Blog Chat with RF Kuang

I started A Cup of Cyanide in Summer 2018, only a couple months after The Poppy War was published and I was so excited to have gotten my hands ona copy after BookCon 2018. And yeah, I was blown away. It’s easy to say that reading that book completely changed my view on Western-published Fantasy. For me, this was the first time seeing Chinese diaspora voices finally being heard and celebrated. It’s success, to me, signaled a shift where I no longer had to rely only on translated Chinese novels for Chinese representation.

Within the past several years, I’ve been delighted to see a huge influx of Chinese voices within Western SFF publishing. Now, more than two years later, I’m so excited to get to take part in The Burning God Blog Tour. Here, we talk Chinese-Diaspora identities, opening up to hearing the stories of our families, balancing our identities against current politics, and grad school applications. Thank you so much to Rebecca for this opportunity!

After saving her nation of Nikan from foreign invaders and battling the evil Empress Su Daji in a brutal civil war, Fang Runin was betrayed by allies and left for dead. 

Despite her losses, Rin hasn’t given up on those for whom she has sacrificed so much—the people of the southern provinces and especially Tikany, the village that is her home. Returning to her roots, Rin meets difficult challenges—and unexpected opportunities. While her new allies in the Southern Coalition leadership are sly and untrustworthy, Rin quickly realizes that the real power in Nikan lies with the millions of common people who thirst for vengeance and revere her as a goddess of salvation. 

Backed by the masses and her Southern Army, Rin will use every weapon to defeat the Dragon Republic, the colonizing Hesperians, and all who threaten the shamanic arts and their practitioners. As her power and influence grows, though, will she be strong enough to resist the Phoenix’s intoxicating voice urging her to burn the world and everything in it? 

a conversation

This first one’s a 2-parter. It’s also pretty personal, so please talk only to your comfort level. In your experience, do you find that Asian parents don’t tell their children about their past/At what age did your parents start telling about their history?

For context, I read in one of your interviews about how your dad had attended the Tiananmen square protests and I was reminded about a conversation I’d had with two desi girls during a grad school visit about how none of our parents hadn’t told us stories of their past as we grew up. About a year ago, my dad had picked me up from the airport and on our conversation home, just casually dropped that both he and my mom had attended the protests and that he even had a scar from a stray bullet. Both of my parents are 北大 alumni and it should have occurred to me that they’d been students around that time. More recently, we’d had conversations about how they’d used to be enthralled with capitalism because the communist system wasn’t working, books they had to read because Mao disagreed with them and their thoughts, etc, but these conversations have only started happening in the last year and a half or so. I’m fascinated with why (in my sample size of 3) Asian parents seem to wait. I’m inclined to think, for me at least, that it was partially due to some ingrained repression of wanting to be more white and them not wanting to address that but I was curious if you had any thoughts.

First of all, these questions are simply fire, so thank you for asking about the interesting things. I think what you described is pretty common – a lot of first generation Asian kids I know either never spoke with their parents about things that happened to them in the mainland, or else didn’t find out until they were much older. I’m not sure how much of it has to do with wanting to be more “white.” I think it has to do with the sheer difficulty of speaking about trauma. I think that for a lot of Chinese immigrants, the journey to the America is a chance to escape and to start over. Obviously, you can’t fully sever ties to your past, nor does everyone want to. Many people still have extended family in mainland China. Many people never fully “assimilate” (whatever that means” to white America, nor do they necessarily want to. But it’s understandable that you might not want to discuss past traumas, nor would you want to raise your children under the shadows of the past.

But the past doesn’t just disappear, does it? So many of us start asking questions. We look backwards. And since our history isn’t taught in American public high schools or indeed in the standard curriculum of many American universities, we turn to our parents and grandparents, or we forage to create our own syllabi. And so a process which is already fraught by virtue of the complexities of diaspora identity becomes what feels like a lonely undertaking. What gives me heart, though, is that Chinese diaspora kids, and Asian diaspora kids, seem to have gotten much better at forming community in recent years. When I started researching the Nanjing Massacre, I felt like I had no one to talk to about what I was learning. Now there are Facebook groups, reading groups, and discords. That’s pretty cool.

