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R.F. Kuang on THE POPPY WAR, Peace, and Confronting History

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S.W. Sondheimer

Staff Writer

When not prying Legos and gaming dice out of her feet, S.W. Sondheimer is a registered nurse at the Department of Therapeutic Misadventures, a herder of genetic descendants, cosplayer, and a fiction and (someday) comics writer. She is a Yinzer by way of New England and Oregon and lives in the glorious 'Burgh with her husband, 2 smaller people, 2 cats, a fish, and a snail. She occasionally tries to grow plants, drinks double-caffeine coffee, and has a habit of rooting for the underdog. It is possible she has a book/comic book problem but has no intention of doing anything about either. Twitter: @SWSondheimer

The Poppy War cover by RF Kuang

Rebecca Kuang is a busy woman. Her debut novel, The Poppy War, has just gone to a third printing, she just finished her undergraduate degree, and she starts graduate school on a Marshall Fellowship in the fall. She was on several panels at SDCC but, despite her tight schedule, she found time to talk to me about her books, their inspirations, and the future.

BR: I was doing some research on your bio and I came across your blog, where you talked about The Poppy War being based on a specific historical event. Tell us a little more about that, because I think it’s something a lot of people may not pick up that they should know.

RFK: Chapter 21, which is the chapter that is “trigger warnings from here to the moon,” is about the 1937 Rape of Nanking. The occupying Japanese army spent six weeks raping and laughing and mutilating and perpetrating every sort of atrocity on the residents. It’s been referred to as “The Forgotten Holocaust” because this was a massacre that was not talked about until it was dredged up in the 1980s and ’90s. If you ask the average American, “Have you heard of the Rape of Nanking…did you know about these war time atrocities?” they say, “No,” because we don’t teach about Asia in American classrooms. It was important for me to write about that, because there were no fictional books about that. It’s not a narrative white people are familiar with. It’s also a fraught topic right now because…there are Holocaust deniers, which is horrible, but imagine it’s academics and officials and scholars saying, “Oh, the Nanking Massacre didn’t really happen or, if it did, not that many people were killed, it wasn’t 300,000,” or even, “if 300,000 people were killed, they were enemy combatants and not civilians,” or that the atrocities were committed by Chinese soldiers, which is ludicrous. This is an ongoing contested historical fact between Chinese and Japanese scholars and it’s worth talking about.

BR: Are there books you would recommend to readers who want to educate themselves more on these issues, on the Rape of Nanking or any other incidents you feel strongly people should know about and don’t learn about in school?

RFK: The best text on China during World War II is Rana Mitter’s Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, a 2013 text that’s the most comprehensive text on the Pacific theatre and China. It’s a little heavy. Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II is far more accessible—a primer everyone should read. Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze by Peter Harmsen is a really good history of the Japanese invasion of Shanghai.


BR: Something you said toward the end of that blog entry that really struck me was: “Silence hurts so much worse than discussing even horrible atrocities.” Was there a crux in your study or somewhere else when you thought, “Now is the time I’m going to do this?”

RFK: I don’t know if there was as sudden moment; it was was the ongoing erasure of sexual violence again women who aren’t white across military history. It’s frustrating and devastating.

BR: You’re in academia, about to go to grad school, but you’ve also chosen to write fiction. Do you think there’s something about fiction that makes it a good teaching tool?

RFK: Definitely. I can talk about the relationship between fantasy and history forever, but the reason I chose to write fantasy is: A) it’s an accessible way to reach an audience that wouldn’t be interested in picking up a history book, because you’re telling a narrative and making historical, political arguments, but through story, which is universally appealing. The second is that sometimes painful, intergenerational trauma and memories…autobiographies are really difficult to produce because it requires talking to people who are dead or asking people who are alive to relive their trauma for hours and hours. Fiction is this incredible tool of radical empathy where you imagine yourself in that situation and you do the attendant research and figure out based on sources what was going on, but have the freedom to fill in the blanks and project yourself backwards in time, which is a really cool mental exercise. Also, we were talking about—yesterday on my panel—the wonderful thing about speculative fiction is you can take some aspect of society, some facet, something about power dynamics, and refract it. That’s so unique about fantasy. Nothing else allows us to distort large issues to look at them better.

BR: I’m seeing a trend in the fantasy I’m reading that I love, which is: whatever the rebellion is, women built this rebellion. Tell us a little more about you developed Rin and if she had any fictional inspirations, or if she was inspired by someone you actually knew?

RFK: Rin is actually inspired by Mao Zedong. The question the trilogy tries to answer is: how does somebody go from being an irrelevant, backwater, peasant nobody to being a megalomaniac dictator capable of killing millions of people? I’ve always been interested in how people become murderers or perpetrators of genocide. I’m not really interested in “sociopathy” as an answer because it’s not really an answer and it’s boring because it’s…easy. But suppose this person is actually deeply empathetic and cares deeply about her friends and the people close to her, genuinely wants to do the right thing and save people, what do you do with a character like that? How do they get from point A to point B of genocide? It’s also important in understanding the mob mentality and how genocide happens, because what about collaborators? Some people are just bystanders who are biased and willing to let things happen.

