With the sequel to The Empress of Salt and Fortune, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, out next month, we took the opportunity to sit down with Nghi Vo!
The Empress of Salt and Fortune is described as being about ‘the anger of women’. What does that mean to you and why did you want to write a story with this as a major theme?
I think it was Ruoxi Chen, my editor over at Tor who came up with that line, and when she did, it was as if something clicked into place for me. By that point, Empress had been finished for a long time, and it made me look back on it with just a little bit of wonder. Of course I knew it was about women, and In-yo’s furnace runs off of rage, but it never struck me how furious so many of the nameless women were as well, how even characters like Rabbit carried that fury within them. What I knew first was that the genesis of Empress was broken hearts, sorrow that would kindle to anger and action. First came the tears and then came the fire, I suppose.
Fantasy stories often revolve around revolution and the overthrowing of established power dynamics. Why is such extreme political upheaval so well suited to fantastical narratives?
I think that one thing that can help put an engine in a story is change. People do the most interesting and extreme things when they’re in transition, and there are few transitions as big or as all-encompassing as a revolution. It’s a place where a lot of illusions are stripped away, and where people have to decide who they really are and what they believe in. You can get a lot of mileage out of something that shows people at their best and at their worst.
You cover some extremely dense and serious issues within your novella. How does this short format limit, or free, such stories?
Ha, I’m a short story writer first! It’s my native language in a way that novels may never be, and it’s where I feel the most comfortable. You can cover a thousand years in a short story if you only know how, and when it comes to dark things and serious things, you can shrink them down to the size of a bullet. There are some things, I’m learning, which need more space, but if you’re willing to find just the right angle, just the right shot, you can fold an incredible amount of information into about 200 words.
A lot of fantasy, like yours, uses history as a starting point for a fantastical world. However, most stories then unquestioningly reproduce the patriarchal power structures of those historical periods. How do you think writers might better use historical inspiration while not simply regurgitating and reinforcing gender inequality?
Point of view! Absolutely the best tool for dismantling history is to first ask who is talking and why. “History is written by the winners” is one of those lines that you know in your head is true, and then sometimes, you learn with your heart who got run over and left behind, and that’s where you need to begin. Women are always there. Queer people are always there. People with disabilities are always there. The minute you have an empire, or hell, even a crossroads, you have more diversity than you can dream of, and that’s where your story starts.
Pitch us The Empress of Salt and Fortune! Why should readers pick up a copy?
Am I the Asshole: I(F20) arrived in the land of my colonizers and they’ve made the terrible mistake of banishing me to the provinces with one faithful handmaid and a bunch of fortunetellers. WIBTA if I found a way to end the magical summer and let my mammoth army in?
Nghi Vo is a fantasy, science fiction and horror writer. Her first full-length novel, The Chosen and the Beautiful, a queer, magical retelling of The Great Gatsby through the eyes of a transracial Vietnamese adoptee Jordan Baker, is coming in 2021. Her novella, The Empress of Salt and Fortune, is now available now from Tor.com Publishing. The stand-alone sequel, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, is due out in December 2020.