Suddenly Sci-Fi: When Real Life Turns Unreal

What a year we’ve had.

I realize that is about the most obvious statement I could make at this point in time, but I think it’s worth saying—we need to give space and weight to what we’ve all been through, to a stretch of months that feel as if they occurred within a weird pocket universe wherein time was both puzzlingly elastic and maddeningly stagnant.

So: what a year we’ve had. By the time you read this, it will be more like two years—but I am holding out hope that light will continue to flicker back in as we slowly emerge from our pocket universe of lockdown, quarantine, and staring at the same walls every day to return to the outside world.

I spent most of Pandemic 2020 wrestling with deadlines, dealing with various tragedies, and trying to stave off existential terror. One of the books I was writing was a YA contemporary romance I’d sold at the end of 2019, From Little Tokyo, With Love, which is all about a rage-y half-Japanese girl who is a lot like my teenage self. Her name is Rika, and she doesn’t believe in happily ever after—until she’s swept into her own modern fairy tale.

Little Tokyo was supposed to fit pretty firmly on the “contemporary real world” side of my career—unlike my contemporary fantasy series, Heroine Complex, there are no superpowers, no demons trying to fuck everything up, no supernatural happenings that can only be explained by the fantastical. There is a touch of everyday magic because, despite her overwhelming grouchiness, Rika tends to see the world through a fairy tale sheen of wonder. But this is a story set in our modern world, something that could actually happen.

I was excited to show so much real life in the pages of my manuscript. I wanted to convey the sense of history, community, and heady enchantment of Los Angeles’s wonderful Little Tokyo neighborhood—a place that instantly felt like home to me the moment I first set foot on its vibrant streets. I wanted people to feel the warmth, beauty, and glorious bustle of the Nisei Week Festival, an annual celebration of Japanese and Japanese American heritage and traditions that brings so much of the local Asian American community together. And I really wanted to show readers my adopted home city of Los Angeles in all its dimension and wonder—LA tends to be much maligned in media, and there’s so much more to it than Rodeo Drive and traffic and the glittering HOLLYWOOD sign, enshrouded in smog. I hoped that anyone reading the book would feel immersed in my LA—beautiful nature of all different kinds (beach, mountains, desert!), an endless cavalcade of mouthwatering food, mishmashes of colorful small businesses and offbeat attractions, and eclectic, diverse communities that make me feel like I can be my fullest self, always.

I couldn’t wait for all the real life research I was going to do, especially when summer kicked into high gear. Like Rika, I was going to spend days wandering through the sticky heat and wild graffiti of the abandoned old zoo in Griffith Park, and nights cramming into tiny restaurants with sprawling gaggles of friends, ordering food spicy enough to melt our faces off. I was going to stare contemplatively at the gorgeous chandelier in the LA Public Library rotunda and feel transported to another world. I was going to get swept into the Nisei Week parade and gawk at the brave souls sweating their way through the gyoza-eating contest.

I was going to, I was going to, I was going to… And then the pandemic hit, and everything changed.

Of course fiction is always fiction. I made Rika up, just like I made up the demonic cupcakes and gigantic porcelain unicorn monsters in the Heroine Complex series. Couldn’t I simply imagine her adventures in the same way I might imagine fire shooting out of people’s hands or an attack by a fabulous karaoke-singing demon queen?

Well… sure. But I suppose in the case of the superheroines, I know going in that while their emotional arcs, their friendships, their truths are based in real life and my own experiences… I am most definitely going to have to make up how it feels to have fire shoot out of your hands, or what it’s like the first time you see a gigantic porcelain unicorn rampaging through a bookstore. With Little Tokyo, I had to make things up that had, up until very recently, been 100 percent real.

My realistic contemporary fiction was suddenly science fiction. I was writing about things that had happened so many times in the past, but now couldn’t happen at all. Everything I wrote felt fake, because in a sense, it was.

The live, in-person version of Nisei Week didn’t happen for the first time in decades. The streets of Little Tokyo were quiet, bare—no hint of the bustle and life and community that makes the neighborhood what it is. Cramming into a tiny restaurant with a bunch of people suddenly seemed utterly terrifying.

Like so many, I was also dealing with depression, trauma, anxiety. The rise in anti-Asian violence and hatred crawled under my skin and burrowed there, a constant hum of terror. I’ve spoken a lot about how important it is for me to write stories about Asian Girls Having Fun— to me, depicting women of color experiencing joy and love and hope always feels like one of the most revolutionary things you can do. But as I tried to fake my way through this story that felt so detached from my own reality, so alien… I started to wonder how I could write hope and happiness when those two things were as impossible as sight-seeing in Griffith Park or eating in a restaurant or hugging friends close.

