Ken Liu: Unconventional Chinese American writer who refuses to be labeled
Written by Nia Chuan Chen
We recently sat down with the award-winning and best-selling author Ken Liu after attending his book reading and discussion program hosted by Hong Kong Association of New York. The author of The Grace of Kings and The Wall of Storms of the series The Dandelion Dynasty, who described himself as “arrogant” and refused to be labeled as a Chinese American writer, is gaining both domestic and international recognition.
In the interview, Liu discussed the inspirations and cultural influences for his epic fantasy series The Dandelion Dynasty. The Dandelion Dynasty is quite unique as it is constructed on Eastern Asian elements rather than European model such as The Song of Ice and Fire. Specifically, Liu explained what “Silk Punk” means and why it is a core concept in his novels.
Graduated from Harvard Law School after working in the technology for several years, Liu also talked about how his experience of being a lawyer and programmer have helped him become a better storyteller. In the end, Liu shared with us his view on what limitations Asian American writers are facing that are stopping them from achieving better recognitions.
Q: Can you first briefly introduce the novel the Grace of Kings? What story does the novel tell?
A: Sure, it’s probably easier for me to explain in series as a whole. So, the Grace of Kings is the first novel in a series called The Dandelion Dynasty, and it’s a story, a modern fantasy, the biggest example would probably be like Game of Thrones. It’s kind of like that except the story is inspired by legends happened in Han dynasty in China and how the Han dynasty came to be. It’s not really strictly a historical re-imagination; it is more like how George RR Martin uses the War of the Roses as historical background for his series.
I do the same thing. It's a fantasy series so it’s a series about imaginary people in an imaginary land and there is magic and technology that does not exist in our world. But it’s a story about two rebels that overthrow an evil empire but then came to realization that they have different ideas about how to replace the evil empire with something better, and then they turn from friends to rivals and bitter enemies.
The second book of the series is called The Wall of Storms. It continues this story into the next generation. It’s about what happens after you overthrow an evil empire, about how to construct something that actually lasts and that’s more just. So that’s the basic story.
Q: While writing this novel, what other Chinese historical articles or books have you read?
A: It’s not really about Chinese history in the same way that Game of Thrones is not about history. History is only a starting point, the rest is fiction. I do the same thing. I’m not really interested in writing historical novels and there are tons of better historical novels that are written.
I’m interested in using the technique of fantasy, western fantasy and also Chinese fantasy to create something that’s new and never been done before to try to tell a story that’s very humane and at the same time tries to explore deeper issues such as politics and imperialism and what it means to have a foundational myth for your culture… Epic fantasy is a genre that is foundationally interested in foundational myth. The idea is every people in this world, every land has its own myth that they tell themselves to explain who they are and how they are different from everyone else in the world and from every other people in history.
In the U.S., we obviously also have very deep foundational myth about who Americans are, the idea of the Constitution, the Revolutionary War, the Civil war. The heroes of these stories are the founding fathers, the first ladies. The idea is that these people, by their actions and their ideas, define what it means to be an American and we are constantly referring to that. This is not unique to Americans. Other people have their ways of talking about foundational myth. They way they refer to their heros. I am interested in telling a story about foundational myth for people that are uniquely based on my mind.
Q: This is your first novel. What are the differences between writing short and long stories?
A: Well the analogy would be that short stories are like mosquitoes and long stories are like elephants. There are very different things. If you enlarge the mosquito’s’ parts and make it as big as an elephant, the mosquito will not be able to survive. The reverse is true for elephants. The reason is, at different scales, animals have different physiological requirements. An insect usually doesn’t have any respiratory system; it’s able to survive by diffusing oxygen in and out its body because it’s so small. But if you think of an elephant, the surface area to body ratio is so large such that this creature can no longer survive by passively diffusing oxygen. The analogy holds for short and long stories because short stories can often survive by being clever and having a central idea, but it does not have much of a plot and it’s perfectly fine.
