Malinda Lo on the Meaning of Fey

“I chose to write about fairies with an I because it’s a more standard spelling,” said Malinda Lo, author of award-winning fantasy novels for young adults, Ash and Huntress. “It is less exotic than faeries with an E. (This may amuse you later when I talk about what I really think about fairies.) I basically wanted to evoke an old-school fairy tale feel with Ash, and that involves spelling fairy the way it’s spelled in Grimms’.

“However, when I began writing Huntress, the word fairy started to bug me. I didn’t want to switch over to faery, but I needed a word that sounded older, more all-encompassing, and even less exotic. So I started calling them the fay.

“Not fey with an E… but fay with an A. Now, let me share their different definitions with you (from Webster’s):

fey —
1a. fated; doomed to death (archaic except in Scottish usage)
1b. in an unusually excited state, formerly believed to portend sudden death
2. strange or unusual in any of certain ways, as, variously, eccentric, whimsical, visionary, elfin, shy, otherworldly

“Compare that to:

fay —
1. a fairy
2. (archaic) faith: used in oaths
3. (shipbuilding) to fit closely or exactly; join

“It was clear to me instantly that the fairies in my book were fay, not fey, especially because fey with an E has long been used to describe effeminate gay men. I don’t mind that usage; in fact, I think it can be wonderfully evocative, particularly because there are gay people in my books. But I wanted to distinguish my fay from those who act feyly… And here’s where you’ll laugh, because despite all my concern about not wanting the words about them to sound exotic, the fay in my books are exotic. They are the ultimate otherworldly, foreign, strange, queer folk.

“In fact, I found it quite useful to emphasize their exoticism, because it allowed me to describe my human characters in comparison. You see, in Huntress, the humans look Asian. They are not actually Asian, because there is no Asia in that world. But they have dark hair, brown eyes, and skin that can be more golden than white. But because every human in that world looks like that, it’s not unusual…My solution has been to stress the differences between the fay and the humans. The fay are indeed very pale; they have white-blond hair and colored eyes. They are totally foreign to my human protagonists. Everything they do, from the way they walk to the food they eat, is incredibly strange to my human characters.

“In my books, I have constructed the fay as the Other… I want the fay to be, in their own way, as normal as possible. Their differences emerge only when they encounter humans.

“And that moment of encounter, when identities are challenged, is a fascinating place to tell a story.”

  • This is only part of Lo’s essay. Ready the essay in its entirety at Malinda Lo’s website.
  • In Lo’s latest novel, Huntress, nature is out of balance in the human world. The sun hasn’t shone in years, and crops are failing. Worse yet, strange and hostile creatures have begun to appear. The people’s survival hangs in the balance.

    To solve the crisis, the oracle stones are cast, and Kaede and Taisin, two seventeen-year-old girls, are picked to go on a dangerous and unheard-of journey to Taninli, the city of the Fairy Queen. Taisin is a sage, thrumming with magic, and Kaede is of the earth, without a speck of the otherworldly. And yet the two girls’ destinies are drawn together during the mission. As members of their party succumb to unearthly attacks and fairy tricks, the two come to rely on each other and even begin to fall in love. But the Kingdom needs only one huntress to save it, and what it takes could tear Kaede and Taisin apart forever.

    The exciting adventure prequel to Malinda Lo’s highly acclaimed novel Ash is overflowing with lush Chinese influences and details inspired by the I Ching, and is filled with action and romance.
  • Enjoy an excerpt from Huntress.
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Malinda Lo’s first novel, Ash, a retelling of Cinderella with a lesbian twist, was a finalist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award, the Andre Norton Award for YA Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the Lambda Literary Award. Her second novel, Huntress, a companion novel to Ash, is an ALA Best Book for Young Adults. Her young adult science fiction duology, beginning with Adaptation, will be published in fall 2012. She lives in Northern California with her partner and their dog.