Malinda Lo speaks on 'Cinderella' with a twist at Rainbow Center book club

We all know the story: after the death of her beloved mother, Cinderella is left at the mercy of her merchant father and his new wife, a brutally selfish stepmother who cares only for her two spoiled daughters. When her father too succumbs to illness, Cinderella is forced to take on the role of cook, handmaid and housekeeper, waiting on her new “family’s” every whim while her future turns to dust.

Then she falls in love with the king’s huntress and everything changes. Or at least that’s what happens in “Ash” by Malinda Lo, the Rainbow Center book club’s top pick for this semester.

The cover of "Ash," by Malinda Lo. (Little, Brown and Company)

This time around, instead of marrying prince charming, Aisling, known simply as Ash, enlists the fairy Sidhean’s otherworldly magic to win the heart of Kaisa, the head of the king’s hunt, and escape a life of servitude.

When a human makes a deal with a fairy as ancient and powerful as Sidhean, though, there’s always a catch; and Ash soon finds herself dealing with the consequences of more than her mother’s death.

“Ash” may be short, but it’s a book full of magic that will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page.

Though every word of Lo’s lesbian retelling of this classic story could have been ripped from the pages of Ash’s own book of fairy tales, Lo said she didn’t even realize she was writing a queer story until a friend read the first draft. While Ash and Prince Aidan, who she’d always found a little bit boring, didn’t have any chemistry at all, her friendship with Kaisa blossomed into more than Lo had ever expected.

“This is what can happen when you take an old story and make it your own, it can come alive and go in directions you didn’t anticipate,” Lo said Thursday afternoon during her book talk at the Rainbow Center. “I was retelling my favorite fairy tale to myself as an adult. I was telling myself that it’s fine that you’re gay and in fact it’s completely awesome.”

Once Lo understood that Ash and Kaisa’s relationship would be the center point of the story, she decided to take things one step further: in Ash’s world, there is no homophobia. While there is still some level of compulsory heterosexuality at play - nobles need to have biological children to pass on their inheritance - the gender of Ash’s love interest goes completely unremarked upon, allowing “Ash” to be a story about finding love in the face of grief rather than another coming out story.

Jordan Holmes, a sixth-semester English major who uses the pronouns they/them, said they appreciated how Ash and Kaisa’s relationship developed throughout the book. Instead of being thrown together by virtue of being the only gay character in the story, as happens in other LGBT novels, the women seemed to have a true connection.

“It develops slowly and very naturally,” Holmes said, adding that they chose “Ash” for the Rainbow Center book club mainly because they wanted to meet Lo.

According to Lo’s own research, available at MalindaLo.com(http://www.malindalo.com/2013/10/lgbt-young-adult-books-2003-13-a-decade-of-slow-but-steady-change/), an average of just 16 LGBT young adult novels were published per year between 2003 and 2013. In order to make Lo’s list, a book needed to focus on a queer main character or at least LGBT issues in general.

“I really believe that we deserve to be the heros of our own stories and if a book has a ‘gay best friend’ I don’t think that should count as a LGBT YA novel,” Lo said.

It can be even more difficult to find queer characters in genre fiction 80 percent of LGBT books focus on contemporary issues, with less than 12 percent placing queer characters in historical, science fiction or fantasy settings. Somehow, Lo said, dragons and unicorns are considered more believable in fake medieval Europe than gay people.

“It’s so interesting how deeply ingrained this heteronormative worldview is in our imaginations,” Lo said. “Once you get over that hurdle it’s so liberating. I realized that everything is up for grabs, everything.”

Wafa Simpore, an 8th-semester women’s studies major, said she’s looking forward to reading more books like “Ash” with strong female characters and a focus on queer issues.

“Getting my hands on this kind of literature is always difficult,” Simpore said. “Most of the lit I read is very academic.”

More than six years after publication, Lo said she still gets emails from fans thanking her for helping them accept that it’s okay to fall in love with another woman. Her other books - including the “Adaption” series and “Huntress,” the prequel to “Ash” - also feature lesbian and bisexual characters in complex relationships.

“There are many people who have never seen a happy ending for them, ever, so I think that it’s obviously super important to have this as an option,” Lo said.  “I definitely wrote ‘Ash,’ in a way, for the teenager that I once was.”


Kimberly Armstrong is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at kimberly.armstrong@uconn.edu.