This week I Skyped my friend and former classmate Sara Kannan to talk about postcolonialism, urban fantasy, teen fiction, and books that make you weep for days.
HPL: What you reading right now?
SK: It’s called The Gold Eaters by Ronald Wright. It’s about the conquest of Peru, and it’s mostly told through the perspective of this young native boy who is captured by Pizarro and the other Spaniards and forced to become their translator. I’m only about 50 pages in so I haven’t gotten too far but I really like it. I can’t really say this boy is Incan because he is part of group that was conquered by the Incan empire and he doesn’t really consider himself Incan. Sometimes it is told from a Spanish person’s perspective, so there is Pizarro who is horrible, and there’s this captain of the ship who is more religious, and a little bit kinder, more reasonable about stuff.
HPL: So, it’s historical fiction?
SK: Yes, it’s historical fiction. I love postcolonialism. Not even as a genre of literature, but as a field of study. I feel that it is so important and so pervasive in that it’s so much of how we live. And the politics and the things that we see in the world today are connected to things that have happened in the past and those go farther back and on and on. Really a lot of it has to do with that whole era of European colonialism. Not all of it and it’s not just the Europeans who were colonizing, but it completely changed world history and we’re still feeling the fallout now. It’s something that’s always really interested me, so when I saw this book I was like, “Oh man, I have to read that.” It’s kind of funny, usually, I don’t really leave the teen fiction section and this is most definitely adult fiction.
HPL: I know that you’ve mentioned you like fantasy in the past. Do you like high fantasy?
SK: Yeah, but I also like urban fantasy!
HPL: What is urban fantasy?
SK: Urban fantasy is like people who live in the suburbs or the city but there is also fantastical elements there. So many of them are set in New York and there’s an underground magical society. That kind of thing.
HPL: So it sounds like it’s treading close to magical realism except it’s more grounded in fantasy. More Harry Potter than Magic Realism?
SK: I wouldn’t consider it magic realism. To me, magic realism means that the natural and supernatural co-exist and there’s no difference to the people in the story. Urban fantasy is like you’re a normal teenage kid who goes to school and has to deal with normal teenage problems but then your family is also a part of a secret coven of witches and so you also have to go to Sunday School Witch Lesson, sort of thing. Stuff like Percy Jackson.
HPL: Right. You mentioned you prefer YA to adult fiction. What do you love the most about young adult fiction?
SK: It’s so much about being in a moment of transition. These characters are usually in their teens or maybe even their early twenties depending, so they’re very much in a place in their lives where they don’t really know exactly who they are. They don’t know what they want or where they’re going. So there’s a lot of self-discovery involved, and then you add some sort of fantastical element in where you also discover something about your ancestry or something about the society that you live in that mirrors that. There’s this parallelism between the internal journey and the external journey.
HPL: What is the last book that really kind of hit you and gave you something whether a purpose, a goal or a dream?
SK: Oh man, sometimes it’s really hard to keep track. I have maybe two I can tell you about. One is called The Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller. You have to read it! It’s so good. I’m a fan of ancient civilizations and the classics anyways, so I’m familiar with a lot of Greek myths, the Iliad, the Odyssey, all that stuff. The Song of Achilles, it’s essentially this story that we all know just reinterpreted through the focalizer of Patroclus instead of Achilles or any of the big heroes. The entire book is told from his point of view and it starts with them meeting when they’re young and it goes through them being raised together, and it does go into the Trojan War. In the Iliad, it doesn’t really say it but in Madeleine Miller’s book it’s pretty explicit that the two of them are lovers. The two are genuinely in love. I was crying at the end of the book. I should maybe preface that by saying I’m very easily amused and very quick to cry. But this is one where I’m crying and I’m trembling. I just felt too much and nothing all at once at the end of this book, and it took me like a good week or so to get over it.
HPL: And the second book?
SK: One of the things I’m not really a fan of is there’s not a lot of diversity, especially in teen fiction versus adult fiction. And I’m talking about diversity in multiple ways. We always think ethnicity, and that’s the big one, but also sexuality, socioeconomic background, setting, religion. I just think there is so much more richness when you’re looking at the interactions between cultures. So I read a book where it took a European fairytale but set it in a mythical version of India, where because of cultural differences the idea of the fairytale was completely reinterpreted. It’s called Toads and Diamonds by Heather Tomlinson. In the original fairytale there’s the good daughter and the evil step sister and they both encounter a fairy and etcetera. The good daughter ends up blessed so whenever she speaks jewels and flowers fall out of her mouth but the evil stepsister is cursed so that when she speaks, snakes and toads come out. In a European culture, that paradigm is very clear, but in a mythical version of India where snakes are considered very differently… it’s not as much of a curse as you think it is. There’s more of a respect for them, there are a lot of stories in India about snake people.
HPL: I will take breaks from reading. Last summer, especially. I’ll take three months and just not read books. I’ll read a lot of other things, like articles or I’ll go watch lots of television or movies, but it usually happens when I’m doing a lot of events. Do you ever do that?
SK: I guess I kind of do that. There are times where I read less because like you said, I’m doing other stuff more. Sometimes I definitely need breaks between books, like you know when you feel a book hangover? So depending on how much the book affected me will determine how much time before I start the next one.