Faith, Loss, and Fiction with R.O. Kwon
What’s it like to spend a decade working on your first novel, become a bestselling author, and still have the first thing people say about you be that you’re “adorable”? We talk with Korean American writer R.O. Kwon to find out.
R.O. is best known for her 2018 novel, The Incendiaries. It’s a story about young love, religious fundamentalism, violent extremism, and coming to terms with the loss of faith. It was named one of the best books of the year by NPR, The Atlantic, Bustle, Buzzfeed, the BBC, and a bunch other outlets—and it’s finally out in paperback this week.
It was a dream to talk with R.O. about finding massive success after working on her book for 10 years, loving literature she couldn’t see herself in, and why we all need to stop calling Asian women “cute.”
I was desperately in love with an art form—literature—in which I physically could not and did not exist… the books I had around the house that I loved and still love were Henry James and Jane Austin and Edith Wharton. All these books by very dead people in a world in which—if I were ever to appear in, say, Edith Wharton’s world—I couldn’t have even gone into the rooms where things are happening. Nobody would have talked to me. At best, I might have been a circus attraction.—R.O. Kwon, author of The Incendiaries
We chat about:
- Why reworking the first chapter over and over isn’t the best way to finish a novel. “I had twenty pages of the most elaborately reworked prose I had ever read. I threw it all away and then I started again.”
- Why including sexual violence in the book came so naturally. “It would have felt unrealistic to me I think in retrospect to have a more sanitized version of a college world. That wasn’t the college world that I knew, at least.”
- What it’s like to lose your faith at 17. “My entire life is divided into before and after. And that aftermath has in a lot of ways felt like an aftermath where a predominant note has been grief.”
- How she handles online harassment. “Every woman writer I know who is online in any way is getting harassed—that seems to be a part of our online lives, which is so awful. So, there has been harassment, especially anytime I write a nonfiction piece that has anything to do with gender or race or, god forbid, both.”
- R.O. Kwon’s book tour details
- R.O. on Twitter and Instagram
- The Incendiaries
- On Being a Woman in America While Trying to Avoid Being Assaulted in The Paris Review
- 48 Books By Women and Nonbinary Authors of Color to Read in 2019 in Electric Literature
- Embracing a shitty first drafts mentality—in writing and pretty much everything else.
- How perfectionism makes us feel safe and in control, but actually shuts down progress.
- Fuck yeah to saying no! Did you know you can rest even when you’re not sick?
- Why capitalism hates that you have a body.
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Katel LeDu And I’m Katel.
SWB And this is Strong Feelings! A podcast about work, friendship, and feminism—and what happens when you bring them all together.
KL Today we are talking to author R.O. Kwon. She wrote the incredible novel, The Incendiaries—it’s got stories of young love, religious fundamentalism, and coming to terms with the loss of faith. And, okay, the book is so great and we dig into it with R.O., but something we also talk to her about is how long it took her to write this book.
SWB It took her a decade! Oh my gosh, that was so wild to hear!
KL Yeah! And, obviously, there was a huge payoff because the book has been a bestseller.
SWB Right! And I think it’s amazing to stick with something like that—that you have so much faith in that project. But something that R.O. mentioned that I thought was really interesting was that for a long time, she kind of got herself stuck in a rut where she had the first twenty pages of the book done and she kept trying to make those twenty pages perfect instead of…writing the rest of it. [KL laughs]
KL Yeah. I mean, I really relate to this—getting obsessed with the minutiae of grammar, reworking sentences over and over down to the placement of an em dash she talked about. And don’t get me wrong, I can see how that is very satisfying.
SWB I love it too, I’m not going to lie.
SWB I know.
KL Yeah! It’s the reason I like copy editing and doing book indexes. I can kind of tinker with these smaller things that feel like they have to get done—and they probably do—but it can also distract me from stepping back and looking at whatever I’m working on as a whole.
SWB Yeah. I mean, are you familiar with Anne Lamott’s concept of “Shitty First Drafts”?
KL Oh my gosh, yes! She wrote Bird by Bird—I love that book! I actually recently started re-reading it.
SWB Did you really?
SWB Yeah, she’s a great writer and she’s a great writer on writing. And what she talks about when it comes to shitty first drafts is this idea that you just have to get something out. And she tells this story about how she used to write restaurant reviews, and every single time she would start the review, she would get hung up on herself. She said even after she’d been doing it for years, she would just get panicked. She’d try to write a lead and instead she would just write these—she says the word “dreadful”—sentences. So, she’d cross them out and try again, and cross it out and try again. And then she would just get into that hole of despair because she didn’t feel like she could ever get the right words out. And so what she talks about is this way that we get ourselves stuck by thinking that we have to make the first thing perfect, as opposed to letting ourselves make something shitty at first, [laughs] and letting it be shitty, and then saying, “I’m going to come back to that later.” And I love that [laughs] so much!
KL Oh my god. Yeah, I love that she says essentially that most good writing starts with a terrible first effort. That you need to start somewhere by getting something—anything!—down on paper. And then you go through the process of fixing it and refining it later. Because the first pass is always…awful!
SWB It is! And yet…it’s so hard to actually do that, right? [KL laughs]
SWB It’s really hard to do.
