Protagonists who are outsiders are common touchstones in Children’s and Young Adult literature. I’ve always been drawn to such characters, but especially towards those who feel excluded from their communities and grapple with how they see themselves in light of external expectations. In such stories I can see my own formative experiences, being of Chinese heritage and growing up in Australia as part of the diaspora.
I discovered a particularly powerful example of this narrative when I read children’s fantasy novel The Last Fallen Star by Korean New Zealand author Graci Kim, and saw so much of my own life mirrored in it. The book also reminded me of another speculative novel, one which I’d read as a teenager—Lirael by Garth Nix. Reflecting on the similarities between that book and The Last Fallen Star made me realise that Lirael had resonated with me in a strikingly similar way at the time I’d read it, though I’d originally been unable to articulate precisely why it was so powerful.
The Last Fallen Star centres on twelve-year-old Riley Oh, whose family is a part of a secret community of Korean American witches, the Gifted Clans. As an adoptee, Riley is the only one in her family who does not have the healing powers passed down through their clan, the Gom. She has a comprehensive knowledge of their spells and is dedicated towards their healing practices, yet possesses no ability to cast this magic herself. Although Riley’s parents and sister love her unconditionally, the expectations she is surrounded by complicate her experience of their support:
My parents try super hard to make me feel part of the gifted community. I love them so much for it. But the truth is, the harder they try, the more I realize how much of an outsider I really am. I’m different.
These differences are underscored by two coming-of-age ceremonies in the Gifted Clans. The book begins with Riley’s bittersweet emotions at the thought of her sister Hattie’s upcoming initiation. It’s through this ceremony that Hattie will be formally recognised as a witch, and will then be able to independently use magic—and it’s a ceremony in which Riley could never participate. Riley also recalls a ceremony which she had been allowed into, on an exceptional basis, as an infant—the blessing of Gifted children when they reach one hundred days old. That ceremony uncovered an inexplicable elemental balance, revealing her as “a fiery freak of nature,” which entrenched her outsider status to the elders and community.
In Lirael, the eponymous protagonist is biologically descended from the magical community in which she was raised, the Clayr. Yet she is also cut off from her family, and even more isolated than Riley—her mother died a few years after leaving her when she was five, and she knows nothing about her father. Like Riley, Lirael lacks what she sees as “the only thing that really mattered” to her magical community: the Sight which all other Clayr possess—their power to see into the future.
The story starts with Lirael waking up on her fourteenth birthday, ruminating on how she has still yet to gain the Sight, unlike everyone else her age. As with the clans in The Last Fallen Star, the Clayr’s magical ability goes to the core of their collective identity, and is honoured by a ritual, the Awakening.
She was fourteen, and by the measure of the world outside the Clayr’s Glacier, a woman. But here she must still wear the blue tunic of a child, for the Clayr marked the passage to adulthood not by age, but by the gift of the Sight.
In these stories, there is a single focus—healing powers, or the Sight—and an established coming-of-age milestone for both characters. The reality of not belonging to a certain cultural identity is more complex—yet similar emotions have arisen for me when it comes to my heritage. There are certain times when I’ve reflected and realised there are expectations I can never meet compared to people within China, or diasporic Chinese elsewhere who have grown up with more extensive cultural immersion.
Language is the most quantifiable one: my Chinese proficiency has long been lower than those my age who grew up as native speakers. It’s been mentioned multiple times that if it weren’t for external factors, my family would have wanted me to go to school in China for a few more years before moving to Australia…creating a sense of guilt, even though these were circumstances I had no control over. Like Riley with her futile memorisation of healing spells she cannot use, there are times when I’m sent the implicit message that in spite of the years of effort I’ve put into studying Chinese, my dedication doesn’t really count; it’s my deficiencies that are emphasised.
Riley and Lirael’s experiences of isolation have a similar source, but have also resulted in deep-seated insecurities that affect various facets of their lives. Riley lingers on her biological differences – although she is also Korean American, she looks physically different from the rest of the family. She’s also highly sensitive and prone to tears, which she regards as another weakness when compared with the composure of her parents and sister. No matter what the perceived issue, the solution to everything, from Riley’s perspective, is to acquire the same healing magic as the other witches in her clan:
Having magic will make me fit in. […] I’ll finally be accepted as a Gom, and I’ll be more confident and brave and strong, like Hattie. It’s my answer to everything.
