The pirate Florian, born Flora, has always done whatever it takes to survive—including sailing under false flag on the Dove as a marauder, thief, and worse. Lady Evelyn Hasegawa, a highborn Imperial daughter, is on board as well—accompanied by her own casket. But Evelyn’s one-way voyage to an arranged marriage in the Floating Islands is interrupted when the captain and crew show their true colors and enslave their wealthy passengers.
Both Florian and Evelyn have lived their lives by the rules, and whims, of others. But when they fall in love, they decide to take fate into their own hands—no matter the cost.
Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s sweeping fantasy, full of stolen memories, illicit mermaid’s blood, double agents, and haunting mythical creatures conjures an extraordinary cast of characters and the unforgettable story of a couple striving to stay together in the face of myriad forces wishing to control their identities and destinies.
You’ve written picture books, short stories, and essays, and you also have an upcoming graphic novel. What do you like about switching genres, and what’s challenging?
I think it’s harder for me to try and stay in a lane. Every time I’ve been like, Okay, Maggie, think of your brand (which doesn’t exist), and try to write in a single genre I end up with a horrible case of writer’s block. The best advice I feel like I’m poised to give is to write what lights your fire, not what you think you should be writing. As soon as I started giving myself permission to write whatever my skull stuffing thought was neat, my productivity (and book deals) went way up.
None of my books have anything to do with each other. I have a picture book about how to tell stories, this YA novel that’s a serious high fantasy, a picture book coming in 2021 about how my grandparents met in a Japanese Internment Camp, a picture book about who works in natural history museums and a graphic novel about rape culture and werewolves. There’s no common thread. And I even though know that’s going to make it harder for people to remember who I am, or for me to develop any kind of following (which, again, does not yet exist) I can at least look at my work and feel proud of what I’ve done. I’m not a person with singular interests—my taste is eclectic and eccentric and my writing reflects that. Maybe there’s another weirdo out there who’ll be into all the things I’m into, too. Who knows.
What was your favorite thing about writing The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea?
I wrote this book with a particular reader in mind, a girl named Clare who I met as a bookseller when she was nine. I started tutoring her in creative writing shortly after that, and we developed a really lovely friendship that has been deeply meaningful for me. She’s in college now, and she’s so talented, and she’s so smart, and I just can’t wait for her to read it—I’ve been holding out on passing it to her until it’s a finished copy like a jerk.
How did you interrogate Japanese American heritage through fantasy in this book?
I’m yonsei (fourth generation) and hafu (half) and so my relationship to Japan is pretty distant. I don’t speak Japanese, I don’t look particularly Japanese, but I was raised with an understanding that it was a big part of who I am. When I went to Japan as an adult, I did not have any sense of kinship, but rather an acute sense of my otherness.
My understanding of my Japanese heritage was defined so much by internment, so I had this idea of Japanese people as marginalized, which in the USA has been true. However, as I got older, and did a bit more reading and unfortunately had to confront Japan’s imperialist past and atrocities, my understanding of who I am and what I’ve come from shifted dramatically. Because the fact is, two major facets of my identity are predicated on imperialist history. Many of the privileges I enjoy today are a result of being American, but also of being from the supposed model minority Asian group—because I suspect that imperialists respect other imperialists, however grudgingly.
So when I created the Imperials in this world, they were meant to hafu the way I am hafu—they don’t look white, but they don’t look classically Japanese either. Their culture is a mix of Japanese and American and British elements (I do think it’s impossible not to nod to the British as an American writing fantasy). Their operatives use waterboarding to interrogate those they deem a threat to the state. They’re entitled, believe that they have a right to whatever they’d like, and they lack the ability to be self-critical that would make them responsible players on a world stage. They wreak havoc and violence, as all imperialist powers do.
Writing The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea gave me a chance to really interrogate some of the greatest privileges I’ve been bestowed. I hope that when other people read it, they can see their American or British or Japanese heritage in it, too. Even the title is a hip check to Narnia—I hoped that I could write a fantasy in a world as specific and exciting that didn’t have the same blind acceptance of colonialism that Lewis writes with. Also, the female characters in my story would get to use whatever weapons they’re handed.
A major theme of this book is taking your fate into your own hands. Why do you think that resonates so well with young adult readers? Was it in an important part of your characters’ story?
I remember my teen years really vividly, and I remember the most infuriating part of it was feeling like so much of my life had already been determined by circumstance, and I hadn’t even left home yet. For me, being a teenager was at once magical—first love, first kiss, firsts all over the place—and also so, so frustrating. I was acutely aware of the failings of the adults in my life, and more angry about it than I would have the energy to sustain now. It was also when I started to become aware that I was not exceptional so much as I was from an exceptional background— that generational privilege would buoy me, for better or for worse, for the rest of my life.