Of all my “real life” concepts that were suddenly science fiction, hope seemed like the most fantastical of all.

I wish I could share a moment of mid-pandemic triumph here, wherein I had some kind of incredible transformative experience that translated into a masterful third act turn, me rising above the rubble infused with that hope I was trying so hard to find and beaming it out to everyone.

But real life is never exactly like fiction, and my life doesn’t always fit into a neat three-act structure that I can narrate for you in a neat three-part essay. There was no Moment, no one thing that pulled me through both the writing of the book and the living of life.

Real life was just this: I kept going.

I did not bake bread, but I did grow those windowsill scallions. I took lots of photos of my Spam slicer, much to the delight of Asian Twitter. I sobbed my way through virtual therapy sessions, the room growing dark as the sun disappeared from my window’s view, because I always forgot to turn on the light. I dealt with the death of a dear friend, fell down endless rabbit holes obsessing over reality shows from five years ago, and cocooned myself in a series of caftans, each one more loudly patterned than the last. I worried about everything and everyone all the time, because how could I not?

And just like Rika, I found strength in community and loved ones. The sprawling, interconnected writing groups who came together for online sprints and check-ins. The fellow junk connoisseurs who agreed to a virtual watch and live chat of the revered film classic Burlesque. The treasured friend who would pop up in my driveway and wave to me from a distance, just because. And so many more.

I started telling myself, “Just do what’s in front of you.” Get out of bed. Slice that Spam. Write that line.

Slowly, all of those lines turned into scenes. And yes, they still felt unreal, fantastical. But as I took Rika on her adventures through my beautiful LA, as I gave her wonderful meals with new friends and stolen

kisses on the beach and messy emotional revelations amidst crowds and the blazing summer sun… well, maybe I did have that Moment after all. Because I remembered what science fiction and fantasy had given me as a kid: the ability to imagine a world bigger and better and brighter than the tiny close-minded town that was my childhood existence.

And as I was swept deeper into the story, that feeling took over. Yes, this story was now SF/F, in that it was a fantastical, unrealistic version of our current contemporary world. But it was also SF/F in one of the best ways possible—it helped me imagine life in the after, when all of the impossible things I was writing about would become real again.

And so I wrote, imagining the day when I could get lost in this Nisei Week parade once more. When I could cram into a minuscule restaurant with an unruly group of people again, clinking glasses and inhaling spicy food and laughing ’til our faces hurt. When the streets of Little Tokyo would bustle with vibrant life, as it had for so many years in the past.

It could all happen again, even if it couldn’t happen now. The LA I loved—the life I loved—was still out there, waiting. If I kept writing about it, if I kept dreaming of it, picturing it, imagining it… perhaps it would become real again.

Perhaps it was something to hope for.

I write this now in the summer of 2021. Life still feels like science fiction, but little bits from the before are finally flickering into the after. I’ve eaten face-melting spicy food in a restaurant, sitting across from beloved friends. I’ve walked the bustling streets of Little Tokyo, the magic of the neighborhood sinking back into my bones. I’ve hugged people tightly, wondering how I took something so simply wonderful for granted.

Real life is starting to feel real again. But I will keep imagining a world bigger and brighter and full of wonderful things that might seem utterly fantastical.

Because my contemporary-turned-SF/F book ultimately became the version of hope I was writing for myself. And I want to remember that even when the possible is impossible, when life is science fiction, when we are existing in a bizarre pocket universe that feels like a made-up story… hope is always real.


Sarah Kuhn

Sarah Kuhn is the author of the popular Heroine Complex novels—a series starring Asian American superheroines. The first book is a Locus bestseller, an RT Reviewers’ Choice Award nominee, and one of the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog’s Best Books of 2016. Her YA debut, the beloved Japan-set romantic comedy I Love You So Mochi, is a Junior Library Guild selection and a nominee for YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults. She has also penned a variety of short fiction and comics, including the critically acclaimed graphic novel Shadow of the Batgirl for DC Comics and the Star Wars audiobook original Doctor Aphra. Her newest novel, From Little Tokyo, With Love—a modern fairy tale with a half-Japanese heroine—is a Junior Library Guild selection and was recently chosen as Penguin Random House’s One World, One Book title of the year, one of People magazine’s Best Books of Summer, and one of the New York Times’ YA Books to Add to Your Reading List. Additionally, Sarah was a finalist for both the CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment) New Writers Award and the Astounding Award for Best New Writer. A third generation Japanese American, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and an overflowing closet of vintage treasures.

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