Wild Authors: Cynthia Zhang

By Mary Woodbury

This month we head to Beijing, China, as we talk with Cynthia Zhang, a Ph.D. student in Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture at the University of Southern California, about her newest novel After the Dragons (Stelliform Press, 2021).

ABOUT THE BOOK

Dragons were fire and terror to the Western world, but in the East they brought life-giving rain… Now, no longer hailed as gods and struggling in the overheated pollution of Beijing, only the Eastern dragons survive. As drought plagues the aquatic creatures, a mysterious disease – shaolong, or “burnt lung” – afflicts the city’s human inhabitants.

Jaded college student Xiang Kaifei scours Beijing streets for abandoned dragons, distracting himself from his diagnosis. Elijah Ahmed, a biracial American medical researcher, is drawn to Beijing by the memory of his grandmother and her death by shaolong. Interest in Beijing’s dragons leads Kai and Eli into an unlikely partnership. With the resources of Kai’s dragon rescue and Eli’s immunology research, can the pair find a cure for shaolong and safety for the dragons? Eli and Kai must confront old ghosts and hard truths if there is any hope for themselves or the dragons they love.

After the Dragons is a tender story, for readers interested in the effects of climate change on environments and people, but who don’t want a grim, hopeless read. Beautiful and challenging, focused on hope and care, this novel navigates the nuances of changing culture in a changing world.

Zhang’s portrayal of Beijing is rich with intimate details and subtle commentary on climate change, while the delightfully distinct dragons are seamlessly integrated. Despite being a slim novel, Zhang’s introspective fantasy has enormous heart and astonishing depth.

—Krista Hutley for Booklist

This is a slim, beautiful jewel-box of a novel. It is vividly atmospheric and feels real as if tiny flocks of dragons might sit on telephone lines in modern-day Beijing. It explores falling in love in the wake of grief and the ways in which we try to exert control over our lives. Its quiet intimacy will break your heart and give you hope – and also dragons. Perfect, beautifully drawn dragons. It’s a lovely debut and I look forward to seeing what Cynthia Zhang does next. 

—Mary Robinette Kowal, Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author of The Calculating Stars

The cover art for After the Dragons is by Wang Xulin, with typography and design by Yu-Lobbenberg Rachel.

A CHAT WITH THE AUTHOR

I love discovering new publishers and people whose voices are active in the field of what I like to think of as “rewilding our stories.” I follow Stelliform Press, the publisher of After the Dragons, on Twitter. That’s how I have become so taken by what they’re publishing and their environmental ethics. Can you tell us what it’s like to publish with Stelliform?

As someone who has only published one book, I obviously can’t speak much about the industry, but I personally really enjoyed publishing with Stelliform! While small presses don’t necessarily have the same brand recognition as a bigger press, I think if you’re looking for an intimate, hands-on process when publishing, it’s definitely a route you should consider.

I found Stelliform through social media as well, and I was really impressed with the individual support they give to their authors – at that point, I think they’d only put out two novellas and were in the process of putting out a third, so I was drawn to the idea of being part of this growing community of writers. Selena, my editor, has been very generous in terms of communication and support. As someone who previously felt a little disconnected from the wider writing community (ah, grad school), I’ve really appreciated that.

Like you, I was also drawn to Stelliform by their strong sense of ethics – my books (at least the copies I received) were published on recycled paper, and I really appreciate that all the book launches I’ve attended open with land acknowledgements and links to resources for people to learn more. In the grand scheme of things, these might seem like small changes when billionaires are taking joy rides to space every other week, but as socially conscious writers and activists, I think it’s still important to do what we can when we can.

I listened to an interview with you and Lovis Geier, vlogger at Ecofictology, and that drew me in more because I have often talked with her about books we love, and she’s definitely over the moon about After the Dragons! Can you let the readers know what’s going on in the book?

Definitely! So, After the Dragons is broadly about the relationship between two characters: Eli, who’s mixed-race Chinese and visiting Beijing for a summer research program, and Kai, a college student who spends his time taking care of Beijing’s abandoned dragons. They’re connected by a number of factors, with the primary one being shaolong, a respiratory disease caused by exposure to high levels of pollution. Eli’s grandmother died of the disease and his visit to Beijing is, in many ways, an attempt to understand her love for the city that killed her. When he learns that Kai also has shaolong, Eli is determined to do something to help. However, as a kid who grew up gay and highly self-sufficient, Kai bristles at the idea of outside help and only gives in when Eli comes up with a plan that also helps Kai’s dragons. Despite their differences, these two characters forge a friendship that gradually becomes something more.

