Hungry for Xanadu
A.D. 1275 vs. Dystopian Future
While avoiding Hunger Games (the film) madness, I grabbed Dori Jones Yang’s Daughter of Xanadu for a Friday night read, and found myself comparing the two epics, separated by maybe 3000 generations, with their resourceful young women archers.
The stories both win high praises because of their layered complexities, and for me, the awakening to social and philosophical questions is a compelling piece of growing maturity (at whatever chronological age it happens). Beginning with clear loyalties and a singular understanding of one’s role, paradox creeps into a person’s consciousness and like water freezing on stone, can crack open the bedrock values we grew up with.
Intriguingly, Emmajin, despite her Golden Family of the Yuan dynasty (Ghengis and Kublai Khan) lineage, surprises us with the same ultimate lessons that Katniss discovers as a colonial revolutionary. Coupled with the evocative particularities of largely unfamiliar worlds, the evolving plot lines are what draw so many readers to both books. (Daughter of Xanadu only came out last year; nominated for ALA’s 2012 Best Books for Young Adults) The reward, the excitement of how both stories end, is the successful use of the characters’ creative facilities to see beyond what appeared to be their no-win dilemmas to a third option, improbable, but just slightly possible.
And now for the differences. This is where I look harder at some aspect that I didn’t like in order to improve my own craft efforts—not because I want to pretend I’m already a better writer than the authors I’m considering. I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from picking up Xanadu, so just remember this is about the art of story, not the story itself.
For example, this paragraph:
“During the long daily rides, I tried to remember Latin words. I reviewed each of the places in Xanadu where we had talked. Without considering the consequences, I tried to think of ways to talk to him, to overcome the barrier between us. If he had pursued me, I would have rebuffed him. By holding himself aloof, he challenged me to win back his esteem.”
I have to say YUK. The book is loaded with this kind of thing, and back in the day when editors could invest more time in working with writers, I imagine it would all have been cut. In my own writing, I see some of this in my first drafts—it helps me see what I’m imagining the characters to be thinking so I can track their emerging personalities. But if I want those personalities to unveil themselves for readers, I need to allow a reader to experience a character in telling moments, like we might startlingly get to know someone in real life. I don’t like to be told all this stuff; and I certainly don’t like to be told all this same stuff over and over.
What I loved from a gut level with Collins’ trilogy was that she trusted us to understand her story in the same way Katniss was, in those heart-stopping moments of sudden lucid insight. This is the Respect the Reader mantra I really hope to master by the time my final draft is ready. It requires a bolder certainty than some writers ever manage, and a courage that stirs excitement in my tapping fingers. Dare I cut this small explanatory phrase? Do it—the story will challenge readers, and we all love to unravel a puzzle.