Books, Culture, publishing

In Conversation with R.F. Kuang

This interview first appeared in The Teeming Mass in Spring 2020

My Zoom call with the award-winning fantasy writer R.F. Kuang starts not with discussions of her formidable list of writing credentials but on much more common ground — exams. “At this point, I really just need to pass like, I’m into Yale,” says Kuang wryly, clad in a hoodie, “I’m very much feeling like a second semester senior. But I also feel pathologically unable to turn in bad work.” But despite her academic footing, she laughs when I ask her why she chose fantasy as her genre when her trilogy is so preoccupied with Chinese politics and history. 

“I could give a cool academic answer, like, ‘fantasy and fabulism is a refracting prism for reality; and the metaphor of opium, something that was such a symbol of weakness in Chinese history, turned into a device of power for Chinese resistance, to me speaks of the potential of fantasy as a genre’. But that’s not true […] I think all I thought was fantasy is really cool. And I enjoyed reading it a lot. I was also influenced by like Chinese Wuxia novels, TV shows and manga […] So when I sat down to start writing it just seemed like the obvious format for the story wanted to tell.” 

I wonder how she set out applying Asian influences to such a Eurocentric genre. “Well, I’m in an interesting place because I’m not a Chinese writer,” she tells me, “I’m a Chinese American writer. So I am just as formed by Western influences and Western stories as I am by Chinese mythology and lore.” Still, acknowledging the Chinese-inspired setting and mythology of the novel, she says “a lot of the world building and the themes of the story are drawn from Chinese history and mythology, like The Investiture of the Gods […] Everybody knows about Journey to the West, but I think Investiture of the Gods is cooler and trippier. And that forms the mythological backbone of the entire trilogy. That being said […] the hero’s journey, the three act structure, and especially military school stories, or Magic School stories — all of those are tropes imported from the West. So it’s a cultural mishmash of both and, and just like I can’t let go of one of my identities, when I’m writing, I have to be working on the border. It leads to weird readings of my work because for Chinese people, it’s not Chinese enough […] and for Western people, it’s either too Chinese, or I get really weird reviews that are like, ‘Hmm, I don’t think the author knows very much about China. See, I’m a big fan of Chinese dramas, and I watch a lot of Wuxia and this just like aesthetically and culturally didn’t feel Chinese to me at all.’ And I’m like, ‘I literally have advanced degrees in Chinese history […] Definitely that’s why I think my most enthusiastic reading base are young women of color, especially diaspora women who see themselves in the story in a way that a lot of other readers don’t necessarily.”

“There were just not a lot of diaspora books,” Kuang says of the lack of Asian representation in literature. “The first big adult fantasy by a Chinese American author, obviously is Ken Lu’s The Grace of Kings, which I did read right before I drafted The Poppy War. I was kind of insecure about reading it at first because Ken Lu is such a big name obviously. And I think especially when you’re a marginalized writer, it feels like there’s only space in the market for one ‘Asian novel’ […] But once I did read it and realized that it was a big budget fantasy novel published by one of the big five, it was really cool to realize that there was space in the market for something like what I was attempting, and I think that if I had not been aware of Ken Lu, or Cindy Pon […] I just would have assumed that Western publishing didn’t want a story like it.”

For all our discussion about the influence of Fantasy on Kuang and her work, she reveals that the book she had set out to write was not the Fantasy novel that The Poppy War became. “Once I started learning all of my family history, I did think briefly about making it a family autobiography. Like Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, which is very popular, and I did start attempting to write it that way. I wrote some scenes of me being in Beijing reflecting on conversations I just had with my grandparents but that just like hits too close to home. That’s so intensely personal and painful and, and in order to do a family history, you have to get all these details and go through all these archives and that was A) something I did not feel competent doing when I was 19 and did not have a full historian’s training and B) something that I couldn’t put my grandparents through. They were episodes that were clearly so difficult for them to talk about. I think it would have been really malicious to subject them to 4-5 hour interviews, talking about some of the worst parts of recent Chinese history. All for a book project. So fantasy is like just one step removed enough to protect the people that history is about.” 

And The Poppy War, fantasy genre and all, does not shy away from depicting painful episodes in history. A particularly harrowing scene in the first book is a direct retelling of the events of the Rape of Nanjing. “I knew that the Rape of Nanjing was going to be discussed in depth before I ever started drafting the book,” she tells me. “I just read Iris Chung’s book on the Rape of Nanjing. And it blew my mind because I had never heard about this […] And I wanted to create a work that addressed that and that somehow grappled with its legacy, because it’s a really fraught issue not just for China today, but also for a lot of diaspora Chinese who, who can be united by this sort of common trauma. And I don’t think writing about it through the lens of fantasy makes it easier. […] I think writing about it through a fantasy perspective also makes it more difficult because you have to be […] grappling with the violence in a significant way. A lot of grimdark novels, and a lot of novels that feature sexual assault written by men, just don’t deal with the consequences of what something like that does for the survivors […] It is often just like a spectacle for the hero to witness and then move on. And I tried very hard not to fall into those traps.”

