by Henry Lien
Discussions about diversity in the arts today focus on the importance of diverse characters and diverse creators. As crucial as that is, diversity can and should also include different story forms and themes drawn from diverse traditions. Western storytelling forms are almost entirely based on conflict, tension, and resolution, while themes are almost entirely focused on self-actualization/self-empowerment and a rising self-esteem arc. These are not the only ways to tell a satisfying story. Non-Western storytelling traditions offer radical alternatives.
The notion of what constitutes a satisfying story is heavily influenced by cultural values. To illustrate, let’s play a game. I’m going to use a very traditional Chinese/Taiwanese lens to describe a book that is well-known here in the exotic Occident.
Q. Majestic gold dragon is murdered by band of itinerant thieves.
A. The Hobbit
Q. One daughter marries the richest boy in her village, two marry paupers, the fourth ends up dead.
A. Little Women
Q. Harmony is preserved in the empire through athletics.
A. The Hunger Games
Q. Only daughter receives propitious offer of marriage from rich older man.
The point of this game is to show a) how different cultural values can be; b) how those values in turn influence what is considered a satisfying story in that culture.
Case Study 1:
When Disney’s animated film Mulan debuted in mainland China, it belly-flopped spectacularly. The wise-cracking and anachronistic humor; the jokes that worked only in English; the typical Western empowerment character arc; the emphasis on individual heroism; the sneering disdain for traditionally “feminine” qualities; and the aggrandizement of Mulan for single-handedly saving the empire all made this a film that was cosmetically Chinese, but 110% Western in spirit.
Case Study 2:
Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved film My Neighbor Totoro is a story that has no villain; no real central conflict; no dead mother; no adults who “just don’t understand” or who have to be taught a life lesson by their children; no empowerment character arc; and no third act confrontation and action sequence. Instead, we have siblings who don’t bicker and who like each other; parents who go with the flow when their kids tell them they’ve encountered the supernatural; monsters that are neither frightening nor farcical; and what seems like a shameless final act deus ex machina. All of this sounds like instructions for how not to write a successful story. Yet, My Neighbor Totoro is one of the most universally loved animated films ever made, among both children and adults, and Western and Asian viewers. In fact, My Neighbor Totoro follows a traditional Asian four-act structure, called kishōtenketsu in Japanese, which is not based on conflict, tension, and resolution.
The good news is that we’re experiencing a real burgeoning of books for young people that draw upon other traditions to expand our notions of what satisfying stories can look like, in addition to featuring diverse characters and/or creators. I recommend Nnedi Okorafor’s endlessly inventive Akata Witch and Akata Warrior, which feel to me like a Nigerian Spirited Away. These delightful books explode a lot of Western expectations about story structure, plotting, and pacing. I also recommend just about anything by author/illustrator Shaun Tan, especially The Arrival, The Rules of Summer, Tales from Outer Suburbia, and Tales from the Inner City. Watch the relationship between the images and the text (or absence of text) in Tan’s books. Tan repeatedly challenges the assumption that pictures are meant to amplify the same emotions that the text seeks to convey, an assumption that has a long tradition in Western narrative art.
These are just a few examples of stories finding an audience in the West that demonstrate a meaningful understanding of diverse aesthetics. And I’d love to see a whole lot more. I urge writers, readers, and everyone who works with kid lit to open their minds about what a satisfying story can look like, because beauty comes in all shapes and colors.
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Henry Lien is an author from Taiwan, now living in Hollywood, CA. He is a graduate of Brown University, UCLA School of Law, and Clarion West Writers Workshop. He is the author of the award-winning and critically-acclaimed Peasprout Chen middle grade fantasy series. Henry also teaches writing in the UCLA Extension Writers Program. He previously worked as an attorney and fine art dealer. He is a four-time Nebula Award finalist and won the UCLA Extension Department of the Arts Instructor of the Year award.