The Best I Ever Had

Oh, Romance, you are the best I’ve ever had.

It started as these things usually do, I guess. A Susan Johnson paperback left out at the home where I was babysitting. A friend’s mother with a subscription to Harlequin Temptations that she kept in the top left hand section of her book shelf. She noticed my fixation, the way I couldn’t walk past that shelf without slowing down to a crawl. She loaned me one and that one led to…this.

My bookshelf was under my bed. (It still is.) And at that time, with my McNaught’s and Garwood’s I also had the Stephen King starter kit: Salem’s Lot, Pet Cemetery and It; the first three books in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and a tear-stained copy of Ordinary People.

What I’m trying to say is I wasn’t genre-specifc.

And then my sophomore year of high school, my best friend’s boyfriend committed suicide. My world fell apart. In every possible way. And I couldn’t fix anything. Nothing made sense. Except those romance novels under my bed. I dove deep into those Happily Ever Afters. The heavy, wild and hard emotions that all got tied up at the end gave me some closure at a time I could not find any of my own. They gave me a safe place to experience my grief and my guilt and fear.

I dove deep into those Happily Ever Afters. The heavy, wild, and hard emotions that all got tied up at the end gave me some closure at a time I could not find any of my own. They gave me a safe place to experience my grief and my guilt and fear.

When I went on to college my box of books came with me and slipped under the bed in my first dorm room and then again in my first apartment off campus. My sophomore year of college (honestly, what is with sophomore years) a friend of mine was killed by a drunk driver. And again, I dove deep. Thank you, Elizabeth Lowell, for getting me through that time.

Romance would have my undying devotion for getting me through those two years alone.

I would look back at it fondly, if I’d somehow left it behind. But I didn’t. Romance has grown up with me. College graduation, my year abroad, negotiating a long distance relationship and then a marriage that we can’t say WASN’T begun for immigration purposes. My parents. My brother. Unemployment, first jobs. Pregnancy. Babies. Toddlers. Musical beds. Sleepless nights. Bullying. Etc… etc… etc…

There was always and without fail a romance novel illuminating something powerful about the experience I was in. Even if it was just hope for an easier tomorrow.

Romance has grown up with me. College graduation, my year abroad, negotiating a long distance relationship and then a marriage that we can’t say WASN’T begun for immigration purposes. My parents. My brother. Unemployment, first jobs. Pregnancy. Babies. Toddlers. Musical beds. Sleepless nights. Bullying. Etc.

Romance has comforted me and excited me. It has eased my boredom (which let’s not pretend that’s not a HUGE deal in those days at home with a baby) and kept me up nights with its drama. It’s walked me through thorny parenthood problems and made me a better friend. A better wife.

And I could make some winky joke about sex, here. But that’s far too easy. And romance deserves so much better.

The romance authors I love are like deep-sea explorers, sending their submersibles down into the murky deep only to return with their hands full of language for things that are all too often considered unimportant. Or trivial. They show me – over and over again, how important nuance and specificity are to describing how we feel so we can understand what what we feel.

The romance authors I love are like deep-sea explorers, sending their submersibles down into the murky deep only to return with their hands full of language for things that are all too often considered unimportant.

(If you don’t think that is a big deal I would argue that maybe you’ve never suffered from anxiety or post-partum depression or even something as mundane as shame. Or fear.)

And, perhaps the real gift is that those romance novels have shown me that we are all deserving of love. And happily-ever-afters. And forgiveness. And orgasms.

Guilt is a very big word. And so is love. And fear. And desire. And my favorite authors show me time and time again the far reaches of all those emotions, where everything overlaps. And we’re all just humans trying our best and sometimes screwing it up. And, perhaps the real gift is that those romance novels have shown me that we are all deserving of love. And happily-ever-afters. And forgiveness. And orgasms.

I don’t know what I would do without romance novels. And if you’re curious… these are the best I’ve ever had:

Elizabeth Lowell: Only You, Only Mine, Only Him, Only LoveJudith McNaught: Something Wonderful, Once and AlwaysLaura Kinsale: Everything she wrote, ever.Susan Elizabeth Phillips: Dream a Little DreamJR Ward: The Black Dagger Brotherhood SeriesMegan Hart: Broken

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To Genre with Love

As I sit and consider my favourite book genre, I think of how I never really understood what genres meant when I first started choosing what I wanted to read, and how liberating that was.