And reading her books, it’s obvious that for all the war and violence they contain, there is a meaning to everything Kuang writes. With that in mind, I’m curious about the trilogy’s main character. Kuang has stated that Rin’s life is meant to parallel the trajectory of Mao Xedong, and it was a comparison that immediately fascinated me. 

“I’m fundamentally an ‘ideas’ author,” Kuang explains. “When I sat down to write The Poppy War I didn’t think I wanted to tell the story of these two idiot children and their grudge that spans wars. I wanted to first explore the momentous changes in 20th century Chinese history […] it is asking whether the rise of communist movements all over the Third World around World War Two was a justified response to imperialism. And what were the consequences of that? And did they succeed in their missions of liberation, or did they inflict more suffering than colonialism and imperialism did? That is really the struggle that The Burning God deals with like, do you want a genocidal communist dictator or do you want to be a colony? So that was the first thing. The second thing was, once I started reading a lot of books on Chinese history, and especially biographies on Mao Xedong, I became really curious about how somebody gets to that position and makes the decisions that they do. I think that in high school history classes,the unsatisfying explanation we get is that people like Stalin and Mao are just monsters but […] I think it’s more interesting to ask, what are the things that would drive somebody  to commit atrocities like this? […] And then instead of just like rewriting a Mao character, because honestly, I think he’s despicable and we have so many biographies of Mao already, I thought it’d be even more interesting to make her as sympathetic as possible. A young, dark skinned woman of color in a patriarchal, racist, classist society: what happens when she gets power?”

Her mention of The Burning God, the hotly anticipated upcoming conclusion to The Poppy War saga immediately piques my interest. Kuang has been documenting some of her editing process, as well as snippets and early press teasers for the book on her Twitter, intermixed with some familiar grievances about finishing a degree remotely. Still, it seems Kuang has not only been surviving writing in quarantine, but thriving on it. “I’m actually one of the lucky ones. I’ve been more productive in quarantine just because I have so much time and space during the day to write […] I’ve made a lot of progress on book four.” It’s not all smooth sailing, as she shows me the notecard-covered wall behind her, the outline for her fourth book. “The dog eats those — sticky notes go missing and […] I saw this half chewed-up sticky note with this character’s tragic backstory on it in a hallway. Coco comes in here, snatches random stickies off the wall and then eats them. She’s taking off all the good stuff which really puts me in paroxysms of doubt. But yeah, I finished copy editing and doing like all the work I needed to for The Burning God.” 

She acknowledges the strangeness of closing out a trilogy she’s been working on for so long. “It feels really weird. This is the project that I’ve been working on since I was 19. I think it’s rare for anyone to have five years of their life subsumed by a single world, a single trilogy […] Imagine being stuck with Rin and Nezha for five years, 24/7! It’s agonizing. So, honestly, I was ready to say goodbye […] Book four is super exciting to me now. And The Burning God is like, whatever, bye! Those three books really felt like training wheels for what I’m trying to do next. I think I can write with a level of subtlety and nuance and deeper consideration of issues than I was when I was a fucking undergrad! […] I’m still really proud of The Burning God though, because I think the books got better throughout the trilogy. And I think The Burning God is way, way better than The Dragon Republic. I think The Poppy War was the worst thing ever wrote, honestly, I’m embarrassed that it was published.” She laughs, fondly exasperated as though she’s talking about old essays from school. “Not a single person I’ve seen online or anywhere has correctly predicted how it’s going to end” she notes, “and I think I’m really happy with the ending, I think it’s going to be very satisfying. I didn’t take any easy ways out and there are no happy endings, obviously, but it’s not super pessimistic and tragic either. One thing I’ve tried really hard to accomplish through the trilogy is to make sure that nobody gets off for what they’ve done. Everybody has to face the consequences of their actions. And everybody has to grapple with the demons that haunt them and the things that they stand for. To justify why those things are worth fighting for — the whole trilogy has been asking the question of how do cycles of violence replicate themselves? […] It’s clear to see the trajectory Rin has taken — basically, Mao’s communist movement as a response to Western imperialism. And that clash is coming. And we know how it ended in 20 century Chinese history. And we know it ended in a horrible tragic way that led to the death of millions. And I’m asking what are the alternatives, but I really can’t say more than that without giving away the whole end game.”

I resist the urge to pause and beg for the fates of my favourite characters and instead focus on Kuang’s excitement for her fourth book. She has explained on Twitter that it will be a Dark Academia novel, taking inspiration from her time in Oxford and Cambridge. 

“I mean, the schools are so classist,” she exclaims, “the amount of money on display is disgusting. And it’s not clear that the money is being used in ways that would best benefit marginalized students like it […] There’s also this ongoing refusal to acknowledge colonial and imperialist history. I was looking for academic works on the troubled, racist, exploitative history of both of these institutions. Because it’s not just Oxford and Cambridge, right? It’s Harvard, Yale, Princeton, all institutions that produce people who go on to serve in positions of power, and then turn around and influence the academy in a way that makes sure that wealth and power continue accruing at the top and the people who are trained in those schools and, you know, keep graduating to serve those positions; this is a self serving system of elitism. And we have to acknowledge that the university is not only a site of knowledge production, but also a site of ongoing colonial violence. When I was looking for books about this […] I thought, am I just suddenly a really bad researcher? Because I can’t find anything. But actually it turns out that nobody has done this research because the university didn’t want anybody doing this research or didn’t think it was necessary. It was only in 2018 […] that Oxford assigned a researcher at one of the colleges to look into its colonial past […] And it’s like, it’s 2018! Read the room! […] They’re so conservative, so classist, so rich, and so clearly interested in maintaining their positions as classist, rich, elitist institutions. This is not to say that radical activists can’t come up through the schools, and which is not to say that they’ve not offered great opportunities for students of colour. But just because you have a few success stories out of Oxbridge doesn’t mean that the whole institution is okay. And another thing that has bothered me a lot ever since I won the Marshall and have been at Oxbridge and will be at Yale with full funding next year is: what is the complicity of marginalized students who accept positions at these institutions? It’s really weird to be a POC on a scholarship at these places, because it’s like, wow, Oxford is giving me money to study there, so I can’t be ungrateful and I can’t criticize it. And I should just […] do my program and be happy and, like, be proud of the Oxford degree. But at the same time, it’s like… I was talking to my friend, Aksha who’s also a Marshall scholar and was at Trinity and she was like, ‘As somebody who is the child of Indian immigrants, being at Oxford is super weird for me because I know what this school and the people who have been trained at this school did to my country’ […] And there’s a lot of guilt because being part of […] the elite class of people who get to go to those schools is also cool. It’s cool to get to go to the wine tastings and the balls and feel for a second like you’re a part of that world, even though in important ways you never will be and and I struggle a lot with ‘how do I justify enjoying it? Like how do I justify being a champagne socialist basically, enjoying the benefit while knowing, deep in my bones, there’s so much wrong with it and it must be dismantled? And that is something that I’m trying to explore with book four, which imagines students of color in 1830s Oxford.”

 It certainly is a conflict familiar to me and to many of the marginalised students studying at elite institutions, but the allure of such spaces is undeniable. “I think Dark Academia is really appealing because we want to buy into the illusion of the Academy, this gorgeous Gothic space where you can simply live in the realm of ideas and be in communion with dead thinkers and, and that’s all that need affect you,” she explains when I ask her about the phenomenon. You can keep strolling the grounds with your friends and drink Pimms and live your Victorian English romantic lifestyle, and that’s a really attractive fantasy. I think a lot of us who are fans of these books, that’s what we want. That’s why we go to schools like Oxford. I think that the best works of Dark Academia all attempt subtle critiques of this, like The Secret History is one of my favorite books ever. When I first read it, I was like, ‘this is really elitist. These kids are just getting away with this murder’. Upon further reflection, I think the self criticism, and the irony is there. The whole point is that they are so isolated. They bought so fully into this classist fantasy that they think that something as mundane as accidentally killing somebody should not interfere with their rarefied existence as students of the Greeks. That and Ninth House, which are obviously brilliant attempt the most explicit criticism of these institutions that I think Dark Academia has produced so far. But a frustration I have with the genre is that a lot of the most popular works of Dark Academia are by white women. And I think that shows in the themes that they choose to focus on. And I think that their critiques of the academy are not radical enough […] It’s not enough to point out that the university produces a space where students are so privileged […] it’s that the university itself is a violent institution. The universities are built on blood and they continue producing people in positions of power, who will make sure that that bloodshed continues. So rather than asking how do we engage in the university as a space […] I think we should ask: what right does the University have to exist in the first place? And what serious interrogative work has to be done for an alternative, non-violent University? If I keep talking about that, I really will just spoil the end of the next book which I have a habit of doing. But I think we need to do a deeper investigation into the bones of the university itself, rather than the lifestyle that some rich pricks are living after university.”

Kuang speaks to a wide-reaching tendency that people have when attempting to critique academic institutions from the outside in, assuming that the academy is a monolith and all experiences within it are the same.

“I’m always amused when Dark Academia is marketed as like these horrible secrets happening at this privileged University”, she says when I point this out to her. “Those horror shows are already happening — mental health resources, racism on campus, sexual assault. You do not need to look beyond everyday life as a woman of color at a top 10 school to find these dark secrets.” She smiles. “Forget summoning a Demon Lord, forget accidentally murdering one of your students. There’s ongoing oppression at universities that the most Dark Academia books by virtue of being largely about cis white protagonists never really cared to deal with”.

R.F. Kuang’s upcoming book, THE BURNING GOD, is out November 17 and is available for preorder now.

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