Photo shows Chinese American writer Rebecca F. Kuang. (Xinhua/Qiu Jun Zhou)
By Qiu Junzhou, Yang Shilong
NEW YORK, June 6 (Xinhua) -- Not a single copy of The Poppy War was left, even for Rebecca F. Kuang herself, after a signing event at BookCon 2018 held in Javits Center over the weekend.
A total of 300 plus copies were sold and signed in a single day. That was a pretty good record for the debut novelist, who just graduated from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.
The historical fiction tells the story of 20th century China -- the opium wars, the Sino-Japanese war and the Nanjing Massacre -- in an alternate fantasy setting.
The dark-skinned war orphan, Rin, strives to escape her fate by rising into the highest echelons of the finest military academy in the Nikara Empire. Tutored by the renegade Master Jiang, she leads the fight against the invading Mugenese.
DRAWING ATTENTION TO CHINESE HISTORY FORGOTTEN IN THE WEST
In an interview with Xinhua, Kuang said she wrote the book to draw attention to China's historical issues that "have not been traditionally represented either in Western fiction or in American classrooms."
"People have forgotten the fact that China was one of the allied powers and fought on the allied side during WWII," said Kuang. "And related to that is the Rape of Nanjing, which has been referred to as the forgotten holocaust, because 300,000 people died, and we just don't teach that in the West."
This painful episode in history is deeply tied to Kuang's family. The young author who moved with her parents to the United States from China at the age of five still pays visits to her father's hometown in Leiyang, Hunan province, from time to time.
"When I visited my father's home village, you can see the bullet holes in the walls left by Japanese soldiers during the WWII, and they're still there, and that's a history that has stayed with them," Kuang said. "This sort of inter-generational trauma, and this suffering that hasn't really been given voice to."
To this day, the Japanese government has repeatedly refused to apologize for war crimes, including the Nanjing Massacre, committed by the Imperial Japanese Army during the WWII.
The Poppy War, she said, warns about the possible consequences of overlooking or denying this painful past for both Japan and China.
"The only way that we can learn from this is to acknowledge and forgive," she said. "Acknowledge that it happened, and educate younger generations about what happened so that it doesn't happen again. But that doesn't mean forgetting, because that just runs the danger that it happens again."
ADDRESSING MULTICULTURAL AUDIENCE
Writing a book about China for an audience that is largely Western is a challenging job for Chinese American authors alike, Kuang said.
"I have to straddle the line between just writing a book for a Chinese audience, and also explaining some things so that they can be swallowed by a Western audience," she said.
"You have to use shortcuts to indicate what you mean so that they feel more familiar. Sometimes it's annoying because some of it feels like cultural reductionism. It really is a balancing act."
In the process of adapting to a more multi-cultured audience, Kuang strives to represent authentic Chinese culture. "Good representation means complicated narrative that prove that not all Chinese characters are the same," she said.
Kuang finds this is an uphill battle. Chinese American authors would be told by publishers that "Asian stories won't sell," or they don't need to publish another Asian author.
"They think that all Asian stories are the same, and that's not true. Not even all Chinese stories are the same. But they just sort of categorize everything into one box, one diversity box, and that's not fair."
Yet this battle has seen small victories, thanks to the previous hard work of authors of Chinese descent, Kuang said.
"I'm lucky because I'm riding the coattails of people like Cindy Pan and Ken Liu who broke those barriers for the first time and proved that Chinese fantasy does sell," Kuang said.
INSPIRATION FOR YOUNGER GENERATIONS
Kuang's one-hour autographing event at BookCon on Saturday drew in the crowds.
Lilian Chen, mother of two teens, was animated when she managed to get several signed books after a long queue. "My younger daughter is quite into it," said Chen.
Kuang has been receiving encouraging letters from many young Asian Americans, thanking her for writing a book during which, for the first time, the main character looks like them.
"That means a lot. It means that somebody found a book that I was looking for when I was 12, 13 years old and couldn't find a library shelf, and as long as that story is reaching out to other young Chinese Americans, then I feel like I've done my job."
Kuang herself also went through a period of being self-conscious of her cultural heritage. "It took me a long time to get over that internalized self-hatred, and really embrace and accept my Chinese heritage, and so many Chinese American kids go through this."
A few years ago, Kuang took a gap year from college to teach debate to high school students in Beijing. "I wanted to study the Chinese language, and understand more about my heritage and history," she said.
Kuang believes that the creative process lets Asian Americans know that there are people like them, and that they are accepted, "this is the key to helping them appreciate their own culture."
"There are so many talented and incredible Asian creators, authors, directors, actors, etc. and we've seen an explosion of Asian representation because of their hard work, so we should just support those people, go see their movies, buy their books, and support their careers," she said.
"I think there's also a cultural side, where I think Chinese parents should be more open to letting their kids pursue careers in arts," Kuang added.