Rebecca Kuang (SFS’18), 2018 Marshall Scholar, recently published The Poppy War, her debut novel. She has a three book deal with HarperCollins Publishing. The trilogy is secondary world fantasy, drawing on themes from Asian history and mythology.
Kuang, an International History major in the SFS, is focusing on military strategy, collective trauma, and war memorials in Chinese history for her studies. She joined the Department of History for a book talk as part of their Asia in Depth Series. At the event, Kuang read a chapter from the book and answered questions from the audience.
In the novel, the protagonist Rin, is born a peasant in the south of the fictional Nikara Empire, but tests her way into the most prestigious military academy. Kuang says that Rin’s experience, in part, is based on her father’s childhood. “Actually Rin’s experience studying for the exam came straight from my father’s childhood. He did take the Gaokao [China’s national college entrance exam] and scored 1st in his province and got a scholarship to go to Peking University and from there, got a scholarship to come to the United States.”
James Millward, Professor of Intersocietal History in the SFS, led a short question and answer session before inviting questions from the audience. He noted the gender dynamics in the fantastical world Kuang created. “Do women fight in battles is not a question in this world. Is there anything you can say about how you’re approaching gender in your novel?” Kuang asserts that a lot of the same patriarchal structures in the real world exist in her novel. However, she made the decision to invert the alternative universe’s power structures. “While women are systematically excluded from a lot of positions of power, I made the choice to have that patriarchal structure there but also to have every important leadership position be occupied by a woman… Just because there is inequality of representation in the world doesn’t mean there should be inequality of representation in fiction.”
Carol Benedict, Sun Yat-Sen Professor of History, asked Kuang about her writing timeline and editing process. “Obviously, this must’ve been a very long project. How long were you thinking about it and when did you put pen to paper?” Kuang says she wrote the book during a gap year in China while she worked part time as a debate coach. “Since I had six plus hours of free time in a day, I decided to write 2,000 words every day. I had a novel in three months.”
The Poppy War is available in May 2018. Kuang says she’s in the editing process for book two, and she’s written 130,000 words for book three already.