Over the summer of 2020, Tor.com’s editorial team gathered to discuss how we could use the platform to better support SFF writers from historically marginalized communities. As part of our dedication to inclusivity, Tor.com will be expanding our reach and giving space to exciting new voices working in genre to ensure that Tor.com is a place where writers of all backgrounds feel supported and affirmed. Recognizing that the experiences and cultural viewpoints of Tor.com’s editorial staff are not universal, we’ve reached out to some friends to help us continue this project.
Tor.com is excited to announce our first ever guest editor, R.F. Kuang! Kuang is the author of the Poppy War trilogy, as well as a scholar and translator who has been a tour-de-force in the speculative fiction community. She will be curating a limited series of essays to broaden the horizon of voices represented on Tor.com and forge new pathways for the future of SFF. We are thrilled to have her aboard!
We chatted with R.F. Kuang ahead of her captaincy about how she’ll be steering this rocket ship:
Hello Rebecca! The Tor.com team is so excited to be working with you as our first Guest Editor. As Tor.com moves towards the future of criticism in SFF media, it looks like a very bright and inclusive horizon up ahead. What made you want to be a part of this program?
To be honest, I like that Tor has money. That means I can solicit cool stuff and pay people well for it. Sometimes it’s just nice to be handed the keys to institutional resources and told to go crazy. The Tor pieces I’ve most enjoyed in the past have not been the listicles but the deeper meditations, like Tochi Onyebuchi’s piece on Juneteenth and ‘White Bear’ and Jeannette Ng’s work on the history and politics of wuxia. I’m excited to help find, edit, and promote more in that vein.
There are lots of conversations going on about the current state of science fiction and fantasy, and how different the genre has become even in the last 5 years. Is there anything you’re particularly excited about, or conversations you wish we were having more of?
I’m excited that we are no longer largely referring to works by BIPOC writers as “first” or “only.” First movers used to have to carry the weight of an entire demographic on their shoulders–the few books by Asian American authors that were published were expected to represent the entire Asian American experience. Publishing statistics remain depressing, and the trickle has not become a flood. However, I see incremental progress. We aren’t just kicking doors down now, we’re building canons. There is room now for comparison, debate, and disagreement. We have enough books now to put them in conversation with each other. Broadly, I want us to apply more creative and imaginative analytical frameworks to works by BIPOC instead of reading them as ethnographies or history books. In terms of literary influences, people often talk about Asian-inspired epic fantasy as a straight line from Ken Liu to Fonda Lee to me, for instance, and that’s not quite right. The Aeneid is in that mix. So is The Godfather. And none of them exist to educate you about Chinese history and culture or Asian racialization, though from the way they’re often talked about (“Five Books by Chinese Americans To Make You Less Racist on AAPI Heritage Month!”) you’d think that’s all they’re good for. I want us to talk about speculative fiction by BIPOC writers like they’re art, not textbooks. I would like us to move past the assumption that BIPOC writers exist to teach us about experiences that were never monolithic and can’t be comprehensively defined in a single story. I want us to read Tau from Evan Winter’s Rage of Dragons against Rin from The Poppy War, or the poetry of Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun against the language in Madeline Miller’s Circe. I’m excited to have conversations about unlikely cross-cultural comparisons and messy genealogies. I want to talk about the wild genre mishmashes that Nghi Vo is doing in The Chosen and the Beautiful and Siren Queen, or in Tasha Suri’s remix of Wuthering Heights. Never before have BIPOC writers been putting out–that is, being paid to put out–so much weird, fascinating, brilliant stuff–and we need to up our lit crit game to meet them where they’re at.
What are your feelings on the way genre fiction is discussing identity and culture currently? Why is it important to highlight marginalized voices and their experiences?
