She Who Became the Sun, Shelley Parker-Chan’s debut novel, is “a kind of” coming of age story. The first book in the Radiant Emperor duology is “about people who were not allowed to desire things in the world that they were born into or told that what they desired was wrong,” said Parker-Chan in an interview with io9.
As we learn more about the disaffected queer and gender nonconforming characters of She Who Became the Sun, we see how the larger problems affecting society have made them outcasts, and that they—by simply existing—have been forced into otherness. But they make sure to take what they want, despite the boxes other people have forced them into. “I think our protagonists got out pretty easily after the first book. So [the sequel] is my chance to turn the thumbscrews, which was super fun.”
Parker-Chan and I were chatting because of their next book, which is out now. He Who Drowned the World is not only a direct sequel to She Who Became the Sun, but is also in direct, almost aggressive conversation with the themes of the first book. “In the Buddhist conception of the world, suffering and desire are always linked. If you want something, you’re going to have to pay for it with suffering,” said Parker-Chan. “[He Who Drowned the World] is about how much are you going to give or what you want. And I think ultimately, is it worth it? So we have a lot of people who are dealing with the consequences of what they did. They’re in a pretty dark place and have to decide for themselves, ‘is it worth what I gave?’”
Both books are based on real history and real people, even if liberties have been taken. “I did want to keep it tied to history because it’s meant to be in conversation with what we know of the real history,” Parker-Chan explained. But it’s not necessary to have your history book out (although for some of us nerds, that can be a little fun in and of itself), and Parker-Chan said, “The only thing you need to know is that there was a tyrannical male emperor who could change the world. He kicked out the Mongols. He made a new dynasty in his image. And my book is very much in conversation with the fact that he was a man remaking a patriarchal world to suit himself.”
Specifically, the Radiant Emperor duology is described on Paker-Chan’s website as “a queer reimagining of the rise to power of Zhu Yuanzhang, the peasant rebel who expelled the Mongols, unified China under native rule, and became the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty.”
While She Who Became the Sun and He Who Drowned the World aren’t focusing on re-establishing the patriarchy, the characters are making the same kinds of choices, the same sorts of sacrifices, and facing similar moral dilemmas. “I think [these books] have to stay tied to history in order to have maximum impact when these characters say, ‘we’re doing something different. We’re creating a new world for queer people’.”
The characters don’t take this lightly. They have to deal with the fact that millions of people might die, or will die, because of their decisions to remake the world. “I have characters doing some very horrible things and questioning is it going to be worth it in the end?” Parker-Chan shrugged. “But the end that I am presenting is a transformed world that is inclusive. That’s a pretty big thing. Is that transformed world justified by the millions of deaths it took to get there?” That’s the big question that the characters wrestle with.
Their books might be in conversation with history, but there’s another, very present history that books that focus on queer people have to contend with. One of the themes that Parker-Chan explores in the duology is the power of queer solidarity. They describe a passage in the book that’s along the lines of “If you’re a minority, then no one’s going to change the world for you.”
“I don’t think my characters necessarily succeed in banding together in a wholesome way. They are very broken, but hopefully what I portray is the necessity for that solidarity,” Parker-Chan said. “You know, they might not have succeeded, but we can say, ‘Oh, they had a moment where they acknowledged they’re not the only people like themselves in the world.’ They see other people who understand their perspective.” Sure, they could have worked together, but that’s not how it shook out.
Parker-Chan’s novel focuses almost exclusively on people who have been marginalized by either their gender or their sexuality. While there are forces in society that want to push people into boxes, Parker Chan says that they treat the ability to move outside of those boundaries as “a kind of superpower.” It’s defying these expectations that gives their characters power to move through society in a way that people who are constrained do not. “They can take this force that crushes other people and turn it into a weapon that they can use to further their own ends, or they can resist its shaping power and make themselves into whatever they want to be.” They continue, “We do have characters who are crushed and we have characters who free themselves… I wanted to play with a performative element as well. So what I think I did more in this new book as opposed to the last book was have characters who are very aware of how their performance of gender makes them perceived.”
Ultimately, Parker-Chan says that they wrote these books because they could not find any Asian fantasy books written in English. They credit The Poppy War (R.F. Kuang) for really breaking open the floodgates and showing that there’s a market for these sorts of stories about Asian characters and—specifically in Parker-Chan’s case—with resonant Chinese history and themes. “Previously, publishers did not believe the market existed. And now I’m very excited because we have so many Asian fantasies. Every time I kind of look at the bookstore, I’m see all these Asian fantasies from different perspectives; diaspora perspective, Southeast Asian, East Asians… it’s very exciting, which is why I’m not going to be writing any more Chinese books.”
Parker-Chan didn’t specify what their next book was going to be, but teased that it takes place in a very “contained” and politicized environment. It might be similar to the palace dramas that Parker-Chan loves (they recommend Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo), but no more details were forthcoming.
In the first novel, She Who Became the Sun, queerness is a threat. But in Parker-Chan’s the Radiant Emperor series, that threat is always in response to a world that looks at queer people and attempts to force them to be something they’re not. And now, in He Who Drowned the World, queerness isn’t a threat; it’s a promise.
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