ljlee: Queen... er, Lady Misil (misil)
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Departures on AO3
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Departures started out as one of my most difficult writing challenges. Even Shadow of the Dragon King, my almost-160K-word-long tale and the first novel-length story I ever finished, was easier in many ways. For one thing I always knew where I was going with Shadow, even if that destination changed as I went. For another I was so obsessed with that story that I couldn't conceive of NOT working on it.

What made Departures harder was that it began with a fairly specific prompt, from kaberett for the Order of the Lotus 2012 Swap. (For my favorites from that swap, see this post.) The prompt was:

The gilded cage of the Fire Lady, and how she opens up the door.


Aaand I was stuck. The prompt was for Mai and Ursa, neither of which were characters I'd offered to write for. I had offered to write Zuko, Jeong Jeong, Ty Lee, or Aang, and even listed Original Characters because I rather liked the idea of reading someone else's fic and playing in their universe. Since the swap didn't have that many participants Mai and Ursa were, I think, the closest the organizers could match me to my preference for Fire Nation characters.

Problem was, I had no idea what to do with Mai and Ursa together. I have never written AU fic, and canon hasn't had these two crossing paths since Mai was a child. I could make up a chance meeting, but I couldn't come up with ways to make it interesting, and no plausible reason for Mai not to tell Zuko. As for after Mai's presumed marriage to Zuko, I couldn't write convincingly about their mother/daughter-in-law relationship without imagining the circumstances that led to Ursa's return.

Even if I put them together, though, what would I write on the prompt? The first thing my rather limited imagination came up with at the words "gilded cage" was some Straw Misogynist telling Ursa and/or Mai to shut up and embroider the Firelord's robes, durr hurr, and the two shutting him (or her, but probably him) down with grace, wit, and the Power of Being Right.

I discarded that idea quickly, for the love of all that's holy. Yes there are misogynists in the world, but what's the point of yet another story that states the obvious? If the story were a bit longer I could try and give the idea a bit of a twist, show the underpinnings of sexist ideas that makes them compelling to some, but I was on a deadline. For similar reasons I also threw out the idea of Ursa and Mai making some important stride for women, because again, the idea felt embarrassingly pat.

I still liked the feminist core of the prompt, though. It was just that my imagination was so impoverished, not least because of the canon constraints discussed above. So I tried to think of the canon commonalities between Ursa and Mai, something concrete to work from. I came up with emotional connection to Zuko and to an extent Azula, and the fact that they both leave him and the palace if you take The Promise Part Two into account.

Mai leaves Zuko
That scene. Yeah.

Huh. Opens up the gilded cage, huh? Flight? Escape? Maybe I didn't need to force a story putting the two of them together, after all. I could show how their stories connected across the years, why two very different women in positions of privilege chose to leave the comfort and safety of their relationship with the Firelord. Finally I felt the flutter of a story I could work with.

I had one worry, that I was putting two things together that didn't really match. After all, Ursa's departure was also a departure from her children and her husband of years (regardless of how good a husband he was), while Mai's wasn't nearly as serious, if still painful. I sought [profile] fairladyz2005's advice on whether I was trivializing Ursa's story by paralleling it with Mai's, and FairLady still encouraged me to go with the idea. In the end that problem kind of ironed itself out when Mai turned out to see the humor in her situation all too well, no doubt an influence from my reading too many of [personal profile] loopy777's stories, and she ended up adding some levity while Ursa's part of the story was hopefully given the serious treatment it deserved.

I couldn't work on the story for some time due to time constraints--these were the months leading up to my wedding, because life is ironic that way--but outlined and typed it up madly on the last day of the deadline. I don't recall when the idea for the mid-sentence switch between the stories came to me. Maybe it was while I was outlining the story, since the switches occur in my Scrivener index cards. I intended the device to enhance the connection between the two women's stories, as though they're having a conversation, or as if their departures are happening on some level of simultaneity--if not in physical time, then in moral and emotional time.

Scrivener corkboard images for Departures

The Joan Didion quote was a last-minute idea, because I needed to make it all Deep and Meaningful, of course. It was an instance where my constant Longform reading habit paid off, and I had the quote ready to go right in my quotes file. I thought it rounded out the story, though I freely admit to being overfond of wise-sounding quotations.

Those parts in the story about there being a difference between the difficult and impossible, and paying the price for one's choices--those thoughts, touched off by the Didion essay I quoted from, were very heartfelt. This was especially true as the wedding loomed in my immediate future. And maybe it was a bit weird that a story about women leaving their relationships was so poignant to me just as I was about to seal mine, but somehow it felt right.

In fact, I think knowing that I am strong enough to leave deepens my love rather than weakens it. It means I love my husband out of choice, not fear, and that I stay with him and will stay with him out of love and not a poverty of choice. Choice and the responsibility of choice, and the dignity one gets out of them, are the real essence of feminism for me--that women and men choose with a clear conscience and respect themselves enough to face the consequences of choice. It's a principle I try to base my life on, and the same goes for my marriage.

In the end, Departures was a case where being challenged creatively forced me to respond, well, creatively, and I was able to stretch beyond my comfort zone as a result. I'm very grateful to the prompter, and if her reaction is any indication I think she liked it, too. It was a good experience, if not always easy.

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L.J. Lee

June 2016

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