A Conversation with R.F. Kuang, Author of The Poppy War Trilogy

Hi readers!

While I have not done that many, I love interviewing authors (and reading author interviews). So, I’m really excited for today’s post because not only do I get to ask one of my favorite authors, R.F. Kuang, questions about her books, but she got to ask me questions, too! This was such an incredible conversation, where we get to touch on other topics besides The Poppy War.

Rebecca organized this tour in anticipation of the conclusion of The Poppy War trilogy, The Burning God (out November 17!), so make sure to check out the content of the other hosts! I have linked their sites at the end of this post 💙. Also! As a quick note, the art on the banner of this post is by @/JungShanInk on Twitter, and this is the art on the back of The Burning God!

I hope you enjoy this conversation between R.F. Kuang and I!

Sara (Lyrical Reads): As someone who is self-studying four(ish) languages (Mandarin Chinese, Korean, French, and German), I am very curious about translating works. First off, what kinds of things do you translate and for how long have you been translating? What has your general experience been like? Lastly, what is usually the most rewarding part or translating and the most frustrating/do you have something you’ll always remember from your translating experience? 

Kuang: I started translating a little over a year ago. At first, I just approached it as a fun exercise to hone my Chinese skills and to read some Chinese science fiction. I’ve since fallen deep into the translation theory rabbit hole. Translation is so fascinating—there are so many different philosophies of translation, which get into deeper questions of power, reciprocity, and the global literary economy. Not to mention the craft of translation itself, which is infinitely tricky—there’s no perfect one to one correlation between any language, even languages that are closely related, so translation is always posing cool questions about how to render various metaphors or word choices into the target language. 

Rin, Altan, Chaghan, Qara of The Poppy War // Art by Jhoca

R.F. Kuang: That’s a very impressive list of languages! Why those four in particular, and how have you found the experience of studying four languages at once? Does learning one facilitate ease of learning another? 

Sara: As a part of my Art History major requirement, I decided to take German (I was too scared to take French haha), so I already had two semesters behind me. Same goes for Mandarin. After taking a Modern China class about a year ago, I wanted to start studying Chinese again. I wanted to maintain some level of familiarity with these languages, so that’s how they ended up on the list. Those who know me are well-aware that I like K-pop (there’s a story there, which I will leave for your other question), so, naturally, curiosity about the language came after falling for the music. As for French, honestly, I wanted to know what some Instagram captions said without the help of the translate button! 

Learning these languages all at once is an experience, to say the least. Some days I would work on Korean and German, while on others I focused on Mandarin and French. I tried to pair the languages I had more of experience with with the ones I was very new at. Since German and French are both romance languages, they are relatively similar, but very different at the same time. Learning these languages definitely stretched my mind and forced me to get comfortable with the uncomfortable feeling of stepping outside of where your strengths lie. 

Sara: Since we are both readers, and I especially love The Poppy War because it was one of the first books I truly saw myself and my history in, which books do you see who you are in? 

Kuang: I’ve never read a Chinese American protagonist who seems exactly like me, which is a good thing–Asian diaspora experiences are so diverse and different. But recently I’ve really enjoyed Alexandra Chang’s Days of Distraction, which features a Chinese American woman in her mid twenties navigating a relationship with her white boyfriend while he’s applying to PhD programs. I recently went through the PhD application cycle with my own white boyfriend, so so many of their conversations and the little details about what they were stressing over (checking GradCafe! oh my GOD!) rang so true. I also recently discovered Catherine Chung’s work, and I particularly loved Forgotten Country–the relationship between the older and younger sister reminded me a lot of my own relationship with my sister. 

“Let the sky fall

When it crumbles

We will stand tall

Face it all together”

“Skyfall” // Adele

Kuang: If you don’t mind talking about it, how has your lived experience as an adoptee influenced the way that you engage with Chinese American literature? Does it ever feel like a bridge to your Chinese heritage? 

Sara: As a Chinese adoptee, I’ve always experienced this strange “in-between.” I grew up in a tight-knit white family in a small white town, where my siblings and I are some of the only East Asians. I can personally relate to some things that are written in Chinese American literature, but there is often a point where I lose that connection, and I understand some experiences of white characters better. As I’ve mentioned, The Poppy War was a crucial story for me in acknowledging and accepting who I am as a Chinese American (although, I tend to think of myself as “American Chinese”) because this novel was so deeply steeped in Chinese history. While reading, it struck me that this was my history, whether I outrightly recognized that or not. So in this case, The Poppy War was a bridge. Other times, I’m the outsider looking in, especially when family is mentioned because my experience is very different. There are moments when I’m very secure in who I am as a Chinese adoptee, but there are other times when it’s shaky at best. 

