Can literary classics help us navigate our times? In a retelling of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” author Addie Tsai casts a queer woman of color in the role of Victor Frankenstein to challenge our perceptions of the scientist. 

“Unwieldy Creatures” addresses themes of interpersonal responsibility, power and scientific ambition through the character of Dr. Frank, a fictional pioneer in embryology with an ambitious approach to creating life. 

“When your obsession with power becomes greater than your concern for human life, then you’ve lost sight of what matters,” said Tsai, an assistant teaching professor of English at William & Mary.

Far from pitting science against the humanities, this cautionary tale sees these realms as deeply connected and mutually beneficial.

“I would be hard pressed to find a science that doesn’t express itself creatively,” said Tsai (pronouns: any/all). “Or expressions of art that aren’t grappling with the same concerns that a lot of science is facing.”

Author Addie Tsai, an assistant professor of English at W&M, wearing a denim jacket with several pins on and adjusting a bow tie.
Assistant Teaching Professor Addie Tsai.

The genesis of Tsai’s novel had been heavily influenced by the contradictions of the time in which it was written: unprecedented technological progress on the one hand and the heightened public debate on reproductive and LGBTQ rights on the other.

The original “Frankenstein,” published on the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution, was also full of tensions: for instance, between Enlightenment and Romantic ideas. Some feminist readings see the novel as heavily influenced by the ideas of Shelley’s mother, the philosopher and women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft. Postcolonial, queer and disability readings of “Frankenstein” have further explored the issues raised by the author, informing a debate that is still very much alive.

Tsai had long been interested in the 19th-century original, which has spawned many critical readings and diverse retellings and adaptations. Tsai’s contribution centers marginalized characters drawn from the author’s lived experience as a queer, biracial person of color in a way that keeps revitalizing texts from the literary canon. Jean Rhys’ “Wide Sargasso Sea” – a postcolonial prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” – is among the most acclaimed novels to have reimagined Western literary classics by including voices that were long denied.

“A lot of us writers love at least one of the classic white literary texts, because that’s often how we came to know literature to begin with,” said Tsai. “I think there’s a beautiful kind of ‘complication’ that can happen when you put yourself into these old stories.”

Tsai’s novel’s relationship with earlier texts is not limited to “Frankenstein,” but also directly involves critical works from a diverse range of authors and scholars. These transtextual relationships highlight the role that literature can still play in helping readers understand themselves and the world around them. 

“It also happens to the creature in the original Frankenstein,” said Tsai. “He has to turn to books to be educated, because there’s no one that will educate him.”

Young Adult literature and other genres at William & Mary

According to Tsai, a more diverse literary landscape allows readers to explore themes and identities that were traditionally neglected. Smaller publishers, they said, are at the forefront of this movement; some genres, such as Young Adult, provide a particularly fertile space.

“Young Adult has completely changed since I was a young adult,” they said. “When I was a teenager, YA was focused on guiding young people through how to deal with the challenges of coming of age, bullying, young love and so on.”

And then “Twilight” and “Harry Potter” happened, Tsai said.

“They really changed the landscape. So now we have a lot of fantasy, identity-driven fiction and fiction addressing complex topics for young people.”

In fall 2023, William & Mary offered Young Adult fiction as an advanced creative writing class for the first time, which Tsai described as one of the most enjoyable classes they had ever taught.

“A particular highlight was when YA author Mark Oshiro visited the class through Zoom and was able to answer the students’ questions on ‘Each of Us a Desert,’ one of the texts they studied in the class,” they said. “I hope we’re able to offer this course again in the future.” 

At the same time, Tsai recognized that writing successful Young Adult fiction could be challenging in a market that has become saturated and that social media tendencies are changing rapidly: A prime example is the #BookTok community on the TikTok social media app, which is driving sales and influencing publishing trends among fears it may homogenize the industry. And so, Tsai urged writers to find a unique angle in order to emerge. 

Like their peers, W&M students seem to be enthused by Young Adult as a genre, Tsai said; at the same time, they come from a wealth of knowledge that spans multiple genres, including the classics. Initiatives such as the Hayes Writers Series, run by the creative writing program, give them exposure to professional writers from all genres; also, creative writing students have the opportunity to work directly with published, award-winning faculty and visiting authors from the Donaldson Writer in Residence Program.

“We’re very much interested in hybrid forms that blend genres,” said Associate Professor Jon Pineda, a poet, memoirist and novelist who serves as creative writing program director. 

Responding to student interest, he said, the program will be offering two screenwriting courses next year: one in the fall, taught by himself, and another in the spring, taught by Associate Professor Brian Castleberry. Also, a new special topics course in flash nonfiction, an extremely concise form, will be taught by Associate Professor Caitlin McGill.

“It’s really exciting to see students really be influenced by a number of voices, rather than just one stock voice,” said Tsai.

, Senior Research Writer