Natasha Ngan’s Girls of Paper and Fire is a rich, Asian-influenced fantasy set in the realm of Ikhara, where every year, an anthropomorphic animal known as the Demon King claims eight young women to be his concubines. Although Ngan’s protagonist, 17-year-old concubine Lei, is terrified of being summoned by the savage ruler, she treasures the friendship of fierce fellow courtesan Wren, with whom she begins a forbidden romance. PW spoke with Ngan by phone at her home in Paris as she prepared to embark on her U.S. book tour.
You majored in geography at Cambridge University. Did your studies in any way inspire Girls of Paper and Fire?
I can’t say exactly which came first, whether it was studying geography or having an interest in culture, societies, and how humans interact with each other across the world in different ways—how we are capable of doing such amazing things for each other, and also such awful things to each other. I think I’ve always had an interest in that, but studying geography really opened my eyes a lot more to it, and to understanding the historical context of that sort of thing.
You were born in the U.K. but your mother’s side of the family is from Malaysia, and you spent a lot of time there growing up. How much of that country and its culture are reflected in Ikhara?
So much! Basically, Malaysia is a nexus of different cultures. The three main ethnicities that we have in Malaysia are Malay, Chinese, and Indian, and you can really feel those three elements’ influence in Ikharan culture. [I also tried to capture] that sense of different cultures coming together in one place and then having political issues. Forced assimilation, things like that—these are things that we’re still struggling with in Malaysia. And there is a lot of racial tension. So those parts affected it as well.
You tackle some heavy topics in Girls of Paper and Fire, from the commodification of women and their bodies, to homophobia and sexual assault. Why do you think it is important for young adult fiction to deal with these issues, and how do you address them in a meaningful way while still leaving readers with a sense of hope?
I think we need books that are light, but we also need books that are dark, because it’s how the world is. We can censor what we expose teens to through books, but we can’t be protecting them from everything in the real world, so I think it’s important that there are books that tackle deeper, darker issues. As for how, I think the most important thing for me was not to use violence—not to use the sexual abuse or any of those moments—for shock value, or to be graphic. I am a sexual abuse survivor, so I think having some sort of connection, personally, to the content helped. But it was more about not focusing on the exact what of what was going on, but more [on] how the girls reacted to it—how they felt, how they talked about it, the narrative surrounding that, and how they all reacted in different ways. I think that’s really important, because there is no one right way to react. Even if you haven’t experienced that, you can see how certain things can impact people in different ways, and that just helps everyone’s empathy, I think.
Why do you think diversity is important in young adult fiction?
Because we live in diverse societies, and I think there’s a power in representation. If you’re seeing your story told, it’s validating. If you’re not seeing your story told, there’s almost a sense that there’s something wrong with it, or it’s not important, and no young person should feel like that. Also, like I was saying earlier, reading about other people’s cultures and experiences, that’s great for young people developing empathy, which is just super important—in today’s political climate, especially.
In addition to being a writer, you’re also a fashion blogger. Did you enjoy conceptualizing the elaborate costumes worn by the Demon King’s concubines?
That was so fun! I have a very visual imagination, and I love to see whatever I’m reading or writing as a film playing in my head. With Girls, a lot of the outfits had an importance, a relevance to that character’s actual character. These were costumes culturally significant to me, as well, so that was really nice to be able to introduce them to readers.
What message do you hope readers take away from Girls of Paper and Fire?
I hope that they feel empowered, and that they know that even in the darkest times, there is hope to be found. It may not come in a guise that you expected. It may come from within you, and you may need help from others, but no matter how dark things get, if you stay true to yourself and listen to your heart, you can come through those sorts of situations.
Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan. Little, Brown/Patterson, $18.99 Nov. 6 ISBN 978-0-316-56136-5