R. O. Kwon puts queer love, loss and faith on ‘Exhibit’ in new novel

With her work, author R.O. Kwon hopes to give other women — particularly queer Asian women — the permission to see the spectrum of sexuality as legitimate, rather than a source of shame. - Jesse Dittmar
With her work, author R.O. Kwon hopes to give other women — particularly queer Asian women — the permission to see the spectrum of sexuality as legitimate, rather than a source of shame. - Jesse Dittmar

(CNN) — Queer love, BDSM sex, identity crises and religious trauma — they’re not the topics Korean American author R. O. Kwon was raised with; nor are they likely the subjects her family wishes she would write about, she noted wryly. But as she grew into (some of) them, so did they grow into her work: In two novels — and “Kink,” an anthology she co-edited with her fellow author Garth Greenwell — the Seoul-born, San Francisco-based author has infused her books’ characters and narratives with these themes, in many cases drawn from her own life.

Kwon is the first to admit that anxiety relating to the process of writing and self-inquiry plagues her, but such deliberation has not extended to self-censorship in her sexually charged, adventurous protagonists, who are often stuck between the life they think they should live and the life they could.

“I have had to learn how to manage my profound anxiety writing — or, in some cases, not manage very well,” she told CNN in a video interview. “Particularly, the anxiety I feel around writing a book that has so much to do with physical longing. As a Korean woman and as an ex-Catholic… it feels very dangerous to my body to give any hint in public that I’ve ever had sex. I kept having to walk toward what I was afraid of writing, and to write it.”

In “Exhibit,” a literary labor of some 9 years, Kwon’s character Jin Han quickly becomes besotted with the mysterious ballerina Lidija, after a chance meeting at a party she’d been attending with her husband, Phillip. In Lidija, Jin finds a twin spirit — rebellious, artistic and reckless — and the two begin a sexual, sensory relationship amid struggles in Jin’s marriage. (Phillip has been pressuring Jin to start a family, despite their once mutual desire to remain childless.)

“The book explores what you risk to explore your core desires,” said Kwon. “‘Exhibit’ is very interested in varieties of desires — ambition, the desire to belong, food  and sex.”

Indulging such desires is the antithesis of the puritanical beliefs inherent in Kwon’s religious upbringing, she explained; the female protagonists in both “Exhibit” and her debut novel, “The Incendiaries,” are likewise plagued with guilt, shame and anxiety over their bodily cravings. Her own loss of faith was like a bankruptcy, Kwon remembered.

“I don’t feel I’ve recovered, and I don’t expect to recover,” she said. “I’ve come to understand that for some people, there are kinds of grief that don’t ever really end. I think, maybe, I will grieve God with intensity for the rest of my life… The grief is what I have left of the love I had.”

Kwon's novel "Exhibit" set the scene years after her main characters Jin and Philip have agreed that neither wants children — when Philip has a change of heart. The pressure from her husband and broader society weighs heavily on Jin, who is more concerned with enlivening her marriage through BDSM sex than introducing a child into her family. - Penguin Random House

The incisive mining of these inner conflicts and identity crises — how to exist in a society that expects you to be a God-fearing, family-oriented woman, when such labels no longer apply — is a throughline fearlessly explored by Kwon across her novels, journalistic work and in her personal life.

Kwon is married to her first boyfriend, a man she met in college, and admits many readers will (wrongly) assume that, in “Exhibit,” Jin and Phillip are thinly-veiled representations of Kwon and her husband — who, rather, enjoy a monogamous relationship she describes as “very loving.”

“The book centers a queer Korean American artist, which I am,” Kwon said. “People in my life might think I’ve had an affair with a queer Korean American ballerina. My friend joked that, ‘Who wouldn’t want to have an affair with a glamorous ballerina?’”

Kwon’s own queer sexuality blossomed late. She came out as bisexual to her closest friends, and later on social media, in 2018. In an essay she shared on the subject a year later, she wrote that, “In part because of my upbringing, it took until years after college for me to understand who and what I’m drawn to, and that my attraction to some people — including women — can go beyond the limits of platonic connection.”

“I only started talking about being queer in 2018, after ‘The Incendiaries’ came out,” she told CNN. “Growing up, I didn’t know anyone who was queer and ‘out,’ not until I went to college. So, it took a while for me to understand this — and that’s quite common for people who grow up in Korean American families and communities. Queerness was largely seen as an exotic blight that affects other people.”

Tongue-in-cheek, Kwon said she rates her parents’ response to her public outness as a B+. “For Korean Catholic immigrants, it wasn’t the ideal response, but better than it could have been.”

“There aren’t many Korean American writers who are queer in public,” she continued. “I thought I could add to this number, and that maybe I should if I could. Nobody should ever feel any pressure to be out, but I live in San Francisco and most of my friends are writers and artists. There’s an abundance of queerness in my communities.”

Coming out as queer, then, and writing sexually-fuelled, kinky fiction, are Kwon’s means of giving permission and validation to women, like herself, who haven’t seen themselves represented in their communities, nor in art or media.

“I wanted to show a world of queer abundance, in which people being queer just is,” said Kwon of “Exhibit,” adding that she is writing primarily for those who are prepared to hear her, engage with her and recognize themselves — or the possibility of themselves — in her work. “Even though we are surrounded by rising fascism and the destabilizing rise of book bans targeting writers of color, queer and trans writers. I wanted to write a book suffused with queer joy and queer plenitude. I’m intensely aware of how threatening it still can be for a lot of people.”

Indeed, an invisible threat — perhaps Kwon’s own self-criticism and anxiety — lingers, however daring and sexually-charged her fiction is.

“People must imagine I’m very liberated and yet, I feel so utterly restricted and inhabited in so many ways,” she said. “I feel like such a private person in so many ways. But what I’ve realised is that one doesn’t have to feel liberated to do liberating things, to do things one is afraid of. I hope that’s useful to other people.”

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