SWB I think being okay with a shitty first draft is obviously really good for you writing, and it’s what R.O. needed to get The Incendiaries done, but I also want to talk more about embracing a shitty first drafts mentality for life in general. [laughs]
SWB I think I’ve really struggled with perfectionism about different things—not everything, but certain things. And I think at times, I think it’s actually prevented me from doing anything at all. I would feel like I wasn’t good enough at something, so I couldn’t let anybody see what I was working on. I see that from people too who are junior in their careers a lot. It’s like they don’t want to show people work in progress because they’re nervous or scared that it’s not perfect enough, but as a result, they don’t get the input they need that would actually help them grow and improve. And you really can’t get good at something if you keep psyching yourself out of just doing it.
SWB You do, you end up stuck. But I feel like perfectionism for me at least is attractive because it feels safe.
SWB It feels like if I don’t move on until it’s perfect, then I get to be in this bubble where nobody can see me, and then therefore nobody can judge me.
KL Yeah…wow. The idea of perfectionism as safe is something I’ve felt a lot. If I’m always trying to iterate toward a perfect thing or I’m waiting for something to be perfect, I can kind of hide—like you said—in that part of the process. I can hide there and never get to perfect, which is also obviously what holds me back too.
SWB And, of course, you keep changing your own goal posts that way, right?
SWB Because what does perfect even look like? You, of course, can always look at the thing that you made and be like, “nope, not good enough yet.”
SWB And I think that any time you’re trying to do something new, there’s just always a lot of unknowns. There’s all of these things that you’re going to encounter that you haven’t encountered before, there’s all these ways that it might not go perfectly. And instead of dealing with all of those unknowns, [laughs] which are scary, it feels a lot safer to stick to the known parts like fucking with commas all day because you’re comfortable there! [KL laughs] You’re comfortable amidst your grammar and you are so much less comfortable with things that require decisions that are bigger picture—with deciding like, “is this the right direction that we should be taking?” Because you could be wrong about that. And sure, you can be wrong about commas too—a lot of people are wrong about commas—[KL laughs] but I think that it feels a lot more knowable and I think that that’s part of the reason it feels more comfortable.
SWB So, you end up giving yourself all this busy work that you can control so that you can avoid the emotional stress of feeling vulnerable and of feeling like maybe I could end up being wrong. If I set forth a vision for this project or whatever, what if that’s incorrect?
SWB I better go proofread the proposal again.
SWB And so, I think it’s the same thing actually that makes people want to clean their house when they have a big deadline.
KL [laughing] Yeah.
SWB You know? Washing the dishes is just a task! You know you’re going to do it right—I mean, good enough—you’re not really worried about what people are going to think about how you wash the dishes; you control the outcome! And it makes sense that that happens. I totally think it’s normal—it’s probably a very human thing to fall back to that stuff when you’re feeling out of your comfort zone. And I think it’s okay, maybe it’s even healthy sometimes to give yourself a mental break and say, “you know what? I’m going to step away from this hard problem for a minute and wash some dishes.” I think that’s great. I do that with chopping vegetables for dinner when I’m stuck on something for work. And I work at home!
SWB So, I’ll take a break and I’ll be like, “I’m going to chop some vegetables for twenty minutes and then I can think again.” That’s fine. But how do you kind of get out of that stuck place and not live there? And how do you do that when it’s so easy to lean into that feeling of, “oh, but I can control these little tasks”?
SWB Or “well, I’m going to start just as soon as I clear out my inbox.” [KL laughs] And your inbox will never actually really stay clear, so it gives you a good excuse to never really get to the hard thing. And then I think in a lot of ways, it can keep you small. I’ve abandoned projects that way that might have been really valuable and important to me if I’d let them happen.
KL Yeah! I think control was why I was so drawn to photography in school and early in my career because it was this art form I could do that had very specific rules, and I liked that I could control that.
SWB Mhmm, mhmm, I like some rules!
SWB I also like breaking rules, but that’s a different story.
KL [laughing] Yeah, for sure. But, you know, you had to calculate exposure, focus, perspective. And when you developed film and did printing, you had to get all the chemicals exactly right. And, of course, great photographers know how to do all of that and they have an eye for composition, and light, and subject matter and they can tie it all together. And I was always trying to get the mechanics exactly right, and I don’t think I let myself really create that much? I think it’s also why I abandoned shooting for going into editing and working with photographers because I was scared and I didn’t think I was good enough to do it as a thing that made me money.
SWB And editing photos? You have a lot of control.
KL So much control.
SWB So, do you miss shooting?
KL I do. And when I think about the messiness of playing around with the art of it, I think about doing it again. And not for money, but for me. That’s something I feel like I lost along the way.
SWB Ughh, yes, yes! I would love to take some photos with you!
SWB And think about this—no matter what you do, you’re going to take better photos than me! [both laugh]
KL [laughing] Okay, well I can always remember that! No, but I did! I bought a new digital camera a couple of years ago and that was great, but I think I’m going to dig up some of my film cameras because with those and the film, there’s definitely a sense of loss of control and a lot more experimentation because you can do all the calculations you want, but something funky might happen because of exposure or processing…or it might be too fucking hot out! And I think that’s a good kind of mess.