Sara: What would you recommend (books, shows, movies, music anything!): 

a) when a storm is raging outside of your window 

Kuang: A good old Victorian novel and a cup of tea 🙂 

b) when you want to be punched in the gut with emotions  

Kuang: Hozier’s “Arsonist’s Lullaby” 

c) something that will always, always make you grin like an idiot/squeal with glee (if that’s something you do)  

Kuang: Any mention of Pacific Rim

d) a piece of entertainment you are known to never shut up about  

Kuang: How To Train Your Dragon 1, 2, and 3

e) a song/piece of music that represents The Poppy War, The Dragon Republic, and The Burning God, respectively

Kuang:

TPW: Yellow Flicker Beat, Lorde 

TDR: “Blood//Water,” Grandson 

TBG: “Skyfall,” Adele

“While reading [The Poppy War], it struck me that this was my history, whether I outrightly recognized that or not…The Poppy War was a bridge.”

Sara (Lyrical Reads)

Kuang: You’re an avid music writer! How did you get into K-pop, and what’s a piece of music journalism that you’re particularly proud of? 

Sara: I am! Talk to me about music, specifically K-pop, and you will never get me to shut up 🙂 Funnily enough, I got into K-pop only about a year and a half ago! As for how I got into K-pop…do you want the long version or the short version? Just kidding—I’ll keep it as short as I can (the original version of this answer was not short lol). 

I discovered K-pop through BTS in October 2018. While their music introduced me to their members, learning their names and faces pulled me into the K-pop world. I was determined to learn who they were because I discovered—horrified—that I could not tell the seven members apart. I felt like I owed it to them, and I owed it to myself to know their faces because I have a face like theirs. After watching tons of content and listening to their music for a few months, I thought I would stay just a BTS fan, but, lo and behold, that did not happen in the slightest (I’m even an avid K-rock listener now).

I started writing about K-pop for my college newspaper (mostly concert reviews). Then, I joined the Seoulbeats team, an online publication on Korean entertainment which always has fantastic music reviews and socio-political pieces. My personal favorite articles on K-pop, “Connect, BTS in NYC Unites Human, Environment, Music, and Art” and “Suho Blends Musical & Artistic Inspiration with ‘Self-Portrait’,” were written for them. These two delve into a fascinating intersection between art and K-pop, which I love to explore as an art historian and a K-pop fan.

The Poppy War trilogy is adult fantasy, a genre that is well-known for being dominated by white cis male authors. How do/did you navigate this space as a Chinese woman? 

Kuang: I actually didn’t find it terribly difficult. It’s true that adult fantasy, like most other genres, have long been dominated by white dudes. On the other hand, just as in YA, adult fiction has seen more and more brilliant publications by women and writers of color, so plenty of people had already carved out a space in the genre for me before I entered it—writers like Fonda Lee and Ken Liu, for example, had already made space for me on bookshelves. I get my fair share of irritating backlash–people call it insufficiently grimdark, they call it too grimdark, they seem to really enjoy confusing it for a YA novel, etc. But it’s really not as bad as I anticipated. 

The Cike // Art by Jhoca

This is just a question that I am personally curious about: what are your thoughts on Rin and Nezha as a ship?

Kuang: Aha. So I think it’s possible to “ship” characters in a very broad sense that entails appreciating their interpersonal dynamic and opposing or complementary character traits, while not necessarily wanting to see them in a real romantic relationship. Rin and Nezha are fun to write because they have so much chemistry, and they have that chemistry because they are each other’s foils in every way. But chemistry doesn’t mean romance. Sometimes it just means that two people make great enemies. I’m very confused by people who seem to expect a happily ever for them. That’s just…so not what the books are about?

And one last question! Which of the characters in these books do you think you are most like?

Kuang: This is hard to say, because all there are bits of me in all three of them–they’re like different parts of my soul. Rin is the id, Nezha is the ego, and Kitay is the superego, lol. They necessitate each other; the three of them really only make sense as a triangular unit. 

THE BURNING GOD

The exciting end to The Poppy War trilogy, R. F. Kuang’s acclaimed, award-winning epic fantasy that combines the history of twentieth-century China with a gripping world of gods and monsters, to devastating, enthralling effect.

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? 

IndieBound | Bookshop | The Book Depository

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.

Website | Twitter | Instagram

October 5Petrik Leo

October 7Oro Plata Myta

October 9Your Tita Kate

October 12 Utopia State of Mind

October 14Punderings 

October 17Lyrical Reads*

October 18Fannatality

October 20Read at Midnight

October 23Tammie Tries to Read

October 27A Cup of Cyanide

October 30Happy Indulgence

November 6Novels and Nebulas

November 9Mandarin Mama

November 11Camillea Reads

November 13Bookdragonism

If you want some more Lyrical Reads X Poppy War content:

  • My review of the first book is here.
  • I interviewed Rebecca (for the first time!) for my university’s newspaper here.
  • Since I love this book so much, I wrote another review of The Poppy War here (for my newspaper).
  • I also reviewed The Dragon Republic after reading it recently.
  • The memes came out in this other Poppy War Trilogy content!
If you could have a conversation with any author (dead or alive), who would you choose and why?

Until next time,

9 thoughts on “A Conversation with R.F. Kuang, Author of The Poppy War Trilogy

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