Today on the site, authors Sim Kern and Cynthia Zhang are here to talk queer fiction, gender and diaspora identities, and climate change! Sim Kern’s debut, the climate horror novella Depart, Depart!, came out in September 2020; Cynthia Zhang’s debut, the urban fantasy After the Dragons, will be released on August 19th. Both authors are published by Stelliform Press, a small press focused on climate change and culture. Here’s more info about both books:
Depart, Depart! by Sim Kern
When an unprecedented hurricane devastates the city of Houston, Noah Mishner finds shelter in the Dallas Mavericks’ basketball arena. Though he finds community among other queer refugees, Noah fears his trans and Jewish identities put him at risk with certain “capital-T” Texans. His fears take form when he starts seeing visions of his great-grandfather Abe, who fled Nazi Germany as a boy. As the climate crisis intensifies and conditions in the shelter deteriorate, Abe’s ghost grows more powerful. Ultimately, Noah must decide whether he can trust his ancestor — and whether he’s willing to sacrifice his identity and community in order to survive.
After the Dragons by Cynthia Zhang
Dragons were fire and terror to the Western world, but in the East they brought life-giving rain. Now, no longer hailed as gods and struggling in the overheated pollution of Beijing, only the Eastern dragons survive. As drought plagues the aquatic creatures, a mysterious disease—shaolong, or “burnt lung”—afflicts the city’s human inhabitants.
Jaded college student Xiang Kaifei scours Beijing streets for abandoned dragons, distracting himself from his diagnosis. Elijah Ahmed, a biracial American medical researcher, is drawn to Beijing by the memory of his grandmother and her death by shaolong. Interest in Beijing’s dragons leads Kai and Eli into an unlikely partnership. With the resources of Kai’s dragon rescue and Eli’s immunology research, can the pair find a cure for shaolong and safety for the dragons? Eli and Kai must confront old ghosts and hard truths if there is any hope for themselves or the dragons they love.
And here’s the conversation: please welcome Sim Kern and Cynthia Zhang!
SK: I was struck by how there’s a similar scene in both our books, where the queer protagonist is wondering whether their grandmother would accept them as their whole queer self. In your book, I’m thinking of the scene where Eli visits his grandmother’s grave and comes out to her posthumously. He can’t know how she’d react, but he “likes to think [she] would have been kind about it,” because she had seen the impact of bigotry and close-mindedness on other members of her family. In Depart, Depart! Noah also wonders what his grandmother would’ve thought about him coming out as trans, and he chooses to believe she would have understood him. The similarity of these scenes was uncanny to me. I think many queer people feel alienated from our ancestors, and our ancestral cultures and religions, because we assume they wouldn’t have accepted us. But at least for their own well-being, both our protagonists reject that narrative. That desire to reclaim my ancestors from a queer perspective was a major driving factor behind Depart, Depart! I’m wondering if you had similar motivation for writing After the Dragons? Besides the scene at the grave, are there other places you’re reclaiming your ancestors or your ancestral culture with this story?
CZ: Culture’s a tricky concept in general, isn’t it? On the one hand, it’s often evoked to gatekeep people and police individual behaviors—“our ancestors wouldn’t have tolerated this homosexual nonsense,” etc. What I think is missing in these kind of arguments is the fact that our understanding of tradition is limited and that culture is often more fluid and diverse than we give it credit for. There are people the official narratives leave out, stories that get mixed-up between translations and tellings before they eventually reach the present, in which they’re reinterpreted once again, maybe this time accessing some of the meanings other generations have missed. In Depart! Depart! Noah’s research into dybbuks gives him a way to connect with Jewishness, but it’s also a buried route, one that he has to search for. Against conservative narratives of identity, I think it’s important to remember our understandings of the past are always limited and imperfect.
