I’ve said so before, and I’ll say it again: talking with artists and content creators about their work is one of my favorite things. That’s why I do this interview series in the first place. Plus, there are so many artists from marginalized communities writing for their own communities that get overlooked in our major-franchise-oriented media landscape. Books especially seem to fall by the wayside. Since I grew up reading fantasy, getting to talk with an author of queer high fantasy is a treat. K Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter captured my attention from the start, with its unique epistolary format, non-Western medieval setting, and pair of women-loving-women protagonists. Wives who are gods that fight demons? Yes please!
Needless to say, getting to interview K was a pleasure I couldn’t pass up. So join me as she talks her inspiration, writing queer fantasy, representation, and fan-made metal albums inspired by her book series.
Gretchen: Let’s start at the beginning. How long have you been writing? Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
K Arsenault Rivera: Well, I’ve basically been writing since I was in elementary school. Writing was a big part of how I learned English. When I came to the US from Puerto Rico, I was very young and spoke mostly Spanish at the time, so learning how to speak English was of course a gigantic hurdle. My mother would read to me very often when I was a kid, from picture books and stuff like that, to try and make sure that I was more fluent in the language. But it wasn’t really until I started writing my own stories that everything began to sink in.
I mean, it was a lot of fun doing so. All those assignment in class that were things like making up your own nursery rhyme—those were great for me. The very first story I wrote was about a spider named Joaquin who was trying to escape the rain that I wrote when I was maybe five, and even then I knew that was what I wanted to do. Of course as time goes on, you stop writing about cute spiders and you start writing Devil May Cry fanfiction and passing it out to your classmates. They think it’s mildly amusing, and you think, “Hey, maybe I really can do this whole writing thing.” That’s basically it for me.
G: This is a two parter, but they’re related: First, who are your top three influences as a writer? Second, are there any stories or authors that inspire you when the creative juices aren’t flowing?
KAR: So I think that when it comes to authors and things that influence you, it’s easier for me to speak about what influences a particular work. Especially because a lot of the research I did for Tiger was so specialized. A lot of this was stuff I really didn’t know about beforehand. When it comes to Tiger’s Daughter, certainly, my biggest influences there would be poets. Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu being two of the major ones. But also I’ve always been a huge fan of Greek myth, and I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shoutout to my boy Homer—also a big influence in the big, romantic, mythic tone of Tiger.
But if I’m talking about things that influenced me when I was younger, Tamora Pierce is one. I’ve always really loved Malinda Lo’s novels, too; Huntress and Ash had me shook when I was a kid. Oh god, they were so good.
In terms of things that I read in order to get my juices flowing, I do read an awful lot of Han court poetry. A lot of tanka and a lot of haiku, mostly tanka though. I’ve got two books right here on my desk and one is a collected compendium of Izumi Shikibu’s poetry that I read usually before I start writing every day. It’s good to remind yourself of the tone you’re trying to hit.
G: With so many people watching movies and TV shows, do you think reading books still has a strong place in queer storytelling?
KAR: Absolutely I do. The main reason for this is kind of a simple and practical one. When I was a kid and I wanted to consume queer media, it was easiest to do so in book form because if my mother saw me holding it I could like about what it was about. The same is not necessarily true for movies, games, and stuff like that. I’ve definitely had the experience where I was playing Mass Effect and you go to kiss the cute blue alien and you’re playing a girl and you’re terrified that your parents are going to walk in and you’ll have to explain some things. But that’s not really the case with a book. With a book, there’s no real way of knowing immediately what it’s about. You can discuss a bit more freely the details that you want your parents to know.
But even more than that, I feel like while media like tv and movies are very important in terms of visual representation, there are still certain things that are very difficult to do in movies. We get more leeway with the types of representation that we can promote in books and literature. For instance, poly relationships come up way more in literature than they do in movies or games or anything like that. That’s something that we’ve been talking about in genre circles for years now. There are lots of different poly relationships that come up in fantasy and genre fiction. That’s not really discussed in any other forms of media. So yeah, there’s definitely still a place for books.
G: I was just trying to come up with poly relationships recently in visual media, especially queer and poly, and the only one I could think of off the top of my head was in Black Sails.
KAR: Right, it’s not discussed, or if it is, it’s a one-off joke. You see that a lot in sitcoms; Broad City had a throuple show up but they were the butt of the joke for being ‘weird.’ But if you ask any allocishet white dude what his favorite fantasy series is, he’s probably going to get to Wheel of Time eventually. As normative as Wheel of Time is, it does feature a polyamorous relationship at the core of these twelve, thirteen books, and that’s not really something you would normally get in a visual medium. I feel like genre fiction gets a reputation for being more conservative but we are experimenting more than visual media is.
G: On a related note, what do you think fantasy as a genre or genre fiction more broadly can do uniquely well when it comes to the creation of queer protagonists and telling of queer stories?
KAR: I think that a lot of it lies in the control we have over the worlds we build. The job of fiction and the job of genre fiction especially is to hold up a mirror to things that we experience. The job of all fiction is to build empathy in one direction or another; all art is propaganda, it just depends on what sort of propaganda it is.
