For those of you who don't already know: we are in the midst of a golden age of young adult fiction. The new YA wave -- written for teens aged 12-18 and dealing with coming-of-age issues -- reached the attention of adults with the onset of Harry Potter mania, and metastasized with the Twilight phenomenon. For over a decade now, publishers and writers of all stripes have been jumping on the very lucrative bandwagon of a literature unlimited by age-specific markets, and unhindered by a disgust of fictional genre.
Hyphen's been looking at the work of Asian American authors in bringing the concerns of As Am literature into the YA realm, and there's a lot of it. It's only inevitable that Asian American writers would quickly reach beyond ethnic-specific narratives into some of the most popular genres (fantasy, paranormal romance, and, of course, science fiction) filling the YA sections of your local bookstores.
E.C. Myers' debut novel Fair Coin is an instructive example of this attempt to bridge -- or perhaps simply to transcend -- the gap between ethnic YA and speculative YA. In depicting multicultural characters, while focusing on its plot rather than on cultural issues, Fair Coin is fingering the leading edge of a new trend we've seen in adult speculative fiction. But does it really succeed in melding multi-ethnic concerns with genre necessities? (And is that even a goal for its author?)
Ephraim takes care of his alcoholic single mother, and longs for Jena, the hot geek girl of his dreams. His best friend Nathan periodically gets stuffed into lockers, and both generally place their lives on the sucky end of the teenage scale. Then one day Ephraim comes home from school to find his mother has attempted suicide. The reason? The cops took her that day to identify a dead body that looked exactly like Ephraim.
Among the dead boy's effects Ephraim finds a coin; a mysterious note leads him to flip the coin while making a wish. His experimental wish, that his mother be okay, comes truer than he could have expected, and he begins to make more of the wishes that an unhappy teenaged boy would make – including one for a relationship with Jena. But when the wishes start coming with high price tags, and Nathan becomes obsessed with the coin, Ephraim starts looking for a way to stop the madness.
Photo of the author by Monika Webb
To reveal more of the plot would be to spoil it, and we don't do spoilers here. But I'll give you a spoilerish hint: what starts out as a fairy/morality tale clearly in the fantasy-YA genre turns, at the mid-point, into a science fiction story involving advanced technology and multiple universes. While some may appreciate the shift in genre, others will find it a weakness. The genre change accompanies a change in the apparent direction and purpose of the novel, stymie-ing reader expectations of a resolution to the moral quandary Myers has posed. The second half devolves into a rapid series of episodes that don't advance character development or make psychological sense; the line-up of incidents don't mirror the change and growth in the characters' thinking the way YA -- or traditional coming-of-age or quest tales -- require.
Myers' lack of focus on the characters' cultural backgrounds can also be seen as either a strength or a weakness. It's always refreshing to see a multiracial cast sawing away at a plot that doesn't involve social justice angst. But, while having characters of many colors is a triumph in itself, what does it avail if they all behave according to mainstream American cultural dictates? Nathan may or may not be Latino. We have no other clues besides his last name. And Jena's Asian heritage exists only as a way to make her features "exotic" (a word actually used to describe her). Given that she's already a teenage male fantasy, there's an ick-factor to her depiction that might impact Asian American readers. In a YA field strewn with more culturally-conscious work, incidental world- and character-building that relies on cultural specificity really should be a prerequisite.
And our hero? Is never specifically enough described, leaving the reader to fill-in-ethnicity-here … but let's be honest, in YA as in everything else, you're white until proven otherwise. This leaves Fair Coin in fair contention for a position in the same-old-same-old: white hero/deracinated ethnic sidekicks.
So, a bridge between ethnic coming-of-age and the more popular genre YA? Not so much, from this seat. But, to be fair, Myers never claimed to be attempting that span. To judge the book purely on the values it develops for itself: the first half of Fair Coin flows with spirit and fun, and -- even after it shifts to a seemingly new genre -- few readers will have trouble reading it from end to end.
Bottom line? Support a hapa bruddah and buy this book. You'll get a kick out of it. But be sure to round out your kids' diets with some Malinda Lo, too.
The previous issue of Hyphen is available in its entirety for your perusing pleasure. Almost as good as having it right in your hands!