A Thousand Beginnings and Endings edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman is an anthology of #OwnVoices short stories that are written by Asian authors, most of them who are women, that is inspired by the mythology and folklore of the authors’ own culture, ethnicity, and identity.
I do not typically gravitate towards short story collections, and even less towards one that consists of writing from various authors. My brain has a difficult time staying focused on anthologies, and sometimes I grow to love the world-building or overall narrative so much that when it ends, I’m left with a hollow, empty hangover and longing for more. That feeling can be wonderful, but more often than not it makes it sensationally difficult for me to move on to the next book because nothing will satisfy my mood for the moment. Hence, avoiding them avidly. Nevertheless, when I came across CW’s review for it on her extraordinary blog, I couldn’t ignore it and walk away. My passion for Asian literature simply wouldn’t allow it.
There are three qualities that make this collection so phenomenal. Firstly, the voices of diasporic Asian authors filter into each instalment with a touch of their own personal experiences, beliefs, and interpretations of their culture and the original mythos that inspired the respective narratives. There are about two or three modern renditions of The Mahabharata Indian epic, and they are so very unique that, even if you are familiar with the epic, it’s easy to get swept away by the magic of the individuality and forget their origin, or at least the connections. I cannot express in words how much I love it when an author can make me forget that whatever they’re expressing isn’t an original work (i.e.: retellings).
Secondly, they are nearly all jam-packed with lush and meticulously crafted environments, atmospheres, and settings that as a reader I was pulled into the worlds I was reading about. All of my senses received a chance at being stimulated in one form or another in various ways from the start of the collection to its finale. It’s a truly escapist experience. The traditional, cultural, and/or social traits that are explored in the tales are unique to the region and identity that helps sets them apart. Transitioning from one to the next, I never felt bored or plagued by the burden of repetitiveness, even when the stories stemmed from the same cultural background (i.e.: Chinese, South Asian, etc.). The care and consideration given to the creation of the chronicles adds depth and dimension to the ones before it and after it, which is something else I haven’t experienced in an anthology before.
Lastly, there is an abundance of variety to the themes amid the tales being told. For example, we have focuses on romance, friendships, self-discovery, fighting oppression, acceptance of grief, and more. This was a breath of fresh air because it prevents stagnation and the essence of repetitiveness that I had mentioned earlier, which allows there to be a little something for almost any reader. I don’t particularly care for romance (the lovey-dovey type), but I enjoy reading about friendships that are profound, or about people who are faced with great adversity. Additionally, there are so many Queer characters in the collection as well, and they are articulated as being natural and normal rather than the stereotypical, “Oh, I’m gay, let’s make a big deal about this for no reason other than plot fluff.” Romance between Queer folks when expressed as being normal is far more genuine and real (to me) than most straight romances that I’ve read.
Other minor titbits to note include the blurbs at the end of each instalment where the author succinctly chats about the source material that inspired them to write. They are long enough to provide the reader with insights that will help us understand and appreciate what’s being shared on a deeper level without being super convoluted. It also provides us with reference points if we decided to do research on the specific mythos or folklores mentioned/utilised.
I adored most of the narratives. This is rare for me. Usually, I will rave about a few out of the masses, but seldom do I find such immense pleasure and delight from virtually all of them. You can chalk this up to my passion and bias towards Asian literatures if you’d like, however, I feel the full credit goes to the brilliant writers who took time to impart a piece of themselves with us via the collection.
With that said, I will admit that there was one I did not read because I refuse to read anything by the specific author who has a track record of horribly culturally appropriating Asian cultures outside of her identity (I also can’t stand her writing style), and another that I couldn’t get into to save my life. Aside from those two, if I had to mention another element that I had feel is a small shortcoming, it would have to be my expectations of more traditional, historical tales. Most of them are set during modern times, and I’m not a big fan of urban or modern fantasies as I am of regular, historical ones. Either way, this is an utterly personal preference and doesn’t really detract from the quality of the works in the anthology by far.
My favourites overall include: Olivia’s Table by Alyssa Wong (Chinese), The Land of the Morning Calm by E.C. Myers (Korean), The Smile by Aisha Saeed (South Asian), and Still Star-Crossed by Sonia Charaipotra (Punjabi).
If you are a fan of young adult novels, especially fantasies, then I highly recommend that you take the time to try out this collection. As aforementioned, there is a little treat here for nearly all sorts of bibliophiles!
4 blue butterflies outta 5!