In terms of genre fiction, there are times when we don’t think that something would be possible in our day-to-day lives. However, we’re able to create worlds in fantasy settings and scifi settings where being queer isn’t necessarily a problem. Where we can see these big, huge heroes and having people like that having people with these larger-than-life abilities is very important in terms of inspiration.
There’s a reason that Orwell—who is best known for dystopias like Animal Farm and 1984 —even though he firsthand witnessed the rise of fascism and went to go fight in the Spanish civil war, he chose genre fiction in order to combat those things. There’s a reason for that and it’s because sometimes it’s easier to construct these enemies and know why they need to be defeated when you have more control over the world. It’s also easier to be more in control of the message that you’re trying to send, as I said, all art is propaganda.
It’s important to have these queer heroes triumph in ways that they haven’t necessarily in history so far so that we can enable another generation down the line to triumph in those ways. Nobody is every going to think that they’re impervious to arrows until they read a cool story about somebody who is. Nobody is going to think that they can slay a giant until they read a story about this kind of nerdy dude who did with just a sling. Once that idea is in your head, it’s a lot easier to reach for it in your own life.
G: Tell me about your books, The Tiger’s Daughter and Phoenix Empress; what inspired you to write this story? Why did you choose the epistolary format?
KAR: The simple answer for this is that I read an awful lot of Victorian fiction between the ages of fifteen to twenty-two. Even when I dropped out of college, I was reading a lot of Victorian literature, and boy, did they love epistolary format! So a lot of the stuff I was reading was epistolary and it became this kind of natural thing for me to have in my head. The reason that I chose epistolary for Tiger’s Daughter in particular is that Shefali is a very quiet character. She doesn’t actually say more than four words to anyone who isn’t directly related to her or her wife at a time. I try to keep track of that; it’s like a rule I have when I’m writing: how can I get Shefali to say what she needs to say in four words or less.
In order to get to know her and simultaneously to get to know Shizuka, who is kind of…difficult, it’s easiest if we’re in Shefali’s head and if she’s talking to Shizuka. If we have this idea of a gift that she’s giving her, this attention that she’s lavishing on her wife who she misses so dearly—I needed that level of intimacy for Tiger because this trilogy is about gods. It’s about the people who become gods and what they give up. Because of that, it’s very important to have a personal stake in these matters. I needed a lot of buy-in into their relationship. Plus, there’s a bit of a girlfriend experience thing, to, and that’s not something that you really see in queer fiction. You don’t have these big gay love stories. How dreamy is it to be reading one that’s 500 pages long and the subject is you. You get to, at some level, transfer yourself onto that. I thought that was very dreamy, very romantic sigh inducing. It was just what I wanted to read so I wrote it.
G: That’s one of those pieces of advice you hear a lot when you want to be a writer: write what you want to read because someone is going to want to read it to.
KAR: I definitely agree that if you write something you want to read, there’s at least five other people who want to read it. You need to keep in mind those five people when you’re writing. Not everything you write is going to appeal to everyone, but if you can appeal to those five people who need what you’re doing, you’re golden.
G: I asked you this at the panel where we met, but I loved your answer so much I want to ask it again for our readers: what is your favorite thing about your two protagonists?
KAR: Shefali, as I mentioned, is very quiet. She doesn’t really talk much to anybody, she’s very withdrawn. But, she’s probably the most reliable character in the series. She’s very sturdy, very loyal, very dedicated, and doesn’t really let anything get in her way once she decides that she’s going to do something. It just get’s done. But she’s not very loud or very brash about it like Shizuka is. She’s just…solid and fair and it’s so comforting to be able to write someone like that. I feel like it kind of imbues me with those qualities slightly as I’m writing her.
Which brings me to my second point about Shizuka: Shizuka is a wreck. She’s so…oh god, she’s trying her best. She’s got this brash exterior where she’s always bragging about everything and talking about how great she is and secretly, she’s afraid of everything. I have really severe anxiety. It keeps me home sometimes or keeps me from doing things that I want to do. Shizuka has determined that she’s got to make decisions quickly before the fear sets in. That’s her main thing. I very much admire that about her. I admire her dedication to doing things in spite of how afraid she is, and the way that she endures everything just because she knows it’s the right thing to do. The way that Shizuka deals with her fears is very inspirational to me. I sort of feel bad for making her afraid of so many things.
G: Given your personal experiences as a queer woman of color, talk to me about the importance of representation of marginalized communities. How did that shape the stories you tell?
KAR: It’s something that I think you have to be hyper aware of as a queer creator, especially in my case being a queer creator of color. I was born in Puerto Rico, both of my parents are Latinx, my mother is also Black. There’s a lot of intersection that goes on there and there are a lot of things I was aware of growing up that maybe other kids were not so aware of. To that extent, when it comes to Tiger, the Qhorin aren’t just a different ethnic group, they’re also markedly darker than Hokkarans. There’s also the Xianese to the south, the Doanese, and the Jeon—they’re all different groups, and all of that interacts very differently within the work.
