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A Thousand Beginnings and Endings

Review

A Thousand Beginnings and Endings

Edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman

There are some books so ferociously excellent I would almost be angry I didn’t have them earlier in my life, if I wasn’t so busy being ecstatic that I can read them now. Ecstatic that I can hold this volume in my hands, that it’s out in the world and at last I can turn to it when I ache for stories like it, I can put it in the hands of other readers and say here, see this, know these voices, know a part of me. A THOUSAND BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS is a prime example.

Compiled by We Need Diverse Books’s CEO Ellen Oh and team member Elsie Chapman, this book collects 15 reimaginings of Asian myths and legends, by bestselling and beloved authors. I, like many readers, love mythology retellings, and my shelves are inundated with updated tales from Western lore --- predominantly Greek and English narratives. This collection, which spans stories from nations and cultures across Asia, feels at once overdue, perfectly timed and warmly welcoming.

"At once overdue, perfectly timed and warmly welcoming....evocations of scoping, massive, majestic narratives, made accessible and fresh. I can’t recommend this book enough."

Some of the stories lean more traditional in their telling, reveling in their origin narrative. Others reimagine legends through lenses of science fiction and the speculative, exploring themes in a new context: Lori M. Lee uses androids to explore a Hmong cautionary children’s folktale about family. E. C. Myers turns to a video game to interrogate an epic Korean myth about love and loss, ghosts and memory. Each of these tales varies, but they are all deeply engaging, entirely accessible and fiercely empowering.

One notable constant: they predominantly center women, women’s stories and women’s perspectives. Even when they don’t, they’re conscious --- never marginalizing, never sidelining or fridging women. Folklore across cultures has often, historically, fallen into (and created) stereotypes when it comes to representing women. They often are beautiful and/or evil, fall in love with the male everyman or hero protagonist, and if they don’t die tragically, it’s not typically due to their own agency. This book reclaims and reworks women’s narratives, giving voice to “monstrous” women and complicating flatter narratives to re-render goddesses and victims alike as their own characters. Ellen Oh, Elsie Chapman and all of these authors of course know just how badly we need diverse books, and they are true champions of the cause --- both in the work that they do with the nonprofit to encourage and promote diversity, and in their compilations, including this volume. They’ve done and continue to do an exquisite job of bringing much-needed stories to our shelves.

Each of these 15 authors lends their own voice to each of these stories. At the end of each retelling, they share a bit of the origin story, what it means to them, how and why they chose to update it. From Alyssa Wong’s uncanny and excellent homage to food and ancestry, Cindy Pon’s empowering retelling of a fairy and a cowherd, Rahul Kanakia’s brilliant imagining of a single soldier in an epic battle --- each of these stories is packed with authenticity, creativity and love.

I felt it from the very first page. I knew I would love this collection, but as a Filipina reader who grew up listening to stories about Maria Makiling and who never, ever expected to see her name in an American collection --- to see her story retold with such care and beauty by Roshani Chokshi truly set the tone of the book for me, and it held up, soaring to new heights in every story, the entire read through. 

Here are magnificent retellings of myth and legend, lore and epic. Here are stories by and about Asian women, front and center. Here are evocations of scoping, massive, majestic narratives, made accessible and fresh. I can’t recommend this book enough.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on July 10, 2018

A Thousand Beginnings and Endings
Edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman