As a special treat, we are thrilled to share an interview with Cynthia Zhang about their book After the Dragons. This gorgeous novel explores identity, climate change, immigration, and the things we owe ourselves, our loved ones, and the world around us. It’s out from Stelliform Press on August 19; read an excerpt in this issue, then head over to Stelliform’s website or Amazon to preorder it.
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After the Dragons was such a pleasure to read. It’s so sprawling in subject—dragons, ecology, research, climate change, queerness, family, identity—but also so compact and lovely in its focus. How did you come to write it?
It’s been a while since I first started thinking about this story, but After the Dragons began as an attempt to work more consciously with Chinese mythology. In retrospect, there are a couple of main reasons I hadn’t done so before. First is the fact that my pop culture upbringing was pretty heavily stacked towards Western fantasy tropes, and so those were the tropes that populated my work—witches, werewolves, vampires, etc.
Second, as an Asian-American in a largely white space, there’s often the imperative to do what Zen Cho calls “writing my culture for fun and profit”—to produce recognizably Asian work to explain your culture and trauma to the (implicitly white) masses. Which is all very necessary work, but as a moral imperative, it can also be rather restricting. Sometimes, I just wanted to write fun stories about vampires without being questioned about it, the way white people did.
Third (and perhaps most importantly) was that I didn’t quite feel secure in my right to write Chinese mythology. Sure, I’d watched a cartoon version of Journey to the West as a kid and I knew some of the central myths, but I was always acutely aware that there was a lot more I should know, movies I should have watched and classic works of literature I should have read. In my mind, in order to write Chinese fantasy, you had to read Water Margin and Romance of the Three Kingdoms and know Chinese history beyond a high school level, and that was simply not me.
After the Dragons sprang then from what was essentially a crisis of authenticity: as I started seeing more SFF calls for work from BIPOC, I started wondering about what exactly it was I could offer as a writer. My Mandarin skills were rudimentary and, as previously established, my knowledge of the literature was more piecemeal than anything. In order to look at what I could contribute from a specifically Chinese-American perspective, I had to excavate my own personal history. That meant memories of summer visits to China, both good and bad—the extravagant, hours long dinners with distant relatives, yes, but also the skyscrapers being built next to slum housing and the taxi drivers who’d tell us rumors about how scammers were altering food to sell it for cheap. The novel’s other themes—queerness, family, animal rights—emerged as I started thinking about what I wanted to say and what was important to me. After the Dragons began vaguely, the way Eli’s trip to Beijing does, but by the end, it became something much larger and personal than what I’d planned.
Speaking of Eli: he follows an inclination to seek his heritage without fully understanding why, and ends up travelling to Beijing for a summer research position, much to the chagrin of his mother. How do you think that search for identity that’s so common for children of immigrant parents fits into speculative fiction?
On a broad level, speculative fiction is about encounters with the unknown, whether that takes the form of aliens or werewolf or eldritch creatures beyond mortal ken. Similarly, much of the diaspora experience is tied to uncertainty. You journey to a strange land you’ve only heard about in stories, one where the language is unfamiliar and the customs perplexing. You have a few things with you—a sword, a bow, a bag full of spells and paperwork for a Green Card application—but it’s still a terrifying experience. While part of that terror is necessarily tied to survival, another element is the fear of change—the literal change in environment and the ways you change in response. For both SFF protagonists and new immigrants, there’s the major question of how much you choose to fight against or welcome those change while maintaining vestiges of your previous self.