That’s the abstract, theoretical answer. In terms of After the Dragons, before writing the novel, I don’t think I’d worked too closely with Chinese folklore in my fiction. I knew some of it, of course, from cartoons and books, but it wasn’t familiar in the same way werewolves and vampires were. My Chinese-American experience shares a lot of similarities with that of my cousins in mainland China, but there’s still a significant gap between us, bits of pieces of each other that we don’t quite get. In writing and doing research for After the Dragons, I was searching for a way to lessen that gap, to make myself more familiar with the histories and customs that shaped the way I was raised. It’s not a task that can ever be fully accomplished, but it’s one that I think is worth attempting nonetheless.
In addition to existing within specific cultural histories, our books both also exist within specific genre boundaries and expectations. When it comes to speculative fiction, there’s often the idea that it’s removed from reality – spaceships, Middle-Earth, etc. By contrast, with queer fiction, people tend to expect that it’s going to be broadly autobiographical if not a thinly veiled version of the writer’s own life. With both our books, it’s interesting how both the cli-fi and queer elements complicate this script. Noah is written from your experience of being trans, but he’s not trans in quite the same way you are, even if the transmasc and nonbinary experiences overlap in a lot of ways. On the other hand, the devastating hurricane in Depart! Depart! is in many ways all too terrifyingly real.
The length of this question is quickly approaching “I have a question that’s also a comment” levels, so to follow Carly and cut to the feeling, I’m curious how you feel about the expectations placed on your work as both spec fic and queer fiction. When do you feel comfortable sticking more closely to the facts/your own experience (realism), and when do you feel going a little beyond that (speculation)?
SK: I’m going to echo lots of other queer authors here and say that there has to be room for queer authors to write outside the strict limits of your own gender and sexuality–because writing is often an essential act of queer self-discovery. I figured out I was nonbinary while writing a nonbinary character into my YA novel, four years ago. I wrote Noah’s character at a time when I was wrestling with whether I was truly nonbinary or actually transmasc. I was dealing with some intense gender dysphoria at the time, and I needed to explore those feelings. But after living in Noah’s shoes for a while, I realized I didn’t feel the way he did about his gender. I gained more certainty in my nonbinary-ness. Processing my gender-feelings through writing helped me–and a lot of other authors–come to terms with my own queerness. And I want to make sure to hold that door open for future writers.
All that being said, I don’t think someone necessarily has to be exploring their own identity in order to be “allowed” to write a queer book. I have a story coming out this month in the latest issue of Planet Scumm which features a gay, cis male main character, told in first person. That’s obviously not an identity of mine, or one I could conceivably ever claim, but that’s how the character popped in my brain, wanting to tell his story.
I’m curious if it was similar for you–How did you settle on Kai and Eli for the focus of After the Dragons? Was it a conscious choice to make them both male? And do you feel you need to justify or litigate your right to write outside the boundaries of your own gender?
CZ: It’s been so long since I first started writing the novel that it feels like I’m talking about someone else when I talk about “how this came to be,” but I’ll give it a shot! The first answer is the pragmatic/logistical answer: Eli and Kai are men because quite franky, women and femme-presenting people would not be able to wander around Beijing the way they do. Being a guy in a city gives you a certain level of privilege and freedom that women/fems don’t have in the sense that you don’t have to be hyperaware of the people around you in the same way. It doesn’t nullify all danger, sure, but I also don’t hear my cis guy friends talk about clutching their keys in a parking lot so they can have a weapon in case someone decides to attack them. (Apparently, keys are better as stabbing weapons than as punching ones, so make sure the key teeth won’t gouge into your skin when you’re positioning them.)
