Growing up, I wanted a book where the protagonist just happened to be Asian. I wanted a book where being Asian was mentioned in passing and not a book that was about the joys and trials of being stuck in two cultures. While I’ve learned to embrace heritage books such as Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, a novel about a group of Chinese Americans who grew up stuck between two cultures and learn what it means to be “Chinese”, I still yearn for a book that had an Asian protagonist but isn’t focused on being Asian.
YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) blog recently posted an article about the lack of ethnicity on young adult covers and while I find this issue to be relevant, the issue of lack of non-Caucasian characters in young adult literature is more pressing.
Prophecy by Ellen Oh (pub date: January 2nd, 2013; HarperCollins Children’s) is a novel that has a whole cast of Korean characters set in a mythical ancient Korea and yet isn’t about being Korean. My younger self cheered. This book needs to be published sooner!
Kang Kira (names are romanized with last name first) is the king’s niece and a warrior. She’s also the bodyguard for the crown prince, who is her cousin. However, Kira is an outcast due to her yellow eyes. After the murders of kings and the discovery of traitors in the midst, Kira goes on the road to help her cousin, who may be the savior in the Dragon King’s prophecy. The magical lost ruby may be their only hope to save the kingdom yet again. Going along with them are an interesting group of people and they must battle evil in many different forms.
Prophecy is set in ancient Korea and is filled with Korean terms but it honestly isn’t so much about the fact that it’s set in Korea as much as it’s about a girl (who just happens to be Asian) who is strong and has spunk. The setting barely plays a role in the novel. It just happens to be set in Korea.
It's fresh to read a novel that was set in Asia. It's even fresher to read novel that isn't about discovering your heritage ( don't get me wrong, I love those kinds of books but I need a break from them once in a while) while being set in Asia. Prophecy is interesting and filled with twists and turns. Reading it, I couldn't help but be reminded of the Korean dramas (in a good way) that I occasionally watch during school vacations.
Many people compare Prophecy with Graceling, but I haven't read Graceling so I can’t say how similar or how dissimilar they are. If I had to pick a bone out though, I felt that the climax of Prophecy was a bit too weak because when it reached the climax, it was a bit like “Oh…” [no pun/joke intended]. Nevertheless, I do feel that Prophecy is a relevant book since it’s featured in Korea but isn’t necessarily a heritage book. I needed some of these kinds of books growing up and I’m happy that publishers have started to diversify from Caucasian characters to non-Caucasian, specifically Asian characters.
I’ve also snagged an interview with Ellen Oh, who was kind enough to fit a short interview in her busy, busy schedule!
1. Your interest in Asian history was sparked by a biography of Genghis Khan. Prophecy is set in ancient Korea and the history for that period is sparse. Why did you pick that particular time period?
I found the Three Kingdoms period of ancient Korea to be so fascinating because it was a time when the kingdoms of Korea were truly powerful. The largest of the Three Kingdoms, Goguryeo, was so vast that it encompassed much of Northeast China as well as all of what is now North Korea. Meanwhile, the Shilla kingdom, which later went on to unite the peninsula, was known for one of the most powerful female rulers of ancient times. Everything I learned about this time period was so intriguing to me. It was also a period before Confucianism took hold of Korea and relegated women to the backrooms. Because I wanted to write about strong girl characters, I knew I didn’t want to set it during the Chosun period, where Confucianism led to rampant misogyny and oppression of Korean women. That’s an entirely different story that I plan on writing sometime in the future. But the problem with writing a book set in the Three Kingdoms was that it was hard to find a lot of really detailed research during that time period because most of the ancient records were destroyed by all the invaders that had ravaged Korea over the years. Most records are anecdotal or collected from historical notes made in Chinese records. And yet, it also allowed for some freedom because not much detail is known about this period. I recently read someone criticizing Prophecy for using a hat that would not have been worn during the period. I think I laughed myself silly over it because unless that person had actually lived through that time period, there is no way that they could refute my claim because there is no historical evidence that I’m wrong! But that’s my point, no one can get it absolutely right because we just don’t know enough about the time period. So what I wanted to do is set my fantasy during the Three Kingdoms and while I would not get it historically perfect (I don’t think anybody could unless they could time travel) I hoped at least to get the right feel of that period.
2. The path to publication was difficult for Prophecy. Numerous people said that publishers would not publish a story set in ancient Korea. What were some motivators for you to get through the process?
I am the epitome of the bullheaded, stubborn Taurean. If someone tells me I can’t do something that I believe I CAN do, then all they have done is fuel my desire to prove them wrong. I’m very contrary that way. Plus I felt that for every person that might say “Ancient Korea, ugh!” there would be others who would say “Ancient Korea? Hell, yes!” And I’m so glad that I was right about that.
The one person who probably motivated me more than he will ever know, is an old work colleague of mine who laughed when I told him I wanted to get published and he said “Yeah, right. Keep dreaming.” It’s like my inner Brooklyn rose up in me and said “Oh no he did not just laugh at me!” And I had to prove him wrong, no matter how long it took, no matter how hard it was, I just wouldn’t give up. That’s really what it comes down to for me, I don’t give up.
3. There are many Korean words sprinkled into Prophecy (noona, haetae, etc). Was that a conscious decision?
Well there were more in the ARC and less in the final copy. I thought it was getting too confusing. But I did make a very conscious choice to keep some Korean terms in Prophecy because they didn’t have the perfect English translation. Like a young Korean boy would call an older sister or girl cousin Noona but a young girl would call the same person Onni. And a young girl would call an older brother or boy cousin Oppa while a young boy would call that same older boy Hyun. But there isn’t a good direct translation of this so I wanted to keep the Korean terms.
4. You mentioned once that you wrote Prophecy for your daughters so that they could have a novel to read featuring a strong female who was Asian. What do you want readers to take away from Prophecy?
1. Korea is fascinating! I want them to be so interested in learning these little bits of Korean history, culture, legends and myths that they would ask for more! Cause you know, I have 2 more books… ;o)
2. Prophecy is about how everyone believed that the hero of legend was a boy, but ended up being a girl. Girls are heroes too! I hate using the word heroine. Why do we need another gendered word? I hate the Disney fairytale of waiting for your prince to come and rescue you. That makes me vomit in my mouth! That isn’t romantic, it’s misogynistic! Girls are stronger than they are ever given credit for being. And when any girl is faced with a sexist situation – show your girl power! Don’t let anyone tell you what you can or can’t do! You alone will be the judge of that, not somebody with their preconceived sexist notions.
5. You mentioned that there was going to be a real kumiho [nine-tailed fox] in the next book. Are there any other Korean mythical creatures that are going to make an appearance?
In the next book? I gotta tell you, I love my kumiho character! I can’t wait for everyone to meet her! But even more fun and amazing was creating my dokkaebi’s. Dokkaebi’s are Korean spirits or demons that are usually mischievous or vengeful and appear in a lot of Korean folktales. They carry these large cudgels with them that act like their magic wands. And how they appear in book 2 will be a great surprise to my readers. I can’t wait!
Review copy provided by the publisher