SWB Yeah, and there’s no immediate ability to see what you’ve done—
SWB —so you can’t get in your own head about your work as you go. Okay, I really want you to do this. I love thinking about this concept of messiness. I don’t think that I allow myself that kind of messiness often enough. And it’s because I’ve kind of had high standards for myself for forever. It’s hard to even say where some of it came from—I’m sure I can talk to my therapist about that. [KL laughs] But I remember this one time really clearly—I remember it so clearly! I was in the first grade and I was being sent every day to go to the second grade reading class because I was a very big reader. So, I was in the second grade class where I didn’t know anybody and I didn’t necessarily feel that comfortable there. And we had this assignment! Now, it was not the reading that did me in because the reading was easy. What we were supposed to do was make a collage.
SWB So, they handed out all of these old magazines, [KL laughs] and construction paper, and glue sticks, and the assignment was something like make a collage about something from this story that we’d been reading. And everybody else had no problem with this. At least, this was my perception. Everybody else was just putting shit down on paper, [KL laughs] who cares, right? They were all second graders. In the second grade, nobody is going to be like, “your collage is not thematically consistent.” [KL laughs]
KL They’re collaging their hearts out. [laughs]
SWB “I feel like this collage lacks a strong through line.” [KL laughs] Right? Who cares!
SWB But I sat there the whole class period and didn’t stick anything down.
SWB I remember getting an extension on this—working on it when other people had moved onto something else. And still being like, “nothing’s right” and going through magazine after magazine and being like, “nothing says what I want it to say!” And I just couldn’t just put some shit onto the construction paper and move on with my six year old life! [KL laughs] I just was so stuck! And I remember feeling so humiliated and embarrassed because I couldn’t seem to get over that hump of being like, “nothing I can put down is right and so I can’t put anything down at all.” And I remember feeling really ashamed of that—for a long time, clearly, because I remember it so clearly! I remember the one thing I actually pasted down on my construction paper was a picture of a woman that I’m 99% sure came out of a cigarette ad. [KL laughs]
SWB Where she had a sea breeze through her hair and was smiling and laughing… and that’s the only thing I put down. [KL laughs]
KL I mean, god damn, the dreaded collage. But I totally understand that feeling, it’s so rough!
SWB And it’s only certain stuff that really triggers it for me. And art related stuff kind of does it for me. [KL laughs] To this day, my literal nightmare is being asked to go to one of those drink wine and paint a painting nights because I think I would just stare at the blank canvas—I know I would just stare at the blank canvas—and feel stupid, and inept, and not know where to start. And then feel embarrassed for not just doing it, and embarrassed that I can’t get over that. And then just work myself up into a whole thing…and then feel ashamed of whatever I ended up with.
KL Okay, so I’m signing us up for a sip and paint class stat.
SWB Oh my gosh, please don’t! [KL laughs] I hate this and I hate you! [KL laughs]
KL We’re going to do it. We’re going to paint a shitty painting and it’s going to be great.
SWB Ugh, I need you to free me from this prison.
KL Yes! [SWB laughs] Let’s do it together!
SWB [laughing] Okay. [short transition music plays]
Interview: R.O. Kwon
SWB R.O. Kwon is the author of the bestselling novel, The Incendiaries, which came out last year. It’s a story about young love, religious fundamentalism, loss of faith, and it was named one of the best books of the year by NPR, The Atlantic, Bustle, Buzzfeed, the BBC, and a million other outlets. So, as of this week, The Incendiaries is now available on paperback and we are so excited to talk to R.O. R.O, thank you so much for being here, what a year you’ve had!
R.O. Kwon Thank you so much for having me, I’m so glad to be here! [laughs]
SWB So, The Incendiaries was also one of my favorite books last year, and I’d love to start with that. Can you just tell listeners a little bit about it for those who haven’t read it yet or heard about it yet?
ROK So, it’s a book about a woman who gets involved with a group of fundamentalist Christians with ties to North Korea. And the group turns out to be a cult and they end up bombing abortion clinics, healthcare clinics, in the name of faith.
SWB Like you mentioned, a lot of the book centers on religious fundamentalism. And you’ve talked before about how some of that was the culture that you were part of growing up. Maybe not the extremism [laughs] that you talk about in the book, but I read that you used to call yourself a Jesus freak and that then at some point in your later teens, you left the church. And I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about what that was like and how that experience sort of showed up in The Incendiaries?
ROK So, I was raised deeply Christian. And I was so Christian that I really did believe that I was going to become a pastor or a missionary. I just really wanted to give my life to God. And then when I was 17, I lost that faith. And it was… I still have trouble talking about it. I have trouble conveying how devastating it was. It was a loss of so much, you know? It was a loss of this God who I used to believe in and who I’d thought I loved. It was also the loss of—at the time, all my friends and family pretty much were raised from mildly Christian to very Christian, that was the range. [laughs] They thought that it was a juvenile passing rebellion—that’s kind of what my mother still thinks about it. [laughs] And then I went off to college and there was this extra level of loneliness where all my new friends in college had pretty much no experience of religion. So, at some point I’d tell people, “so, you know, I used to be really Christian” and my new friends would just all sort of look at me like, “huh, that’s weird.” [laughs] And they’d say, “good for you! You escaped! You’re free! [laughs] Congratulations, you can drink and have sex with the rest of us!” And that’s true, that is true…but it was also the central loss of my life and there was something extraordinarily crushing about feeling as though I was walking around in a state of profound grief and not even having that be visible to anyone I knew. So, I think I wanted to write about that, as well as about how wonderful it was to believe. And I think I wanted to write a book that could perhaps speak to people on different parts of the faith spectrum that could perhaps make a little bit more sense of other people who are on different parts of the faith spectrum.
