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R.O. Kwon Is Writing Into Desire

“I’m so obsessed with every word, every comma of a novel, that it was initially hard for me to contemplate letting go,” R.O. Kwon says of the screen adaptation of her best-selling 2019 debut novel, The Incendiaries. “My first reaction for half a day was like, ‘Well, guess I’m just going to learn how to make TV shows.’” But publishing has brimmed with lessons in surrender for the writer. “I was just like, ‘Well, no, I’ve read exactly one script of my life. I’m not versed in this.’” She relinquished control to two filmmakers whose work she admires. A collaboration between screenwriter Lisa Randolph (Jessica Jones, Prodigal Son) and director Kogonada (Columbus, Pachinko) is now underway.

She’s found other outlets for her comma tinkering. In 2014, Kwon started writing Exhibit (Riverhead), and over the intervening decade has polished it so it glitters like a garnet in firelight. “I want the prose to get to a place where I can pick it up at random, read two sentences and not want to change anything about those sentences.” In the novel, a Korean American photographer named Jin finds herself creatively blocked at the same time her husband’s longing to become a father diverges painfully from her own desire to remain childless. An injured ballerina named Lidija, whom she meets at a party, unleashes both an artistic and a sensual awakening.

Kwon, who lives in San Francisco (“the long-term plan is to be here until climate change chases us out”), says that Exhibit bloomed from her longtime appreciation of photography and its “complicated and fraught relationship to reality, and to hanging on to a little bit of time, a little bit of the past” along with a more recently discovered love of dance. While watching a San Francisco Ballet performance of Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy, “I had this full body experience while watching, where I thought the dancers’ bodies—like, the cells—were directly talking to my body.” Kwon took introductory photography and ballet classes in an attempt to capture the bodily sensation of creating both art forms.

Earlier this year, Kwon wrote an essay about why she hopes her parents won’t read the book, given its frank depictions of lust and queerness—subjects into which Kwon took an exploratory dip with the best-selling 2021 story anthology Kink, which she co-edited with Garth Greenwell. It comprises fiction that explores desire from such authors as Alexander Chee, Melissa Febos, Roxane Gay, and Chris Kraus. Kwon’s own story, “Safeword,” was first published by Playboy and centers on a man navigating his girlfriend’s newly disclosed submissive sexual desires with a joint visit to a dominatrix.

“One of the strongest antidotes to the deepest kinds of loneliness, the worst shame I have felt, has been the fellowship I have found in literature and other people’s art,” Kwon says. “That’s a guiding principle for me in my work. I so badly want to meet other people’s loneliness and other people’s solitude and other people’s shame.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Vanity Fair: Where did the book start for you?

R.O. Kwon: One of the first sparks for the book was that I was interested in what, as a woman, I feel allowed and encouraged to want, and what I feel pressured to hide my desire for. I wanted to have women on the page who want a great deal, to see what happens if they’re given a space to run after what they desire. Ambition continues to feel like a really fraught thing for, I think especially, my woman artist friends and woman writer friends to even say out loud. Saying the words, “I am an ambitious woman” still feels really dangerous.

Jin, like the narrators in The Incendiaries and in your short story “Safe Word,” was raised Christian and lost their faith, which I know is something that you experienced too. But both of those narrators were white men. Of course, I understand that Jin is fictional, and that you are not Jin, but I am curious about the difference between writing a narrator who feels biographically, on paper, different or more similar to you.

With The Incendiaries, it wasn’t as though I walked in telling myself, I’m going to write a book from the point of view of a white man. It was actually initially told from Phoebe, the Korean woman’s point of view, and that ended up changing. I believe very strongly in following the book’s desires and needs, and not imposing what I think the book should be.

But with this book, I wanted very much to write from a Korean woman’s point of view, and to not let the book morph again, in that way, if at all possible. In retrospect, I thought that maybe part of why that happened with The Incendiaries, it could have been some part of me was trying to protect myself a little. A lot of people seem to assume that Phoebe was a stand-in character for me, which was definitely a little wild because I was like, I haven’t bombed an abortion clinic! That was definitely the most common question: How autobiographical was this book? And my goodness, well, I haven’t done that.

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