What are your thoughts on balancing your interest in Chinese culture, history, and society with the rise of anti-Chinese racism in the West and actions taken by the CCP?

Within the past two years, I found myself really trying to reach back and look at my Chinese roots. I’ll shamefullly admit that this was in large part due to getting obsessed with the donghua 魔道祖师 and right after binging an English fan translation of the book (finals week is just so productive) but I’ve absolutely fallen in love with the wuxia genre. I’ve read several webnovels, watched some C-dramas, and even watched an idol survival show in attempt to practice my Chinese. At the same time, sinophobia in the West and especially the US, has been on a sharp rise, in part due to anti-Asian and anti-Chinese racism but also in part due to the legitimate backlash towards actions taken by the CCP. There’s times I’ll feel frustrated when I see blatant anti-Chinese articles on the internet decrying nothing actions, when friends send me said articles and see racist comments about the Chinese. At the same time, I know there are legitimate concerns against CCP actions and I sometimes do feel bad about directly supporting services or buying items and I know in my heart that my actions alone won’t make a huge difference.

Generally, I think people are pretty bad at unpacking the difference between regime and ethnicity. People are also pretty bad at recognizing that it’s indeed possible to celebrate the history, heritage, and culture of a nation while simultaneously recognizing all the fucked-up things it’s done. I mean…aha, look, I’m an American too! The USA has done just as many fucked up things to people at home and abroad as the PRC, yet people don’t feel bad about eating – what’s a quintessentially American food? Key lime pie? Nor should they, because key lime pie isn’t the American military industrial complex, in the same way that C-dramas aren’t China’s policies towards ethnic minorities. (There are ways in which C-dramas can carry strong ideological undertones that justify those policies, though, which is a separate conversation.) What you’re describing is essentialist, reductive logic – the equating of nation with the histories, cultures, counter-histories, and counter-cultures within it – so I think the answer to your question starts with recognizing that every polity involves a multiplicity of personal experiences. Patriotism means a lot of different things to different people. 

I’ve talked a lot in these last two so I’ll leave this third one pretty open-ended. From me, a girl in engineering who, this year, applied to 6 schools, interviewed with 4, and got accepted to 0, do you have any advice for grad school apps?

I think the appropriate advice varies a ton across disciplines, so I can only speak to my experience applying to PhD programs in modern Chinese literatures. I made a short list of schools based mostly on which supervisors’ research interests most closely matched my own, and then spent the entire summer before my application cycle reading at least one book by each of those supervisors. It gave me a better idea of their research methodologies and their preferred analytical frameworks (which, I think, helped when it came to the interviews.) I think, crucially, it also gave me a better idea as to who would be a good fit as a supervisor and who wouldn’t. I ended up deciding where to go based on whose work was the best example of the research that I hope to do in the future.

The other thing I learned was that PhD applications really are such a crap shoot. You can have all the right qualifications and still not get in because the advisor might be just a tad bit too disinterested in your particular research questions, or because there were too many people competing for two or three spots, or because the admissions committee was having a bad day. You never know. For example, I got into a bunch of good schools and ultimately chose Yale. But Princeton didn’t even bother to interview me – I found their rejection letter in my spam months later (lol). I don’t think that means that Princeton though I was a bad candidate, I think it means that I really just wasn’t a good fit, and when you’re trying to pick a cohort of very few students, you’re going to immediately throw out everyone who wouldn’t be an amazing match with the faculty you have. What this does mean, though, is that it’s absolutely worth it to apply again, perhaps to a different slate of schools. While I was having daily panic attacks during this application cycle, I heard from a ton of people who got into a high-ranking PhD program their second time around, and that gave me a lot of comfort.

