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Rebecca F. Kuang has vivid memories of begging for green bean popsicles.
She was born in Guangzhou, China, and every afternoon, she and her family would walk through a park, where she’d beg for a treat. They’re still her favorite snack.
Kuang and her family immigrated to the U.S. when she was 4. Her dad had always planned to move his family to the States, and they settled in Dallas, where she was raised. Attracted to Georgetown University’s strong debate program, she later moved to D.C. to attend college.
But it’s early memories of family time in China that drive her new book, The Poppy War. It follows a young orphan girl, bullied for her dark skin but in possession of great shamanic power, through a fictional, fantastical China. As a war rages on, the girl, Rin, tests into the most elite military academy in her empire and later finds herself in the fight of her life.
The book combines family lore, the fantasy novels she loves, and the Chinese history she has studied—including the horrifying 1937 Nanking Massacre, in which Japanese troops butchered and raped thousands of people, both soldiers and civilians, in the Chinese city of Nanking during the Second Sino-Japanese War.
“As for the story itself, all of that comes from my family’s history during the turn of the century, their experiences in the Second Sino-Japanese War, and all of the tragedies that rocked China for one hundred years,” Kuang says. “It’s the backbone of the book.”
At the Clarendon Barnes & Noble, The Poppy War sits on a recommended reading shelf with other new and acclaimed releases. An in-store description of the book calls it “an unstoppable story that reads like a fantastic mash-up of Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy and the best Shaolin action film—and features a smart, sharp heroine facing unspeakable challenges in a world we never wanted to leave.”
Kuang began writing the book when she was 19 and managed to start, finish, and publish the book all before turning 22. She graduated from Georgetown this spring and will enter Cambridge’s modern Chinese studies program in the fall.
“I never really thought about age being a barrier,” she says. She had read Eragon by Christopher Paolini, who started writing that book at the age of 15 and published it when he was 19. “It always seemed possible that you could write fantasy and get published at a ridiculously young age,” Kuang says.
A gap year between her sophomore and junior years allowed her to finish the book. She lived in Beijing and taught debate to high school students. Before she moved to China, she’d had very little contact with her grandparents but when she returned, she had long conversations with them and learned her family’s history in China. “I was steeped in that family legacy and decided I wanted to do something with it,” she says. The “something” evolved into the plot of The Poppy War, with some supplemental fantasy elements.
In China she worked a 9-to-5 job, but she noticed a significant absence: “For the first time in my life, I didn’t have homework,” she says. Since she had free time, she decided she wanted to start and finish at least one big project, figuring she’d never have the time to do it again. She set a goal to write 2,000 words every day and three months later, she had a manuscript. “Everything that has happened afterward is just a really pleasant surprise,” she says.
Kuang then got a literary agent, and on her 20th birthday the book went to auction and was sold to Harper Voyager, an imprint of HarperCollins. The Poppy War is the first installment in what will be a trilogy. She’s hard at work on the next installments.
Kuang calls interacting with her book once it’s out in the world strange. “You know how it feels to go back and look at old Facebook posts or diary entries? You’re like, ‘Wow, I wish I could burn all this.’ But I don’t get to do that with my work as a 19-year-old because it’s published and in bookstores and open for everyone to read.”
She’s proud of it, but she hasn’t read the book in its entirety since its release, in part because she fears that she’ll find things she doesn’t like, such as bad sentences. She essentially taught herself how to write for her first book and has learned more since then. “It’ll probably be the worst thing I’ve ever written, only because I want to get better and better.”
The worst thing she’ll ever write seems to be quite successful, landing on a variety of “Best Of ” lists and receiving praise from industry publications and major retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
When Kuang was growing up, she’d always beg her mother to take her to Barnes & Noble, where she’d get lost in a world of books. Seeing her book in the store remains surreal.
She found something poetic about living in D.C. while publishing a book about cultural identity, finding power within, and fighting back against a federation. She lived a 3-mile jog from the White House and had easy access to all of D.C.’s monuments. “It’s just so symbolic because I’m a massive history nerd” she says. “I love D.C. so much.” History of all sorts permeates the pages of The Poppy War.
Everything she feels as an immigrant, as a young Chinese-American woman, is in the book. She carries the significance of that identity with her all the time. The last line of the acknowledgements calls out to her family: “Immigrants, we get the job done.”