So when I write for teens now I’m really writing to the teen I was then. Angry, curious, smart and exasperated. Keenly aware of the incalculable injustices that define our lives. I may not be as mad, day-to-day, as I was then (I’m just too tired now), but I’ve never forgotten. And I did my best to infuse both Florian and Evelyn with the fury and frustration I remember so well, while still giving them the freedom to be themselves and to choose their own paths the way that I feel all kids deserve.
Pirate stories, at least from a US perspective, often center around men. Why did you choose to have a bigender pirate as one of your main characters?
In general, I’m less interested in writing about cis men. They have enough stories, and I don’t need to make more of them. There are a million pirate stories about dudes with cutlasses, and a lot of them are a delight. But they’ve already been written. When I sat down to write my own story, I wanted the world to be inhabited by characters I hadn’t seen yet. Not for any grand philosophical reasons really, it’s just…you have the freedom to write whatever you want. Why would you write a story that someone else already told?
The decision to have Florian’s character be bigender or genderfluid was due to the existence of books like Bloody Jack and Eon and stories like Mulan—the simple idea of cis women passing as men in violent contexts has been covered. I wanted to explore the character of someone who’s concern wasn’t just passing. The other pirates aboard The Dove know that (when Flora first joined them she presented as a girl), but they make this demand of performance on Florian as a way of asserting their own masculinity.
For Flora, coming to see herself as himself or themself and being comfortable holding all those truths in a single identity was important to me. I think we think about gender as being fixed—and it is, for so many people—but I just don’t believe that’s always the case. I know my own feelings about my own gender have varied wildly over the years depending on the context, and Florian is an extension of that.
What is something you’d like to see more of in young adult fantasy books? If you had a wishlist for 3 YA books you’d love to see published, what would be on it?
I would love to see the following novels which I am not equipped to write:
1.) A teenage girl in rural Peru, who works in a brujería and falls in love. Magic optional.
2.) Contemporary Rwandan teen decides she’s starting a TikTok movie studio in the hopes of achieving virality. Hijinks of various budgets ensue.
3.) Anything about voodoo set in New Orleans, not about white kids, at any time. Ten points to Hufflepuff if there are ghosts. 40 points to Slytherin if they’re ghosts with motives.
4.) I don’t know what I don’t know and I have appreciated books like The 57 Bus for illuminating situations I had only a superficial understanding of, so more deeply and passionately researched intersectional histories by real journalists like Dashka Slater, please.
5.) A retelling of Pride and Prejudice that’s about an asexual or aromantic kid. That’s basically the only place that story has left to go in my opinion.
Tell us about a few published or upcoming YA books you’ve loved.
Meg Elison’s Find Layla is a masterpiece. It’s due out in August 2020 and I will be screaming about it until then and after then, and probably forever. It confronts poverty and abandonment in a way that isn’t voyeuristic or pitying, and Layla herself is a triumph of spirit. Meg is an extraordinary writer all the time, but she’s particularly talented when she lets readers into the dark and hidden corners of her enormous heart.
Elizabeth Acevedo’s With the Fire on High was my favorite YA I read last year. I’ll read everything she writes, I’m such a fan of her work and the tenderness with which she writes characters who the world may not have always been as tender with. I find myself sighing when I read her work because her sentences are so beautiful. Plus this one was about food, which is my favorite thing. It made me want to up my cooking game.
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell cured my depression and fixed my acne. I just felt like after reading it my heart was lighter and better and happier, and I wish my world was completely drawn in two tones, too. I was a little late to the game in picking it up, but the good news the shelf life on that book is infinite.
The books on my to-read list I’m most excited for (you didn’t ask, but I’m gonna tell you anyway) are Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera, When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey, Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo (naturally), Stay Gold by Tobly McSmith, Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland, Surrender Your Sons by Adam Sass, The Nobleman’s Guide to Scandal and Shipwrecks by Mackenzi Lee, and Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas.
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Maggie Tokuda-Hall has an MFA in creative writing from the University of San Francisco and a strong cake-decorating game. She is the author of the Parents’ Choice Gold Award-winning picture book Also an Octopus, illustrated by Benji Davies. The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea is her debut novel, which she started when working as a children’s bookseller. Maggie Tokuda-Hall lives in Oakland, California, with her son, husband, and dog. Her dog is objectively perfect, thank you for asking.