June 22, 2012

Guest Post by Dori Jones Yang (Daughter of Xanadu & Son of Venice author)

Why Read Historical Fiction Not Set in Europe or America?

Last year, I attended the Historical Novel Society conference in San Diego. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? It was! I met a lot of characters, both on the page and at the dinner table. After the keynote speech on Saturday evening, we had a costume pageant. About twenty authors dressed up as their characters and walked across the stage as an announcer explained the costume. Velvet. Brocade. Taffeta. Lace. Embroidery. Ruffles. Scooping necklines. You can imagine how gorgeous some of the costumes were!

Then came my turn. I was dressed as Emmajin, fictional granddaughter of Khubilai Khan, a Mongolian princess from the 13th century. I wore a stunning blue del with an orange sash, complete with a Mongolian lady’s hat, with pearls hanging down the sides. Emmajin is the protagonist of Daughter of Xanadu, my YA historical novel set in China at the time of Marco Polo and Khubilai Khan. Its sequel, Son of Venice, came out this month, June 2012.

Fortunately, I didn’t take myself too seriously. I pretended to shoot an arrow into the audience, and I had them all laughing with me. After the ruffles and taffeta, my outfit looked pretty ridiculous.
Clearly, I was out of place. Almost all the other books took place in England, France, or North America. When you hear “historical novel,” that’s what you expect, right? Lush costumes, poufy sleeves, jeweled crowns, sweeping skirts. After all, our U.S. heritage is mostly from Europe.

But YA readers don’t see the world that way. Today’s young adults are growing up in a multicultural society and a global world. In school, they learn about Japan and India, the Apaches and the Incas. They read books set in Nigeria and Vietnam and China. Their classmates and neighbors may be from Iran or Israel or Venezuela.

So for a young adult reader, it’s not at all strange to read a novel about a Mongolian princess, an archer who wants to fight for the Mongol Army and have her Latin love interest, too. When I visit schools, students are fascinated to see pictures of nomadic yurts and hear about drinking fermented mare’s milk. They love mugging as they try on Mongolian hats for men and ladies. A few even have classmates from Mongolia.

Why read historical fiction set in an unfamiliar country? Why not? The best historical fiction lets us explore the long-ago and the far-away. The farther away the setting is from my own life, the more it fascinates me—and the more I learn.


Son of Venice is the sequel to Daughter of Xanadu (Read my review!). This novel continues the story of Marco Polo and Emmajin, granddaughter of Khubilai Khan, after the Great Khan sends her on a voyage to the West. 

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