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Transformers: Reimagining the World

lo_ashBack in my late twenties, when I decided to finally, earnestly try to be a novelist, I chose to start with something I thought would be easy: a fairy-tale retelling. I figured that since I already knew the plot, I wouldn’t get stuck. (All seasoned writers who are reading this are probably laughing.) I settled on retelling “Cinderella” and immediately began to reshape some of the key elements. I turned the fairy godmother into a male fairy based on the Sidhe, a race of supernatural people who lived in the hills of Ireland. My fairy was even named Sidhean as a nod to that inspiration.

Initially, I thought that Sidhean was the major twist in my retelling, but I was wrong. It turned out that the main character, Ash, had no interest in Prince Charming; instead, she insisted on falling in love with a woman. This was difficult for me to accept at first. Even though I am a lesbian, the idea of transforming the Cinderella tale so radically seemed impossible. I tried to make Prince Charming more charming, but it was no use: Ash just wasn’t that into him. Eventually, I gave in to the demands of the story, and my novel Ash found its footing.

Part of the reason I had been hesitant to transform Cinderella into a lesbian was because I did not want to write a coming-out story. I wanted to write a fairy tale. Thankfully, during the course of editing out the failed heterosexual romance, I realized that I didn’t need to write a coming-out story. Ash was set in a fantasy world, and there was no need for same-sex love to be taboo there. I made the creative decision to let it be entirely normal, and Ash got to have her happily-ever-after.

The normalization of lesbian and bisexual identities has continued to be a theme in my books since Ash; it is probably the defining theme of my work.

In my fantasy novel Huntress, I took the story structure of the hero’s quest and wrote both within and against its confines. Instead of an orphan boy chosen to save the world, I imagined the daughter of a powerful noble joining forces with the magically gifted daughter of a poor farmer. I also wanted to flip the script on valorizing a lone hero; in Huntress, the world is saved through cooperation. And rather than having love be the reward for the lone hero, love is the reason the two heroines of Huntress are able to succeed. Their love for each other makes them stronger. It does not make them deviant.

In my science-fiction duology Adaptation and Inheritance, the stories I transformed came from contemporary myths about UFOs and conspiracy theories — the folklore of today. I also wanted to push the boundaries of identity and sexual orientation through the metaphor of the love triangle, one of young adult fiction’s most loved and hated tropes. That metaphor allowed me to continue my project of normalizing identities that are often depicted as deviant in mainstream fiction.

Over the last couple of years I’ve come to realize that this is the central project I’m engaged in: transformation of deviance into normalcy. My goal — subconscious at first, increasingly conscious today — has been to take story types that have traditionally excluded lesbians and bisexual women and change them into narratives where being queer is natural, universal. This metamorphosis is about reimagining the world to include people like me. I suspect this is what I’ll be doing for the rest of my life.

From the May/June 2015 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Transformations.

For more in The Horn Book’s Pride Month series, click on the tag LGBT Pride 2016.

Malinda Lo About Malinda Lo

Malinda Lo’s latest book is Inheritance (Little, Brown).

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