I mentioned above that I got really into 魔道祖师 around two years and in my previous emails I think I mentioned that I’ve watched anime since I was a kid. With MDZS, I joined the fandom back when it was still lurking around on Tumblr and fandom Twitter, but not much further. I have, admittedly, watch it absolutely blow up within the anime community. I attended Anime Expo, the US’s biggest anime convention last summer, where cosplay and art for it was everywhere. I’ve also now heard every possibly bastardized pronunciation of a character’s name. With anime, I’ve more or less grown up and watched it get more and more mainstream, but that’s been a very gradual shift over the course of a decade and, well, I’m Asian so most people will just assume I like anime.

Also, it’s not my culture. That being said, I’ve always existed in a way that marked out specific sphere’s for specific interests. Anime and other “weeb” interests go on one account, ‘respectable’ Western book interests go on another. They don’t mix. Partially out of shame I think? That I don’t want to be perceived as a fangirl? But also partially to fit in, I think. That I have to present a specific, Westernized enough version of me to be able to interact in this sphere. And so, as a rule, I don’t talk about my anime interests, and even if they’re books, I don’t mention that I read Chinese webnovels. A live-action for the show came out last year, which the fandom was very excited for and I thought was alright. Around quarantine, I think, the live-action started blowing up on SFF twitter. Suddenly every non-Chinese, non-Asian blogger I knew was watching the show, talking about it Twitter, and absolutely obsessing over it. Which, for the most part, I was extremely happy about because I could now talk about the show with people who’ve seen it and like it as opposed to a singular friend who gets the brunt of my gushing. However, there was also this small voice in my head saying, “But I was here first. Why is it that I have to wait for non-Asians to like something before I can admit I’ve seen and loved a show?” And I feel like this ties back into this perception that I have to present a front of “being white enough” and that I have to wait for white people to acknowledge and popularize a foreign show to be allowed to acknowledge it too.

Huh, that’s really interesting. I’ve definitely watched what you’re describing happen on social media, though I haven’t participated in it myself (I have no time for fandom of any kind now and it sucks.) I don’t really have the answers for how to engage in this kind of evolution of fandom. But perhaps one piece of encouragement is that a lot of these works were not made for a white audience. They achieved immense popularity in China or Japan or Korea or wherever they originated, and that fan base was enough for them. They don’t need Western validation or support, so the fact that white people are excited about them is just cherry on the cake. And similarly, you don’t need Western validation or support to be excited about something that already has tons of fans on the other side of the world! “Mainstream” is relative.

about the author

Rebecca F. Kuang is the Astounding Award-winning and Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Award nominated author of The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic (Harper Voyager). Her debut novel The Poppy War won the Crawford Award and the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. She has an MPhil in Chinese Studies from the University of Cambridge and is currently pursuing an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies at Oxford University on a Marshall Scholarship. She also translates Chinese science fiction to English. She starts her PhD in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale next fall.

tour schedule

October 5 – Petrik Leo
October 7 – Oro Plata Myta
October 9 – Your Tita Kate
October 12 – Utopia State of Mind
October 14 – Punderings 
October 17 – Lyrical Reads
October 18 – Fannatality
October 20Read at Midnight
October 23 – Tammie Tries to Read
October 27 – A Cup of Cyanide
October 30 – Happy Indulgence
November 6 – Novels and Nebulas
November 9 – Mandarin Mama
November 11 – Camillea Reads
November 13 – Bookdragonism

3 thoughts on “Blog Chat with RF Kuang

  1. This was such an interesting conversation to read – thank you. I still haven’t read these books – I really need to!

    I think this quote hit me hardest: “Generally, I think people are pretty bad at unpacking the difference between regime and ethnicity. People are also pretty bad at recognizing that it’s indeed possible to celebrate the history, heritage, and culture of a nation while simultaneously recognizing all the fucked-up things it’s done.” There is some serious truth there.

    Liked by 1 person

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