Malinda Lo is the author of two young adult novels, Ash and Huntress, both released by Little, Brown. Ash (reviewed here by Elizabeth Bear) is a reimagining of the Cinderella tale with a lesbian romance; it was a Lambda Award finalist, an Andre Norton nominee, and a William C. Morris YA Debut Award finalist. Huntress (reviewed here)—released on April 5th—is a quest fantasy with Chinese cultural influences and also with a lesbian romance. Prior to writing these books, Lo was the managing editor of AfterEllen.com, a site for entertainment news for queer women.
Today, she’s here to talk with us about queer young adult fiction.
Lee Mandelo: Hi, and thank you for talking with us today!
Malinda Lo: Thanks for having me!
BM: Both of your books are young adult fantasy fiction—was there anything in particular that led to your interest in the genre and the YA community?
ML: Well, to be honest, I wrote Ash without thinking about what genre it was. I assumed I was writing an adult novel, since I was (and still am!) an adult. But when it came time to submit the manuscript to agents, I realized it fit better into the YA genre than in adult fantasy. Then, since Ash was sold in a two-book deal to a YA publisher, I had to write a YA fantasy on purpose the second time around. Since then, I’ve read a lot more YA fantasy and discovered that it’s really wonderful. There are some amazing books published in YA fantasy, and I’m really proud to be writing in this genre. I love the fact that YA fantasy (and YA in general) is so focused on story and emotion. Not that adult fiction can’t be equally thrilling, but oftentimes adult fiction is more intellectual and slow-paced. With YA, you can’t dilly-dally along the way; you have to cut to the chase immediately. I think it’s challenging to write that way, and I enjoy it.
BM: You’ve talked about avoiding stereotypes of LGBTQ people in YA on your blog—how important do you think it is to provide young readers with stories about real queer people?
ML: I think it’s very important! I would have been a much better-adjusted adult earlier on if I’d read a single book about real queer people when I was growing up.
BM: Huntress is, I think, the only YA book I’ve read with queer girls of color as main characters. Are there any others you could recommend to the readers, or are there simply not very many of them?
ML: Hmm, that’s a tough question. I can’t think of another one, actually, although that doesn’t mean there aren’t any out there. I recently read Jacqueline Carey’s Santa Olivia, which was not published as a young adult novel but is about a queer girl of color growing up in a kind of dystopian border town. The girl, Loup, also happens to be the daughter of a genetically modified human and the story is about her coming of age (the book ends when she’s 18), learning to box, and falling in love. It’s a fantastic book, and if teen readers are comfortable with cursing and somewhat explicit sexuality, I would heartily recommend it to them.
BM: Ash and Huntress both revolve around and are driven primarily by lesbian romances. How has the reception been, by critics and otherwise?
ML: The reception has been wonderfully positive! I’ve been especially amazed by how well Ash was received. I think that people were waiting a long time for a queer fairy tale, possibly without even knowing they wanted to read one. Huntress is newer, but so far I’ve been really happy to hear that many readers seem to like it more than Ash. I love both books, but as a writer, I always hope that I’m improving with every book.
BM: While you explore love and romance in Ash & Huntress, they’re rather chaste, compared to some straight YA I’ve encountered. Was there a particular decision to go easy on the sex, or did it just happen that way?
ML: This is funny, because this is the second time I’ve been asked this question in as many days—usually people ask me if I was asked to tone down the sex because they’re YA novels! The thing is, I wrote the books the way I did because that’s just the way that felt right. I think the style of the books is not particularly suited to graphic sexuality, anyway. But I will quibble with the word “chaste” — the girls in my books are certainly not chaste, even though the language used to describe what they do is somewhat restrained. :)
BM: Fair enough! *grin* Issues of queer representation in YA have been all over the internet recently thanks to the conflict with Wicked Pretty Things, and I’ve seen a lot of solidarity among YA writers regarding the situation—that all love stories deserve to be told, not just straight ones. How have you felt, as a member of both the LGBTQ community and the YA community, watching that conflict unfold?
ML: As with all internet brouhahas, I kind of watched with one hand over my eyes, worried that people I respect were going to say something insane. Much to my relief, I think that on the whole the authors handled themselves very well, and I think Jessica Verday was really a model of decorum. I’m disappointed in the way the publishers responded, but I can see that they felt attacked—because they were. That’s the problem. Sometimes the internet can make a situation devolve into a pile-on, which I don’t believe is the most productive way to resolve hot-button issues. It just makes everybody get defensive.
BM: What are some of your favorite queer young adult novels, or authors of LGBTQ-friendly books?
ML: For fans of YA fantasy that is also LGBT-inclusive, I love Sarah Rees Brennan’s Demon’s Lexicon series, which has a supporting character who is gay. Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series also has a supporting gay character, and Holly Black’s Tales of Modern Faerie is very gay-inclusive.
If you’re interested in trying out contemporary YA, I’ve long been a fan of Julie Anne Peters, who writes heartbreakingly real YA novels about LGBT teens. One of my favorite of her books has just been reissued under the title Pretend You Love Me (originally titled Far From Xanadu); it’s about a butch teen lesbian who falls in love with a straight girl. (A situation ripe for drama!)
BM: That sounds like an interesting book! And what’s next for you—stories coming out soon, new books on the boiler…?
ML: I’m publishing a short story set two years after Huntress in the summer issue of Subterranean Magazine Online. The story is about Kaede (as an adult!), the main character in Huntress, and it will be free for everyone to read.