Overall, there aren’t any big, dramatic moments in After the Dragons – no one discovers a miracle cure for shaolong or fights a corrupt government official, even if they really want to. Eli and Kai enact change, but they don’t solve the world’s problems or even Beijing’s. But as two young people trying to make a positive difference in a precarious world, I think Eli and Kai are characters who very much reflect the dilemma of living in the era of climate change.

One of the things you talked about with Lovis was the difference between Western and Eastern dragon myths. What is it about Chinese dragon mythology that attracted you?

When discussing Eastern versus Western dragons, two of the major distinctions people often ring up are that a) Eastern dragons are more commonly associated with water, not fire, meaning that b) they’re generally seen as a lot more benevolent. I was drawn to dragons partially because of the stark contrast in depiction between European and East Asian myths, but also because of the way that contrast echoes a lot of the ways people talk about Asian countries, China especially. You know how it goes: it’s communism versus capitalism, totalitarianism versus democracy, collectivism versus individualism, etc.

Some of the emphasis on these binaries is obviously kind of essentialist and Orientalist, but I’ve always been struck by the ways in which the history of modern China has revolved around the attempt to balance Westernization with tradition. It’s the question a lot of non-Western countries, especially formerly colonized ones, have had to grapple with: how do we reap the benefits of modernization (guns, industrialization, new political systems) without losing our sense of who we are? In After the Dragons, the rumors of huolong – Eastern dragons that have developed the ability to breathe fire – are very much a metaphor for this ideal of a perfect East-West synthesis, one that would combine the best of both sides without any of the downfalls. That hasn’t quite worked out in reality; economic development in China has led to massive environmental issues and a vast wealth gap, but the ideal of perfect balance is one that haunts the novel.

That’s the broad, theoretical answer. In terms of specifics, I like how there’s such a close connection between dragons and humans in Chinese mythology – the legendary first emperor of China, the Yellow Emperor, could turn into a dragon in some myths, and there are a lot of other stories about dragon emperors who rule the seas or heavens. While these dragons are overall benevolent, they’re not perfect – like Greek gods, their human qualities include very human flaws. As someone who’s interested in animal welfare, I’ve always been struck by the way our stories about animals don’t always match our treatment of those animals. Americans love dogs, but that doesn’t stop people from overbreeding and abandoning them once they become inconvenient. When creating the dragons for this book, I wanted to capture that sense of contrast, the ways in which the myth of dragons might not necessarily translate into our treatment of them in actuality.

In the story, there are animals and people who seem to be marginalized. These are always my favorite stories because I think a lot of readers gravitate toward characters who are not status quo nor fit some idea of how we need to be. Can you describe Kai and Eli in terms of who they are and how you created them?

In writing both Eli and Kai, I was acutely aware that I was writing slightly outside of my personal experience. Even as I share Chinese heritage with these characters, there are a lot of elements of their experiences that I don’t have access to – I don’t live in China as a gay man the way Kai does, and I’m neither mixed-race nor Blasian the way Eli is. Without reducing these characters to one element of their identity, I was very much aware of the ways in which I would never fully understand some of their lived experiences. That’s something Eli and Kai also have to learn to navigate in their interactions with each other, especially since they’re both stubborn young men with strong ideas of right and wrong. They get better, but I think listening to each other is something we all have to work at from time to time.

In terms of marginality, I see both Eli and Kai as characters who are drawn towards each other because they’re outsiders, people who don’t quite fit in. As a Chinese-American, I’m struck by the way people in the US often talk about China, and the ways in which that discussion tends to conflate the Chinese government with the Chinese people. For all that nationalism and the CCP wants those two categories to be inseparable – the Chinese government represents its people perfectly, and no true Chinese person has any reason to criticize it, nope, none at all – gaps between them continue to exist. Ethnic and religious minorities live in China! Queer people live in China! And for those who don’t have the money or opportunity to emigrate, pushing for change can be incredibly risky. Activists still exist, of course, but living in the PRC means people have to get very creative about how they live. In terms of LGBT+ rights specifically, support is rising, especially among young people, but it’s still not an ideal situation – there’s a lot of societal pressure, especially with regards to familial obligation and Confucian ideals. With Kai, I wanted to explore what it might mean to be incorrectly “Chinese” in China – to be someone who loves his mother dearly, but who also knows that being fully himself might disappoint her. Kai knows his country is flawed, but he can’t escape it; even if he had the money and means to leave, growing up and living in China has inexorably shaped who he is.