I’ve always loved reading, and with parents who propagated reading as the ultimate learning tool, I often found myself from a very young age in a bookshop or library, given free rein to choose whatever I wanted to read. My parents did not have English as their first language, and thus did not really care what I read, as long as I read. Lacking guidance in school (growing up in Malaysia) and supervision at home, I never explored literature through its canons. Rather, it was whatever the bookshops and libraries around me stocked. And as a child, my only criteria then were that the books were of my reading ability (or a little harder), had a nice cover, interesting title, and a premise/plot that was new to me. Outside that, anything goes.

The two books that propelled me into exploring literature more rabidly as a child are Roald Dahl’s The Enormous Crocodile and Susan Hill’s I’m The King Of The Castle. Though both are mainstream children’s books, they proved to be special to me, as they introduced me to what I would realise later to be the types of books that I like – books that push my boundaries of imagination, knowledge, and understanding of humanity.

The tricksy characteristics of the Enormous Crocodile, or how the elephant, Trunksy spun Crocodile on its tail and propelled it into the sun was mind-boggling for my eight-year-old self. Though I had read fantasy stories before (Enid Blyton and fairytales), this mixture of reality and fictional imagination acted as a catalyst for my love of science fiction and fantasy later in life.

The boys’ relationships in I’m The King Of The Castle were a brilliant introduction to psychological thrillers and horror that would come to be my love during my formative years. It was here that I learnt about human behaviour, social triggers, and the many faces of humanity that are reflective of real life. My understanding of the world comes from fiction, and I am still constantly looking at fiction for new stories that would allow me to learn more about the world.

They introduced me to what I would realise later to be the types of books that I like – books that push my boundaries of imagination, knowledge, and understanding of humanity.

So from these two books, I journeyed into different realms; soaked up romance novels, fought through crime thrillers, was kept awake by horror, as I made my way through the genres to science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction. Science fiction (or hard science fiction) still remains my true love today. I don’t think I’m anywhere near a science fiction specialist, but I’m definitely a massive science fiction fan at heart, with Frank Herbert’s Dune firmly in its centre.

My understanding of the world comes from fiction and I am still constantly looking at fiction for new stories that would allow me to learn more about the world.

I’ve read it countless times, and yet it still entertains, teaches, and opens up new understandings of humanity to me. The far-fetched worlds that are grounded in our own world’s sciences are precisely what I feel is the perfect form of escapism. It is in these surreal worlds that we can scrutinise humanity and its actions without judgement, but with acceptance.

The best I’ve ever had? Well, it’s got to be science fiction as the ‘imaginative extrapolation from the possible’.[1] After all, ‘cutting edge sci-fi is sci-fi that dares you to think differently’.[2]

The far-fetched worlds that are grounded in our own world’s sciences are precisely what I feel is the perfect form of escapism. It is in these surreal worlds that we can scrutinise humanity and its actions without judgement, but with acceptance.

[1] Quote taken from Michael Segal (reader)’s comment on my novel Sun: Queens Of Earth.[2] Why Cutting Edge Sci-Fi Is Often Penned By Marginalized Writers, www.theestablishment.co

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How Fantasy Ignited My Reality

I fell in love with fantasy when I started reading the Harry Potter series as a kid.

A fourth-grade classmate brought Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fireto school for our teacher to read aloud. She only read one or two chapters, but it interested me enough that I got my mother to buy me Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Chamber of Secrets was a wonderful reading experience. My mind became filled with flying cars and broomsticks, Hogwarts castle, and mythical creatures. Sparks flew from the wands of Rowling’s witches and wizards flew into my imagination, where they bounced around and created a craving for more fantasy fiction.

Still, when it came to fantasy fiction, I didn’t think characters of color could exist. I had been taught through reading itself that the realm of fantasy was only for white men and women, and I’d never thought to look for anything else.

While waiting for the next Harry Potter book, I wanted to read stories of epic adventures, gods and mortals, with well-written female protagonists like Hermione Granger. I consumed novels from the Dragonlance series, books on mythology, and female-lead books like the Song of The Lioness series. However, I read very little fantasy fiction with people of color in it.

In fact, I can remember only one moment when the existence of people of color in fantasy didn’t feel strange to me. I was reading Lirael by Garth Nix, a book that is part of a trilogy. I saw a description of the book’s protagonist, Lirael, that said her white skin “burnt” when outside and that she had long, straight hair. I looked at the cover and thought that she looked a little like my mother, who is Vietnamese. Even though she seemed racially ambiguous, I thought she could have been Asian.

Still, when it came to fantasy fiction, I didn’t think characters of color could exist. I had been taught through reading itself that the realm of fantasy was only for white men and women, and I’d never thought to look for anything else.

