Cinderella with a Lesbian Twist

(Originally published in Bay Windows, September 3, 2009.)

“As a kid, Cinderella was basically my favorite fairy tale. I always loved it, even though it was cheesy,” says author Malinda Lo. “I decided to do a retelling of Cinderella since I never read one that I liked.”

Lo’s debut young adult novel, Ash (Little, Brown, 2009), comes complete with enchantments, a wicked stepmother, a handsome prince—and a young woman, Ash, who doesn’t fall for the latter. Instead, Ash catches the eye of Kaisa, the King’s Huntress, giving the classic tale a new twist. Ash must learn to move beyond the grief of her parents’ deaths, the rigid hand of her stepmother, and the enigmatic lure of the fairy Sidhean to find her own path and her own love.

mlo_bypattynason_print_200Lo, an award-winning LGBT journalist and a former managing editor of lesbian entertainment Web site After Ellen, notes that surprisingly, she didn’t intend to create lesbian characters. After a friend told her the prince in her original draft was “not that interesting,” however, Lo says, “I realized that Ash was essentially falling in love with this woman, not the prince.” Still, she admits, “The idea of writing a lesbian Cinderella was a little bit world-shifting for me. I thought it was basically going to doom the book from ever being published. . . . but once I decided to do it, there was no turning back.”

Lo has rethought not only the genders of the romantic pair, but also the setting. Ash’s world has more of a Celtic feel to it than that of Disney’s take on the tale. Lo, who was a graduate student in anthropology when she started the book, did extensive preparatory research into Irish and British folklore studies. This shows in the overall tone of the work, the character of the elusive Sidhean, and in the fairy tales related by Ash and others. This is the realm of chancy magic and bargains with beings one doesn’t trust. There are no sweetly singing fairy godmothers here.

Lo has also resisted the temptation simply to substitute a princess for the prince. The role and character of the King’s Huntress give the story a refreshing unpredictability.

Lo’s fears about the lesbian angle were, however, unfounded. “Little, Brown, my publisher, loved the fact that it’s a lesbian retelling,” she says. “It’s different, and I think that is what draws them to it.”

Ash is, however, a coming-of-age story, not a coming-out one. Lo explains, “In the world that Ash is set in, there’s no ‘gay’ identity as we understand it in North America. People fall in love with who they fall in love with.” This means Ash is not a “problem” novel about being gay. “There’s no ‘Oh, I’m gay, this is a thing that nobody likes, I have to deal with homophobia,’” she says. “It’s basically a straight-up love story, even though it’s gay. I think that is what makes it different than a lot of young adult books for LGBT teens that have come out so far.”

Although loss and conflict within a family drives much of Ash’s plot, it was a member of Lo’s own family who had the greatest positive impact on her writing. Her grandmother, Ruth Earnshaw Lo, was an American-born writer whose book In the Eye of the Typhoon (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: 1980) tells the story of their family during the Cultural Revolution in China. Malinda, who was born in China, first learned English from her. “We would often make up stories together,” she recalls. It was at her grandmother’s encouragement that she submitted her first piece for publication, a poem about her cat that she wrote when she was 12. Cats magazine paid her $10 for it. “I remember after that happened, she told me, ‘Now you will always be a published writer,’ which was absolutely true. I owe a lot of this to her.”

Lo is already at work on her next book, which takes place in the same world as Ash but is not a sequel. It is set several hundred years before Ash, and tells the story of the first huntress in the kingdom. In contrast to Ash, she says, it will be more a fantasy adventure than a romantic fairy tale.

In fact, she admits, “I don’t really enjoy writing romance. That sounds funny because I think Ash in a lot of ways is a romance.” She herself prefers fantasy novels like those of Kristin Cashore and Robin McKinley, where romance is not necessarily the driving factor. “It’s about girls who need to become their own champions. . . . That’s what I want to see more of and that’s what my next book is, too. It’s completely an adventure.”

Lo hopes that Ash, which blends a bit of that adventure and self-discovery into its romance, will appeal not only to young adults, but to older queer people as well. She herself finds a certain nostalgia in reading young adult authors like Julie Anne Peters, whose works include LGBT characters. “I can imagine how my life would have been different had I come out as a teenager,” she observes. She would like, too, for Ash to find fans among anyone who enjoys fairy tales and fantasy, beyond just the LGBT community.

Mostly, though, she hopes Ash will appeal to today’s generation of LGBTQ teens. A story of enchantment, growing up, love, and self-discovery against the odds? It doesn’t take fairy powers to predict they will.

Visit Lo at www.malindalo.com.

(Photo credit: Patty Nason)