For Lirael, not having the Sight means she is forced to remain in the Hall of Youth, whereas her peers began moving on years ago—it stands as a concrete barrier to her connection with others. When it is announced that another younger girl has gained the Sight before her, Lirael thinks of her as “a true Clayr, a mistress of the Sight.” Like Riley, she compares herself to others and speaks of her own struggles in absolute terms: “Lirael, who was, as always, alone and unregarded.”
With Riley and Lirael constantly feeling the high costs from their lack of powers, it’s unsurprising that they contemplate desperate measures. Riley and her sister Hattie cast a forbidden spell in the hope it will help Riley, which ends with Hattie on the verge of losing her life. Lirael, unable to handle the thought of facing more of her peers’ Awakenings, contemplates suicide at the beginning of the book.
These are extreme examples, but they serve to remind readers of how the choices we make in order to meet others’ expectations can be detrimental to us, particularly when we try to be something we’re not. In my own experience, this has included trying to force an emotional connection to aspects of Chinese culture which I fundamentally do not have, or basing my standards for my writing on what other writers of Chinese descent do (for example, feeling a need to draw upon aspects of history and mythology I’m personally unfamiliar with, rather than following my own curiosities). Something may be justifiably admirable to us, and yet trying to force ourselves to conform with others’ qualities and interests can be harmful to our own intrinsic nature.
[Note: Spoilers for both books follow…]
An interesting divergence eventually arises between the two books as the protagonists are forced to consider alternative paths. Riley uncovers the truth: she isn’t actually non-magical, but descended from the Horangi, a clan of scholars who have been exiled by the rest of the Gifted for years. In order to save her sister and left with no other choice, Riley tracks them down. After overcoming her initial fears and hesitancy, she connects with them, listening to their side of the story regarding the exile. She learns who her biological parents were, meets people who had known them, and is offered an opportunity to undertake the Horangi’s initiation. Finally, she’s able to gain powers of her own—by joining another clan. None of this would have been possible within the Gom.
Such achievements are fulfilling for Riley in terms of her identity, yet these experiences also complicate how she feels about herself, and she struggles with how this affects her relationship to the Gom. It occurred to me that Riley’s desires could be a reflection of the author’s Korean cultural values in terms of upholding family—a mindset similar to my own. Yet like Riley, I’ve also sought out communities, both online and offline. which my family fundamentally would not understand, hoping to find new places where I can be accepted.
For Lirael, however, such relationships remain impossible while she still inhabits the Clayr’s Glacier. When she takes on a working role as a librarian, there seems to be the opportunity of making new connections within this environment. Yet this ultimately does not amount to anything, because the Sight is still the focus of these other Clayr: “So Lirael was once again alone among company.”
Lirael therefore moves away from them while developing additional parts of her personal identity—learning more of Charter magic and exploring her own magical gifts, and making her own journeys into the depths of the Library. This isn’t to say that she only focuses on herself, however—she uses her magic to protect the Clayr, and summons a magical creature, the Disreputable Dog, for a companion. Yet, like Riley, she needs to leave the world she knows in order to find somewhere she could truly belong.
As these protagonists’ worlds expand, both of them learn to appreciate various types of magical powers which they had previously underestimated. Within the confines of their communities, their understanding had been limited, but the journeys they undertake change this. Riley overcomes her bias against the Horangi, whom she’d always disregarded in comparison to her idealised views of Gom magic, after seeing the impact of a scholar’s creations:
Taeyo might not be fixing broken bodies like my parents do, but he’s helping broken souls find peace. If that’s not healing, I don’t know what is.
Lirael also discovers dormant powers once she leaves home. Although her ability as a Charter mage had been considered unimportant compared to the Sight amongst the Clayr, it becomes crucial for her explorations and interactions in the outside world. She discovers several magical instruments, set aside for her, and uses them to great effect.
