On Finding the Courage to Write the Novel I’ve Always Wanted to Read

Photo credit: Maisoue Yang | pixelpluie.com

Photo credit: Maisoue Yang | pixelpluie.com

A couple of years ago, I read a fantasy novel that opened with the main character eating an apple on her way to market, and before that I read a fantasy novel where the main character and her companion packed bread and apples as their meal for their long, horseback trek across a kingdom to participate in a war that was devastating the countryside. Not gonna name any names or titles, but I was like, “Enough with the apples!” C’mon people. Can’t we do something different? Can’t we offer these characters some rice or something? Or maybe a cucumber?

I’m not saying all fantasy novels out there are the same or that all writers aim to write the same novels. I was simply reacting to what I experienced, and after that experience, I couldn’t stop thinking about Toni Morrison’s words: “If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.”

Me: Challenge accepted, Toni Morrison!

So I set out to write a novel that didn’t involve bread or apples. I set out to create a Hmong character with a uniquely Hmong challenge, and it has been both frightening and exciting because no one that I know of has ever written a fantasy novel inspired by the Hmong culture.


Things You Make Up In Your Own Head

Last year I wrote a post about becoming the writer I needed as a teenager in which I discussed my journey back to Niam Nkauj Zuag Paj and Txiv Nraug Ntsuag—back to who I really was as a Hmong woman and as a Hmong writer. This journey back led me to a Hmong character with a uniquely Hmong challenge, and with this came the fear that I would represent my culture and my people’s experience incorrectly. That I wouldn’t do them justice. That I would destroy my writing career before it even began.

Wow, right? That went south real fast. And it was all in my head. As I see it:

fear + things you make up in your head = major damage to your confidence

I’m a recovering people pleaser, a rule follower, a “good” girl. And this appears in my writing, too. I once asked a friend, “What if I’m appropriating my own culture?” She gave me a weird look and said, “You can’t appropriate your own culture.” She’s right. The online Oxford Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as, “The unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” The emphasis on that last clause is mine.

Connie Wang, Senior Features Writer for Refinery29, wrote a pretty good article about the gray area of cultural appropriation in a May article in which she defines it as “the use of another culture’s symbols without permission”. She goes on to say, “What is bad is the stealing, laziness, and caricaturing that’s become rampant within creative industries. If artists use existing art to create better art, it’s part of the creative process to acknowledge their place within a lineage.” In other words, it’s plagiarism if you don’t cite it.

I don’t want to use the Hmong culture to make a profit. I want to present my culture’s rich, intricate heritage in a way that will reach audiences it hasn’t reached before. I want to show that the fantasy genre could be so much more if it only looked up from the canons once in awhile (here’s looking at you every single epic fantasy about Europe in the Middle Ages).

Anyway, I’ve been so worried about misrepresenting my culture—about appropriating my own culture—that I nearly stopped writing A Kiss of Blood (yes, I’ve changed the title LOL—I'm going to touch upon what inspired this in the next blog post). Maybe I’m not Hmong enough, I thought, or involved enough. Maybe I’m not experienced enough or educated enough. It kept coming down to enough, enough, enough. Finally, I thought, “But if I don’t write this novel, then I’m leaving the door wide open for someone else to write it, and for them to write it from an outsider’s perspective.” And what if they write it wrong? What if they write it without giving credit? Would I be okay with that?

The answer, as you’ve probably guessed, was no.


Writing Through Doubt and Fear

I remember asking a friend for help with “my fantasy novel inspired by the Hmong culture”, and his initial response was, “Well, just calling it a fantasy novel is going to turn people off.” He was referring to the Hmong people. He was saying the Hmong people would hate it just because of the genre—because I’ve somehow turned the word “fantasy” into a bad word. I left the conversation feeling like I had reached a dead end, like my friend had turned out the light on my idea. “What was the point?” I remember asking Alex. “I should just go back to writing characters with ambiguous ethnicities eating apples.” I was not only facing my misunderstood idea that I was appropriating my own culture, I was also facing the idea that my community, the very community that was inspiring me to write this novel, was just going to hate it. My fear was that I had embraced my culture, but was my culture going to embrace me?

At this time, I picked up Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (a great read for anyone who is a creative—whether or not you’re a writer), where she says,“The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them.” And the real question with my novel and with my future as a writer and storyteller became, do I have the courage to let those jewels shine? Many people talk about wanting to write a novel. Many start and stop again and again. Maybe they face the same fears I do, the same doubts and the same questions. Whatever it is, they never finished their novel, so something extinguished the light that was their idea, and I couldn’t let it happen to me, too.

Right after I finished the 60,000-word draft for A Kiss of Blood, I was lucky enough to meet Elizabeth Yang (Elizabeths are on fire!) of Hmong Women Take On The World, and she said something I will never forget: “If you’re not afraid, then your goal isn’t big enough.”

BAM, right?

I’ll give you a moment to reflect on that.

Last year, I wrote about fear, about how I believe fear and courage exist hand in hand. So, channeling both Elizabeths’ words, I pushed past the fear until I could tap into courage because I knew it wasn’t far behind. And now I’m halfway through the first round of revision for A Kiss of Blood. Yippie!


Start Before You’re Ready

(Unless you're having a baby. LOL. See this post about that.) The truth is, you will never be 100% ready or have 100% courage or have things go 100% your way. I mean, seriously, how many times have things just gone perfectly the way you planned it to? Never for me. But you have to start somewhere. You collect what you need in order to start, then you iterate as you go. You respond to problems that arise and you celebrate moments of breakthrough.

And just because something—like my fantasy novel inspired by Hmong culture—hasn’t been done before, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.

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