Comma-Shaped Jades and Other Curiosities: An article by Yoon Ha Lee

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One of the things people warned me about when it comes to writing novels is that no matter how smoothly novel N goes, there’s no guarantee that novel N+1 will also go smoothly. I learned this the hard way in writing Phoenix Extravagant.

I thought I had the plot all planned out, and I knew my protagonist was going to be a painter, and that there would be a mecha dragon. As for the worldbuilding, well, I’d make that up on the fly.  That’s what I did with the hexarchate and it more or less worked then; why not now?

You’re probably thinking that making things up on the fly is where I went wrong, and that’s not quite true. If I try to linearize worldbuilding down a checklist, it kills the world flat dead for me. No: the issue was a bigger one. I picked the wrong setting.

Coming into this novel, most of my familiarity, thanks to the vicissitudes of a Western education, was with Western art.  I still remember 9th grade Western Civilisation with a mixture of fondness and horror: an excellent teacher, but when it came to the Renaissance unit, we were tested on identifying famous artworks as reproduced in blurry grayscale one-inch thumbnails. As someone who can’t visualise worth spit, I did very poorly on that exam! Still, I figured I’d save myself time by writing in faux! Europe during the faux! Renaissance. Certainly, I wouldn’t have any trouble finding reference materials.

I got 40,000 words and six months into the draft when it became clear that this approach had backfired. I might paint watercolor as a hobby, more or less in a Western style, and I might admire Renaissance art (even if I first learned about Leonardo da Vinci & co through Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), but I didn’t feel any personal sense of connection to my setting. I don’t know about you, but I find it impossible to write without feeling the beating heart of the world.

What was more, Phoenix Extravagant touched on themes of colonialism and cultural genocide.  I knew of a historical setting I did have some personal connection to, even if I’d been avoiding it: Korea during the Japanese occupation (1910-1945).  My family is Korean; one of my grandfathers went to university in Japan during that period.

So I threw out 40,000 words and six months of work, and started over, building a fantasy version of Korea. In the process I bought every book on Korean art and archaeology I could get my hands on, with the help of my mom. This wasn’t as daunting as it could have been in that there aren’t a whole lot of (affordable) books on the topic in English, and I was very specifically interested in Korea, not China or Japan.

I rediscovered artifacts I had seen in Seoul’s museums in my childhood, such as comma-shaped jades. I had multiple people query the term because it sounds so odd! But that’s exactly what they’re called in the archaeology/art history literature.  (Three guesses what punctuation mark they’re shaped like!)  I found that books that are willing to tell you the chemical composition of pottery glazes in nauseating detail are surprisingly vague about the pigments used in Korean paints. After all, I couldn’t assume that the same paints were used in Korea as were used in, say, France.

I also learned about cultural imperialism as it applied to art and art styles. Perspective was introduced to Korea and, among other things, caused artists to start doing things like painting realist portrayals of people’s desks and bookshelves to show off the innovation. Japanese preferences in aesthetics affected Korean artists in ways that reverberate even to this day.

And I drew on my own childhood memories of Korea for the architecture, the artifacts, the folk art.  I’ve owned pieces of maedeup (매듭, Korean traditional macramé) and abalone-inlaid lacquer jewellery boxes; I’ve walked by Dongdaemun Gate and fed pigeons at Deoksugung, a palace that now serves as a park. I found that the Japanese had, in years past, relandscaped gardens – some of which I had visited – in order to change Korea’s luck by altering the geomantic flow (pungsu jiri 풍수지리, or Korean feng shui) of the nation.

Phoenix Extravagant is still about a painter and their mecha dragon friend. But changing the setting changed the entire character of the story. In some ways it made the book harder to write; the Japanese occupation is not a happy or pleasant period of Korean history. But it was the book I needed to write, comma-shaped jades and all.

(I still made up a bunch of stuff on the fly. Sorry not sorry. Have fun figuring out what’s real and what’s invention!)

Phoenix Extravagant will be released in the UK on 15 October and in the US on 20 October.

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