But a novel is very dependent on plot for narrative drive. Without a plot, it’s very hard to maintain a novel. Every time I say something like this, people will bring out exceptions, and it’s true that Virginia Woolf’s The Waves has no plot. But these exceptions aside, I think it’s generally true that a novel cannot maintain the readers’ interests without a strong plot. That’s something I had to learn because a lot of my short fictions are experimental in nature, a lot of them don’t really rely on plot. But an epic fantasy novel is not just a novel but a very long novel, so I had to learn how to do plot effectively in the process.
Q: I noticed that you used the term “silk punk” to describe the novel a lot. Could you explain?
A: So “silk punk” is a word I invented to describe the aesthetics of my novel. My novel is a bit unique in that a lot epic fantasies written in English tend to draw on the very suitable, medieval, and Teutonic image, such as The Song of Ice and Fire, or Lord of the Ring. They draw on the European cultural myth, and that European kind of ethos. I was not particularly interested to do that because I want to try something different. So I took the inspiration from steam punks.
Steampunk is the aesthetics in which the technology vocabulary of the Victorian era is extended into a fantastic world that is blown up. So you kind of imagine Victorian brass, steam, glass, leather driven type of technology being extended and blown up… Steampunk is a very popular genre and it is a way to explore the ideas about empire and colonial history.
I took on a similar idea, but instead of taking on the Victorian era, I decided to draw on the technology vocabulary described in East Asian historical romances, so stories like Mu Niu Liu Ma (木牛流马) in The Romance of Three Kingdoms and Han Xi(韩信) flying kites. And all kinds of amazing inventions in Chinese historical romances are described as fantastical machines that were built for warfare and for civilian use. So I took that kind of aesthetics of bamboo, paper, silk, wood and animals power, and I said “why don’t I take those aspects and just blow up the fantasy?” Many of the things in The Romance of Three Kingdoms invented by Zhu Geliang(诸葛亮)were fantasies, they were not historically true. But that doesn’t matter; the point is to take those fantastical things and to blow them up, just like steam punk does, into an amazing ray of inventions.
So in my novel, you’ll have airships that are built out of silk and bamboo and they rely on the principles similar to the way a fish maintains buoyancy in water using a swim bladder. I have submarines that are modeled on whales that are also made out of bamboo and silk. And I have battle kites that can carry people into the air just as historical legends describes. I take all these inventions and I try to make sure they are believable and functional. So I have this world in which is not a magical world of China but a magical version of a fantasy world that’s very much inspired by Wu Xia(武侠)aesthetics, the Chinese style of Yan Yi(演绎).
So that’s the aesthetics I want to go for because it’s very unique genre for the Chinese. So anyway, I want to create a genre that’s called silk punk. At the same time, I try to add a lot of elements to it that are not very stereotypically Chinese. I think one of the problems of writing in English that’s drawn from East Asian influences is that it’s very easy to fall in the western gaze. Westerns have a very particular view of what China means so you end up always sticking into these novels with dragons and Qi Pao(旗袍) and other nonsense which has nothing to do with being Chinese. So I try to reject all these nonsense and I try to write stories that are drawn from actual Chinese philosophy and deep Chinese roots about how to think about the world.
For example, one of the things about my technology that’s so interesting is that one of the difference between western engineering and Chinese engineering is that western engineering is about overcoming nature it’s about creating machines that control and time, but the Chinese always emphasize on Tian Ren Gong Ti(天人共体),the idea that nature and engineers are actually harmonious, that our technology should be nature. The highest aesthetic of Chinese building is to be melted into nature so if you build something on the mountains it needs to be faded into the mountains; If you build something by the river it needs to be faded into the rivers. The point is you should build buildings that fit into the environment; you shouldn’t do something that’s not meant to be.
But at the same time I want to introduce fresh elements. It’s not a Chinese novel, it uses Chinese influence in a way that’s modern and fresh. I try to explore ideas that are not usually explored in traditional Chinese fantasies. For example, one of the things my novel is very concerned about is the idea of power and how women and other marginalized groups can have more power. It is talked about sometimes in Chinese novels but it tends to not be a core part of the narrative. But my novel is about unequal distribution of power and how do you reconcile traditional Chinese philosophy of equality for everyone and the idea of empowering everyone. And I try to give answers to that.