I think that a lot of genre fiction thought pieces on identity and culture are very beginner-level discourse written for a white audience. (“East Asian Inspired Speculative Fiction, Explained!” “Why is it wrong to publish racist depictions of BIPOC characters?” “Racism is Bad, Actually”) They all revolve around the second part of your question–why is it even important to highlight marginalized voices? I’m so tired of that. The conversation keeps running in circles. We expend so much energy trying to convince white publishing that we matter. (Personally I think that if you hate profit that’s your own problem.) Those pieces are important, and kudos to the folks who keep putting them out, but while I’m guest editor, I’m more interested in fostering conversations that let us talk to each other instead of for white onlookers. I want complexity, argument, and debate. Non-western cultural identities aren’t a monolith–not all Asian Americans agree with each other about what constitutes good representation, for example–and I want to get into it! Some people think The Poppy War is brilliant, others think it’s a mawkish butchering of Chinese culture and history, and there are good arguments all around. We’d like to pretend that the issues surrounding art, identity, and culture have easy, morally virtuous answers, but they don’t. Who gets to write about what? Who owns our stories? Is remixing history a valid exercise, or is it spitting on the graves of the dead? Is relating violent trauma gratuitous, or necessary? (I wrote a whole trilogy within these zones of discomfort and I still really don’t know.) Anyways, enough of pieces about “Black speculative fiction” or “Asian narrative traditions” as an entire unit of analysis. Essentialism is boring. Let us simply accept the premise that diverse perspectives matter, and move on to the graduate-level stuff.
What are you excited to do with your tenure here at Tor.com?
Precisely that! Specifically, I’m looking for smart, argument-driven, well-researched, difficult pieces about anything under the sun. I’m of course always interested in pieces that examine textual representations of race, colonization, and diaspora, but I don’t like the expectation that BIPOC writers must write about their own cultural identity or marginalization for their voices to matter. If you have a banging piece about Dickens and science fiction or how the Vinland Map is a fake, I want to see it. I especially want to see a piece on The Green Knight that does not boil down to an expression of thirst for Dev Patel. I have a few pieces lined up already but have room for a few unsolicited essays. I’m approaching my editorial stint the same way I approach seminar discussions–I want to give folks a chance to talk about the gnarly, difficult, nerdy, controversial things that make their whole faces light up. I’m particularly interested in pitches with an academic bent–Haris Durrani’s close reading of Dune is a great example of what I’d love to work on.
If that describes an idea knocking around your head, please pitch me!
We’d love to get to know you a little. What was the first book that made you want to write speculative fiction? Are there any particular books that were foundational for you? What’s the last thing you read that you loved?
I’m in a transitional place. I came to writing as a big epic fantasy fan–I grew up on the likes of George R.R. Martin, Ursula le Guin, and Robin Hobb. In college I read Scott Lynch, Peter V. Brett, Patrick Rothfuss, China Mieville, Ken Liu, and N.K. Jemisin, who made me want to try my hand at writing! While I was working on the Poppy War trilogy, reading folks like Alyssa Wong, Evan Winter, Rebecca Roanhorse, Fonda Lee, Pierce Brown, V.E. Schwab, Nghi Vo, and Katherine Arden helped me up my game. But now that the trilogy is finished, I’ve found myself moving away from epic fantasy as both a reader and a writer. At this point in time, it’s not fun for me anymore. My work right now is shifting from secondary world fantasy to alternate history (see Babel) to non-speculative contemporary (see Yellowface). I’m increasingly fascinated by metatextual, intertextual, and hypertextual play. I love footnotes and epigraphs. I love alternating POVs. I love Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. I’ve seen Tenet four times now, and I want to do something that fucks around with time. Most of my academic work happens outside of English, which means the strongest influences on my prose right now are from different languages. I’m reading Malaysian Chinese authors like Ng Kim Chew, Chang Kuei-hsin, and Li Zishu for a reading seminar this term, and they are doing things with metonymy and imagery that no one I’ve read in English is doing. There’s no unifying thread to all these new influences; I’m just hoping that it all blends within me and roils over into increasingly strange and uncategorizable stuff.
Tell us about your writing projects!
Babel comes out in August 2022. It’s a dark academia novel set in 1830s Oxford about colonialism, translation magic, and violent revolution, written in the style of a Victorian pastiche and crammed with footnotes, epigraphs, and Dickensian run-on sentences. Andrew Liptak did a nicely thorough write-up of the announcement for Tor, which you can read here.
Yellowface comes out sometime in Spring 2023 and is, literally, about yellowface. (And racism and publishing and model minorities and the question of who gets to tell what story!) It’s my litfic debut, and kicks off what I hope will be a separate track of publishing work outside of speculative fiction. You can read all about the premise and deal announcement here.