BR: I also recently read Children of Blood and Bone. Something I noticed in your book, that one, and some other female based fiction is that the women are angry and no one says, “You shouldn’t be angry,” which isn’t something we see so much in reality.

RFK: I think people do tell Rin not to be angry. There is a deep patriarchy present in The Poppy War because it’s set in ancient China, which was deeply patriarchal. But just because the characters in a world aren’t feminist doesn’t mean that the text can’t be feminist. You can portray female characters being told not to be angry but being angry anyway. I think that pushback is important to illustrate too. I’m not interested in utopias where gender parity is suddenly assumed; I’m more interested in how we get there. That’s such a complicated issue. Hierarchies don’t disappear, they shift, and we need to talk about how they shift.

BR: One of the moments that really stuck out to me was Rin choosing to be sterilized very young. She had no question about it being what she wanted, and no one asked if she was sure.

RFK: I think it’s fraught. There are a couple of angles: it can be read as an empowering moment where her life isn’t tied to her reproductive capacity…you get to do your stuff and do what you want to…on the other side, she was so young, nobody counseled her, nobody talked her through the consequences, and I think she was pressured to do it. I think she was coerced and misled and not given enough time to consider. You could go so far as to call it abuse by the school. If that happened in any school today, we’d be like, “What the *^%$?” It’s another illustration of the cruelty in this world…she’s made to believe getting rid of her womb immediately is the only way to compensate. People have made a valid point: why don’t we also talk about how women cope with their periods, with having all the body parts of assigned female at birth? Those are equally empowering and that option is not offered to her at any point because that’s not what these people are about. They’re pretty horrible. The third thing…I think for so many female characters, because there are so few of them across fantasy, every time they make a life changing choice, that gets read as a prescription for how all women should act, and I think we need to reach a point where that is right for Rin but not arguing that all women should get hysterectomies. Women are different and women make different choices. I think it was a sad choice but if I had been her, I think I would have done the same thing.

BR: You write some tough stuff. What are your escape routes when you’re writing?

RFK: I watch The Office a lot. When I was working on Chapter 21, I would go on really long walks between paragraphs. It took me two weeks to write because you don’t want to spend hours and hours in that zone. I listened to K-pop music.

BR: How did you fit it all in? You were an undergrad when you were writing The Poppy War.

RFK: I wrote the first book when I took a gap year, between my junior and senior year, to teach debate in China. I was working a 9 to 5 job but I also didn’t have homework for the first time in my life I could remember. When I got back to school and had more books to write on a deadline…”&^$^.” People are always asking me about time-management and I don’t have a good answer because I haven’t figure it out. I’m about to start grad school and I looked at my syllabi for next year and thought, “I will not be producing work for a while.”

BR: Is writing stories something you’ve done for a long time or did you discover it in that gap year?

RFK: I had never finished a novel or set out to. I actually hadn’t written finished short stories before I wrote that (The Poppy War). I would keep a diary, but instead of a diary of my actual experiences, it would be my thoughts and feelings refracted into fictional characters who were leading much cooler lives…there was no structure imposed until I had that free time. Writing used to be my creative outlet but now that it’s become a job, it can’t function as that because the story needs something different from what I’m feeling. I’ve actually started teaching myself to draw. I think everybody need something that’s just for them that doesn’t have the pressure of expectations or anybody watching.

BR: Do you have any time to read for fun?

RFK: I actually read a lot! I finish a book every couple of days. I’m actually going to start a review blog (named Journey to the BEST!—a pun on Journey to the West) and I’m so exited for this…by Asian authors about forthcoming Asian books. I have Akemi Dawn Bowman’s Summer Bird Blue, Natasha Ngan’s Girls of Paper and Fire…(most recently) my friend told me to read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I’ve been trying not to read too many books that have a majority white cast or white authors this year but.…the lady won a Pulitzer…

BR: The Poppy War is going to be a trilogy. You’re done with book 2 and you’re working on book 3. You’ve also written some nonfiction pieces. Where do you go from there? Do you plan to go back to writing after grad school?

RFK: I think I’ll always write novels. I’ve written a couple cultural commentary articles and I’d like to do more of that, I’m just not sure what I’d write about; I think I need more education. My academic career will aways come before my writing career.

BR: Are there other historical events you’re eyeing for future projects?

RFK: I’m going to do a Tiananmen Square project after this trilogy. My dad was there, he was a student when it happened. He emigrated to the U.S. right after. That is a story that’s been in my family for a long time. The question of student revolutions and how important they are, even though they almost always fail, is important to me…why do we remember them if they weren’t successful, or does the fact we remember them mean they were successful?

BR: What is your field of study?

RFK: Modern Chinese History and then a second masters in Japanese history because you can’t understand modern China without understanding Japan. Then I’ll do a PhD in Chinese studies back in the States.

I’m sure all of you are as excited to follow Rebecca’s career as I am, be it on the academic or creative side. There are no release dates for the second and third installments on The Poppy War series yet, but we’ll keep you posted.