Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.
Pride Month is a month-long event at The Quiet Pond, where during the month of June, queer authors and bookish content creators are invited to celebrate being queer, queer books, and their experiences of being a queer reader. Find the introduction post for Pride Month at The Quiet Pond here.
All of you know how much I love queer stories. In particular, I love stories that take classic stories or common tropes and subvert them with a queer retelling. I love the idea that beloved stories and tropes can be told in a new way – from a fresher perspective, new lens, and introduce readers to a new kind of home.
When it comes to retelling stories from an aromantic lens, there seems to be an inclination that an aromantic retelling is taking a romance trope and making it platonic — but what if we shifted away from and decentered the idea that a relationship and love is romantic by default?
Friends, it is with so much excitement that I have Michelle Kan, author of the Tales of the Thread series, an anthology series of aromantic Chinese fairytales, for Pride Month at the Pond! Michelle is a fellow Kiwi-Asian, an incredible author, a wonderful friend (years ago, they brought a hanfu all the way from their city just so I could try one for the very first time and so we could take photos!), and an all-round amazing human being whom I love, and I am so delighted that they are finally visiting us at the Pond today!
Michelle visits us as a welcome swallow with a small scroll tied to its leg! I’m so happy to have them, and I am so excited to share with you all the lovely interview I did with Michelle. But, before I share my interview with them, I’d love to tell you more about their Tales of the Thread series!
Tales of the Thread series by Michelle Kan
Blurb for Come Drink With Me:
A Dragon, a Phoenix, and an Opera House.
Bonds that transcend time, loyalties that defy hardship, and the magic of the places we call Home.
(Wherein a Dragon and a Phoenix make their living on earth in an Opera House.)
Blurb for Gold and Jasper:
A Guard, a Thief, and a Peach Grove.
Life that blooms eternal, devotion that spans generations, and the magic of the places we call Home.
(Wherein the Imperial Guard of a Heavenly Peach Grove encounters a particularly troublesome Spirit.)
Blurb for East Flows the River:
A Maiden, a Fox, and a long journey home.
Ties that bridge rivers, dreams that touch Heaven, and the magic of the places we call Home.
(In which a Heavenly Maiden and a Fox Spirit search for the places they belong.)
I’ve had the honour and privilege to read Come Drink With Me and Gold and Jasper and I love these two short stories are so lovely, so delightful, and such an understated celebration of the beauty and power of platonic love. If you love Chinese fairytales, love the imagery and love the themes of love that transcends time and space – then you’ll love the Tales of the Thread series.
Author Interview with Michelle Kan
Xiaolong: Tēnā koe Michelle! It’s wonderful to finally have you visit the Pond! We’ve been a big fan of your work for a long time. For our friends out there who are only meeting you for the first time today, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Michelle: Tēnā koe, Xiaolong! It’s so good to finally be here. To everyone else, kia ora koutou katoa! I’m Michelle, a 1.5 generation Cantonese Chinese, genderfluid aroace, and independent creative from Te-Whanganui-a-Tara, Aotearoa. I’m a filmmaker/videographer by daylight, a writer by moonlight, and an artist any other time I can spare!
Xiaolong: A while back, I had the honour of reading Come Drink With Me, and you have since released and independently published East Flows The River and Gold and Jasper. Can you tell us a little bit about these three stories?
Michelle: Of course! Come Drink With Me, Gold and Jasper and East Flows The River are all part of Tales of the Thread, my anthology series of aromantic Chinese fairytales based in traditional folklore. Thread is named so for the red thread of fate, the famous possession of the Old Man Under the Moon, the Chinese God of Love and Marriage.
Traditionally it is said that this spool of thread binds those destined for romantic love, but Thread stretches this weave to encompass tales of non-romantic love as well. The platonic love between a Dragon and a Phoenix for instance, sharing a powerful friendship many hundreds of years old; or the filial love of an Imperial Guard for their Queen Goddess, dutifully watching over the treasure She holds most dear; or the familial love of a Weaving Girl for her Heavenly Sisters, strong enough to light her way home.
(Optional additional link: Let’s Fox About It guest post)
Xiaolong: Perhaps one of the things I love about your Tales of the Thread series is that they are steeped in Chinese folklore and mythology! The imagery in your writing is lush and beautiful, and I love that the characters and stories feel familiar yet unique. My question is two-prolonged: what inspires you to write these stories, and where do you draw that inspiration from?
Michelle: Thank you so much! I’ve always been a lover of mythology and folklore of all kinds, but particularly Chinese mythology. Chinese culture is filled with hundreds of wonderful tales, each with their own wealth of variations, and thousands of narrative conventions besides. In that sense, there’s no end to the inspiration for the stories I write – when your cultural heritage is rich with stories about gods, spirits and magical creatures, you don’t have to look far.
But Tales, at its core, is a collection of love stories that subvert convention and expectation, and that also includes those ancient narrative traditions. The riddle of subverting those traditions is just as much an inspiration to me as the traditions themselves, even if the results are too subtle for those unfamiliar with Chinese mythology to immediately see. As an example, Fox Spirits (or Húlíjīng) in Chinese folklore are usually portrayed as beautiful and often dangerous young women, sociable creatures who are clever tricksters of mortal men – but East Flows The River features a humble, earthly fox with quite different aspirations.
Xiaolong: There is still a dearth of aromantic stories out there, so seeing your three aromantic Chinese fairytale stories feels like a breath of fresh – and very needed – air. What does it mean to you to write aromantic stories?