SWB Yeah! And I think for me, reading it as somebody who tried really hard to hang out with the evangelical Christian kids for a number of years and never found it really stuck, I still found a lot getting into the book and getting into this exploration of faith and what that means and what it means to lose it through the characters. And I’m curious—was there anything particularly that drew you to this story of extremism and, like you mentioned, this story that sort of brought in North Korea?
ROK I think I was drawn to extremism because—it’s not that at any point I planned on joining an extremist cult, I was never in an extremist cult. But there is something about that kind of extremism, about that kind of radicalism that can be really appealing to people when they join a faith, especially when you’re young, especially when you’re in high school, when you’re in college. A lot of cults and extremist groups recruit at that level at around that age because people at that age are especially susceptible I think too. There’s that desire to throw yourself into something. So, I think that’s what led me to extremism. As for the North Korea, way back in my family tree parts of my family come from what is now North Korea. They all fled before the start of the Korean war back when, of course, it was all one Korea. So, there are parts of my family who I have never met who are, of course, still or were still in North Korea. And that was why North Korea started making its way into my novel, that was less planned, it just sort of came out of my reading, it came out of that desire to know.
SWB Do you feel like you got closer to some kind of knowledge as you were writing the book?
ROK I don’t think I did and I think that was something that I wanted to be really careful about in writing this novel. I saw nothing firsthand in North Korea and I thought that there was something—the responsibility in writing about a place like North Korea. And I say like North Korea, but I know there are very few places like North Korea. That responsibility felt very different than writing about Montreal in that if I write about Montreal, there are a lot of depictions of Montreal, people can go themselves to Montreal, they can look up Montreal on Google Maps. Whereas with North Korea, there’s so little about it, and I really didn’t want anyone to walk away from my novel—which is made up—thinking, “okay, damn, I know about North Korea now!” [laughs & SWB laughs] I didn’t want to even pretend to offer that kind of certainty. So, with the novel I think I was very much interested in dwelling in that uncertainty and staying on the side of the questions, which is something that Cortázar says that I love and that I think about a lot.
SWB That’s something that came up in this piece you wrote a while ago for The Paris Review that I have not really stopped thinking about. The essay is about the threat of sexual violence and how that shapes daily life in these endless small ways. You talk about the fake phone calls that we make or when we take cars home when we’d really rather walk. But one of the things you talk about in there is that this anecdote about men asking you why there’s so much sexual violence in your novel, and you say one of the things you like to do is stay on the side of the question and not necessarily think about this masterplan so much. But you also write that “perhaps sexual violence shows up in my novel the way light does, or dialogue. It’s so intrinsically a part of my life that I find it hard to imagine leaving it out.” And I’m wondering if we can talk about that a little bit. What prompted you to write that piece in The Paris Review?
ROK [sighs] It was after the Kavanaugh hearings at some point. I was just going about a standard day—not an exciting day, not a bad day—and I started noticing everything I did to avoid, to try to avoid being attacked, to try to avoid being assaulted as a woman in a woman’s body. And just over the course of a week, I kept track of everything I did and I just got madder and madder and sadder and sadder because there was so much. Just from the smallest considerations from if it’s late and my husband’s not home yet and the door rings, do I even consider opening it? What do I do when—what you were saying about—do I take a car home even though it’s only a fifteen-minute walk? And I would love to walk, but those streets are kind of dark and after 9pm, it doesn’t feel great. There was a serial rapist in our neighborhood, etcetera, etcetera. It was just such a part of my body, such a part of how I view the world that I wanted to write about that. Because I realized that I was walking with my husband at some point around this time and there was a crowd of three people walking toward us and I tensed, but then I noticed—I thought all three were men—and then I noticed that as they got closer, it seemed that one read as a woman. And immediately I relaxed. Because, of course, two men and one woman or people who read as two men and one woman—that feels much less threatening than three men. And I was just talking about this and my husband hadn’t even noticed the three people coming towards us. His alert system hadn’t even noticed that there were other people on the street, whereas I had gone through that whole revolution of “are they scary, no they’re probably not scary, phew they’re not scary!” [laughs] And then I got even madder because it wasn’t even a part of his world. Not that I want him to be scared, but I would love to be there too; I would love to live in a world like that and I don’t know what that would be like. There were so many people that said, “this rings true for me.” And on the other hand, I also kind of really appreciated that there were more than a few men who said, “wow, I had no idea. I just didn’t know that the world could be like this for half the population.”
SWB Yeah! I was really curious—in the book you do talk about sexual violence and it does feel very much just sort of like, “well, obviously.” You’re talking about young love and sex and college life, and sexual assault is absolutely wrapped up in a lot of that. So, I’m wondering—did you realize as you were writing that you did include a lot of sexual violence in the book or is that something that almost you couldn’t even recognize until afterwards?
