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“At the Center”: Interview with R.O. Kwon


Indiana Review is accepting submissions to the Fiction Prize until March 31, 2019. Final judge R.O. Kwon will select a winner to receive $1000 and publication. Soo Jin, our current Fiction Editor, asks her to talk about the “‘default’ gaze” of literary audiences, what she’s reading now, and a couple other things. Find out more about Kwon here: https://ro-kwon.com/


Soo Jin Lee: In a recent piece for The Paris Review, you write, “I’ve come to suspect that maybe a lot of people, especially men, still have no idea what it’s like to be a woman in America going about her life while trying, and at times failing, not to be assaulted.” People of marginalized identities often must explain their experiences to those privileged enough to not consider them self-evident. Do you feel this has affected your writing at all? How do you cope with portraying experiences authentically despite the presence of the “default” gaze? Do you have an audience in mind when you write?

R.O. Kwon: When I’m in the act of writing, I’m not thinking about anyone else—I’m writing for my own reading eye, to try to make each line, each word, as good and truthful as I can make it. But of course that has political implications: if I’m writing for myself, that means I’m centering my Korean American, immigrant, woman self. Which is not a person who’s often been centered in American letters.

Toni Morrison has talked magnificently about this. Even if you’re a marginalized writer—especially if you’re a marginalized writer—you can conceive of yourself as being at the center, or, as she said, “I stood at the border, stood at the edge and claimed it as central. Claimed it as central and let the rest of the world move over to where I was.”

SJL: While reading The Incendiaries, I was struck by the many acts of intrusion and infiltration, certainly in the iterations of violence in the novel, but even in the texture of the layered, imagistic prose. The boundaries of Phoebe’s point of view, too, are more permeable than they initially appear, since hers is filtered through Will. How did you come to the decision to portray Phoebe through Will’s white male lens?

ROK: I don’t really decide anything while I write—I let the characters tell me who they are and where to go next. I will say that, the first two years I was writing the novel, it was narrated entirely by Phoebe. I then found that having a character who’s not at the center of the action become the main narrator—in this case, Will—opened up space, possibility.

SJL: You’re at work on your second novel. How was it transitioning from one major project to the next? In what ways is the writing process different for you? What about the emotional labor of letting go of one project and taking on another?

ROK: I wouldn’t call it emotional labor, but so far writing a second novel feels even harder than it was the first time around! It’s as though, with the first novel, I built a ship. I learned how to build a ship. But now I need to know how to build an orca, and what I learned from the first novel isn’t very transferable.

SJL: What are the kinds or qualities of short stories that often strike you, that stick with you? Do you tend to seek out your own writerly interests and obsessions in the work that you read?

ROK: I try to read very widely: inside my own interests and obsessions, for sure, but also far outside of them. I do, though, love a really good sentence.

SJL: And finally, what are you reading right now?

ROK: I recently started reading Catherine Chung’s The Tenth Muse and Ruchika Tomar’s A Prayer for Travelers, and am excited about both.



R.O. Kwon is the author of The Incendiaries, published by Riverhead (U.S.) and Virago (U.K.). The Incendiaries is being translated into five languages and was named a best book of the year by over forty publications. The novel is an American Booksellers Association Indie Next #1 Great Read and Indies Introduce selection, and it is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Award for Best First Book, Los Angeles Times First Book Prize, and Northern California Independent Booksellers Association Fiction Prize. In addition, The Incendiaries is nominated for the Aspen Prize and American Library Association Carnegie Medal.

Kwon’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Paris Review, Vice, BuzzFeed, Noon, The Cut, Time, and elsewhere. She has received awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Yaddo, MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Born in South Korea, she has mostly lived in the United States.