Michelle: Writing aromantic stories for me, especially ones rooted in Chinese mythology, is as much a cultural indulgence as it is an aromantic one. There are so many different types of love, each of them as important and valuable as each other, and we deserve stories to reflect and explore them in all their variations and complexities.
Chinese folklore already recognises some of these other relationships, as well as some culturally specific ones that lack a straight Western equivalent. Buddhist and Taoist folklore, for instance, highlights familial love and filial piety as one of the most important values we can uphold. The intensely platonic Sworn Brother/Sisterhood (a strong, committed kinship that is generally platonic) is featured heavily in many other stories featuring warrior or scholar characters.
Writing about loyal friendships and unorthodox acquaintanceships satisfies my aromantic self, and lets me tell the stories I wish I’d seen more of as a teenager already tired of compulsory amaheteronormativity (a word I wouldn’t learn for another decade). But writing about familial love, filial piety and Sworn Kinships allows me to explore the relationships particular to my cultural heritage, to consider what they mean to me, and to bring my own diasporic perspective to these traditional dynamics.
Xiaolong: There have been discussions about how well-worn and traditional tropes aren’t actually tired; rather, it’s that we need these tropes in stories told from different perspectives. I love that your stories do this so well too. What is your thought and/or writing process behind taking these tropes and making them aromantic?
Michelle: I’ve discovered that writing aromantic relationships for me is more than just taking a traditionally romance-centric trope and making it platonic – rather, it’s the examining of the ideas or feelings central to the trope and viewing them through an objective and non-romantic lens.
As probably my most poignant example, in Come Drink With Me, Sām-Leuhng (the Phoenix) and Gōng-Tēon (the Dragon) share a close and particular friendship that words cannot sufficiently describe. This was a subversion of the traditional Chinese art motif, where a Phoenix and a Dragon shown together represents a harmonious marriage – an image still used on wedding invitations today. Chinese folklore tells us that the two represent a perfect marriage because of their parallels (Phoenix: Yin, the feminine, fire, the moon; Dragon: Yang, the masculine, water, the sun) – but does that necessarily mean it has to be an ideal of romance?
Come Drink With Me was my take on a different dynamic, one where this Phoenix and Dragon are platonic rather than romantic soulmates. They still represent opposites (fire/water, introversion/extroversion, onstage/backstage etc.), but neither Sām-Leuhng nor Gōng-Tēon are romantically inclined, and the bond between the two of them lies in their long history together and their interest in the arts rather than any romantic inclinations.
Sometimes it’s easy to take romantic conventions at face value when they’re so ingrained in mainstream media and literature theory, but I think that being able to dissect the concept of what ‘opposites attract’ or ‘love at first sight’ actually means (not even necessarily from a strictly aromantic standpoint) provides more substance to the story being told.
Xiaolong: This isn’t a question I get to ask often – so I’m excited that I can ask you! – but how has living in Aotearoa and having history here shaped your writing and your stories?
Michelle: Yes! Growing up in Aotearoa has meant a certain level of exposure to traditional Māori culture and folklore, with the latter being an interest that was partly cultivated in my own time during my childhood. Both Māori and Chinese culture share coincidences, and in the case of mythology they have similar creation myths and storytelling methods, with a focus on narratives on the meeting of the spirit and mortal worlds – my favourite kind of story, and the kind that Tales draws the most inspiration from.
Emphasis on the natural world is another trait shared between ancient Chinese and Māori folklore, and respect for the land is a tikanga still upheld by tangata whenua today – and while the China of today is different from the China of our ancient folklore, in Aotearoa we still have the same geographic landmarks and many of the same birds and trees that the Māori spoke of in their myths and legends.
Whether it’s from a spiritual or more physical perspective, Tales of the Thread also focuses on the natural world, though my mindset when I write these themes differs from someone more familiar with China’s natural landscape. I don’t know what it’s like to walk through a forest in China, ancient or otherwise, but I do know what it is to live amongst nature in Aotearoa – and that’s one of the wells that I draw from when I write my Chinese fairytales.
Xiaolong: And my last question – a question I love to ask all my guests – but what is a food that reminds you of ‘home’ – wherever or whoever that may be?
Michelle: Without a doubt, homemade tong yun (汤圆) – my first and favourite Chinese dessert! I have a super restricted diet due to multiple severe allergies, so mostly I’ve only had them plain, but occasionally mum makes them with a little bit of red bean paste, which I love. I can’t say what it is about it exactly – it’s so simple and easy to make, but it fills me with so much happiness.
About the Author
Michelle Kan is an independent creative based in Wellington, New Zealand. A filmmaker/videographer by daylight and author of speculative fiction by moonlight, she loves writing dynamic urban fantasy and gentle Chinese fairytales through an aromantic lens.
Michelle is passionate about the arts, exploring her cultural heritage through her creative output, and is a lover of graphic novels, video games, action/martial arts films and parkour – all profound influences which helped her shape the content that she likes to produce.
How wonderful was this interview? It was such a joy to have Michelle visit us at the Pond today and to share such an insightful and wonderful perspective on aromantic stories in the context of retelling Chinese fairytales. A huge thank you to Michelle for visiting us at the Pond – it was wonderful to finally have them visit us!
Don’t forget to check out their Tales of the Thread series – it is wonderful, beautiful, and great short reads!