ROK I didn’t start out writing thinking, “okay, I’m going to write a book in which there is a relatively high frequency of sexual violence.” There just kept being things that happened. And for me, writing doesn’t feel very—I do not feel like any kind of puppetmaster. I don’t feel as though I’m holding any strings, I feel as though I am asking the characters to tell me who they are, to tell me what they want even. I’m asking the book to reveal itself to me. In retrospect, if I look back at it, my feeling was sort of what you were saying. They’re in the US and they’re in college, it would have felt unrealistic to me I think in retrospect to have a more sanitized version of a college world. That wasn’t the college world that I knew, at least.
KL It struck me that you worked on this book for ten years. What was it like to stick to that story and to the characters over a period of time? Was it ever hard? You mentioned having them reveal themselves to you and I love that. Can you talk a little bit more about that process?
ROK So, it was…ten years is a long time. [laughs & KL laughs] I’m really hoping that the next book won’t take me ten years, [KL laughs] but it’s already almost three years and its nowhere near done yet, so I don’t know how much longer this one will take. But it was often very hard. Around the six-, seven-year mark, I just started feeling downcast a lot of the time. I’d spend a lot of time wondering, “what am I doing with my life? Why didn’t I become a dermatologist?” was and is a recurring question. Anytime I become discouraged, I’m just like, “why didn’t I become a dermatologist? I’d have made a great dermatologist. I love reading about skincare!” [all laugh] At the six-year mark, I was at an artist residency where I’d gone to this lovely place where people were housing me and feeding me so that I could have as much time as possible to focus on my writing. And in just a fit of exhaustion, I opened up a new document and was just like, “maybe I’m just going to start a new novel, maybe this isn’t going to work.” And I tried doing that for about an hour and then I thought back to my previous novel and I was just like, “no, I still want to see it through. It’s still calling to me in ways that I need to… I need to figure out what this is and where we’re going.” There was a lot of rise and fall of emotion. [SWB laughs]
SWB Gosh, I applaud you for sticking through it because I don’t think I’ve ever dedicated myself to anything like that and it’s hard for me to imagine sticking to it for ten years, but then it’s clearly paid off because it’s been such a wild success!
ROK Thank you.
SWB And this is kind of like—the ten year period goes from post-college to your mid-thirties, right?
SWB And I’m curious—people change so much during that time, probably during any decade, but to me felt like a huge shift in my worldview and my experience and so many other things. So, I’m curious if you felt there were major evolutions in how you worked, and how you saw yourself as a writer, and how the book needed to evolve along with you?
ROK That was an abiding concern because when I started the book, of course, I was much younger than I was ten years later and I was just like, “how do I even keep this book feeling unified over such a long stretch of time?” But in some ways, I don’t feel very far from even my eighteen-year-old self. She’s very recognizable to me, she still feels very much a part of me in a way that, for instance, my fifteen-year-old self doesn’t. And I think it does have a lot to do with having lost Christianity, with having lost that faith because that was such a central part of who I was that for me, my entire life is divided into before and after. And that aftermath has in a lot of ways felt like an aftermath where a predominant note has been grief. But the book did change a lot! How I work definitely changed a lot. So, I spent the first two years working on this book, I just reworked the first twenty pages over and over and over again just trying to get the sentences exactly right. I love sentences, I love prose, I love tinkering with punctuation, that’s one of my happy places. Honestly, if I have a day and I have several hours to write and I just move around some punctuation and delete a word and then put it back in, I feel really good at the end of that day. I’m just like, “I am doing the work I was put on this earth to do… I moved around some em-dashes.” [laughs] And I love doing that, but it turns out that’s not as helpful in the early stages of a book it turned out because I was focusing so much on this syllable level on the level of commas, and I wasn’t really giving myself a chance yet to get to know who these characters might be, what they might want from one another. So, after those two years, I had twenty pages of the most elaborately reworked prose I had ever read. I threw it all away and then I started again with the same characters. And then for the next two or three years after that—maybe more like two—I tried to put to the extent possible to put to the side my obsession with sentences and force myself to work through faster drafts. And then once I had that, that was when I could go back to the fun part for me. Or I don’t know about fun, but the part that absorbs me, which is playing around again on that sort of extremely minute level.
KL So, over that decade, you published some other stories and, obviously, the book was the main project you were pursuing. But I’m wondering about the logistics of it all. Did you also need to take on pay the bills kinds of jobs? How did you make it work?
ROK I did a motley array of things. Something I realized early on when I had a job at a literary agency was that I felt very unfit for office life. I’m very introverted and I just got really hung up on the questions people would ask one another at the coffee maker. Just like, “how was your weekend? How’s it going?” And I was like… we don’t really know each other all that well, we’re just saying this to say it! We’re just saying, “how was your weekend?” We’re barely here! That sort of nearly meaningless exchange was really getting to me. So, to the extent possible I tried very hard to take on jobs that let me work from home so I could set my hours, I could work on my fiction before I did any of that. Oh, and I also applied to a ton of fellowships and I love applying to things. I’m an insomniac and one way I often relax is by looking up more shit I can apply to. [all laugh] Because fellowships are so great! You apply and then if you’re lucky, free money comes your way. Or it’s not free, you do work for it, but it’s much more than at least I can make with hourly work. So, there was all of that, but I’m not sure to what extent I could have kept up this cobbled together mostly freelance, mostly working from home life if I weren’t partnered with someone who had and has a job that provides us with minor things like health insurance. [laughs & KL laughs] And I feel as though every single one of my artist friends who has a partner who happens to want to have a life in which they have a salary job with health insurance is just infinitely grateful for it. And I don’t know how much longer this book would have taken me without that. Maybe it would have a been a fifteen-year book.
