Oshkosh author Lori M. Lee envisioned a fantasy world where young readers could escape for her debut middle grade novel Pahua and the Soul Stealer. She also wanted it to reflect her own heritage.
“I wanted to write something specifically Hmong,” the author said.
Best-selling publisher Rick Riordan released the book today. Lee will visit Barnes and Noble in Appleton for an in-person event at 6 p.m. tonight as part of her book tour.
Pahua and the Soul Stealer incorporates both southeast Asian mythology and adventure. After 11-year-old Pahua Mua accidentally untethers an angry spirit, her brother becomes ill. She then must confront the spirit and demand her brother’s return.
“I wanted to have that childlike goofiness in Pahua which is why her best friend is a talking cat,” Lee said.
Lee describes Pahua as a bit of a weirdo. She has a unique ability to see spirits. Pahua also lives in the Midwest, where she stands out — just like Lee.
“I put a lot of myself in this character because she’s in a small town that’s majority white and a school that’s majority white and she’s a bit of a loner,” she said.
Unlike Pahua, Lee did not have a talking cat spirit to keep her company growing up in the majority-white city of Oshkosh. Instead, she had stories. Lee found the realm of fantasy as a retreat from racist microaggressions.
“There were just a majority of people who didn’t know what was going on with the influx of refugees and a lot of people didn’t know a lot about Hmong people or had a lot of encounters with Asian people,” Lee said.
Hmong refugees resettled in places such as California, Minnesota and Wisconsin as a result of the Vietnam war. This sometimes led to tension between old residents and newcomers. However, Lee says a lot of nice people live in Oshkosh and much of her family still lives in the area.
“It was a Wisconsin family who sponsored us to come in the first place,” she said.
Lee’s first introduction to the world of storytelling was through oral tradition. Kids in the community would gather around to listen to lessons from elders about how the world works. Then, Lee began reading all kinds of fantasy novels as she grew older.
“I was the type of person that didn’t just want to live in these stories. I wanted to be the one creating these stories,” she said.
Lee read a lot of young adult fiction throughout her upbringing. She was obsessed with Fear Street books and other horror novels. Lee said these stories inspired her to write fantasy specifically.
“I find the most interesting thing being the possibility of things beyond our understanding, beyond the normal,” she said.
Lee enjoys the idea of anything magical or mystical and is a self-proclaimed unicorn aficionado. Her sole purpose as a writer is to write books for kids to enjoy.
“I don’t want to give myself that kind of pressure. I mostly just want to entertain because books gave me an escape, a sense of shelter, and that’s what I want to do for kids,” she said.
Lee published six novels before publishing Pahua and the Soul Stealer, all in the young adult fiction genre.
Her latest book relies heavily on Hmong Shamanism, which “is based on animism which is the belief that all things have a spirit or a soul. From the trees to nature to animals, there’s guardian spirits,” Lee said.
At first, she did not feel she had a right to a fantasy novel based in Hmong culture because of feeling disconnected from the culture and fear of criticism from members of her community. Lee told herself that non-marginalized authors write these fantasy worlds that take bits and pieces of western culture for their books so “why can’t I do the same with my own culture?”
“I know it’s not going to make everyone happy but I wanted to make it clear that this is not a textbook. It’s not nonfiction. This is a fantasy world,” she said.