Q: As an author, how do you keep your self-consistency in your work?
A: I don’t know if I do that very well. I guess what I can say is that I am always being a little bit arrogant. Being an author you have to be very arrogant because you are claiming that you are writing something that other people are going to pay to read your words. And you think is actually a great deal. Authors are by nature arrogant I have always been in that way. I have always been sort of not terribly concerned what other people think, so for me, what matters is that if the work satisfies to me. I try to tell a story and I want to make sure that it is the kind of story that I want to read. A lot of what I am interested in is being driven by the fact that I do not see many other people doing the same kind of the thing.
I like a big fantasy but so many fantasies out there are based on European models but I want to tell something that is different. I want to do something that is unique and interesting, using the Chinese culture that in a way is honorable. There are so many magical Chinese stories out there that are terrible… they use Chinese culture in a way that feels like a five-dollar tourist souvenir kind of version. I want to do something different and I do not want to satisfy others. Let me do something better, let me do something new, let me do something that is actually good.
As long as I finished the book, I felt that I got that, it got to my vision, then I am happy. Similarly when I do short fictions it is the same way. I wrote a short story because there was no one talked about it. There are a lot of science fictions being written about big data, about the privacy being threatened by big data, by the danger of governance surveillance, but none of them to me really get to the hearts of what I think is problematic, which is that the technology magnifies our instinct to seek only those who will agree with us, and to treat what we believe is the only version of truth. I think technology magnifies that tendency because it is easy now for you to find a community who agrees with you on internet and you just stick with that and everybody else is lying….we see this in our politics all the time.
So afterwards if I feel satisfied and I do not really care about other people would agree or not agree with the view as long as I am satisfied with it. It is good enough. So, in terms of consistency, I really just care about whether the result is interesting, and compelling to me where I got to the point that I think my vision had been articulated well enough that I can go on to the next story. I am pretty happy about that.
Q: As a lawyer and a programmer, how do these identities or working experience affect your work?
A: A lot actually. So as a lawyer, one of the things that I learned is the importance of storytelling, and how story really determined the way we felt about things. We talked about ourselves as rational species where we actually decided things based on data. But that is actually not true. We make decisions based on how compelling the story about the data is to us. For the most important beliefs in our lives, we are not driven by data, we are driven by stories. We know that slavery is wrong and we know that not because we have done some economic analysis that says slavery is inefficient. I do not think there is anybody believes that slavery is wrong on the basis that it is economically inefficient. I think we came to the conclusion that the slavery is wrong because the story is repugnant to us. It is not a story about how to be a good person. It is wrong because it is not a story that fits our model, about how the world to work. Injustices are injustices because the stories do not make sense to us. That’s why we think it is a terrible thing.
We, as human beings, we are species driven by stories. And as a lawyer, you realize very quickly that is what it is. Judges, when they write opinions, would give a lot of reasons why under laws it is true. And if you calm down you realize that it is not these reasons that are making they decide the way they do. It is because the stories behind the case moved in some way, you can tell this when you read opinions, a majority of opinions is dissent. Because the beginning of every case is a resonation of facts. But it is actually not the resonation of facts, it is actually the story of that case. So you read about, in a criminal case, what the history of the case was, what the procedure was who was the victim, who was the accused, what actually happened. Just by reading that story you can tell in which way the decision is going to go, because it is the stories that compels the decision makers to go into the direction they want. And if you read the defense version of the story, it is completely different. It may look like the similar facts, but the emphasis is different. The sympathy is different. Who the judge is sympathetic with is completely different.
So, as a lawyer, you realize very quickly how important the stories are. Anybody can learn to make legal arguments and I do not really think it is the legal arguments are the reason people go and decide the way they do. It is not the way the jurors decide. It is not the way judges decide either. It is what is the story that is the most compelling, the story that the judge and the jury could make sense from the facts, that makes the most sense to them, feels to them the most true. That’s the way we humans work. So story-telling for a lawyer is very important.