SWB Gosh, I really appreciate that honesty there because I do think people are not very honest about the amount of support it takes sometimes to do these projects and the kinds of things like family money that people rely on and that created these foundations for them. So, yeah, absolutely. And I feel you! I’m on the spouse healthcare plan now and [KL laughs] it is pretty great—
SWB —and [laughs] it’s not always been the case.
ROK Yeah! And especially in the US where there is so little support for people who don’t want to work in salary jobs that provide healthcare. I feel as though I know so many artist friends who are in these relationships and are so grateful for it. It shouldn’t have to be such a go-to. If we lived in Canada…but we don’t live in Canada. [laughs & KL laughs]
KL Yeah, hopefully that does change at some point. But when you were talking about just that context switching of being in an office versus working from home and what those different environments are like, it makes me think about—so you spend this decade writing the book, and then it finally comes out, which was a year ago. And then all of a sudden, you’re everywhere. You’re in the New Yorker, you’re on NPR, and hitting bestseller lists. What did that feel like?
ROK I think I’m still sorting out what happened and how I felt or feel about it in a lot of ways. [laughs & KL laughs] It was strange and I had been such a—I’d been a hermit essentially for so long. I used to have a rule that I’d only socialize on one weekday out of the week so I could focus on my work. I barely saw my closest friends even, and I’ve been much more social just in the past year and a half—in part because I am out in the world so much more. And on the one hand, first of all, and most of all, I feel very, very, very grateful. The extent to which writers and booksellers and readers and librarians and podcast hosts and radio people—the ways in which everyone supports one another, I find that to be wonderful and so moving and I’m so glad to be a part of it. On the other hand, I didn’t write any fiction for pretty much all of 2018 and into a large part of 2019. It’s only really in the past few months that I’ve gotten back to seriously trying to write every single day, which for me that’s how I work best. I know a lot of people that doesn’t work at all for them, but for me, I work best if I can work every day preferably for at least three hours a day. But I barely touched my fiction for all of last year, which means I didn’t feel like myself. There was that sort of agitation that comes from knowing I’m not doing the work that I’m supposed to be doing and I think that left me sort of off-center for much of the year in a lot of ways. And there was also—an analogy that I kept thinking of was to the extent that this was happening in whatever limited way this was happening, it felt a little as though for years I’d been in a theater watching a movie play on the screen, and then suddenly it felt a little as though some of the people in that movie were turning to look at me, even if it was briefly, for my work. That was confusing on an almost existential level. [laughs & KL laughs] There was like a split that was being breached in a way if that makes any sense! [laughs]
KL Yeah, I really like how you describe that. I think that you can kind of imagine what that moment must feel like. And I also wonder—I hear you talking about how it felt challenging at times. Was there anything that was really exciting about having your work come to light and really talk about it and kind of get a spotlight to say, “yeah, this is finished and I’m so proud of it.”
ROK Yeah, definitely! Hearing from readers is always wonderful and so moving. I have particularly appreciated and been thankful to hear from readers who also have complicated relationships with faith. I think in part because I did write this book in some ways for that seventeen-year-old girl who felt alone in the world in a lot of ways. I wanted to write a book for her to tell her, “you were never as alone as you thought you were, you’re not alone now.” And to hear back from readers now saying, “I haven’t ever come across this experience in a book, it means a lot to me,” that just automatically makes me cry. It also automatically makes me cry if readers who are Asian American or Korean American, when they write, “this is one of the first times I’ve seen a family like mine depicted in an English language book,” or “I recognize that reference that is specific to Korean families and I’ve never seen that in a book.” All of that is just immediate waterworks! [laughs] Because I think I grew up with so little of it. I didn’t read any Korean American writers until after college—and I’m Korean American—and I’m aghast at that. I didn’t miss it while it was happening, it’s only after the fact. But what that means, of course, is that I was desperately in love with an art form—literature—in which I physically could not and did not exist as far as I knew. And the books I grew up with were the books I had around the house that I loved and still love were Henry James and Jane Austin and Edith Wharton. All these books by very dead people in a world in which—if I were ever to appear in, say, Edith Wharton’s world—I couldn’t have even gone into the rooms where things are happening. Nobody would have talked to me. At best, I might have been a circus attraction I think. So, that sort of erasure of myself from this art form that I love I think is something that, in retrospect, was very harmful. And it means so much to me that, increasingly, people don’t have to grow up that way.
SWB Yeah! I love that and I love that you’re part of that, that you’re making that explicitly a part of what you’re doing. But I also wanted to ask a little bit about something that I’m guessing has come up for you as an Asian American woman with a public profile and a social media presence, I assume that you also with this kind of visibility that’s so important can also end up with harassment. And I’m curious if that has been part of your experience over the past year and how you handle it when that comes out?