Once, I bought a fantasy trilogy with characters of color without realizing it. The Farsala Trilogy by Hilari Bell featured a setting and characters that were inspired by Persian folklore—but years of reading fantasy with white characters had taught me to read them as white.

By the time I found a fantasy with a protagonist of color whom I was able to recognize as such, I was in college. I was browsing the adult section of my local library at random when I found The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin. I decided to check out the book when I turned it over and saw the author was a black woman. It had never occurred to me that a black woman could write fantasy novels with characters who looked like black people.

This book blew my mind just as much as reading the Harry Potter series had. Instead of seeing a white cast of characters, I saw more brown than white. Not only was there a brown woman of color protagonist with curly hair, but also a fantastic mythology involving two brown-skinned gods and one white one. The plot involving these characters and more added even more color. I imagined the gods dressed in silver, yellow, and black and their universe as a limitless rainbow of planets and stars.

While The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was part of a trilogy, I didn’t read the other books until much later. I believed that fantasy authors of color were a rarity… I gradually forgot about the book.

Not only was there a brown woman of color protagonist with curly hair, but also a fantastic mythology involving two brown-skinned gods and one white one. The plot involving these characters and more added even more color. I imagined the gods dressed in silver, yellow, and black and their universe as a limitless rainbow of planets and stars.

It took me getting tired of seeing the same old faces and plots in fantasy to start searching for alternatives. I did online searches and gradually found fantasy books with black and Asian characters and authors.

It occurred to me that there were probably other people who, like me, didn’t know these books existed. Since I had a personal blog where I was already reviewing books, I started reviewing books with authors and characters of color. Soon, I was focusing on black speculative fiction, especially after I discovered independent black authors on the web. These authors would show me that not only was it possible for people of color to exist in fantasy fiction, but also they didn’t need society’s permission to do so.

A few years after I discovered black indie fantasy authors, I learned that this same lesson applied to black indie comic creators and artists. The first fantasy webcomic I read by a black creator was Agents of the Realmby Mildred Louis. Agents of the Realm sparked an appreciation for comic artists and creators of color that I hadn’t felt since I read Japanese manga.

After I discovered more fantasy webcomics with people of color characters and creators, I became fully immersed in comics, both mainstream and indie. The titles that made the most impact were Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson and The Legend of Bold Riley by Leia Weathington. These comics made me see American comics in a new light by showing me how diverse creators can create diverse stories and characters that appeal to me. They also inspired me to spread the word about comics as a freelance writer—and they helped me understand what the fantasy genre meant to me.

These authors would show me that not only was it possible for people of color to exist in fantasy fiction, but also they didn’t need society’s permission to do so.

Fantasy gave me a wild imagination, entertainment, and a sharper mind. It showed me that magic could exist in this world, another world, and in myself.

Fantasy gave me a wild imagination, entertainment, and a sharper mind.

I fight for diversity in the fantasy genre because I didn’t know I could exist in a fantasy world or make my own until I was an adult.

Even though their sparks seem small, marginalized readers and authors have as much magic as everyone else. The more magic we acknowledge, the more fantasy will ignite reality.

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Shadowshaper, Art, and Reclamation

As a poet and lover of music, fiction, and other creative media, I’ve always considered art to be magical.

There is something fantastic about how a poem or a song goes from the creator to another person and makes them connect to things. In Daniel José Older’s urban fantasy Shadowshaper, Sierra Santiago uses art to reclaim her magical heritage and strengthen her community.

Set in Brooklyn, New York, Sierra Santiago is an Afro-Latina teenager who just wants to enjoy her summer vacation with her friends. When she notices a neighborhood mural fading and the expression of the subject growing sad and angry, she is urged to finish her own mural by Manny, a friend of her grandfather Lazáro. Then, a walking corpse of a neighborhood man crashes a summer party and Sierra is thrust into the magical world of the shadowshapers. In order to protect her loved ones, Sierra must uncover the shadowshapers’ connection to her family and become a shadowshaper herself.

As an urban fantasy book, the real world manages to feel just as wonderful as the magical world. This is mainly due to the wonderful cast of characters that make up the people in Sierra’s life and the personal backgrounds that they come from. Two of my personal favorite characters were Tee and Izzy, lesbian girlfriends that were funny and loyal. Other favorites included Sierra’s Uncle Neville and Sierra’s intelligent, fashion opposite friend Bennie.

