Discover more from warm cups of tea
sorrows that you keep
foilhood + she who became the sun :-)
I trust that everyone is well, and if not, that things start to get better soon. Days feel much shorter now that daylight savings time has ended, and though I much prefer extra light in the evening — I do so hate the early dark — I know that there are people who rise early and are probably grateful for sunlight in the morning. Take some iced tea and soup noodle.
like the stars chase the sun over the glowing hill
In the historical note to She Who Became the Sun, author Shelley Parker-Chan cites East Asian historical dramas as a major influence. She Who Became the Sun embodies that genre of epic historic fantasy — an episodic tale bringing Mongol-occupied China to life with sweeping brushstrokes. School/training montage, supernatural elements, battles, power struggles, romance, betrayal, all set against a profound dissection of issues of fate, desire, and Being. However, what both elevates and distinguishes the book is Parker-Chan’s understanding of gender and its complexities, nuanced in a way that is rare to find anywhere (and I do think I have read a fair amount).
At the heart of the book is two characters, at once similar and in opposition, with fates that are irrevocably intertwined. Picture a scale or see-saw hanging in balance, or like a yin/yang symbol without the dots and without the actual associations of yin and yang. It’s more that Halsey lyric that’s like, Are you insane like me? Been in pain like me? Two nanren, native to southern China (the word literally means southern person, and they were placed at the bottom of the Mongol hierarchy). There is Zhu, the orphaned peasant who disguises herself as a man to become a monk before joining a rebel group against the Mongols and rising up their ranks; then there is Ouyang, a eunuch who finds himself as the general and trusted companion of Esen, Mongol prince of the Henan region. I want to discuss this book by exploring various elements their foilhood (term I made up which may or may not be real) and how this helps the book subvert genre in a stunning way, innovative, never seen before, etc.
Mild spoilers ahead, though I don’t think that they should affect the reading experience much, and I will try to keep things vague and/or avoid them.
As she stared at the eunuch standing there admist his ghosts, she suddenly felt the half-fotgotten twang of a string plucked deep within her. Like connecting to like. A searing awareness of her difference from the person she was supposed to be shot through her.
As many fantasy novels do, She Who Became the Sun rotates between points of view. Even so, it is always clear that this is a story about Zhu and Ouyang, and together they do share most of the narration. Their actions drive the story forward, and each time they come into direct contact, the trajectory of events shifts significantly. Each time they interact is a collision that forces one onto a new path.
It’s not just the parallel plotlines of being commanders on opposite sides of battle, with that conflict taking up much of the book. As Zhu recognises immediately, they share a likeness as people existing outside traditional boundaries of gender, and both are hyperaware of their Genderness. Zhu’s defiance (though arguably intrinsic) is something she adapts to and actively clings to, with her desire to live simmering away throughout the novel and informing almost all of her actions. She takes her brother’s name and identity to escape a fate of nothingness, never forgetting her family’s mistreatment of her whilst they were alive. She fashions a life out of passing as a man, where her main fear is being discovered by Heaven and denied a fate of greatness. Ouyang, however, is driven by the deep-seated shame of his castration and his narration is like continually burned by oil spitting out of a pan. Very ouch. Once Ouyang accepts his (perceived) fate, he does everything to avenge his family, framed in his mind as a justification for his continued existence — chafing against society, rejected by almost everybody in the Mongol camps except Esen who fundamentally cannot understand him, he fixates on his duty whilst biding his time, ultimately turning filial piety into a destiny.
I feel like the chorus of ‘King’ by Florence + the Machine expresses the crux of Zhu vs Ouyang foilhood, ideas that apply to them both and in different but also comparable ways.
I need my golden crown of sorrow, my bloody sword to swing I need my empty halls to echo with grand self mythology I am no mother, I am no bride, I am king I am no mother, I am no bride, I am king
(Prerelease from Dance Fever! An album “inspired by folk horror, gothic fiction, missing communal dance parties in lockdown and the tragic heroines of Pre-Raphaelite art” and produced by Florence, Dave (of Glass Animals fame! Had to add this aside because, what a collection of words!)
Anyway, the idea of ‘grand self-mythology’ is everything here, because Zhu and Ouyang are shrouded in it. The use of ‘become’ in the title emphasises a process of transformation, and shoutout to the sun/son wordplay. They force themselves into specific roles, including the ability to Do What Must Be Done even (especially?) when it hurts. To draw upon an element of Florence’s own self-mythology, aka her musical oeuvre, aka a song — like the stars chase the sun / over the glowing hill, I will conquer / blood is running deep / some things never sleep <3. Thinking again about how Zhu conquers what she thinks is her fate by grasping onto a new one, one which allows her to survive, whereas Ouyang thinks his fate and duty are identical and is almost resigned to his, except that this way of thinking helps him overcomes some truly bleak despair. For both of them it’s like… see when you are deep down committed to enduring!!!! I can’t help to pull the earth around me to make my bed!!!
Definitely a lot to say about autonomy and fate vs free will and how both characters perceive that tension — and how this aligns with actual events — but I don’t want to get into detailed spoilers and I would also want to see where the story goes next. I will simply juxtapose these quotes:
But even as he prevaricated and agonised, and shrank from the thought of it, he knew it wasn’t a matter of choice. It was his fate, the thing no man can ever refuse.