As a programmer, what I learned is that the elegance of beauty is an aesthetic quality that transcends our forms. You can talk about the elegance of a story but you can also talk about the elegance of a program. And part of being a programmer makes you good at at is that the idea of constructing structures out of words and symbols that will achieve certain results. Once you have that vision, you would know that a story works the same way. Stories are really just artifacts constructed out of metaphors, tropes, linguistic techniques, characters, and plot points. But it is a machine designed for the readers to reach a specific emotional results. Programmers learn to write programs from machines, and storytellers learn to write stories which are also programs for human brains, we are story programmers. So having this sort of perspective of being a lawyer and programmer, it influences a lot of the ways I think about literature, storytelling, and what kind of stories that I find compelling and I like to tell.
Q: What kind of problems do you think are specific for Asian American writers?
A: I can’t speak to Asian American writers as a whole because that label actually overlays a lot diversities and complexities. Someone who is a fifth generation Chinese American is very different from someone who is a first generation Christian Korean American. And growing up in Los Angeles, versus New York, versus in the middle of the country in Iowa for example will also make differences entirely distinct.
So I think it’s a mistake to think there is only one Asian American experience or to speak about that as an entire category. In fact, I don’t even like to speak about myself and I never do speak about myself as a Chinese American author. I just don’t like that hyphenated identity. I usually talk about myself as an American author or as an author of the Chinese diaspora. I think both of these identities make a lot sense, but the hyphenated Chinese American identity to me does not. I experience that I have an identity of a single one that’s mine.
And in terms of actual writers’ problems, I think all ethnic writers in America to some extent have the similar problem as what I described before as the hyphenated identity because that identity is a political construct that is imposed by outsiders. A lot of the times, the outsiders or the mainstream like to put labels on other people, and by naming and labeling, they think they understand something. For example, by labeling everyone as Asian American, they create a singular Asian American experience that can be reduced down to one story. Especially in publishing, there is a tendency to rewards stories that valorizes a certain kind of immigrant narrative. There is a pressure to force Asian American writers, I only use this term because other people use it but I don’t actually believe that term is accurate, to perform the ideal immigrant narrative, it doesn’t matter whether you are a first generation immigrant or if your ancestors have been here since the 1860s, the idea is that you are never a member of the mainstream society and you are never really an American in the fundamental sense, therefore the only kind of story that we are interested in hearing from you is to what extent you can tell a story from your own life that gives us that kind of exotic Chinese flavor we want and it also makes us happy because you fundamentally want to become an American like the rest of us except you can’t, oh that’s so sad.
That is the kind of story that mainstream publishers seem to want so called Asian Americans writers to perform, but my feeling is that it is very important to think whether you are comfortable of performing that role and whether it is the same story you want to tell.
I think one of the dangers of writing as an Asian American author is because of the predominance of idealized immigrant narrative, writers typically will have two reactions: one is I can’t do anything except to write that narrative so I’ll go ahead and write it; another is I will not write anything like that so I’ll write anything except that. Both of these are terrible reactions. One of the reactions means you’ll end up with a story that’s not true to you, the other reaction of rejecting your own ethnic experiences is to dance with your feet tied up or try to sing with your mouth taped shut. Because by reacting to the pressure by not touching anything to do with your ethnic experience is essentially conceding that you are not mainstream and that being American is being white, and I think that is not a point you want to concede…
I think it’s very important for writers to assert that they are as American as everybody else, to be an American means you certainly assert you are and you live your life as one however you define that to mean. Therefore, my Chinese diaspora experience is the very American experience, I don’t feel like I’m writing something that is not American. The fact that I want to evoke The Romance of Three Kingdoms is a very American thing to do. I don’t want to be limited, if I want to talk about technology and the future of AI in a world that cultural differences and societal injustices are eliminated, I should feel free to do so instead of being bound by the expectations of outsiders. But again, I have been arrogant all my life so I don’t really care what other people do.