisions and something rubs a reader the wrong way, it doesn’t have to be this horrible thing that they have to wrestle with. It doesn’t have to be the one book that represents their experience. People can instead say, “These are the books that resonate with me. These are the books that make me feel seen. These are the books that I want my friends to read so that they understand how I feel.” We just need more at the end of the day. It would be dangerous to have any figurehead representing an entire identity, an entire experience.
There’s a lot of discussion about creating space for POC authors and POC characters in publishing. In the case of Asian Americans in media and literature, what are you excited to see more of?
I’ve been seeing more stories that have Asian characters getting to be the love interest and getting to be desirable. That's so important to me because growing up, I moved around the U.S. and I always ended up in a predominantly white neighborhood, a predominantly white school district. I would be the token Asian. Best case scenario I would be one of three Asians in my class. When I was living in Wisconsin, I was the only Asian for miles around. Growing up in these predominantly white communities, I never felt like I was desirable. I never felt like I was worthy of having my own love story. There was a Chinese American boy in my class—I remember this so distinctly, this was fifth or sixth grade—who I remember saying that all Asians were so ugly. He would only ever date a white girl. I often think back on that and just wonder if, as he’s grown up, if he’s ever been able to unpack the self-loathing in that. And he was one of the popular kids too. I think it was one of those things where he was clinging tightly to his sense that he belonged somewhere—but then failing to realize how he was excluding himself. So much of it goes back to history and women being forced into sex work in Vietnam. So much of that affects the way that people view Asians today. And it’s the reason Asian women are hypersexualized and treated like they’re disposable, like props. Then, in the media, there there’s this idea that Asian men are too effeminate. It’s really nice to see more stories that show Asian people as desirable. They’re sexy. They’re attractive. They’re interesting. I think it’s huge and something I’m excited for younger audiences to have because if I had seen something in American media where an Asian character was not just the sidekick—that would've been a game changer for me.
You also used to work at Penguin Random House in children’s book marketing. How has this helped you step into your role as an author?
I wrote many books before I even got an agent, before The Astonishing Color of After came out. I learned so much during the process of selling and revising. It took me a long time to figure out how to trust my voice and instinct and vision. I have to credit my agent [Michael Bourret at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret] for being the most incredible support system. He’s always telling me how I have a strong vision, to stick to that, and the book will become what it needs to be. I really learned that lesson in writing An Arrow to the Moon, although it was a struggle because it was my first time writing a book entirely under contract. I conceptualized it when my publisher had already bought it. I had to come up with an idea, get the idea approved, and think about how to write it, which does not feel very organic to my process.
I think that having a background in publishing is a blessing and a curse. I know a lot of what goes on behind the curtain. It makes me less anxious when there’s long stretches of silence from my publishing team. But then it’s a double-edged sword because I also know all the ways that things can go wrong. I was in marketing, and I trust my publishing team and I want to respect their choices and their brilliance. But sometimes it’s hard for me to hold back and not jump in on brainstorming for the publisher’s marketing plan.
Is there anything that was in your drafts that never made its way into the final book?
Some early drafts had a scene where Hunter gets kicked out of his private school and he shows up to school, dumps paint everywhere, opens bins of crickets and tosses them into the halls, creating absolute chaos. I think it was my agent or my editor, somebody asked, “Is this a little bit too extreme for somebody whose family is trying to lay low?” And I was like, “Yeah, you’re right.” I just wanted him to be so angry that he was defacing this entire school. I also wanted to code Rodney and Cody as queer in very different ways. Obviously, Cody’s a tiny kid, but in an early draft, Cody was really obsessed with playing dress-up and musical theater. There’s still a mention of how he knows all the words to the West Side Story soundtrack. But it got very much pared down. A part of me is sad that I ended up paring back so much, but I honestly think it was to the story’s benefit. I figured, “Well, my next book is going to be very queer so that’ll make up for Cody and Rodney not being explicitly in this story” [laughs]. In past drafts, there wasn’t Joyce and there was instead this character named Roxy who was Luna’s cousin who was also totally queer. I really wanted to tell the story of Houyi and Chang’e, and Romeo and Juliet and not do a genderbent retelling, but I was very aware of how cishet the storyline was. And so I think there was a part of me that really wanted to queer it up somehow. Make everyone gay! I’ve figured out that not every book I write can be everything.
What are you working on these days?
I am working on a new young adult novel. That one is super queer and will come out when it comes out. I’m under contract for it, and I’m working on delivering the first full draft of it to my editor right now. I also have an adult novel on the back burner that I’ve been slowly drafting that bastardizes a bit of Chinese history. I’m very excited for that story as well. I have a lot of different projects [laughs]. I have a folder of different ideas that I’m working on at any given time, but those are the projects that I’m immediately going to dive back into.
An Arrow to the Moon by Emily X.R. Pan. Little, Brown, $18.99 Apr. ISBN 978-0-316-46405-5