F.C. Yee’s novel The Rise of Kyoshi, the newest entry in the Avatar: The Last Airbender canon, tracks the legendary Avatar Kyoshi’s origin story. The story takes place more than 300 years before the timeline of the original Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon, and fleshes out not only its protagonists’ backstory, but also the history of the Avatar universe at large.
Tackling an Avatar story is no easy feat. One of the most worldbuilding-heavy ventures of the 21st century, the franchise’s canon runs deep: between two animated series (Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra) and a slew of graphic novels, comic books, and animated shorts, there’s a lot of history to reckon with. While previous Avatars, Kyoshi included, have appeared in both series to give their current incarnations counsel, little is known about their individual lives.
[Ed. note: Minor spoilers ahead for The Rise of Kyoshi.]
Kyoshi’s origin story is a bit unconventional: Abandoned by parents in the coastal Earth Kingdom city of Yokoya, she works as a servant at the Avatar’s estate under Jianzhu, an Earth Kingdom political mastermind, and Kelsang, an airbender, both former companions of Avatar Kuruk. However, no one knows that Kyoshi is the Avatar, and instead believes that an Earthbender named Yun is the spirit’s current reincarnation.
After Jianzhu (and Kyoshi) discover Kyoshi’s true identity, she flees with Rangi, a firebender sworn to protect the Avatar. Seeking out bending masters, Kyoshi falls in with the Flying Opera Company, a ragtag group of criminals with unique bending skills. Along the way, she learns more about her parents and picks up her characteristic look — battle clothes, fans, face paint, and all.
Polygon spoke with F.C. Yee, the author of The Rise of Kyoshi, about inserting a full novel’s worth of information into the greater Avatar canon, adapting a highly visual story for the page, and tackling a fan-favorite character’s origin story.
Polygon: What narrative constraints were you working with while writing The Rise of Kyoshi? More generally, was it somewhat daunting to pen an entry into the Avatar canon?
F.C. Yee: I would say that for a narrative constraints, definitely everything has to make sense within the existing universe. [Avatar: The Last Airbender co-creator] Mike Dimartino was a great help in establishing the balance and what made internal logical sense and where I could kind of push the boundaries of that. So with certain things like what bending can do, what it can’t do — those are things that I just worked well within a balance in the existing universe, obviously.
I’d also say precedents set by the shows themselves — drawing on source materials and drawing on the comics — are really important. They kind of sent us constraints that actually ended up being quite free in terms of where we can just take things creatively. For example, there’s this scene I originally had written and the Mike commented on the draft, “You’re not actually showing Kyoshi doing motion here. And we’ve established that she still needs to move in order to bend.” So I went back and rewrote it so that she’s doing a motion to support the actual actions. So that’s an example of the type of interaction where the owners of the IP really helped me out in finding out what those were.
In terms of what was daunting about dropping more canon into the universe: whatever I dropped in as canon had to had to have an internal logic. I was trying to make things happen conceivably within the world’s history.
In terms of the second part of your question about what was daunting about kind of dropping more canon into the universe: again, it was similar to the physical logistics of the timeline and lore and history as they’re established by the shows and comics. It was a very similar situation where whatever I dropped in as canon had to have an internal logic, which makes sense given the fact that it was all people to like, oh, we’ve seen in the existing content.
It was sort of trying to make it happen conceivably within the world’s history where over time there could be changes — some things could stay the same and things could plausibly end up where they are at the time of the show.
Given that Avatar previously has primarily existed within a visual medium between the graphic novels and the two shows, what were some of the challenges of adapting the series’ style into a novel format?
The visual nature of the show is something that I’ve actually called out at points where I’ve given talks about the story. It was a major challenge to try to get that sense of kinetic energy that the show has within the written page. There’s my personal theory: maybe a more skilled writer could have done the impossible on this and tried to describe every single move of every single thing. It would be difficult to get across to get that vibrancy and the show’s action across the page. So instead, I looked at more for moments that were more easy to capture in a novel format, in particular where the action suddenly turns on a dime. I draw on a few really good examples, one outside the Avatar universe and two within the Avatar universe.
I could try to capture everything that happens in the original show word for word during, let’s say, the part where Azula is chasing Aang throughout Omashu — I just love it because there’s just so much going on there. However, narratively what a novel can capture really well is the moment in the show where at the North Pole Zuko says to Katara, “Are you here for a rematch?” And that Katara, in this context — it’s night, they’re surrounded by water, Zuko’s really tired — goes, “Oh, trust me. it’s not going to be much of a rematch.” And she drops him in one shot that a novel can describe and can get to through the context because you can describe the events leading up to that. So,I would say I lean more toward that type of example provided by the show.
Outside of the show, the example I love to give is in Thor: Ragnarok. It wouldn’t be easy to novelize every blast or every time Thor swings his hammer. What are you going to say? “Thor swings his hammer.” But the perfect novelization moment is that part where Hela asks Thor like, “What are you the god of again?” And then he just glows with lightning and the biggest lightning bolt in the history of lightning bolts hits. That’s the type of thing that I felt like I could capture in text. So I’ve tried to include as many of those and describe the action in terms of those pivot moments rather than every punch and jab that’s thrown.