ROK Every woman writer I know who is online in any way is getting harassed—that seems to be a part of our online lives, which is so awful. So, there has been harassment, especially I think anytime I write a nonfiction piece that has anything to do with gender or race or, god forbid, both. I just finished writing a piece that is supposed to publish later this month and that also has to do with sexuality as well and I imagine that will also lead to trouble. But… I don’t know! I don’t really know how to navigate it; I think I’m still figuring it out. For me, I just block a lot of people very quickly. I try to be kind to myself in terms of not reading an email all the way through if I can tell it’s going to try to be hurtful.
SWB Yeah, I think it’s hard. It’s hard to make all of those little, again, endless little choices. And you mentioned that if you write a piece that is about gender and race, which you did recently because you wrote this piece for the New York Times around “Stop Calling Asian Women Adorable.” And you talk about getting a lot of comments about being “cute” or about having “alabaster skin” when you’re on a panel to talk about writing and how diminishing that feels. I’m curious if you can talk a little bit more about that—that specific kind of racism that Asian American women tend to get?
ROK The idea for it started because I and a lot of people I know, especially Asian-American people—people were getting very upset about the ways in which people were talking about Marie Kondo. They were talking about how cute she was, how pixie-like. There was one day when three prominent white feminists were talking about her in this very dismissive way. And it became clear that a lot of people don’t even see this as racism, and the more I talked to my Asian American writer friends who are women, so many of them had experienced this kind of very friendly, very gentle racism. [laughs] Where they’re up on a stage talking about their work and the first question will come from someone who says, “first, I just want to tell you that you’re adorable,” and then they’ll continue. And almost everyone I knew just strongly disliked this kind of language. And it doesn’t even read as racism I think to a lot of people, it’s “well it’s a compliment, what’s the problem?” But when we’re talking about our work, we don’t want to be told we’re adorable and cute, we’re trying to be serious people. How we look to you is not the most important part of me in this moment. So, I just wanted to write about that. And I got the sense that a lot of people didn’t see this as racism, so I wanted to say, well, that I’m going to tell you that it is racism and it reads as racism to the vast majority of Asian American women I know, so let’s just talk about that. And I think in writing that piece—I think about this a lot when I think about who exactly I’m writing for—there was some pushback from not just men this time, but also from other women who said, “well, this affects people who aren’t Asian too, this affects all women.” And I was talking with my husband and he was saying, “if you were to write this piece again, would you include a line like ‘of course this applies to all women?’” And I thought about it and I was just like, “no, I don’t want to. I don’t want to have to.” When was the last time a piece by a white woman explicitly said, “of course this applies to Asian women too”? Why do I have to center anyone else? Why can’t I write this for Asian people and center people who are more like me? I don’t want to have to center the people who have been most often centered in America letters. Toni Morrison says something about this that I absolutely love. She says something like—I’m paraphrasing, which is a crime with Toni Morrison—something like, “I stood at the border, I claimed it essential, and I let the rest of the world move over to me.” Which I love so much! Isn’t that so beautiful? It’s so powerful, it’s just so great. [laughs]
SWB That’s so beautiful. And I do love that you’re talking about this need to say, “no, I don’t have to speak universally and include all women in this statement all of the time when I’m talking about something that is specifically happening to Asian women.” I love that and I love this message about needing to be able to create that space. It makes me think a little bit about something I’ve really appreciated from you over the last couple of years. So, obviously, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about your book, but you have done a ton to highlight other people’s books. The last couple of years, I have just eaten up those amazing lists of books that you’ve written for Electric Lit on women and non-binary authors of color that have upcoming releases. I’ve used them as cheatsheets for my own reading lists and have definitely been like, “okay, earmark that one, earmark that one!” You know, it’s overwhelming to figure out what to read and how to expand my horizons and I’m like, “well shit, look, she’s already done all this work for me!” [laughs & ROK laughs] So, I’m curious—how does that fit in? What prompted you to want to write these lists?
ROK That particular list—forthcoming books by women and non-binary people of color—the first idea behind it was a few years ago, I was just looking at lists of upcoming books, I was trawling through publisher’s catalogs looking for books I might be interested in reviewing because I was reviewing books more heavily at that time. And then I just realized that as I was looking at the list how few women of color there were. I could find women, I could find people of color, but I could find very few women of color. And I thought, “this is bad because I’m interested in this, I’m interested in promoting and helping to get out the word about other women’s books, about people of color’s books, and if I who care am having trouble, that means that a lot of people are going to have even more trouble who maybe don’t consider this to be a big concern.” So, I started making that list and it made me so happy that it gained traction and that people do seem to use that list to think about their book’s coverage and what they want to read in the upcoming year, that means the world to me. I just hope this gets easier and easier until the list is superfluous and no one needs it anymore. [laughs]
KL So, it has been so amazing having you on the show with us, we want to tell everybody that The Incendiaries is out now in paperback. So, everyone, please go pick it up. And where else can folks get more of you in their lives?
ROK I’m on Twitter @rokwon, I’m on Instagram also at “rokwon” but with a dot in between (ro.kwon). I’m going to be going on a tour—the event details are all on my website, which is ro-kwon.com/events.
