Without The Hindrance of Facts
R.O. Kwon interviewed by Kate Hao
R.O. Kwon’s debut novel The Incendiaries is an earnest, spiraling exploration into faith, love, violence, and desire. Kwon wrote and rewrote The Incendiaries over the course of ten years, a devotion that shines through her intricately wrought sentences and incisive imagery. She draws upon her own experience of God—and her loss of faith—to weave a story that undermines certainty and objectivity.
The Incendiaries follows Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall on their parallel journeys of grieving: Phoebe for her deceased mother, and Will for his loss of faith. As their relationship both intensifies and diverges, what becomes clear is how love doesn’t necessarily lead to familiarity and how violence we may call unimaginable emerges from the basic conditions of our realities. Formally, the novel brings the reader to confront the very questions Will finds himself facing: what does it mean to know another person? When and how does love trip into worship, faith into fanaticism?
I had the pleasure of speaking with R.O. Kwon for a 30-minute phone call in the lead-up to her featured reading as part of the Asian American Literature Today Series, taking place September 13th, 2018 at the Library of Congress. During our conversation, she spoke with thought and care about the place of questions in storytelling, as well as some of the novel’s more painful passages and her duties as a writer within those moments.
R.O. Kwon’s first novel, The Incendiaries, was published by Riverhead in July of 2018. She is a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, Time, Vice, BuzzFeed, Playboy, Noon, Electric Literature, Asian American Literary Review, and elsewhere. She has received awards from Yaddo, MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Omi International, the Steinbeck Center, and the Norman Mailer Writers’ Colony. Born in South Korea, she has lived most of her life in the United States.
Kate Hao: Your book feels so saturated with grief, but I’m interested in starting by talking about joy. One passage that’s really stayed with me is when Will says: “People with no experience of God tend to think that leaving the faith would be a liberation…but what I couldn’t forget was the joy I’d known, loving Him” (123). The passage struck me because of how unadulterated the joy he found in faith was. Do you see opportunity for a joy outside of faith that could also be that unadulterated?
R.O. Kwon: I was interested in exploring what the permutations of the varieties of grief can be. I was and am deeply interested in joy too, and I think Will and Phoebe are in different ways, at different stages of the novel, both very much in pursuit of joy, choosing or looking for more ephemeral joys…
Maybe to bring this back to my own experience, because a lot of the novel was very inspired by my own experience of leaving the faith—I know that I became alive to and more attentive to ephemeral joy. I tried more to appreciate ephemeral joys. I’ve never quite found again any kind of joy untinged with the knowledge that it will be lost, which is what Will had when he was Christian, and what I had when I was Christian.
KH: There’s a quote from an interview you did with Bustle where you talk about being suspicious of certainty: “I wanted my novel to come from a place of wondering.” Why was it important to you for this book to be rooted in wonderment?
RK: There’s something that [Julio] Cortázar said that I love. He said that he’s on the side of the question, and I think that maybe, having grown up in a world in which I was given so many of what were thought to be final answers to why are we here, what are we, how does the world work…I think I do tend to be wary of easy, comprehensive final answers. I tend to trust questions more, and the openness that comes with questions. Novels are so alive, and I don’t want to write novels that tie things up neatly and give a lot of answers, because I don’t find that to be reflective of life
KH: Do you see a relationship between the experience of faith and the experience of wonderment, maybe in the writing of the novel, or as a reader, reading the novel?
RK: That’s such a beautiful question, but one I don’t quite know how to answer…While I was writing this book, I read so many religious thinkers. And the religious thinkers I loved the most were asking question after question after question. Simone Weil was my favorite. I love her in part because she’s full of questions.
KH: I love this idea of being invested in questions. It leads me to my next question, about unreliable narrators, and Will, who I would certainly flag as unreliable. Could you talk about your choice to narrate Phoebe from Will’s white male perspective?
RK: It wasn’t quite a choice in that I’m very much not a top-down writer. I work from sentence to sentence trying to figure out what I’m going to do next. And so I have very few plans and intentions when I start out. I spent two years telling the novel entirely from Phoebe’s point of view, and that was a time when I was just reworking the first 20 pages over and over and over again. Then I threw those away, and started all over again with the same characters. Phoebe goes through so much emotionally—she loses a great deal, then she falls into a cult, and then she blows shit up—so it felt, to me, claustrophobic to spend the length of an entire novel exclusively in her head. I found that if Phoebe stepped aside just a little bit, and if someone who loved her but wasn’t as intricately involved in her life told a lot of the story, space was freed up. I felt the novel could breathe more easily.
I will say that my next novel, which I’ve been working on for two years, is narrated from the point of view of a Korean American woman, and I very much hope that it gets to stay that way. [both laugh]
KH: I hear that, especially how distance can sometimes help to bring you closer to a character. How do you go about negotiating having an unreliable narrator with the sort of gender and racial stakes that are at play in the novel? Were there specific considerations on your mind when working with that particular point of view in observation of the other characters?