Besides their personalities, each character has a way of speaking that feels magical. One bit of dialogue that caught my attention features a back-and-forth between a group of domino-playing older gentlemen that were friends of Sierra’s grandpa Lazáro. In chapter six, Sierra pays them a visit and hears the following:

“Trouble at school, Sierra?” asked Mr. Jean-Louise. “Public school is a cesspool of poisonous bile.”

Manny threw his hands up, “¡Cállate, viejo!The child needs her education. Don’t ruin it for her just because you dropped out of kindergarten.”

Since the characters have strong ties to each other and their neighborhood, having the magical world of shadowshaping just underneath it makes them even more memorable. Shadowshaping involves giving spirits of departed loved ones and ancestors a physical form by fusing them with art. For Sierra and the other shadowshapers she encounters, the art is mainly visual, but shadowshaping can also be done through other creative means such as storytelling. The purpose of shadowshaping is to remember those who have come before and recently passed, preserving the past and present for the future generations.

Shadowshapertakes these things a step further by using the magic of shadowshaping to fight back against forces that try to eradicate an entire heritage. Protagonist Sierra Santiago must learn not only about shadowshaping, but also to stand up for the neighborhood and the culture that makes her who she is.

In the real world, we already use art to remember and pass on the memories, traditions, and cultures of departed loved ones. Murals painted around cities become memorials and certain songs are sung, listened to, and written in tribute. However,

At the same time that the shadowshapers are being eradicated, Sierra’s multi-cultural neighborhood is experiencing gentrification. Places that Sierra and her friends used to go to are being transformed into establishments for white, middle class consumers. When the book opens, Sierra is in the middle of painting a mural on a building known as The Tower, a large-scale incomplete building that looms over the junklot where Manny and his friends play dominos. It is later revealed that Manny has a connection to the shadowshapers and that Sierra painting the mural was his way of trying to protect the neighborhood and the remaining shadowshapers.

Not only is Sierra fighting a battle within her own neighborhood, but she is also fighting an internal battle as well. Although she is confident in herself, there are times that she doesn’t feel she is enough of an Afro-Latina girl. Tía Rosa, her aunt, makes comments that contain anti-blackness and colorism (i.e. discrimination based on how light or dark one’s skin tone is). She says that Sierra’s friend Robbie is too dark and that Sierra’s hair is too nappy. In addition, Sierra also deals with sexual harassment while walking around her neighborhood, being shamed by her mom for her interest in shadowshaping, and sexism as a female shadowshaper.

Given all that Sierra experiences in her daily life, her heroic journey is deeply compelling. Sierra uses her artistic talent and shadowshaping to protect her neighborhood and reclaim a magical heritage she learns to appreciate through her family and friends. As a poet, I can’t help but admire Sierra Santiago and see part of myself in her. With paintbrush and chalk, Sierra Santiago shows that an artist can be a hero, a creative making something from shadows in order to express herself and preserve and protect what is important.

top photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

In Memory of Screenwriter Daniel Gerson

Meet the Robinsons is an obscure film by Disney standards, but it’s one I’ve made a habit of rewatching because of my personal connection to its narrative. The last time I saw it was a few months ago, on the first Friday of February. I remember it clearly because screenwriter Daniel Gerson  passed away the following day.

Gerson has been credited for the story-writing process in several Disney films, including Meet the Robinsons and another film I thoroughly adore, Big Hero 6. (He made a voice cameo as the officer Hiro speaks to following the first Microbots encounter.) The loss of Daniel Gerson put me in a state of reflection, as the narratives of these two films speak to a part of me that has otherwise gone silenced.

Lewis’s as-yet-unrealized potential as an inventor is constantly being challenged: he meets with resistance for using his mind in unconventional ways. The first major catalyst in his character development comes due to his enthusiasm over an untested contraption that, in the end, results in a failed adoption interview — his 124th. Prior to the eruption, though, the role of these prospective parents (as seen when they ask about his favourite sport) is to establish that Lewis is on a different creative plane: he has his own way of seeing the world and finding his place in it.

It’s a mark of good storytelling that despite the fact that I am not an orphan like protagonist Lewis, I still feel connected to Meet the Robinsons.

It’s often been the case that my eagerness for such subjects has turned people off. Like Lewis, I know what it is like to have ideas that feel like messages into the ether. I’m cognizant that the merit of certain ideas is colored by the context (and medium) in which they’re applied. And it’s been customary for me to have blips that need further spark, yet struggle to translate on paper what I see inside my head.

I’d describe the younger me in similar terms: an oddball, a curious thinker, into things others don’t normally find fascinating — like words. It’s often been the case that my eagerness for such subjects has turned people off. Like Lewis, I know what it is like to have ideas that feel like messages into the ether. I’m cognizant that the merit of certain ideas is colored by the context (and medium) in which they’re applied. And it’s been customary for me to have blips that need further spark, yet struggle to translate on paper what I see inside my head.

