February 14, 2023
SEOUL – What happens when two people who love each other very much believe completely different things about the world?
“The story began with the question more than anything,” said R.O. Kwon at an online interview Saturday about her 2018 English-language novel, “The Incendiaries.”
The Korean edition of her bestselling debut novel hit the shelves in January, published by Moonji Publishing Co.
Growing up religious, Kwon had planned to become a pastor. But, it was her own experience of losing faith which ultimately inspired the story.
“I lost my faith when I was 17 and I left Christianity. That great divide in world views between having been very religious and suddenly not being religious has been a source of endless fascination for me and a source of endless grief as well,” she said.
Kwon moved to the US at the age of three with her family and was raised in a devout Christian environment. However, after reading widely about different lives, points of view and beliefs, it became impossible for her to believe that there was only one right way to look at the world.
“Losing my faith was a pivotal loss of my life. It was a great loss that I grieve still pretty much every day and I wanted to write a book for that 17-year-old girl who felt just desperately alone in the world.”
The powerful story is told through the eyes of three narrators: Phoebe, a Korean American college student who is guilt-ridden after her mother’s death; Will, a poor student who is a former evangelist; and John Leal, the leader of a Christian cult who claims to have spent time in a North Korean gulag.
The novel follows how Phoebe is lured into Leal’s cult, while Will desperately tries to hold on to her. The story touches upon themes of love, loss and religion, incorporating social issues such as cults, abortion and terrorism.
It took Kwon 10 years to finish the book. The novel was well received — listed as best book of the year by over 40 publications and organizations. The book was also a finalist in 2018 for the National Book Critics Circle’s esteemed John Leonard Prize, an award for the best first book in any genre.
“I did do a lot of research and certainly this is a book in which my emotions are very tied up. But what took more time is because I love language.” Kwon explained that she loved language at such a detailed level that if one comma was out of place, she felt the sentence was wrong.
“I felt it was done once I could open up the book at random and read a couple of sentences and not want to change anything,” she said. “I knew that was the measure because that’s how I decide what I’ll read next when I pick up a book.”
Kwon’s novel is available in seven other languages, including German, Dutch, Italian, Polish, French and Greek.
With the Korean edition, Kwon said her parents are beside themselves and she is very excited that her grandmother, who can’t read English, will now be able to read it.
The novel is being developed into a drama series. The adaptation will be written by Lisa Randolph of “Jessica Jones” and “Star Trek: Discovery,” and directed by Kogonada of the Apple TV+ series “Pachinko.”
“I was very excited about the adaptation. And for me, it was also very political in that it is still so new in the United States that we even have Asian faces, Asian American faces on our screens,” Kwon said. “They’ve said things with Asian people will not sell and in the past five years we’ve proven them so wrong.”
Kwon also shared her views on the conflicting phenomenon of affinity and hatred towards Asian and Asian Americans in the US.
“I feel so excited that for Korean Americans and Asian Americans, kids don’t have to grow up the way I did, where I grew up in a world where there was never a Korean face on a large screen.”
“That said, we’re also living in a time of rising anti-Asian violence. … I’m heartbroken, dismayed and utterly furious about the violence that is being perpetrated against Asian people.”
Kwon explained that her signature black eye shadow is her way of presenting herself against the prejudice that Asian women are weak and submissive.
“I wanted to have some physical signifier that pushes back against the stereotype that people have in America that I will be submissive and weak and easy to push around,” she said.
Kwon said she has been working on her next novel for seven years. The story is about a photographer who becomes obsessed with, then falls in love with a ballerina-turned-choreographer.
“They are both women, and in this book, I’m very interested in women’s ambition and desires,” Kwon said.
Kwon said she “almost believes” that a book preexists in an ideal shape and it’s her job to find her way to that book, bringing it into a being as full and real as possible.
“I almost believe this while knowing that the book doesn’t actually preexist in me. However, it helps me write to believe this because it means there’s an ending. It means there’s an answer at some point,” Kwon said.
“I have found literature to be the greatest balm, the greatest medicine for the loneliness that I know of. … I have found so much companionship in other books.”