R.O. Kwon spent 10 years on her debut novel, The Incendiaries, which has been praised by Celeste Ng for its “dazzlingly acrobatic prose.” To finally have the book out in the world “feels wonderful, but also so strange,” says Kwon. “I’ve only just started understanding that I can’t change it anymore.”
The book centers on Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall, university students grappling with the implications of religious devotion. Phoebe becomes dangerously entangled with a cult that has ties to North Korea, while Will tries to move beyond his fundamentalist roots. Through its page-turning plot, The Incendiaries explores the sometimes-blurry line between faith and fanaticism. “I wanted to convey how painful it can be to lose an overarching faith—and how wonderful it can be to gain one,” Kwon, 35, says.
Faith and transcendence are themes she is also drawn to as a reader, particularly when they are addressed by writers outside the traditional canon. “I didn’t come across a single Korean-American writer until after college. I went to Yale and really loved it in a lot of ways, but I wonder what it did to my writing and my sense of myself to read only dead white men as part of my education,” Kwon says. “I hope that idea is shifting a bit.”
Read on for Kwon’s recommendations for classics that defy expectations.
HOUR OF THE STAR
by Clarice Lispector
“Especially toward the latter half of working on my novel, I kept reading her. The book I usually recommend is this one—the first of hers I read—about a typist in Rio de Janeiro. Lispector reaches for the ecstatic in ways I find to be really exciting, and not something a lot of other writers do. It’s short, only about 100 pages, and unique the way all her books are.”
BLOW-UP AND OTHER STORIES
by Julio Cortazar
“I love the beauty and music in his prose. I’m also increasingly interested in wildness and daring, which this book has in both form and content. Cortazar is so interesting in that he does things with form I haven’t seen other writers do.”
by Marilynne Robinson
“As someone who writes about religion and Christianity, I find Robinson to be fascinating. She’s so magnificent. I love all her fiction, but Gilead is the first one of hers that I read when I was about to finish work on my novel. I was astounded by what she was able to do. I find the book to be tremendously moving and very nuanced. She spends so much of the book grappling with goodness, and I often recommend Gilead to people as an example of someone writing about people trying to be good.”
by Audre Lorde
“I have been really loving and drawing strength and wisdom from Audre Lorde. This book collects her non fiction and poetry, and especially in these times, Lorde is a guiding light. I learned more about what kind of feminist I want to be, and what kind of person I want to be, from reading Lorde.”