SWB Well, awesome. Thank you so much for being on, R.O. It was great to have you!
ROK Thank you so much, it was so lovely to talk. Thank you. [short transition music plays]
Fuck Yeah of The Week
KL Alright. It’s time for our fuck yeah…and I’ve got one. I’ve got to say fuck yeah to saying…no.
SWB Alright! Tell me more.
KL As you know, [KL coughs] I’m getting over a cold—as are you—
SWB Indeed. [KL laughs] I’ve had quite a cold.
KL Ugh, gosh. And earlier this week, I was feeling so lousy and just run down, and I just had to reschedule some meetings and straight up cancel plans. And Monday night, I was supposed to go to a volunteer steering committee meeting that I really wanted to go to and felt like I should go to. And normally I would have just gone!
SWB Boundaries are so good. What made you feel like you could say no this time?
KL Yeah. So, you and I were supposed to record earlier that morning actually and you were like, “what if we don’t? What if we do it another day?”
SWB Yeah, that was kind of a dawning realization for me too. Like, “wait a second… we are super unprepared because we’re both sick, we’ve both been really worn out—
SWB —we are going to hate doing this.
SWB This is not going to be fun. And also it’s probably not going to be that good—
SWB —and why are we doing this to ourselves? [KL laughs] We don’t have to! And I was like, “wait! We don’t have to!” [KL laughs]
KL [laughing] No, it was a really good realization for me too. So, honestly, I think that sort of set the stage for me setting more boundaries throughout the day. I kept thinking, “clearly I’m not alone in this, this is not a personal failing on my part that I’m sick. I. Got. A. Cold.”
SWB Yeah! Turns out people get colds. [KL laughs] In fact, I think it’s more of a failing on my part [KL laughs] because I definitely gave you the cold.
KL Well, you know, it’s bound to happen. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise. I knew that if I went, I’d feel awful and I’d probably run myself down even more. So, I emailed the organiser and told them I couldn’t make it because I was sick and they were like, “that’s totally cool and we really hope you feel better.”
SWB What’s funny is, of course, they were not trying to guilt you—
SWB —it was you guilting you.
SWB I do that to myself too. Okay, yeah, this cold has been really gross and I’ve not been sleeping well because I’m coughing up a lung every two minutes. And I’ve been really busy! We had two events last week—we had a Collective Strength event, which had a ton of people at it, we had a live show which we’re going to put out for next week’s episode, I had a big client project that was due. All of these things going on! And yet, I still somehow told myself, “well, you should still be able to make it to the gym, you’re not that sick.” [KL laughs] And then like…why? Like why? I really want to do better allowing myself to…have a body?
SWB I mean, I have a body.
SWB But capitalism doesn’t want you to have a body. Bodies are very unpredictable—
SWB —bodies are unruly, bodies are fragile, bodies can be broken, bodies do weird stuff! And capitalism wants consistency and efficiency and endless performance. And I know that that is all bullshit, but that kind of mentality is so ingrained in me and is a thing I expect of myself.
SWB And I don’t want that.
KL No! And I don’t want to be sick anymore, [laughs] but now I do want to slow down and maybe enjoy what our bodies are doing for us a little bit more, take care of them. And I think of us slowing down and it being a big fuck you to capitalism and I really like that.
SWB Yes! But I think we should find some ways to reject productivity culture that don’t involve quite so much phlegm. [KL laughs] Did you know you can rest when you’re not sick?
KL Wow, wow, wow, wow. Okay, I’ve got to try that! [laughs]
SWB I know! And that’s the thing. I feel like that’s something I’ve been working on for a while, and it’s come up here and there in the show—we’ve talked about different facets of this. Remember when we had Jessica Dore on the show? She does the therapeutic tarot?
SWB So, she has this quote that pops into my head from time to time. It’s like, “interrogate your resistance to idleness.” [KL sighs] And that’s something I’m working on—I’m interrogating my resistance to idleness. Why do I feel bad or weird about being idle? Part of it comes down to I think for me being able to distinguish some stuff. I really like being active, I enjoy being active, and there is a way of being active that I feel like is actually, I don’t want to say restful, but rejuvenating for me?
KL Yeah, absolutely.
SWB But active and productive are not the same. I can be active without being productive and that’s fine and good, and also I have a body that is not actually always able to be active. My body gets sick, my body has problems, right?
SWB And that is something I want to keep working through and reminding myself of, and learning new habits, and unlearning some past bullshit. So, I’m really glad that we’re celebrating this today because I want to be able to keep celebrating those little moments where you’re like, “wait, no, I don’t have to do this!”
KL Yes! Fuck yeah to that. Well, that’s it for us this week! Strong Feelings is recorded in Philadelphia and produced by Steph Colbourn at Edit Audio. Our theme music is “Deprogrammed” by Blowdryer. They’re an awesome Philly-based band and you should check them out at blowdryer.bandcamp.com. Thanks to RO Kwon for being our guest today, and thank you so much for listening! If you liked our show today, don’t forget to subscribe and rate us wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. And hey—get some strong feelings delivered to your inbox! Sign up for our newsletter at strongfeelings.co. See you again next week! [theme music plays for 15 seconds and fades out]