Radiant Being: Author chat with Shelley Parker-Chan

Shelley Parker Chan. Image credit: Supplied.

Cherry Zheng catches up with author Shelley-Parker Chan ahead of their anticipated appearance at the Sydney Writer’s Festival.


Shelley Parker-Chan’s Radiant Emperor duology is a queer reimagining of the 14th-century rise to power of Zhu Yuanzhang, a peasant rebel who expelled the Mongols, unified China under native rule, and became the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty. 

Ahead of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Shelley (they/them) spoke to Cherry (she/they) from StoryCasters about queer diaspora, the creative process, and what’s next for the diplomat-turned-writer.

You describe this duology as ‘escapist melodrama’. The underdog badassery, angst, and revenge fantasy certainly pay homage to the c-dramas and fanfiction that influenced your work. At the same time, you wrangle so intimately with the diasporic queer experience and themes of shame, desire, and gender as performance. What did you enjoy most about writing the series?

“I was determined to write a story of the kind that I’d enjoy: a story purely for me that would please my reading tastes. For me, that means a story that goes deep into emotions. I want to read about people feeling things in very true, specific, and intense ways. I don’t give two figs for plot or worldbuilding in fantasy novels unless it concerns character. So, when I started this series, I didn’t go in with specific things I wanted to say about those topics of shame, desire, and gender. I just focused on writing what I enjoyed: people who are a lot like me, having a lot of complicated, intense feelings about the same things I feel a lot about.”

You formerly worked in diplomacy and international development, a career that took you across Asia. Was there a lightbulb moment in terms of committing to the writing grind? How did you find the transition into writing full-time?

“I understand why the standard advice is ‘don’t give up your day job’ because writing income is precarious and unpredictable. I was lucky to be in a financial position where I could weather more than one year of zero income after embarking on the writing adventure. Initially, it made me wonder if I was somehow being frivolous or self-indulgent, choosing to write with no idea whether it could ever be a financially sustainable practice. Maybe I should have stayed in that ‘serious’ career. But then an author friend told me she’d always viewed writing stories as THE most serious work she could do. It’s how she chooses to better the world, and she’s never thought it wasn’t the highest and best use of her time. And when I thought about it, I wasn’t great at my old career. I was quite shit at it. But I like to think I write a decent story that can illuminate a few crevices of the human experience. So maybe writing is my highest and best use, too.”

He Who Drowned the World explores the suffering that is the cost of desire. What do you want to convey about ambition, its sacrifices, and how it affects those around ambitious people?

“Depending on your perspective, the historical rise of Zhu Yuanzhang can be interpreted as a tragedy: a monomaniacal ambition that ends in tyranny, paranoia, and the betrayal and destruction of everyone who assisted him into power. I wanted to explore what happens when you put that outsize, almost sociopathic degree of ambition inside someone who’s always been excluded from society’s definition of who can have power. Someone who isn’t a man, someone who’s queer. Does ambition lead that person onto the same path of zero-sum-game ruthlessness, where the ends always justify the means, and should we celebrate their wins because of who they are? Or, because of who they are, is it that both the path and the ending will change? Going into this project, the only thing I knew I wanted to convey was either way, it’s going to get messy.”  

I was deeply moved by your characters’ deliberate, distinct relationships with their bodies. Between your debut, She Who Became the Sun and its sequel, He Who Drowned the World, the pronouns in your author bio change. If you feel comfortable sharing, did your sense of genderqueerness evolve due to writing this series? Or was it, indeed, that the world shifted in those years?

“I suppose it was both. I’ve had the gender feelings I’ve had since primary school, though socialisation taught me to suppress them in every space of my life except fantasy—the space of stories. But for a long time, I thought all I’d ever do was read genderqueering stories and live vicariously through them. Freedom of gender expression seemed like a nice dream to have, but it was not possible for me in real life. And that would have to be fine because that’s how it was. Then, I started writing my characters who were struggling with gender and who, in some cases, were brave enough to defy the received categories. Around that same time, the real world was changing, too. I saw well-known artists and writers change their pronouns, and the mainstream slowly caught up to them, and it didn’t seem so much the stuff of fantasy anymore. Eventually, it just reached the point where I thought: if my characters can do it, and all these other real-life people are doing it, why can’t I? It wasn’t like the conservatives think—that some kind of woke gender virus infected me. I saw that what I’d wanted all along was possible.” 

You have previously spoken about your ambivalence towards your cultural heritage, which does not embrace queerness. For me, the queer BIPOC community (however imperfect) is one space in which my Chinese heritage and queerness don’t have to contradict each other. Have you found spaces that embrace all of you? What advice would you give to someone struggling to find their people?

“I’ve always found my community via words written online. That’s where I met fellow writers struggling to balance their sides like I was. I suppose I knew that physical communities have always been there—in big cities, anyway—but when you’re someone with a lot of identity insecurities—do I count as queer? Am I Asian enough? Do I LOOK Asian enough?—it can be challenging to seek those out. For all of the discourse about how social media is destroying our brains and the unarguable toxicity of some online spaces, I feel it’s important not to discount what a lifeline the internet can be for isolated queer people, people who aren’t out, young people especially who can’t safely or easily find people like them. But at the same time, everyone needs to know when to log off and touch grass.”

Do you foresee any changes to your writing process with two books behind you?

“Well, it never gets any faster; that’s the truth. For me, at least. I think all writers fantasise about eventually having the skills to hammer out a perfect first draft, but maybe that’s all it is: a fantasy.”

This duology features a lot of bad dads. You teased at a recent writer’s festival that your subsequent work has bad mums. Can you tell us anything else about what to look forward to?

“It’s a secondary world fantasy that takes its visual inspiration from Dante’s Purgatory, but it’s looking at cultures of abuse in female sports and professional dance. Naturally, I’m interested in the intersecting aspects of bodies, gender, and race. But don’t worry: we’ll have equal opportunity bad parenting. Bad dads, bad mums, and bad nonbinary parents are all represented!”

One last question: What would it be if you could have any superpower?

“Teleportation. Imagine no more airport security, no more sketchy bus terminals, no more taking your life into your hands on those crazy, dangerous mountain roads. Sometimes, it’s about the destination, not the journey.” 

Shelley’s debut novel, She Who Became the Sun, and its sequel/conclusion, He Who Drowned the World, are out now. Find Shelley Parker-Chan at the Sydney Writers’ Festival from 23-26 May: https://www.swf.org.au/writers/shelley-parker-chan/ 

This review was made possible by Diversity Arts Australia’s StoryCasters program in partnership with Multicultural NSW and supported by Sweatshop.

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To address the under-representation of young culturally diverse content producers and critics in the arts and creative sectors, Diversity Arts Australia developed StoryCasters. We aimed to address the lack of cultural diversity in the writing, screen, media, podcasting and music industries, and to form communities of practice for diverse content creators.

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