A Thousand Beginnings and Endings edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman – Asian Diaspora Authors Re-imagine Their Favourite Folktales

Xiaolong the pink axolotl, wrapped up in a fluffy green blanket while reading a book, with her purple hat peeking out under the blanket.The last time you visited the Pond, Xiaolong was under her blanket, her eyes glued to the book she was reading. (It looked like she hadn’t gotten out of bed yet!) “Friend, you know I always love talking to you but I’m reading this really, really good book right now and I want to finish this book so I can tell you all about it. Come back later?”

Ah yes, you understand that feeling of a good book all too well. A few days have indeed passed now, and you find yourself pretty excited to hear what Xiaolong has to say about her latest read.

However, when you find Xiaolong, paper and books are at by feet, and she looks like she is hard at work looking for something. When she hears you approach, she smiles her big smile, but she doesn’t look excited, like she normally does. Instead, she looks like she’s thinking about something from a long, long time ago.

Xiaolong the pink axolotl, wearing an upside-down purple flower hat, sitting on the ground with papers and books around her. “Hi friend,” she says in an unusually quiet voice when you sit down across from her. “I finally finished the book. And I loved it! But, it got me thinking a lot about where I come from.” She pauses. When you look a little bit closer at the papers scattered around her, you see illustrations of axolotls, runes, and long paragraphs in tiny print. “I’d like to tell you about it one day, but maybe not today, because you’re here to listen about my new book, right?”

And when you nod, her eyes light up, her big grin is back, and she jumps to her feet. Although you can’t wait to hear about this book, you can’t help but feel a little curious about Xiaolong’s past. Maybe she will tell you one day if you continue visiting.

“So!” she begins, hugging the book to her chest. “This is an anthology, and it’s called A Thousand Beginnings and Endings…”

Text: A THOUSAND BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS edited by Ellen Oh, Elsie Chapman.

Summary:

Star-crossed lovers, meddling immortals, feigned identities, battles of wits, and dire warnings. These are the stuff of fairy tale, myth, and folklore that have drawn us in for centuries.

Fifteen bestselling and acclaimed authors reimagine the folklore and mythology of East and South Asia in short stories that are by turns enchanting, heartbreaking, romantic, and passionate.

A mountain loses her heart. Two sisters transform into birds to escape captivity. A young man learns the true meaning of sacrifice. A young woman takes up her mother’s mantle and leads the dead to their final resting place. From fantasy to science fiction to contemporary, from romance to tales of revenge, these stories will beguile readers from start to finish.

My review:

A Thousand Beginnings and Endings is an anthology of fifteen short stories inspired by Asian mythology and folklore, retold and reimagined by diasporic Asian authors. From Chinese to Filipino to Punjabi, the anthology is diverse in itself – from the cultures and mythologies represented, the genres ranging from science-fiction, fantasy, and contemporary, to the themes explored – and all are told from the author’s distinct voice and perspective.

STORIES ABOUT FAMILY

To my joy, a distinct theme that emerged from the stories of A Thousand Beginnings and Endings was that of family. One of my favourite stories in the anthology was The Land of the Morning Calm by E.C. Myers, a retelling of Chasa Bonpuli, a Korean epic myth about the god of the dead and the underworld. It tells of a Korean teen who nostalgically visits the MMO game her deceased mother avidly played before the game shuts down forever. Not only did I resonate with how Myers captured the experiences of MMO gaming and the nostalgia of reliving your childhood, I loved how this story creatively intertwined mythology into a modern story and profoundly explored grief, the bond between parent and child, and acceptance.

There were other stories, undoubtedly just as wonderful, that also explored family, such as Olivia’s Table by Alyssa Wong, which explores mixed-race identity, the importance of food as part of tradition, respect, and honouring the dead in the context of the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival. There is also Steel Skin by Lori M. Lee, a science-fiction retelling of the Hmong children’s folktale, The Woman and The Tiger, that has androids, explores grief, family, and disillusionment. The Counting of Vermillion Beads by Aliette de Bodard is a story about two sisters based on the Vietnamese fairy tale, Tấm Cám, with a new twist that shows the love between siblings. Another story that explores sibling relationships, envy, morality, and magic, is Nothing Into All by Renée Ahdieh, a dark but wonderful retelling of the Korean fairy tale, The Goblin Treasure.

STORIES ABOUT LOVE

Love is also a reoccurring theme in A Thousand Beginnings and Endings. The diversity of stories that explored the theme of love was wonderful – forbidden love, star-crossed love, transcendent love, familial love, romantic love, and love that is not meant to be. Another one of my favourite stories in the anthology was The Crimson Cloak by Cindy Pon, a retelling of the Cowherd and the Weaver girl folktale, which is celebrated in the Qixi Festival (or sometimes called the Chinese Valentine’s Day). In this story, Pon gives the traditionally silent Weaver girl a voice, and the narrative is bittersweet, filled with longing, and told as though you are a friend. I was moved to tears by this story, especially for its themes of timeless love and timeless loss. As far as retellings go, Pon demonstrated that some retellings can imbue the original story with more meaning and beauty.