RK: I very much wanted the book to be, and I hope the book is, deeply feminist. There are ways in which Will views women and ways in which he prioritizes his own desires and needs that if I were Will’s friend, I would find it to be deeply problematic. That said, I didn’t go into the writing with that kind of intention, it was more that these problems started to arise as the book went on. In a lot of ways, I was surprised by who Will turned out to be. In this way, at least, I didn’t have political or moral intentions, it was more that that’s how the book revealed itself to me.
KH: Pulling on that thread, about some of the things that Will ends up doing: from the very first chapter, violence establishes itself as this constant specter. Still I was surprised by the moment of sexual violence. How do you go about writing that? What was on your mind when putting that on the page?
RK: I tried very hard not to write that scene. When that started happening, I was surprised and dismayed. I tried to write multiple different versions of the scene, but as I was rereading the book, trying to figure out what was going on, that’s when I started really noticing how problematic Will’s male gaze can sometimes be, and the extent to which the book and the school are suffused with rape culture and casual misogyny. I didn’t want that moment of violence to happen, but it seemed to be the most likely event in that moment, given who these people are.
KH: That’s making me think of when you said that you hope that this book is deeply feminist. Could you elaborate on what you see as its feminist work?
RK: A friend asked me why there are so many undercurrents, and in some cases overt currents, of sexual violence in the book. My answer was that in my experience of college, as well as of daily life, I have no idea what it’s like to go about my day without thinking about the possibility of sexual violence. I have no idea what it’s like to walk in my own city after 9 p.m. without calculating, as so many women calculate, what the safest thing to do is. Is it okay for me to walk home at this hour? Should I just spring for a car because there’s that one street that’s pretty deserted? All the calculations I make in a given day, the fact that I never get in my car without glancing in the back seat to make sure someone’s not waiting there, all the warnings we’ve had, all the stories we’ve heard. I guess that made its way into the book because it’s how I experience the world. The number of women who experience sexual violence while they’re in college is so heartbreakingly high. So I wanted that reality—or, it’s not quite “I wanted”—I found that that reality made its way into the book because it reflected my own experience of the world.
KH: What do you think, then, is the author’s role or responsibility to the readers when writing about such difficult topics like violence and trauma? Do you think it’s maybe one of care, or teaching, or something else?
RK: It’s more that I feel a responsibility to the story and to the book, which I hope, in the end, does also incorporate a responsibility to readers. It’s so important to me while I write that I tell a story that feels as if it couldn’t have been any other way. With this book, I also wanted to feel as if every sentence couldn’t have possibly been any other way. Of course, that’s an essentially impossible goal, but that’s what I was working toward. I wanted the book to feel utterly true while of course being a novel—but that’s partly why I love fiction, because fiction lets me work towards what I think is the truth, or a truth, or multiple truths, without the hindrance of facts. I wanted the characters to be the most authentic versions of themselves they could be. I wanted every line of dialogue to feel like a line of dialogue that these characters would voice.
KH: Wanting to present truth without the hindrance of facts…Do you see truth and fact as coming up against each other?
RK: No, not quite—I mean, I love reading nonfiction as much as anyone. I don’t love writing it myself though, because when I write nonfiction, I find facts to be inconvenient. [both laugh] They get in the way of the story as I imagine it. I would make a terrible reporter. For me, accessing that kind of emotional truth is most possible without facts getting in the way.
KH: So it sounds like audience or readership doesn’t hold a huge presence in your writing process, and that you’re much more attuned to the story?
RK: While I’m writing, it’s so absorbing that all I can really think about is writing for myself, and satisfying my own demands, in terms of prose, in terms of the language, in terms of what’s being conveyed in a line or paragraph. That said, it was very important–when I step back from the book, when people ask what it’s about, when people have questions about small details—it was very important to me that I center readers who are more like me and less like [John] Updike.
A small moment, but to me it was really important: Phoebe has a Korean name, and it’s her middle name, Haejin. Her mother only ever calls her Haejin. And somebody asked, “The first time that comes up, do you want to explicitly note that Haejin is Phoebe? And I strongly felt that the answer is absolutely not. Any Korean American reader and, I think, any Asian American reader would automatically understand that that’s her Korean name, and that’s what her family calls her. I shouldn’t have to explain it just because a reader who’s not Asian American might not immediately understand that, any more than a white male writer who uses a lot of sailing terms feels compelled to explain all of them. [both laugh]
It meant so much to me when one of the first reviews came in, from a woman who’s Korean American. She talks about how meaningful it was to see flashes of her own experience growing up Korean American, flashes that other people might not even notice: the Fuji apples, and a mother cutting fruit for a child, and the ways in which a first-generation immigrant might interact with someone at the deli…That meant the world to me, especially since I didn’t read my first Korean American writers until after college. It was so revelatory for me to read fiction for the first time in which I saw flashes of my own childhood refracted in some way. That’s important to me, and I think it will always be important to me.
Kate Hao is a poet and writer who grew up in Northern Virginia. She recently graduated from Washington University in St. Louis and was a Curatorial Research Intern at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.