R.O. Kwon’s debut novel The Incendiaries has been named “Most Anticipated Book of 2018” by many news outlets such as PBS, New York Times, and Entertainment Weekly. The anticipation and the press is well-deserved considering that she had been working on the novel for the past 10 years. R.O.’s journey to make The Incendiaries a reality was not an easy one. In her essay Why I Don’t Leave the House Without Putting on Black Eye Shadow,”
“Just more than two years ago, I was in particularly low spirits, having labored almost daily for eight-plus years on a first novel that, for all I knew, would never leave my laptop. Any novel is a prolonged act of faith, and my ability to believe was weakening.”
Her work covers themes of religion and loss, coming from her own experience of when she lost her faith in religion at the age of 17. Celeste Ng, New York Times-bestselling author of Little Fires Everywhere and Everything I Never Told You writes, “The Incendiaries probes the seductive and dangerous places to which we drift when loss unmoors us. In dazzlingly acrobatic prose, R.O. Kwon explores the lines between faith and fanaticism, passion and violence, the rational and the unknowable.”
Even though she was in a dark place, she continued to work on other written pieces while working on her novel. Many of her short fiction and nonfiction pieces have been on The Guardian, Vice, BuzzFeed, Noon, Time, Electric Literature, Playboy, and The San Francisco Chronicle.
In a recent Vanity Fair interview, the new Editor of the Paris Review Magazine Emily Nemens mentions R.O. Kwon as part of the new moment in literature. “I think it’s having a really great moment with a ton of new voices.” While she goes through the authors she’s excited about, she singles out two writers in particular: “There are two debut novels this summer coming out from R.O. Kwon and Crystal Hana Kim, both Korean-American authors, and their books are beautiful and it’s a moment where they’re having an opportunity to share their stories.”
I got the chance to talk to R.O. Kwon on the phone to discuss her influences, her sense of family and community, and even karaoke:
How do you feel about being an Asian American writer who's very successful and led up to this debut novel?
R.O. Kwon: When I was growing up there were so few Asian American writers and I really didn't start reading anyone Korean American until after college. I've written about what it meant to me to first encounter Alexander Chee’s and Chang-rae Lee’s work. That was such a meaningful shift for me. It was revelatory to start seeing this demographic aspect of myself in the art I love. I've been so excited by how many more Asian American people have been publishing stories and I love being part of it. I hope there's a lot more to come because there’s not nearly enough.
So I met you at Alexander Chee’s book signing for How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: event and it's amazing to see this group of Asian American writers that's almost like a clique.
ROK: I don't think it's a clique because cliques by definition are pretty exclusive right? I do feel as though I know a lot of Korean American writers, but I think that’s because there are still, relatively speaking, so few of us that it's possible for us to know one another. Korean American writers have a meet-up every year at this big writers’ conference called AWP. I think it's a wonderfully supportive community. I would call it a community.
How does the internet play a role for you in building your community?
ROK: In some ways I wish social media weren't quite so present in my life, what with the amount of time it takes and how distracting it can be. On the other hand, I do love that I have so many friendships with far-flung writers who live all around the country and even the world. I don't think it would be possible to the extent it is without social media. So in those ways I'm I'm really grateful for it.
How do you feel about the concept of universal appeal versus authenticity? Here at Kollaboration we are trying to help young artist tell their diverse story but sometimes it's hard for them to tell their full story, especially being part of the AAPI community.
ROK: I essentially can't think about an audience while I'm writing. I find it to be so absorbing that I'm writing for myself. I think that the idea of universal appeal is in itself non-existent. It's a myth that isn't real. I think that the more specific writing gets, the more exciting it is to me.
So writing for you is very insular and then hopefully when it comes out, it just comes out?
ROK: When I think about it more abstractly, I'm writing primarily for myself, as I said, but then I think about writing for people who are demographically like me. This shows itself on the words level. So an example: someone reasonably asked a question about Phoebe, one of the novel’s protagonist, who has a Korean name, HaejIn. It's also her middle name. Her mother calls her Haejin, her mother never calls her Phoebe. Someone asked if I wanted to note it was her middle name, and did I want to say that in the text? I absolutely did not want to do so because, to any Korean-American reader I could think of and, I think, any Asian-American reader, it would make sense that she would have a different name that her parents would call her. Her parents wouldn't call her Phoebe and I didn't want to have to explain that.
Now that we're talking about your book, can you just give me a small description?
ROK: It's about a woman who gets involved with a group of fundamentalist Christians. The group turns out to be a cult with ties to North Korea, and eventually they end up bombing five buildings, five abortion clinics, in the name of faith.
One of the greatest things about being exposed to diverse stories is that you can learn about narratives that didn’t exist to you before. Before knowing about your book, I never knew there was a strong correlation between Christianity and the Korean Americans. Can you touch on that?
SROK: I grew up in a town that was mostly Asian and Korean American and most of the Korean Americans I knew were Christian, and so deeply Christian at that. There's a statistic I came across that I put in the novel about South Korea: that the country sends more Christian missionaries abroad than any country except the United States, and that's not per capita. That's in absolute numbers, and Korea is really small country in terms of its populations. There is something about the fervor of Koreans and Korean Americans that was interesting to me and that was what I was exploring.
With Asian American literature getting recognized and having screen adaptations: How do you feel about Celeste getting a TV deal with her book and then the Crazy Rich Asians the movie coming out?
ROK: I think it’s fantastic, it’s great. The more the better. I hope they explode and everything goes really well, and that it opens the doors for more Asian American stories. I’m going to watch and support every single one of the exciting Asian American movies and shows that are coming out this year.
So does this put extra pressure from your parents to get a TV deal as well?
ROK: My parents really don't push me in that way. They don't really compare me to others. When I went off to college, they always told me that I should do whatever makes me happy. They have been fantastic. I love them. I’m very grateful.
What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind with your work?
ROK: When I'm not writing my own fiction, it's a real priority for me to try to spotlight and lift up other voices, especially those from marginalized groups, like Asian-Americans and women of color. I just hope that there are more and more stories being told and that the scope just keeps expanding. It feels more critical than ever, given the state of the country and the world.
On a more lighter note that’s not about politics, your karaoke club: can you talk about more about that?
ROK: Yes, sure! It’s the best. It's a group of Asian-American women writers who formed a book club/ karaoke group. We go out to dinner, we talk about a book that we've all read, and then we go out for karaoke (laughs). Yes, it's wonderful. I love it so much. We all love karaoke and we love books.
How much has that helped you with your confidence of being an Asian-American woman writer? Do you feel that in this space, you can talk about issues like microaggressions for being an Asian American writer and how you have a group that understands each other?
ROK: I think I'm very lucky in that I have a lot of people with whom I can talk about such things. But also, it's just wonderful to have this group of women writers and women I admire so much, in to be able to regularly hang out with them and drink and sing in small rooms very loudly (laughs).
Your book is coming out real soon! How’s it feeling that it’s finally going to be out there?
ROK: It feels like I've had this private dream for ten years, one only my agent, a few friends, my editor, and I knew anything about. So few people saw it and now this private dream is becoming more public. That feels wonderful but also very strange. I received an early finished copy so I already have the book in its hardcover form, so it does feel more real.