That need for direction — or a “brain printer,” to imitate Lewis’s invention — has left me frustrated by my inability to fully see my ideas through. Lewis has visions of changing the world, but those visions originate from a place of imagination and personal situation rather than a desire to serve, a style of self-expression that calls for a self-motivated disposition.

The response to failure wasn’t lambasting, but instead, encouragement for applied learning; and where competence was defined by a process, not the success or failure of a single action.

Still, when faced with stifling influences, he needed a reason to persist. The Robinson family provided that reason: an environment where the response to failure wasn’t lambasting, but instead, encouragement for applied learning; and where competence was defined by a process, not the success or failure of a single action.

Living in the process has become something of a motto for me as well, for taking an unrestrained approach to brainstorming as a way of easing me into later phases.

For Lewis’s imaginative solutions — and for Lewis himself — to be accepted where previously he’d found dismissal, it brought him a new awareness. What he really needed was for someone to believe in him so that he could, in turn, believe in himself.

This underlying message comes with an overlapping realization: it’s too late to direct my younger self the way Lewis is directed by the Robinsons, or to teach myself everything I would have benefited from knowing. For that reason, the film’s resolution is difficult to watch, as it forces me to mourn his — my — death.

A similar confrontation of self occurred when I watched Big Hero 6 for the first time. It’s a superhero film where suppressed revenge motivations masquerade as displaced Frankenstein-like hopes of seeing a creation excel. But it’s also a story about achievement through failure and breaking imposed boxes. The film’s climactic scenes are not what impact me most; it’s the build-up and expositional scenes that shape Hiro’s character path.

In the “nerd lab,” everyone seems to have a place. Yet there isn’t a strict enforcement of roles, which allows the students to freely pursue projects that feed into their personal interests. For Tadashi, this was medical science, and he slaved away on a project he truly believed in. The same can be said of his companions with their respective fields of study. Witnessing such a welcoming environment in action, Tadashi’s younger brother, Hiro, formed a clear picture in his mind of where he could fit, and he was thus inspired to dream and work at this dream with persistence.

With my peculiar fascinations and love for process, my younger self struggled with not knowing where I fit, and my pattern of siding with error over trial only exacerbated my discomfort. It’s a burden to recognize where your strengths lie but not know how to apply yourself in a way that fits a set mold.

In some ways, I envy Hiro. With my peculiar fascinations and love for process, my younger self struggled with not knowing where I fit, and my pattern of siding with error over trial only exacerbated my discomfort. It’s a burden to recognize where your strengths lie but not know how to apply yourself in a way that fits a set mold. Hiro was able to find a way to direct his creative energies — through bot fighting. But from the mature outside perspective offered by Tadashi, this path wasn’t getting him to where he should be. That is, until his brother gave him the direction he didn’t know he needed, and the picture of his future started to come together.

Serving as the backdrop for these early scenes is my favorite highlight from the musical score, “Nerd School.” The stringed arrangement concedes to softer tones with chimes and the like as Hiro makes his way inside the lab and individual character themes are introduced. When the song resurfaces with montages of Hiro applying himself feverishly from concept to execution, there’s a forceful peak that perfectly conveys how that initial spark translates to action full of unbounded promise. It’s a wonderful composition and a big reason why I’m moved by these early scenes.

Both Meet the Robinsons and Big Hero 6 speak to the young inventor in me, who died along with his confused web of misdirected ideas. They are evocative stories that prompt personal reflection, reminding me that whatever echoes of imagination have escaped burial can still live on.

Similar to Lewis in Meet the Robinsons, these prospects are shattered not long after they are revealed, but again, it’s this spark that sets Hiro on a course of his choosing. Although there are setbacks, Hiro is successful in letting his aspirations propel him forward. He doesn’t get there without help, though — Baymax clings to him with physical embraces, like a good friend saying they’ll be there should you fall. Moreover, Hiro essentially creates his own environment where his ideas can thrive, particularly when he tells his newfound friends they can be so much more than what they believe themselves to be.

Both Meet the Robinsons and Big Hero 6 speak to the young inventor in me, who died along with his confused web of misdirected ideas. They are evocative stories that prompt personal reflection, reminding me that whatever echoes of imagination have escaped burial can still live on. And it’s through these and other artful stories that Daniel Gerson’s own voice will continue speaking.

top photo by Rohan Makhecha on Unsplash