Saturday, January 19, 2019

A Thousand Beginnings and Endings, edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman

    For one of us, it was the first book a librarian gave to her when she finally summoned up the courage to ask for a book recommendation - The Pink Fairy Book, by Andrew Lang. For the other, it was the one book she ever stole from her elementary school library - a book on mythology. (Not that it was okay to steal the book, but she will finally admit to it now, more than thirty years later, with the school shut down for good, and said thief living on the other side of the world from her hometown.)
    We both went on to devour other mythologies: Greek and Norse, from Ares to Danae to Thor to Odin. We fell in love with all those myths about powerful gods being vulnerable, about humans becoming heroes. Such stories taught us about mythology, about the beauty of folktales and legends, and about how stories of gods and goddesses are also stories about the human heart.
    But we never found similar compilations that were distinctly Asian. And so many times when we found Asian stories, they were ones retold by non-Asians that never felt quite right. They were always missing something. The stories felt superficial at best and at worst, quite hurtful. We longed for nuance and subtlety and layers, the embedded truths about culture that - more often than not - can only come from within.
    That's why this anthology is important to us. Here, diasporic Asians reimagine their favorite Asian myths and legends from their own viewpoints. We would have been overjoyed to have found this anthology, filled with characters with skin and hair and names like ours, in our beloved libraries. It's the book that was missing in our lives for far too long. ("From the Editors")
I loved mythology and folktales as a child. Looking back, I read mostly Greek and Roman mythology, and European-centered folktales. It is only recently that I have begun to diversify my own reading in those areas. When I saw this book listed in a Book Riot post, I was happy to find that my library had a copy.

Most of the authors in the collection are new to me, except for Aliette de Bodard (I have collected a couple of her ebooks but not yet read them). Some of their stories bring myths or folk tales into a modern setting, like E.C. Myers "The Land of Morning Calm," which translates the epic Korean myth the Chasa Bonpuli into an on-line gaming world; or Alyssa Wong's "Olivia's Tables," which brings the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival to a small town in Arizona (including the ghosts of Chinese immigrants brought in for mining work). Others take place in the mythical past, such as Rahul Kanakia's "Spear Carrier," where a young person is transported back to the epic battle that ends India's classic the Mahabharata (without ever quite understanding what they are doing there). Each story includes a note from the author, explaining the context and the background for the story she has chosen.

Some of the stories feel complete in themselves. With others, I was left wanting to know more, what happened next. "Olivia's Tables" is one of those, and also my favorite story, "Girls Who Twirl and Other Dangers," by Preeti Chhibber. It's set at a community celebration of Navratri, a Hindu holiday that I hadn't learned about before, one the author explains "represents a few different myths in Hinduism," but "at its core, Navratri is always about good defeating evil."

The stories were as new to me as the authors, though I have recently learned about kitsune, the Japanese fox ghosts. The collection included the first story I have read by a Filipino author, Melissa de la Cruz. There is a handy "Author Biographies" section at the end of the book, which lists their other books.


  1. What a great collection of stories for any library! Asian myths are so cool. :)

    1. I've read a little in the Indian myths lately, and realizing how many of the world's stories there are to discover :)

  2. I really loved this collection, and I am usually really hard to please when it comes to short story anthologies. I loved the variety, and I was SO into having the authors include notes about the stories they chose to draw on and how they altered or interpreted them. Ugh so good. It gave me a huge list of authors to follow.

    1. I was thinking about your short-story project, but you're reading those more from journals & magazines, as I remember.
      I liked the notes coming after the stories, so no spoilers, and having read the stories first gave me more context for the explanations!


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!