(Interview originally published on TFW’s sister blog, The Book Academy. December 2015.)
Cindy Pon is the author of the YA fantasy novel Serpentine, as well as two Kingdom of Xia novels, Silver Phoenix and Fury of the Phoenix. Her stories bring rich, diverse characters and settings to YA literature. As a student of Chinese brush art, Cindy is also working on her first picture book for children.
After meeting Cindy at the Texas Teen Book Festival, I was lucky enough to connect with her on social media and even luckier still to correspond with her for an email interview. She was as friendly and open-hearted in her emails as she was in person. If you love YA fantasy, you should definitely read Serpentine. YA Lit is bursting with fantasy novels, but Serpentine brings you to an entirely different time and place than most books in the genre. Cindy’s voice and characters are a welcome departure from the norm. For insights into Serpentine and her thoughts on diversity in YA literature, check out the interview below.
Q: Serpentine was based in Chinese mythology about serpent demons. In another interview, you said that for your previous novels you had to free yourself a bit from the historical fiction aspects of your story and focus on the fantasy aspects more heavily. Serpentineis also a fantasy that is set in ancient China. Which historical details did you pull from research about the Xia Dynasty?
A: When I say inspired by, I really do mean it. With Silver Phoenix, I got pulled into the historical details so much, that I realized it was taking away from the fantasy I wanted to write. When my mom’s friend from China heard my ideas for the story, she told me, that’s not possible, your heroine’s feet would be bound. Then I knew that I needed to not think of my books as historicals or even historical fantasy, in order to do what I wanted to do. So my Xia titles are not set in a certain place or time within China’s history, but I did read up on many different types of books for research: from clothing, to architecture, to the imperial palace and Chinese women within the inner quarters and their roles in society.
Q: Is there a traditional version of the serpent demon story that you would recommend to readers who are interested in reading the myth that inspired Serpentine?
A: The best known would be Lady White Snake, which is a Chinese classic. Ironically, I wasn’t aware of the story truly, until after I finished Serpentine. I always said that my narrative is Asian American. And I had grown up more familiar with Greek Myths—that’s commonly taught in our schools here. So much of what inspired me visually for Serpentine was Medusa from Clash of the Titans. Even as a child, I was drawn to the idea of monstrous beauties, and as terrifying as Medusa was, I still felt sympathy for her. I liked that Lady White Snake is also painted as a sympathetic figure in her story.
Q: We learn that Skybright, when she is in her serpent form, is physically different from the serpents she learns about from Kai-Sen. You gave us hints in the story about why that might be. Will we learn the full story in the second novel or is that something we will just have to make our own inferences about?
A: Skybright suspects that she is half mortal and half serpent demon—or is told as much in Serpentine. I like the idea of dwelling in the in between, and that has a lot to do with Skybright’s own journey. But yes, I do believe you will have a more definitive answer with the sequel.
Q: Is Skybright the main character of the second novel? If not, who is? And will Skybright’s story be continued even if she is not the focus?
A: She is! And the reader will also be getting Zhen Ni and Kai Sen’s POVs!
Q: In another online interview, I saw one of your Chinese brush paintings of a little chick. The caption said that the chick would be the heroine of your upcoming children’s picture book. Can you tell us a little about your new book?
A: I’m just working with the very amorphous ideas of it right now. Although I do have some finished paintings already for the picture book! It will be Chinese themed, for certain!
Q: Would you be willing to send an image of one of your Chinese brush paintings to post on the blog with this interview?
A: Of course! Inscrutable Cat is a fan favorite.
Q: You are the co-founder, with Malinda Lo, of Diversity in YA and a member of the We Need Diverse Books advisory board. How did you first get involved with this “movement” in YA and children’s literature?
A: It was happenstance, really. Malinda and I had been friends for a few years, and when we both had Asian inspired YA fantasies releasing close to each other (her Huntress and my Fury of the Phoenix), I kept joking that we should go on tour together. Then we began to consider it more seriously, and knew what a rare occasion it was to have TWO YA Asian fantasies releasing so close to each other (it still is rare), so we decided to celebrate that. And we toured under the Diversity in YA banner. The Diversity in YA (link: http://diversityinya.com) website has been running since 2011, and is a great resource to find inclusive YA reads.
Q: How much progress do you think has been made in the YA and children’s book publishing world with regards to diverse characters and settings in books since you created your website & Tumblr and the We Need Diverse Books campaign was created?
A: I think the dialogue and discussion is very much more at the forefront of publishing now than back in 2011. We Need Diverse Books really helped to boost the conversation, but the truth of the matter is, much of this has been brewing among people in publishing for years. Decades, even. I think we are making definite strides, but I don’t think we are as close to where we need or would like to be. Still, many within industry are unaware of the lack of inclusion, and some might even balk and think diversity is just a “trend” or spearheaded by those who have a chip on their shoulders. For how much the face of the US population has been changing since when even I was a child, publishing and kidlit books simply have not kept up. But I do believe the challenges in publishing more diverse books as well as publishing more marginalized writers is so important. And the current system is set that makes it harder to be publishing outside of what is considered “normal” or “commercial” or “mainstream”.