I love your initial conceit of Kyoshi being a hidden Avatar. What was your general approach to taking on Kyoshi, particularly given that she’s such a larger-than-life figure within the Avatar universe?
My approach was, in some ways, set out by that original conceit. There’s an essence of, like, “What if everything just goes wrong?” As far as what we know, it’s Avatar, and like the examples that we’ve seen of an Avatar journey. What happens if everything just goes awry and not the way anyone in the entire universe expects? It’d be a hell of a challenge and something that would be really interesting to see. It really meshed with the way I interpreted Kyoshi. We see her in [Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra] with a larger-than-life personality, but what exactly could have brought her to become that type of person? That seemed to mesh with the whole concept of things being pretty dire for her and her early Avatarhood on both a personal and political level.
It really meshed really with the way I interpreted Kyoshi — though we see her in the shows given her larger than life personality, what exactly could have brought her to become that type of person and that seemed to mesh with that whole concept of things being pretty dire for her and her early Avatarhood on both a personal and political level.
I think that I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I’ve tried to make it feel like a little bit almost like history. And if you read, if you dive deep in history during crisis times you get the sense of, “Oh my God, how did people pull through to get to where we are?” That type of on the edge desperation is something that I tried to capture in the book and hopefully it leads to those internalized skills where people can go through that, see Kyoshi’s struggles and realize that that makes sense of why she is what we see her as an adult.
I was rereading the end of the novel today and there’s a bit towards the end where she’s talking about invoking some Jianzhu’s trademark attitude. She wasn’t necessarily a fan of it but it got the job done. That felt to me like a nod to the persona we know her as today.
That was intentional. It’s that part where she’s like, “Well, do it because I said so.” It’s all weird, because that’s not who she starts out as at the beginning of the book. But the narrative arc, hopefully if done right, captured her change into that.
It’s the same thing as in Escape from the Spirit World, those shorts Nickelodeon released where Kyoshi goes to the Earth King thing and he says, “Crush this peasant rebellion.” She goes, “No like, you know, why? Cause I said so.” If she was just like that throughout the entire book, it wouldn’t be interesting narratively and also would be very unsympathetic.
The novel features one of the most unorthodox “Team Avatars” that we’ve ever gotten to see. How and why did you want the Flying Opera Company to stand out from previous Team Avatars?
I wanted to really capture the feeling of old-school Hong Kong martial arts movies or wuxia movies where you have bandits living outside the law. Some of them are heroic, some of them are not. They obviously live by their own code. Sometimes they’re just criminals and have these covers related to opera and performance — the Beijing Royal Opera today is that physically talented.
I thought it would be cool to capture that — that’s where the inspiration of how they’re able to run across rooftops and across empty spaces came from. It’s very similar to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, where you see people lighter than air doing those flying motions. I tried to link that to thematically altogether. I also thought it would just be really funny to have a Team Avatar where Kyoshi is like, worth dirt to them. They’re like, “What are you to us?” It just seemed like an interesting way to go about it.
It was also kind of funny. I was thinking about the concept, and I liked the idea of how Kyoshi is so upset and focused on justice. Who would be the worst people for her to hang out with, that she’d have to overcome? Yeah, filthy criminals. And then the circumstances of why she would do that, and one thing just led to another. So basically it was for both the potential cool moments but also for the potential conflict.
We’ve known since the first Legend of Korra graphic novel that Kyoshi was queer. What were your motivations in giving that part of her character significant weight through her relationship with Rangi?
Well, I definitely wanted to make sure that that played a prominent part in her relationships because the representation is just so important. It’s something that I take seriously, but also that the YA author community also takes very seriously. It was canon in Legend of Korra so it was definitely going to be canon here, and I definitely didn’t want to strip her queerness out. Definitely, folks who know what the canon is from Korra are going to be looking for it, and other readers might be learning for the first time that a Kyoshi is bisexual in this novel. It felt really important for me to include that and essentially do her relationships justice.
The relationship with Rangi was just really fun to write in general, because it’s fun to write to the interactions between, you know, bossy hotheads versus kind of more passive, cooler characters and see how they just feed off each other. So it was a delight to write.
The Avatar story speaks to a wide swathe of people at this point. Obviously this is a YA novel, but how did you hope to speak to the kind of now multigenerational Avatar fandom or to people who aren’t even Avatar fans at all?
In a way, I guess I hope to try to broaden the appeal by going specific. I think this particular strategy was just trying to write something that could be a standalone novel so that folks who had varying levels of familiarity with the Avatar universe and who may have encountered it at different times or at different points in their lives could still enjoy it.
In a way it was easier because of how old Kyoshi is and how old the story is. Therefore, there are stakes of what could of happened within this timeframe and the fact that a lot of things could have changed in order to lead up to what we see later in the Avatar universe.
In trying to appeal to fans who have been watching and enjoying this for a long time as well as folks who are newly arriving in the Avatar universe, I felt like the best approach was just to make sure that Kyoshi’s arc and the events that she went through or could be understood within the context of these single series.
The Rise of Kyoshi is out now.