An Open Letter to Chenna (Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan)

whose silence is grace and empathy her strength

This is part of a series called Margin Letters, where I write open letters to fictional characters of content I love. Please let me know what you think!

Chenna is one of the eight Paper Girls who serve as concubines to the Bull King of Ikhara for a term of one year. She hails from a prominent Paper caste family based in the southern province of Jana. Only the events of the first book, Girls of Paper and Fire, are covered in this post. I have not read the sequel, Girls of Storm and Shadow, because of plans to binge the whole series when Book 3, Girls of Fate and Fury, comes out in November 2021. Spoilers ahead!

Dear Chenna,

How are you? This is a safe space to say everything that you have been holding in during your time as Paper Girl. Here’s my reading buddy, Turtel. You can hug him while you finally take this time to be alone and free from the prying eyes of the King and other men and madams who let them be.

Stuffed toy turtle looking at the camera and is on top of the book Girls of Paper and Fire.
“Do you need a hug?”

Watching you and the other Paper Girls walk into the Paper House and go through everything every single day hurt my heart. Even though you were surrounded by all kinds of luxuries available in Ikhara–the King collected every single thing of beauty, after all–there was no measure of comfort that could ever make up for having your life and body sold away to the court. 

It hurt to hear the whispers that spread after you were the first one to be chosen from your batch. Everything that you have was called into question–looks, your family connections, your political value–debated, weighed, and picked apart as if your value rested solely on what you can offer the King. It took Lei’s innocent question–”maybe the King was attracted to her the most”–to snap everyone out of their grumblings. I hoped against hope that Lei was right. Because in some way, she was right: you are more than what the King and the court and the rotten system of Ikhara demands from you. You are so much more, and your strength and your story deserve to far more than the page space the patriarchal culture allows.

Whenever I meet you on the page, two words come to mind: strength and grace.

Knowledge is power, and you have made it your weapon. Among the Paper Girls, you are the most politically aware. You ask about the raids in fringe provinces. You are well aware of the rumors surrounding the Demon Queen and are the first one to ask if she has birthed any children. You know how to listen while the politics of the court rage and burn around you, forever keeping tabs of what the King says after a drink and piecing together information that reveals more and more of Ikhara’s dark soul. You have always been watchful and aware, and you bide your time. Do you know how much you have helped Lei and Wren accomplish the coup through the information you hold? I can’t imagine the story succeeding without your cool, calm presence. It takes a special kind of strength to keep yourself alert and armed with information without letting any of it break you and take even more from you. 

You may not take up much space in a conversation like Aoki and Blue do, but there is always weight in what you say. It’s humbling to hear you admit that it wasn’t easy for you either. You offer your heart to the people who need you. You comfort Blue even when she lashes out at everyone. You sit with Lei when she is wracked with confusion and pain. You pray to Kunih, the god of redemption, for the souls of the slain paper castes. You’ve appointed yourself guardian of the Paper Girls: a pillar of comfort and empathy when Madam Himura or Mistress Eira cannot. Instead of retreating to a shell and blocking out the world, you instead made it much more bearable and a little bit sweeter. That’s power, Chenna.

You have power.

Sometimes, the strongest thing that I can do to survive the nightmares is to hold myself together and to keep my silence. They do not deserve my words. They do not deserve the satisfaction of watching me break all over again, but this time from the weight of my own words and the knives of my own voice. Sometimes, the bravest thing to do is to bide my time. If I do speak, it is to enjoy the love and beauty that is all around me–to not deny myself of the life that the black moon tries its hardest to snuff out of me. Most of the time, I wonder if this decision is right. But I read what you do to stay strong, and I think that maybe, we’re on to something. Maybe this is what saves the day.

The book ends with no peace in sight for the Paper Girls remaining in the palace. I hope that you are all safe and that, despite even tighter restrictions that would likely be in place after Lei and Wren’s exit. I wish that the King will not punish you for their actions and that your strength and grace be enough for now while you wait for freedom. Waiting is not useless. Hope is not weakness. Your perseverance is the oxygen to Lei and Wren’s fuel, and when you’re all together again, the Paper Girls can set this court ablaze.

A sister,

Nae

2 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Chenna (Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan)”

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