The last time Rebecca F. Kuang (SFS ’18) was in the ICC auditorium, she was a freshman taking an Economics exam. Eight years later, she’s giving a talk as a 26-year-old New York Times bestselling author in the same room.
Kuang joined Georgetown students March 15 for a conversation on her books and time at Georgetown.
The Georgetown University Lecture Fund, a non-partisan student organization that arranges forums and hosts speakers on a variety of topics, held the event in collaboration with the Georgetown English department and the GU Center for Research and Fellowships, which connects students and alumni to fellowships and research opportunities. Rhodes Scholar Atharv Gupta (SFS ’23) moderated the event, which included remarks by Kuang followed by a Q&A session.
Kuang specializes in epic fantasies, a genre defined by fictional settings and plots, characters and themes with an epic nature. Despite not pursuing creative writing in an academic setting, she said she has always been interested in writing fantasy stories.
“I just had always kept this weird, fictional diary,” Kuang said at the event. “Instead of chronicling things that were happening to me, I was writing about this fictional set of kids riding hoverboards in a post-apocalyptic world living in abandoned skyscrapers with some vague, dystopian, totalitarian government lurking in the background. I was basically writing fanfiction books about my own life.”
Kuang graduated from the School of Foreign Service as a Marshall Scholar, joining a cohort of talented American students selected each year to pursue graduate studies at a UK institution. After graduating from Georgetown in 2018, Kuang received her MPhil in Chinese Studies from Cambridge and MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies from Oxford. She is currently pursuing a PhD in East Asian Languages and Literature at Yale University.
At the event, Kuang said she came into Georgetown with the goal of working in politics or consulting, but her interactions with professors steered her toward other pursuits that better fit her skill sets.
“For the first few years, I kept pushing myself into fields that I just wasn’t good at, and trying and failing,” Kuang said. “But Georgetown offers you so much flexibility to change your path at any point on the pipeline, and I had incredible mentors.”
After a Georgetown professor encouraged her to take a gap year, Kuang spent a year in Beijing, where she wrote her first novel, “The Poppy War.” The first installment of a trilogy about empire, warfare and shamanism, “The Poppy War” is a Chinese-history inspired epic fantasy.
Kuang said much of the creative inspiration for her fantasy tales comes from her interpersonal struggles and family history.
“Everything was a parallel of the messy feelings I was having, and fabulation was just the most natural outlet for it all,” Kuang said. “If I’m feeling any very strong emotions, positive or negative, I immediately start thinking about how I can channel it into how a character is feeling.”
“I try to hold onto where my brain is going when I’m feeling deep grief, or frustration, or anger, and I put that into the project,” Kuang added.
Kuang said drawing from her own life experiences helps make the narratives she crafts within her epic fantasies more relatable to readers.
“That’s why they’re compelling, why the reader is so persuaded, even in scenes where dragons are battling in the sky,” Kuang said. “Something about that scene has to feel true.”
She also spoke on her experience as a minority student from a disadvantaged background attending an elite university, saying minority students should lean into discomfort as a way to flourish.
“Don’t try to therapize yourself out of that discomfort,” Kuang said. “That discomfort is really worth holding onto, and it’s something that ought to shape and inform every decision you make afterwards. Don’t be fooled into thinking that your presence at an elite institution is in itself radical.”
Kuang’s latest work, “Yellowface,” is a novel about a white writer parading as Asian-American. It is expected to be published this May.
Kuang said that regardless of her success thus far, her creative process is continuous.
“I treat each fiction project as a way to experiment, to expand my craft and learn to be a better writer than the Rebecca I was a year ago,” Kuang said. “It’s an ongoing process, and it didn’t happen at Georgetown, but it happened because of Georgetown.”
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