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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

GUEST POST: The Reality Of Historical Fantasy by Albert A. Dalia

I characterize my writing as historical fantasy. At first, that might seem paradoxical. How can history and fantasy coexist? Even more paradoxical, at least to me, is how someone who has three graduate degrees in history can be writing fantasy! But then, I do teach two courses in the Boston University Writing Program that deal with writing and with paradox: “Paradox of the Hero/Heroine in East Asian Cinema and Fiction” and “Paradox of the Strange in East Asian Cinema and Fiction.” And these academic writing courses grew out of my fiction writing. Perhaps I should start at the beginning – which for me is a long way back.

The only things I was ever good at in high school were history and fast cars. I chose history to be my path through college and took my fast car with me. However, once I chose Chinese history as my graduate field of study, the car was sold – couldn’t fly it to Honolulu – and I settled down at the University of Hawaii to study Chinese history. History at the graduate level meant learning the language of your field of study - off to Taiwan for four years of language school. I had decided that it was medieval China that most fascinated me – that meant classical Chinese study, an ancient language much more terse and complicated then modern vernacular Chinese. To make things more complicated, I had developed an interest in Chinese Buddhist history, which meant I had to study Buddhist, classical Chinese and eventually Japanese, since at the time they were the best scholars in that esoteric field.

I received my masters in Chinese history and decided to move back to Taiwan. Life, however, had other plans and I did another masters degree, this time under my University of Hawaii’s professor at Yale in East Asian Studies. One thing led to another and I ended up capping my academic study with a doctorate in Chinese history at the University of Hawaii. At that point, I needed some fresh air from almost two decades in those historical archives. I was working in the field of medieval Chinese Buddhist intellectual history and had read so many fascinating stories in those ancient texts that I wanted to tell them in English. The stories couldn’t be told in an academic context because there was neither an audience nor tolerance for such tales. So I decided to write fiction.

The obvious genre would be historical fiction, but my stories involved many fantastic adventures. So I adopted historical fantasy. Yet, and here is another paradox, as a historian I had learned that “fantasy” is a relative term. If a culture believed something to be real, it will act on those beliefs regardless if another cultural viewpoint claims those beliefs to be irrational, unscientific, or otherwise. I realized that by attempting to portray a medieval Chinese viewpoint and worldview, I was actually opening a door to a “real world.” Thus in the “Author’s Statement” to my novels (Dream of the Dragon Pool and Listening to Rain) I write:

 "The adventure you are about to embark on is based upon a 7th/8th century Chinese understanding of reality. While many of the characters, incidents, and locations in the story appear in Chinese historical records, some are yet to be discovered, and others may never be. It is up to you to decide if any of this matters."

These words were carefully chosen to express my fiction writing approach. My stories are based on “Chinese historical records.” Yet some of the claims in those records, “have yet to be discovered and others may never be.” In the end, it is up to the reader to decide the success of the story – some might clamor for more historical accuracy, while others might deem there be too much and more “fantastic” elements should have been added. In the end, the story should stand on its own without explanations from authors or reviewers – the reader either connects or not with the writer.

The issue of “what is fantasy” is another aspect of my work. I am a genre writer and like most, my genre is a sub-genre nestled within a number of ever-broader genre categories: fiction/historical/fantasy/heroic. But since my space and time zones are medieval China, that heroic genre is known as wuxia – a Chinese term that literally means “martial hero.” It is commonly translated as “martial arts fiction.” However, I translate it as “heroic fiction,” more specifically, “Chinese heroic fiction.” And within that Chinese genre, my more specific genre is wuxia shenguai. The additional term here, shenguai, literarily means “mystical/uncanny”. Some translate it as “supernatural” others as simply “fantasy.” For some, numerous fantastical scenes in Ang Lee’s popular movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, are expressions of wuxia shenguai, while a classic Bruce Lee movie would have no shenguai aspect to it.

Yet, my writing is grounded in the history of 7th and 8th century China, where such amazing capabilities were taken as a reality achievable by humans with “special” or “esoteric” training regimes. Daoists believe in the ability of humans to attain immortality and Buddhists preach of mystical powers attainable through various cultivation practices. In my own experience of several decades in the Chinese martial arts community, I’ve heard numerous tales of such feats. Fantasy?

In my Boston University writing courses we consider several interesting viewpoints regarding the nature of fantasy. While many of the sources I use refer to the commonly acknowledge “escapism” aspect of the genre, they also consider a deeper perspective. For example, Susan Napier, a Tuffs University professor of Japanese literature and a foremost expert in Japanese Anime film, points out that the film critic Robin Wood, “in discussing fantasy film has stated that fantasy ‘can be used in two ways, as a means of escaping from contemporary reality or as a means of illuminating it.’” Further, her study of contemporary Japanese literature, The fantastic in modern Japanese literature, is subtitled: The subversion of modernity. When we consider fantasy in my classes, we are looking at its power to “illuminate” the culture that produces it, not as a literature of “escape.”

In a more Western take on fantasy we also read a penetrating analysis of the genre by the SF/Fantasy critic and scholar, Gary K. Wolfe. In Evaporating Genres, he argues that to view fantasy through the criterion of the impossible is to miss its most profound aspect – that, “fantasy not only sustains our interest in the impossible, but finally wins our belief and reveals that the impossible is, after all, the real.” Sounds like an academic’s “slight of hand,” but you’ll have to read his chapter, “The Encounter with Fantasy” to judge for yourself.

These views of fantasy inform my writing in the genre, as I hope to illuminate not only a distant culture’s understanding of life, but also to discover the “reality” of their human experience - an experience that I believe has much to say about our humanity. There is much more about all of this on my website, which has materials relating to my novels – like maps and location diagrams for Listening to Rain, more detail about my background, and articles about the historical and literary traditions that I write about in my fiction. I look forward to your visit to the Dragon Gate Inn.

Official Author Website 
Order the book HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Listening To Rain 

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Albert A. Dalia was born and brought in New York state. Growing up the author loved fast cars and coincidentally discovered Chinese culture. The author graduated from State University of New York majoring in History and Political Science and later studied Classical Chinese and Classical Buddhist Chinese literary languages at the National Taiwan Normal University, Mandarin Training Center in Taipei. Since then he's gotten two Masters and a PhD as well. He has also held a variety of jobs like broadcast journalist, assignment editor; copywriter for an ad agency, editor-in-chief, Associate Professor, Editorial director, etc. He currently lives nearby Boston with his family.

NOTE: Author picture courtesy of the author himself. Wuxia picture courtesy of The Daily Zombies. To find out more about Albert Dalia and his Wuxia fantasy series "The Adventures of the Shaolin Blade Tanzong", read the sequel to Albert's guest post in the next couple of weeks.


AE Marling said...

Thank you for writing this post. I'm humbled by the Odyssey you went on to learn about historical Chinese culture, steeping yourself in the language and consciousness of the time. I hope to reap the benefits of your research by reading your novels.

You present your historical fantasy in a delightful way. In some cases, historical fantasy means additional fantasy elements are added to a historical setting, but your setting should be all the more powerful and cohesive in that it takes preexisting mystical beliefs and uses them for a platform of wonder.

Albert A. Dalia said...

Thank you. You are very kind in your comments. Hope you enjoy the novels.




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