HarperCollins is set to publish Georgetown senior Rebecca Kuang’s (SFS ’18) speculative historical fiction novel “The Poppy War” in May 2018, followed by two sequels. Set in a mythical land inspired by 20th century China, the book follows a young orphan’s entry into an elite military school and her discovery of shamanic power as a war brews in the background.
Kuang’s book deal is far from her only recent success. Kuang was one of only 43 U.S. recipients of this year’s Marshall Scholarship, an award that funds up to three years of graduate study at any university in the United Kingdom.
The process of applying to graduate schools put her work on the third novel in her trilogy on hold for the semester, making her writing process much slower than that of her first novel, which Kuang wrote in three months and sold less than two months later.
“The Poppy War” was picked up by HarperCollins in May 2016, on Kuang’s 20th birthday.
“I didn’t have aspirations to be a professional writer, until I sat down and said, ‘Let’s see,’” Kuang said.
Although she has long written “for fun” about fictional characters in lieu of keeping a diary, her only previous foray into writing complete manuscripts was a 10-page tale of the Revolutionary War written when she was in the fifth grade.
“It was about Patrick Dawson, who joins the Sons of Liberty and loses his best friend during the Boston Massacre,” Kuang said. “That [story] was the extent of my prior writing experience.”
Although the manuscripts are miles apart in both length and quality — Kuang described the Patrick Dawson story as “really cringey” — a few themes remain the same. “The Poppy War” is steeped in history, both military and personal.
“It’s about the domestic politics, military strategy and interpersonal dynamics of the most important figures of 20th century China, but everything is transposed to a Song dynasty setting just because I thought the culture, weapons and aesthetic were so much cooler to write about,” Kuang said.
Kuang said the novel focuses on the role of opium in both Chinese history and Daoist shamanism.
“Opium, obviously, has a negative legacy in Chinese culture, but a lot of shamanic traditions embrace the idea that psychedelic drugs are entheogens, which means that they let you experience the ‘god inside,’” Kuang said. “In ‘The Poppy War,’ smoking opium is a way of accessing the power of the Daoist pantheon. Basically, people are getting high and fighting wars.”
Kuang traces her interest in Daoism back to a high school tutorial where she studied the “I Ching,” the Chinese “Book of Changes”— a divination text from the ninth century B.C. — with a Chinese teacher.
“The ‘I Ching’ depends on the idea that everything in the universe is connected in ways that we cannot see, especially if we’re entrenched in this Western, Cartesian, rationalist mindset,” Kuang said.
Kuang used the “I Ching” as the central Daoist text for the novel.
“Then I did a lot of extra research on, you know, drugs,” Kuang said.
Kuang wrote “The Poppy War” when she was teaching debate in China, initially as a response to boredom.
“All of a sudden I had all this free time on my hands. I’d had the seeds of “The Poppy War” fermenting in my mind for a while now,” Kuang said. “I thought, let’s see what happens if I write 2,000 words a day, and then it turned to 50,000 words, and then it turned into 100,000 words, and I was like … all right, I have a manuscript now. I wonder if anyone will buy this.”
The novel’s focus on Chinese military history dovetails with Kuang’s academic interests, which she plans to pursue at Cambridge University next fall.
“I’m interested in military history and collective memory. That is, how wars are fought, and how we remember them. I’m focusing on the latter this year, and that’s probably what I’ll do my doctoral research on,” Kuang said.
“It’s a very exciting field. We have things like Holocaust studies in West, and we’re intimately familiar with the way that people have grappled with the pain of World War II in Europe and America, but that sort of scholarship doesn’t exist at that scale for Asia. But it’s growing right now, and I want to be a part of it.”
For Kuang, collective memory is more than a purely academic interest.
“It’s also intensely personal because that’s my family history. These aren’t abstract questions for me. This is about how my parents and grandparents deal with their past,” said Kuang.
Although Kuang did not intend to be a professional author, she has always been a prolific reader. She considers “The Grace of Kings,” by Ken Liu, and Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” series to have influenced her writing and “The Poppy War” trilogy.
“I only started reading [Liu] after I started writing, but that was what gave me the motivation to finish it. Because that was proof that stories about Chinese lore are popular, and publishers want them.”
She read the “Ender’s Game” series when she was much younger and considers it deeply influential.
“‘Ender’s Game’ and the ‘Shadow’ line of sequels are all about geopolitics, but you’ve also got these really disturbed, brilliant young people fighting wars of global consequence,” Kuang said. “Peter Wiggin is the Hegemon of the free world and he’s a 20-year-old with mommy issues. I thought that blend of geopolitics, military strategy and youthful irreverence was really interesting. That definitely carries over, especially in the dialogue.”
Despite her recent success, Kuang has no desire to be only an author. Instead, she believes the only way her stories can stay fresh is if she continues to study new and interesting things.
“I’m really convinced that the best writers that we admire are people who are not just spinning stories from their armchairs, but have something to say about the world. They write fiction that makes you change the way you approach the world and other people. I think that requires doing something that is not writing,” Kuang said.
Kuang plans to finish the third novel this summer, before she moves to England.
“By then I’ll have finished this trilogy, so I’ll want to start a new project. I’m pretty sure whatever project that is will take place on the Cambridge campus,” Kuang said. “It will certainly have a lot to do with imperialism and the history of Sino-British relations. There are so many stories to be told there.”