For those of us of Asian descent growing up in white-dominant countries, a message we frequently receive, implicitly and explicitly, is that parts of ourselves are inferior—our looks, our traditions, our names. In the face of such overwhelming messaging, the value of our own cultural heritage can be buried and may take us a while to discover. Riley and Lirael’s journeys were powerful reminders to question what I’ve been told is important and valuable—to the world, and to myself.
The idea of self-worth based on accepting our intrinsic qualities is crucial to the conclusion of both books. In an interview, Graci Kim spoke of the deliberate influences from her own diasporic identity, being of Korean heritage and growing up in New Zealand:
Growing up, I thought I was somehow “less than” because I was stuck between being neither Korean nor Kiwi, not ever fully belonging in either community. It took me a while, but I eventually learned that it was a false choice. Instead of seeing myself as two incomplete parts, I could see myself as two entire wholes.
It’s fitting, then, that Riley learns that she doesn’t have to give up her Gom upbringing to be part of the Horangi clan. During the Horangi’s initiation, she applies her knowledge of healing to the challenge, and succeeds. Afterwards, she reflects: “now that I’ve formally become a Horangi scholar, I feel more Gom than ever before.”
All of this ultimately leads to her discovering that she is the sum of these two clans, but also more –she has powers that go beyond either of them. Riley herself is the Godrealm’s last fallen star, the very thing she’s spent the story searching for:
And as the licks of power engulf me, I allow myself to accept it, and accept myself. […] I form a colorful patchwork of the diverse mortals who make me who I am. And I burn fiercely with pride.
In doing so, Riley affirms her own strength and courage, echoing back to the beginning of her journey. It was never the acquisition of any particular magic that would make her the person she wanted to be, but embracing and valuing herself on her own terms that mattered.
Lirael’s journey leads to her discovering that her father was an Abhorsen—and that her own destiny lies in the magic of Death. She, too, has an ability that was shaped by the combination of her Abhorsen and Clayr heritage, yet is unique to her—the power of Remembrance, the ability to look into the past rather than the future. Although she’s ambivalent about her identity, and struggles with the revelation that she never will gain the Sight, the story ends on a hopeful note regarding the new places and relationships which await her.
But what is the next step, after we’ve accepted ourselves as we are? How can we subsequently find meaning and joy in our identities? Riley and Lirael’s stories reveal that when we don’t fit into our original communities, trying to work out our identities based on self-focused desires can only take us so far. What becomes more important than the nature of these protagonists’ powers is how they apply them—and both act to serve others rather than themselves.
In The Last Fallen Star, the theme of “service and sacrifice” is expressly stated as the Gom’s motto. Riley stays trues to this: she sacrifices her newfound Horangi powers, and even her families’ memories of her, in order to save Hattie; then uses her inner fire to save her family, clan, and the world in the novel’s climax. Lirael also tries to save the innocent and to respond to the threat from a necromancer that is endangering her kingdom. Lirael’s Dog companion tells her, “You must grow in your own powers—for yourself, for the Kingdom, and for the Charter.”
Self-acceptance can be influential for the wider world—not when we define ourselves as separate individuals, but when we look beyond ourselves and build empathetic connections with others. The precise experiences arising from diaspora identity can be inspiring in this respect. In my personal experience, a heritage that has been formed across cultures and nations has given me a greater resistance to political messages that attempt to stigmatise and demonise. Embracing greater compassion for the struggles of marginalised people motivates me regarding the ways in which society needs to change. And—as Graci Kim aimed to do, and ultimately achieved, in writing The Last Fallen Star—telling our stories is powerful and inspiring for others with similar experiences. Sometimes the impact isn’t immediate or obvious, but our contributions to the lives of others matter.
The Last Fallen Star and Lirael are targeted at different age groups, with over twenty years separating their publication, and were written by authors of very different backgrounds. Yet both stories have had a lasting impact on me, with their deeply resonant portrayals of the need to belong, and the empowering message on how to reconcile the complexity of our identities.
Wendy Chen is a writer and reviewer based in Sydney, Australia. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthology Meet Me at the Intersection (Fremantle Press, 2018). You can find more of her book recommendations on her blog, and on Instagram @writteninwonder_