For me, seeing the diasporic experience as a speculative one offers a way of processing diaspora as not necessarily a watered-down form of being Chinese, but rather as its own identity—dislocation as not simply losing your roots, but also an opportunity to become something new. In the lead up to the Olympics this year, there was an op-ed going around questioning whether Naomi Osaka was “Japanese” enough to represent her nation. To be clear, this was an English-language piece written by a white man and most responses I saw rightfully dismissed it, but its publication points to a larger problem with how we conceptualize identity and culture. When “Japanese” is defined narrowly by either Westerners or conservative Japanese nationalists, the complexities of actual Japan are erased—Ainu people in Hokkaido, Korean residents who migrated during the war, and mixed-race citizens like Naomi Osaka are deemed “insufficiently” Japanese in the search for a stable identity. We tend to have a very specific ideas of what “Asian” looks like, even as Asia in actuality is incredibly diverse. One advantage of seeing the diasporic experience as speculation then is more room for experimentation with what identity means in the first place. You can be Chinese and have dark skin or speak French better than Mandarin or prefer chocolate to lotus paste, and none of these traits makes you less authentically Chinese because “Chinese” is itself an incredibly broad category. It’s incredibly valid to want to connect your heritage, the way Eli does in this novel, but I wish this endeavor could be fraught with questions of authenticity for those of us who don’t fit a set script of what a Chinese person should be.
Additionally, as a Chinese-American person in 2021, I’m often caught in the bind of not wanting to particularly identify with either country—not just because I don’t feel “American” or “Chinese” enough, but also because the United States and the People’s Republic of China are deeply flawed nation-states. Most nation-states are problematic on some level, but with how volatile China-US relationships currently are, Chinese-Americans are often asked to choose one side over the other. In response to anti-Asian sentiment, there’s often the impulse to argue that we deserve to be here because we’re just as American; we love the Fourth of July and hate censorship, too. The problem is that once you take a closer look at American history and the way this country was (and continues to be!) built on exploitation and violence, American patriotism starts to feel equally uncomfortable. Being Asian-American (or Asian/American, as David Palumbo-Liu might term it) offers a space to critique both national projects while acknowledging your debt to both cultures. Maybe you don’t fully identify with either China or the US, but that space between can itself be opportunity to build new identities and new alliances with people who might not share your exact cultural background but who suffer similar struggles.
Basically, culture evolves, Asian-American was always a coalitional term, and my hope is that seeing diaspora in terms of experimentation instead of authenticity can move us towards a more expansive idea of identity.
Lastly, the dragons in this book are fascinating—both in how you situate them in the larger world by offering glimpses of their global history, and examine how they’d integrate into an urban landscape severely affected by climate change. Seeing cultural critique, fantasy, and climate fiction meet in this way felt so unique to me—how did you pull it all together?
As a teenager, some of my favorite books about dragons were Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books. In particular, I enjoyed the variety of dragons in Novik’s work and the way she ties the treatment of dragons to different cultural context—Asian countries, for example, have an easier time acknowledging dragon intelligence because their myths are full of benevolent dragons while Britain treats dragons as dangerous animals because that’s how they’re generally portrayed in European mythology. While my dragons are a lot smaller and less grand than Novik’s, I wanted them to reflect different cultural attitudes in a similar way. Hence, the extinction of Western dragons and the relatively greater tolerance of them in Asia.
Further, as a lifelong animal lover who’s often struck by the hypocrisies in the way we treat animals, I wanted to explore the potential disjunction between mythic representations of dragons and what they might look like in reality. Like tigers, dragons evoke awe and wonder, but that hasn’t stopped us from hunting tigers to near extinction or putting them in cages for our own amusement. After the Dragons is a book that’s haunted by the myth of grand dragons, just as it often seems to me that contemporary China is a country that’s haunted by the myths of its past. In the rush to regain China’s status as a world power, however, there’ve been a lot of decisions made that prioritize international glory over more ordinary concerns. I remember following the 2008 Olympics and hearing about the old neighborhoods that were torn down to make room for new, modern structures and marveling at the paradoxes of nationalism.
These paradoxes certainly aren’t unique to Beijing or China—the Tokyo Olympics left a surge in COVID cases in its wake, and activists in LA are already worrying about how the 2028 games will further gentrification and displacement of unhoused folks. Like Eli observes at one point in After the Dragons, it’s an old, familiar story, power and glory and the hidden costs of maintaining them. It’s the redshirts in Star Trek, the peasants who starve offscreen while the nobles in Westeros fight over the Iron Throne. With the dragons in this book, I hope to shift some of focus onto those background characters, ordinary people and the ways they manage to survive a world hostile to them.
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Questions by Aleksandra Hill