For a moment she felt that old vertiginous pull of fate. But she had already launched herself in pursuit of it; there was no going back. Don’t look down as you’re flying, or you’ll realise the impossibility of it and fall.
The powers of manifstation… the desire, specifically the desire to accept or reject fate. Survival against all odds, really; all the ways in which this is a book about oppression and what it does to a person. Here are nanren clinging to their golden crowns of sorrow, their bloody swords to swing. I am king.
Characters who can be compared/analysed as foils create such an interesting narrative element. One of the most delightful things about Hamlet is all the ways to think about Hamlet vs Horatio, Hamlet vs Ophelia, Hamlet vs Laertes (and Paris and even young vengeful Pyrrhus, mentioned in the players’ scene), Ophelia vs Gertrude, Ophelia vs Horatio. It’s also one of the many perfect aspects of Revolutionary Girl Utena, where every character is a slightly different shade of another character, a condition which informs the repetitiveness of the school council and black rose arcs. Jordan and I from real life are another great example of narrative foils. The conscipicuous Ouyang vs Zhu foilhood obviously delights me, with their Likeness bashed over our heads more than once. It’s Zhu being able to see ghosts and Ouyang being haunted. It’s Ouyang telling Zhu, “Every time the world turns its face from you, know it was because of me”. Ouyang does the worst thing conceivable to him not knowing the truth about Zhu’s gender — physical disfigurement would never bring the same personal shame and disgrace precisely because Zhu was not born into the same systems of masculinity. Ironically, he tried to make them the same, something thay could never work because of all the ways they are already the same, the likeness of their gender defiance. There is a lot to be said, too, about Ouyang vs Lord Wang and the different ways they fail traditional masculinity and fail in the eyes of society.
I also think that Ma/Zhu and Esen/Ouyang are comparable dynamics in some ways, except of course that Zhu is open to a relationship whilst Ouyang’s thoughts are seeped in a heady mixture of self-hatred and attachment and then that whole element of fate again. Literally what I imagine being on a derailing train would be like. I want to say much more on the topic but I have already been here for so long and I had already typed out my thoughts on Zhu and Ma Xiuying, because I care them. They are not really foils so much as opposites of the same metaphorical, patriarchal-Mongol-occupied-China-era coin (i.e. different but complementary as opposed to the same but different). Like Zhu, Ma was raised as a girl in the countryside, except she stuck to repressing her desires in favour of pragmatic obedience. Both are changed irreversably through their interactions, but it is Zhu’s unwavering determination, despite being born a girl, that has the greater impact on Ma:
She remembered Monk Zhu looking into her with those sharp black eyes, and speaking to her not only as if she were a person capable of desire, but as someone who should desire. In her whole life she’d never heard anything so pointless. This is the life I have, she reminded herself. This is what it looks like.
Ma’s attitude towards Zhu changes profoundly when she discovers that Zhu is not, in fact, a man. This shift in their relationship gives way to 1) lesbian realisations and activities, 2) an opportunity for Ma to witness masculinity as something that can be taken up as a mantle, in contrast to the callous bluster of the men around her, and 3) a recalibration of Zhu’s words to her, knowing that Zhu is not an ignorant man but somebody born as a woman who nevertheless desires. And so Ma responds with her own compassion and care, often tempering Zhu’s burning ambition and acting as a conscience. I am glad for their fragile relationship because it is really something. I hope Ma starts biting people in the next book.
In numerous ways, She Who Became the Sun is about transgressing boundaries. Territory, in the most basic sense that it is a book about conflict. Moral boundaries, naturally. Gender, specifically as it is constructed and performed in the book’s 14th-century context. The boundaries that separate us from one another. And then of course the fact that it takes genre fiction and adds gay people with (according to Parker-Chan) genderqueer identities is very epic. Like the fact that I could write multiple repetitive paragraphs about it? Legendary.
how can i not know what i need right now?
Last month was a nice one, mostly because I went to Adelaide and saw Jordan for the first time since 2019. I believe April is both poetry month and autism awareness month, and lesbian visibility day is coming up, so in theory it should be catered towards me. There is still time for a Win I guess. As months go, I don’t actually think about April much. Top month I am most likely to forget exists. I guess it’s a signal that the weather is settling for good, that clocks are turning back and autumn is officially upon us and will soon give way to winter — a season to bear and wait for the delight of seeing flowers in spring. Every day I wake up.
I borrowed Devotions by Mary Oliver from a friend, so I have been reading that. Cemetary Boys by Aiden Thomas is delightful so far. I have some other books from the library which I am excited to get to. I’ve been listening to a lot of Wolf Alice and a lot of Charli XCX. Crash (2022) perfect pop album it’s true. And I see Wolf Alice this month, which will be exciting! Ellie Rowsell if you are reading this please hang out with me when I am free, etc. Today I did a listen through of Caprisongs to confirm it’s still good. I’m in my supporting English people era. Oh, and fully obsessed with the Wavey Davey remix of ‘My Love’ by Florence. Here is an April playlist.
I don’t think this was coherent at all and I didn’t read it through in full either. In my defence there are so many layers. I’m having fun though. :D Thank you as always.