The second answer—the vaguer one, but also probably the more honest one—is that when it comes to character creation, I’m not terribly hung up on gender. Eli and Kai came to me as cis guys; thus, they’re guys. When I submitted one of the early drafts of the novel for critique, I got some comments back about gender and whether or not the way these characters navigated the world feels masculine or not. Which is valid criticism (see the above notes on living in a city). But I think there’s also an implicit danger in this line of critique in terms of reifying gender stereotypes. Eli and Kai don’t feel like guys because, what, they’re too touchy-feely? Maybe it’s because most of my friends are some flavor of queer/gender non-conforming or maybe it’s because I grew up identifying with the boy hero protagonists of fantasy novels, but unless it’s something egregious—something like “Caroline considered her breasts, which sagged sadly today”—I generally don’t put too much stock in whether a character feels sufficiently like a particular gender. Certainly, as someone who isn’t part of the gay male scene in Beijing, I know my portrayal of the world is going to be imperfect despite my best efforts. But when it comes to gender more generally? Gender is weird, and we all experience and express it differently. Look at how weird Americans get about K-pop stars! So I suppose the answer is that I write characters who are kind of cavalier about gender because I personally am pretty cavalier about gender.
Honestly, I was more stressed about writing Eli as a Black Asian character, as that’s an experience that comes with its own specific difficulties that I haven’t experienced. In a way, that decision was probably influenced by the fact that one of my college friends whom I love dearly is Barbadian-Japanese-Norweigan, but I wasn’t seeing many characters like them in fiction. When a character’s mixed-race Asian, we tend to assume that one parent is white, but that’s not necessarily always true in real-life, so I guess I wanted to challenge those assumptions a little. I did write Eli’s dad out of his life because I wasn’t confident in my ability to tackle some of the specifics of his relationship to Blackness (but also because I don’t really write father/child relationships in general—see Kai, whose dad is also conveniently out of the picture). I have some ideas for awkward father-son bonding between Eli and the dad he totally doesn’t have mixed feelings towards, but if I were to ever write them, I would do so carefully and with the help of as many sensitivity readers as I can. At present though, this is probably also one section of the narrative that is better left to the exploration of others. All of which is to say, if any readers see themselves in Eli’s story and want to write father-son bonding fanfiction, please do! You’ll probably do it better than I can.
Building on this thread of identity and who gets to say what and for whom, there’s been talk about #OwnVoices lately: who gets to use it and what forms of representation are considered ‘authentic’ enough. As someone’s who Chinese, there were some parts of After the Dragons that I felt definitely comfortable writing. However, as someone who’s specifically diaspora Chinese, there were other parts that were less comfortable (especially considering the last time I visited Beijing was five years ago!) For me, diaspora’s always been a process of questioning your own authenticity, your right to ‘speak’ for a population you only feel partially connected to. Given the role of Jewishness in Depart! Depart!, I was wondering whether you felt any similar feelings when writing the novella? If so, how did you manage to navigate them?
SK: Sure. My whole life I’ve felt “Jewish imposter syndrome,” being a patrilineal, non-religious Jew. I’ve encountered a lot of people (mostly non-Jews, actually) who feel comfortable telling me I’m not Jewish because I don’t meet their criteria for Jewishness. With this book, I decided to confront that ambiguity head-on. Noah feels ambivalent about his Jewishness for all the same reasons I do. He wasn’t raised religious, he doesn’t practice, and yet there’s this way that his Jewishness is powerfully interwoven with his identity. So I think because I was speaking about being an outsider-Jew, who doesn’t tick all the boxes, I felt confident in my perspective.
But I have an idea for another novel, that would be a multi-generational thing, partly set in my ancestors’ shtetl. I actually bought some history books to research it. But that’s as far as I’ve gotten, partially because I’m too intimidated. I’m scared I’m just not Jewish enough to write a shtetl-novel, and that any practicing Jews would be able to see right away that I don’t know what I’m talking about. So I admire your courage in going for it with After the Dragons. There’s a great twitter thread from June Hur about being a diaspora writer, where she relates how her mother responded to her fears that she wasn’t “Korean enough” to write about Korea. She said, “When some diaspora Koreans speak in Korean, they speak with an accent. And likewise, when we write about Korea, there will be an “accent” to our Storytelling. But she reminded me that accents are beautiful. Accents tell a story in itself. We bring in a new perspective.”
I think your “accent” in After the Dragons was beautiful, and it was a story only you could tell. A native Chinese person wouldn’t have told that story better, because it’s not theirs, it’s yours! And I guess I need to tell that to myself and write the dang shtetl book, with my own weird, Texas-Jewish accent.
