She Who Became the Sun has been described as Mulan meets The Song of Achilles, but it’s better to drop all expectations these comparisons conjure up and go in expecting to be dazzled. I couldn’t wait to get Shelley on the blog to talk about this fascinating novel and the ideas behind it.
What was the most challenging thing you encountered when planning a fictional re-imagining of actual historical events?
There’s this book of poetry by Jacques Roubard that has a title that’s stuck with me: The Form of a City Changes Faster, Alas, Than the Human Heart. But when it comes to epoch-changing historical events, I feel that it’s the opposite: those changes take place at much slower rate than changes of the human heart. The start and end of empires takes decades. Lifetimes. But if your main story has a century-long timeframe, it becomes hard to integrate character-level story arcs—self-discovery, romances—that have as their natural timeframe a few years, or months. This is not to say that authors of historical fiction—or the screenwriters of Chinese historical dramas—can’t do this successfully, because they do. But for my particular story, which is so intimately concerned with personal identity, I couldn’t have Zhu Yuanzhang’s rise to power take thirty years as it did in reality. I had to compress the timeline. I threw most of the complexity of the political situation out of the window, but I’m not sorry for it: it was never my aim to write a story about politics. Or, for that matter, military strategy.
I thought your commentary on gender identity was subtle and well-integrated into the overall story. Was this aspect and its accompanying themes present from the beginning for you?
I suppose as soon as you give your story a backbone of tropes like “girl takes male identity”, “eunuch who is angry about being a eunuch” and “esteemed warrior prince vs humiliated scholar prince”, you have a story about gender identity, and the performance of gender, on your hands. As a genderqueer person, the performance of gender is always on my mind. I guess that’s why I gravitate towards those tropes. They’re the ones that best allow me to explore what I’m interested in. I always say, “the original Mulan story isn’t about gender, actually”—it’s more about filial piety in service of Confucian nationalism—and when I started She Who Became the Sun, I knew I wanted a Mulan-esque story that was definitely about gender. So it was there from the beginning, but it deepened and gained nuance with each iteration of the revision process, as these things inevitably do.
C drama has experienced a recent explosion in popularity in the west with a fandom that’s fully behind its most-loved tropes. Has its presence in the community affected the way you created SWBTS? Or the way you talk about the story now that the book is in readers’ hands?
She Who Became the Sun is obviously heavily influenced by Chinese and Korean historical dramas, but it was fully formed before The Untamed became the first cdrama to have a substantial English language fandom. When I queried SWBTS, and later sold it, I think a lot of agents and editors struggled with the idea that it referenced real historical figures but wasn’t historically accurate, and how it was told in an escapist fantasy register but didn’t have magic. They were like “Is this a historical? Is it a fantasy? What the hell is it?” Whereas now when I say that SWBTS is a palace drama, people know what that is because of Netflix. It’s great to see Chinese stories getting their due on the world stage.
At the same time, as cdramas become popular with non-Chinese fans who may also encounter my work, it becomes increasingly important for me to make the distinction that what I write is the product of a diaspora identity. Is it going to be identical in its treatment of theme to a mainland-produced, Mandarin-language cdrama? Will it adhere to the emerging stylistic conventions of fan-translated subtitles? Of course not. It’s been through western gatekeepers, it was written in English, it bears the imprint of my upbringing on western media. It contains all my ambivalence towards my own culture that’s a result of factors like anti-Asian racism in the west, feelings of inadequacy with regards to loss of language and culture, and the sexism and racism and colourism and homophobia that was very present within my specific diaspora community while I was growing up. But having differences to what cdrama fans have learned to expect doesn’t make it less authentic. It just makes it itself: a diaspora story.
I don’t think I’ve sympathised so deeply with such a morally-grey character as Zhu. And Zhu is not your only character who employs less than heroic methods in pursuing their goals. How do you go about writing protagonists whose actions might be understandable, but not acceptable?
I think we feel for Zhu because she starts in a very sympathetic place: as a child who’s told by the world and everyone in it that simply because of what she is—a girl—she’s useless, worthless, nothing. We feel the injustice of her situation. And we see how her drive and ambition and, yes, her ruthlessness and selfishness, are rooted in that beginning. In fear, and as a response to unfairness, rather than in entitlement. Adult Zhu justifies her actions, but she also never falls into the trap of thinking that they’re good. She acknowledges herself as the agent of the harm caused to others. In contrast, Ouyang also justifies his actions—but he positions himself as the eternal victim of forces outside his control. Having a pair of protagonists to compare and contrast is handy in this respect. Because Zhu embraces her agency and chooses her own path, we see that Ouyang could do the same—and so his refusal to do so makes Zhu seem likeable in comparison. Terribleness is all relative!
Pitch us She Who Became the Sun! Why should we be reading it?
Do you love that pure moment of catharsis when someone terrible gets what they deserve? Do you want to witness the revenge of the genderqueers against the patriarchy? Do you enjoy seeing beautiful men kneeling in shame and humiliation? Then: this book may be for you.
Shelley Parker-Chan is an Asian-Australian former diplomat and international development adviser who spent nearly a decade working on human rights, gender equality and LGBT rights in Southeast Asia. Named after the Romantic poet, she was raised on a steady diet of Greek myths, Arthurian legend and Chinese tales of suffering and tragic romance. Her debut novel She Who Became the Sun owes more than a little to all three. In 2017 she was awarded an Otherwise (Tiptree) Fellowship for a work of speculative narrative that expands our understanding of gender. She currently lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her family.