In writing Eli, I noticed that a lot of discussion of mixed-race kids (at least Asian-American ones) in popular culture focuses on the idea of passing – of being neither American nor Asian enough depending on where you are. That’s an important issue, of course, but I was really struck by the way “American” is often taken to mean “white American.” What would happen to a character for whom passing is never quite an option? There’s a fair amount of anti-Blackness in many non-Black immigrant communities, Chinese communities included, but there’s also a history of Afro-Asian solidarity that runs counter to it. Because I’m not Black, I didn’t feel fully qualified to talk about some of the issues Eli would face in terms of that element of his identity – which is why we don’t really see Eli’s dad in the novel (but it’s also because I find father-son relationships tricky to write). At the same time, one of my best friends is Barbadian-Japanese-Norwegian, and with Eli’s character, I wanted to open more space for mixed-race kids like them. Even though Asian-American is inherently a broad term, we tend to have a narrow idea of what Asian-Americans look like. With Eli, I wanted to nudge the boundaries of what “Asian” or “Asian-American” means – to imagine what the term could mean in all its plurality and coalition-building potential.

The worldbuilding is magnificent. It’s a futurized – or maybe more accurately – a different version of Beijing. It’s also polluted and too hot, and “burnt lung,” or “shaolong,” is a disease that’s killing people and dragons. Were you thinking of climate change when you began to write the book, or do you think it just became an obvious force later because it’s all around us?

I haven’t been back to China since 2016, but I hear that the air quality in Beijing is getting better – which, if so, is very encouraging news! But when I was a child and visiting family in China, Beijing was notorious for its pollution. When I was initially pulling together the threads for After the Dragons, it felt quite natural that pollution would be a major theme in the novel. And if the water and air are heavily polluted, how will that affect dragons as a species that’s strongly tied to water and nature in Chinese mythology? So I suppose the answer to your question is that climate change was probably always a core element of this book, just as it’s become a core problem of contemporary life.

Even as climate change is now perhaps more visible than ever, I think it’s been a part of our world for a long time. Silent Spring was published in the 1960s and in the 19th century, we were already seeing species like bison and passenger pigeons being hunted to extinction or near-extinction. Recent weather events like the California fires and the Texas storms have brought renewed attention to the inescapability of climate change, but I think it’s also important to remember that many people in the Global South and in rural communities have never had the luxury of ignoring climate change. The signs have been there for a very long time – it’s just a matter of whether the people in power are willing to do something about it. And if the politicians and corporations aren’t going to look out for our best interests (as they so often aren’t), then it’s all the more important that ordinary people use what resources they have to support each other and push for change.

The novel is genre-busting. Part eco-fiction, part romance, part science fiction, part fantasy. I often think that tales that cross genre boundaries are more interesting because the world today seems weirder than ever and there is not always a neat little genre that could possibly include it all. Or maybe, it was always that way and as an adult, I think more in terms of metadata than single classifications. What are your thoughts on where literature is headed as we combine more genres together like this?

This is going to sound like a bit of a cop-out answer, but despite writing primarily speculative fiction, I don’t actually think a lot about genre when I’m working. Usually, I set out with one or two concepts I want to explore – what if these characters did X, or lived in a world where X was real? – and then the rest of the story evolves from there, accruing bits of pieces from various genres as it goes online.

Overall, I see genre as a descriptive tool, not a prescriptive one. It’s sort of like the term “sandwich:” some things are undeniably sandwiches – grilled cheeses, PB&Js, a Reuben – but there are also a lot of liminal spaces. Is a hot dog a sandwich? Is a burrito? What about a sushi burrito, or sushi itself? This is a very silly example that people online love to debate (is a Pop-Tart a sandwich?), but I think it’s indicative of how all genre terms are kind of provisional and ever-evolving.

I definitely think that in recent years, as the world gets stranger, we’re seeing an influx of work that blends traditional genre boundaries, especially when it comes to so-called literary fiction. So many things that used to be sci-fi – virtual reality, robot housekeepers, etc. – are becoming parts of our reality in the form of Roombas and smarthomes and VR headsets. At the same time, as our understanding of science becomes more advanced, we see just how strange the world really is. Just think of how fantastical things like quantum entanglement or wormholes sound to people who know nothing about physics! If we’re getting more traditionally literary authors dabbling in speculative fiction (whether or not they want to use that term), I think it speaks to an ever-changing sense of what terms like “reality” and “literary” mean more broadly.

I totally agree about genres! Thanks so much, Cynthia. I found your book and answers fascinating!

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on Dragonfly.eco.

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Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in Nova Scotia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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