CZ: That sounds super exciting, honestly! Best of luck with writing it, and I’m looking forward to seeing your Texas-Jewish accent shine through.
Moving from the books into the “real world,” I’d like to talk about a dilemma that lot of socially conscious artists and writers often face, which is how much our work really matters. Stories are important, yes, but because it’s hard to quantify the impact of fiction, there’s sometimes a small nagging voice that says, sure, but what if you devoted your life to NGO work instead? Maybe this is also my background as a grad student speaking, where a lot of angst is devoted to whether writing essays on neoliberalism or the Anthropocene actually does anything in terms of fighting these problems. I’m not sure if this is an issue you’ve dealt with before, but since Depart! Depart!’s been out in the world for a while now, I’m wondering if you’ve been able to see any ways in which the book has had a tangible impact on the real world/other people? Basically, I guess, what are the moments that reassure you about the value of the art we make?
SK: I believe in the importance of climate fiction very deeply. In fact, my faith in the power of stories is probably the closest thing I have to a religion. We cannot create a better world if we cannot imagine one, and writers are the drivers of our collective societal imagination. So I’m a believer in the power of the written word.
But in terms of concrete, tangible things–in the first week after Depart, Depart! was published, a Public Health Response Coordinator shared with me that as a result of reading my book, she was working with the Red Cross in her state to ensure that trans people would have access to safe and equal bathrooms and showers in shelters, that emergency shelters would have LGBTQ+ coordinators, and that evacuees would have access to hormonal medications. I was so moved by that, and if my little book can make even one trans person safer in a crisis, then writing it was worthwhile.
And that reminds me of one of the themes in After the Dragons: Kai is constantly hovering on the precipice of being overwhelmed by the enormity of suffering in his world. Like feral cats, there are so many dragons that are starving, discarded, and tormented–but he resists nihilism and finds his purpose in helping those he can, one at a time. At one point, Eli says, “Kai, you can’t expect everyone to be an activist,” to which Kai replies, “Can’t I?” Were either of these characters speaking for you there? Kai’s story teaches us to manage grief through small, tangible acts of good, and I was wondering in what other ways is this book a guide to channeling climate grief?
CZ: Personally, my view of activism has always been tempered by an awareness of the impossibility of perfection. In the early 2010s, there were a lot of posts floating around Tumblr that pretty hostile towards vegans. Or, maybe less vegans in general than a certain stereotype of them—i.e., self-righteous white women ready to set wild animals free regardless of the effect on local ecosystems. As a vegetarian, it was a weird place to be, but it also gave me a lot of food (ha) for thought when it comes to individual actions and morality even as I disagreed with some arguments. In a food desert, it’s hard to be picky, and there’s something deeply uncomfortable about mostly middle- or upper-class crusaders telling lower-income folks how to live. It’s not impossible to be vegan on a budget (and honestly, the relative cheapness of meat feels is a recent phenomenon—my parents recall only eating meat once or twice a year while they were growing up in rural China), but it’s also important to understand people’s situations as they are. That’s Eli’s side of that exchange, then—the willingness to cut people slack, to realize that sometimes simply surviving itself takes an incredible amount of power.
As for Kai’s side of the story—well. The more I get involved with mutual aid and local organizing, the more respect I have for how much people manage to do even when they don’t have much on paper. Homelessness is a major problem in LA, but overwhelmingly the people I’ve seen do the most for unhoused folks are not millionaires, but ordinary people—some of them earning minimum wage, some of them who’ve experienced or who are experiencing being unhoused. I think it’s important to extend empathy to people when limited mobility or a bad mental health day prevents them from, say, participating in a public protest. But I think it’s also important to remember that the billionaires are not going to save us. It’s our job to take care of each other, in the small, seemingly insignificant ways that it takes. Seeking allies in power is important, as Eli does with Dr. Wang, but it’s ultimately collective action that drives change.