Readers who love Roshani Chokshi’s gorgeous writing will undoubtedly love her contribution, Forbidden Fruit; a retelling and story about the mysterious mountain named Maria Makiling and her ill-fated love with a human. It’s heartbreaking, poetic, and one of the most beautifully written cautionary tales I’ve read. Still Star-Crossed by Sona Charaipotra is contemporary retelling of the Punjabi tale of Mirza and Sahiba, a story about immortalised lovers who cross paths in modern life but with an unexpected twist. I also enjoyed Eyes Like Candlelight by Julie Kagawa, a haunting but brilliant story about how a boy’s fate intertwines with a kitsune, that appearances can be deceiving, and explores the price of kindness, promises, and greed. Another easy favourite was Bullet, Butterfly, a science-fiction retelling of the Chinese legend The Butterfly Lovers and tells of two lovers torn between choosing love and family duty, but also explores the pervasiveness of war and how it alters fate and lives.

STORIES ABOUT WHO WE ARE

Lastly, another significant theme to emerge across the stories in A Thousand Beginnings and Endings was identity. I absolutely adored Girls Who Twirl and Other Dangers by Preeti Chhibber, a story that alternates between three friends during a modern day Gujarati celebration of Navaratri and the legend of the warrior goddess Durga and her battle with Mahishasur. Though I loved the theme of doing good (over evil), I adored how Chhibber captured teenagehood in all its flaws, melodrama, and surprises.  While reading how the three friends planned to take revenge on a rude and careless boy, it reminded me of what it was like being a teenager, and how sometimes our quests for good are sometimes misguided by bias and pettiness. I adored the vulnerability in this story, and how the moments we learn and change are often quieter than we expect.

Another story that explores identity is The Smile by Aisha Saeed, a story inspired by the legend of Anarkali, a courtesan of the Mughal Empire. Though it centers on a twisted love, an exploration of autonomy and freedom shone through. I also enjoyed Spear Carrier by Rahul Kanakia, a portal fantasy-esque story based on the epic, Mahābhārata. Though this story approaches its subject matter a little differently to the other books, I enjoyed the questions Kanakia asks in the story and how a teenage boy’s naïve yearning for heroism and significance lands him in the middle of an epic war where the cost of his life would mean nothing. Another story derived from Mahābhārata was Daughter of the Sun by Shveta Thakrar, a lovely retelling about Savitri and Satyavan and tells about sacrifice, fighting fate, and following one’s heart. Code of Honour by Melissa de la Cruz was also a delight; I enjoyed that the story was told from an Aswang’s (a shapeshifting evil spirit from Filipino folklore) perspective, and that the story was about her search for belonging and identity.

MY CONCLUSION: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

To be able to read A Thousand Beginnings and Endings – an anthology rich with culture, folklore, brilliant narratives, wonderful writing, and is unapologetically Asian – is a dream come true for me. I wish I could say that this anthology was something I wanted as a child, but the truth is that I never thought it was possible so I never dared dream of it. It wasn’t until I started reading diverse books that I began to decolonise my imagination, that I dared to dream of books and stories that could be about me and the unique experiences I have lived because of my identity. And so, with the existence of this anthology and all of its incredible stories within, A Thousand Beginnings and Endings gives me hope – that Asian children, teenagers, and adults will read this and hear loud and clear: yes, we are here, we matter, we have always mattered, and our stories matter. I am forever thankful for this anthology, thankful to its editors and writers for making this happen, and for daring Asian youth to dream, to be inspired, and to inspire in turn.

Goodreads | Book Depository | My short review on Goodreads


Is this book for you?

Perfect for: Readers who love anthologies; who love retellings; enjoy reading science-fiction, fantasy, and urban fantasy short stories; and enjoy learning about other cultures and history.

Think twice if: if you don’t like the above (listed in Perfect for).

Genre: anthology; science-fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy, contemporary

Trigger/content warnings: death of parent (The Land of the Morning Calm; Olivia’s Table; Steel Skin), death of significant other (Forbidden Fruit; Bullet, Butterfly; The Crimson Cloak; Eyes Like Candlelight), animal death/blood associated with vampirism (Code of Honor).


Let’s discuss!

I think A Thousand Beginnings and Endings may be one of the best anthologies I’ve read – and I know I say this with a great deal of bias, because I am Asian myself and have yearned for a book such as this. I highly recommend it to everyone, especially those who love to read a myriad of wonderful stories. This one is imaginative, powerful, and thoroughly incredible.

  • Have you read A Thousand Beginnings and Endings? What did you think of it?
  • What is an anthology that you really enjoyed? Do you have any recommendations?
  • What is your favourite short story of all time?
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13 thoughts on “A Thousand Beginnings and Endings edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman – Asian Diaspora Authors Re-imagine Their Favourite Folktales

  1. This is once again such a wonderfully written review, thank you so much for sharing ❤ I mentioned it in one of your previous reviews, I think, but I'm not usually an anthology reader. Yet, there are so many incredible looking and incredibly interesting releases lately that make me want to try them out ❤ ❤ Thank you for sharing, this sounds amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for reviewing this book! I have been looking for more Asian anthologies, especially ones where there are #OwnVoices stories. Your review for it left me feeling very intrigued and fascinated. I love reading narratives surrounding diaspora experiences with cultural influences, so naturally it sounds perfect for me! Thanks, CW and Xiaolong!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Taasia!
      Aw, it comforts me that I wasn’t alone, and now that we have this book that we can both enjoy.
      I wish that too! I’ll champion this book, always. I hope all my friends can read it one day.
      Thank you so so much Taasia! Happy reading to you as well. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A Thousand Beginnings and Endings sounds amazing! ❤ Fantasy is my favourite genre and I really want to read more anthologies, so this is the perfect combination of both for me. Plus, I'm very interested in reading Asian-inspired fantasy. This is a book that I definitely plan on getting in the future! Amazing review! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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