by: Sara Conway ’21 A&E Staff
Some stories start with, “Once upon a time,” others reveal the mysteries of the gods and their relationships with the human world. However, all stories tell something about their culture and their people.
This is no less true for the young adult anthology, A Thousand Beginnings & Endings, edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman and published this past June. One thing that differentiates this collection from most is that it brings together tales from East and South Asian cultures which were written by authors from those backgrounds.
As the co-founder, president, and CEO of We Need Diverse Books (WNDB), a nonprofit organization dedicated to advocate for diversity in children’s literature, Oh is a passionate voice for these kinds of diverse stories.
Also part of the WNDB team, Chapman is a young adult and middle school author who supports the WNDB mission and its vision: “Putting more books featuring diverse characters into the hands of children” so that one day the world becomes one where “all children can see themselves in the pages of a book.”
In their opening note, the editors tell readers how they noticed the lack of Asian mythological stories told by Asian authors. They explain that the ones that they did find were often “retold by non-Asian writers that never felt quite right. They were always missing something.” In addition, the editors “longed for nuance and subtlety and layers, the embedded truths about culture that—more often than not—can only come from within.” A Thousand Beginnings and Endings is their answer to this deficit.
Oh and Chapman recruited both well-known authors and those who were a little more under the radar in the book community to write a short story for the collection. Big names include Roshani Chokshi, the writer behind The Star Touched Queen and its companion, A Crown of Wishes, Reneé Ahdieh, the author of Alex & Eliza, and Cindy Pon of the sci-fi/fantasy novel, Want.
Reading this anthology exposes readers to stories that they might not be aware of. They hold just as much magic as the mythological narratives from Western cultures, such as those from the Greeks and the Romans. A Thousand Beginnings and Endings also features notes from the authors after their stories, allowing them to explain more about the original myth or legend as well as their reasons for choosing the tales that they did.
Each author approached their retellings through different lenses: some stuck with a more traditional story that wove many different versions into one, while others branched out and spun a contemporary or science fiction story from an ancient myth. Certain re-imaginings highlighted the strength of women; others placed an emphasis on family relationships.
A story from the anthology that resonated most strongly was the retelling of “Olivia’s Table” by Alyssa Wong. Wong weaves a narrative around the Hungry Ghost Festival, which occurs in the late summer during the seventh month of the lunar calendar. By placing the story in Arizona, Wong gives a nod to the Chinese immigrants who settled in the American West. In her retelling, Wong stresses the importance of ancestors in Chinese tradition and the significance of food in Chinese culture.
The authors featured in the collection contemplate the notion that most humans are not strictly good or evil. In their retellings, they uncover how everyone has strengths and weaknesses in their character. All of the stories in A Thousand Beginnings and Endings emphasize the nuances of humanity that make it so complex while transferring these narratives into another context.