I think that a lot of the time there’s a tendency to use a checklist with diversity. Like, “Here’s this one character with three different marginalizations, but we’re not really going to touch upon that at all in the work.” In some cases that can be, though I’m not saying it always is, but it can be a bit lazy. We really need to examine how those intersections would affect the people that have them. As a queer woman, I’m not just a queer woman, I’m also a queer woman of color. I have to deal with coming out to my extended family when machismo is such a huge thing in Latinx culture. I have to contend with traditional portrayals of Latinx masculinity and hyper masculinity and how those interact with, well I don’t want to say white ideas, but I guess ‘traditional’ ideas of masculinity.
And in writing something like The Tiger’s Daughter, I have to understand East Asian ideas of what masculinity and femininity are. This wide array of different gender identities and different approaches to gender and sexuality and romance that are portrayed across cultures. Something that was very important to me when I was writing Tiger’s Daughter is that Shefali, who is my main character, and her brother are both bi-racial like I am. And they both take more after their mother than they do after their father. There are a few scenes where Shefali is minding her own business and people are like, “Oh, you should get out of the sun, you’ll get so dark.” It’s things like that. It’s not just a queer story, it’s also a story about people of color, and it would be egregiously wrong of me not to address all of those concerns.
In terms of marginalization and representation, I just think that it’s important that we’re not just writing queer stories. That we’re writing queer stories about women, or writing queer stories about trans and gender non-conforming people. That we’re writing queer stories about people of color and that we’re addressing the concerns that these people might have growing up in their lives. These are things that I had to be aware of when I was a young queer person considering whether or not to come out. We need to see more of that in fiction because as I said, it makes us stronger.
G: Right, and you mentioned anxiety; mental illness, disability, and neurodiversity are other aspects of that as well. All of it intersects with each other.
KAR: It definitely does.
G: As a younger author (and a queer woman!), I’m sure you’re aware of fanfic and fanart. Do you have a lot of fan engagement with your book? Any favorites?
KAR: First of all, I do not read fanfiction, I haven’t actually looked for any either, in terms of my books specifically. However, I have gotten some fanart that is quite lovely, and I always do appreciate when people tag me in fanart. A lot of people seem to enjoy drawing Shizuka, and I think it’s because she’s extra as fuck, and I’m here for it.
That is, of course, a wonderful part about being an author, that people will occasionally draw characters from your book and you’ll get to see your children in a visual way. That’s so nice.
A totally sick, rad thing that is happening in my life is that there is, in fact, a 42 minute long metal album that is actually just one song, and it is also called “The Tiger’s Daughter.” It is based on my book The Tiger’s Daughter and it is so cool! It is the coolest thing that has ever happened to me. My fifteen-year-old self is just about shitting herself. It’s great. I love it so much. I have only heard the snippet because only a snippet has been posted so far—it’s by Lascaille’s Shroud. It’s awesome. Sometimes I listen to it when I need to get hyped up to write.
G: That’s awesome, and so unique too!
KAR: It really is!
G: I don’t know a lot of authors who could say they have a metal album based on their story.
KAR: Yeah, I mean, Nightwish has a song that they wrote that takes it’s name from the Kingkiller Chronicles, but that’s all I can think of. The funny thing is, I remember distinctly about two days before I heard about “The Tiger’s Daughter” metal album that I was listening to that Nightwish song about the Edema Ruh. I remember thinking nobody was ever going to write a metal song about my book…
Welp, that’s where you’re wrong, bucko.
G: That’s perfect! So, what’s coming up next for you? Any other projects you’re working on that you can tell us about?
KAR: I do have the sequel to The Tiger’s Daughter and The Phoenix Empress coming out soon, called The Warrior Moon. I’m putting the finishing touches on that now. We also have a short story coming out in the same universe called “Sixteen Swords.” That’s probably going to be early next year in terms of release. It’s about the mothers of the two protagonists in The Tiger’s Daughter and this mission that they go on in the demon realm. I like to describe it as Seven Samurai meets Blair Witch.
G: Oh my gooood. That sounds amazing!
KAR: Right? I’m really happy with it. It’s actually probably one of the things I’m proudest of writing; I think I did some pretty good work. Beyond that, not much that I can talk about now.
G: That’s fair. But that right there sounds so exciting! I loved the mothers of the protagonists when I read the first book; the story that you gave them is so compelling and I want more of it. I will consume everything that you make about that.
KAR: My editor had an offhand comment along the lines of, “I would really like to see what happened to these women when they were over the wall.” And I was like, “Oh, ha ha, my hand slipped and I wrote 45,000 words. Ha ha ha!” She was very gracious about it, and we are figuring out how to bring that to people because it is a pretty great story.
G: Anything else you want to share with us before we go?
KAR: Nothing immediately comes to mind except, you know, comments about the political hellscape that we are in but that’s not quite relevant.
G: But in that vein, reading a lovely story about divine wives who fight demons is a really great way to spend some time and think about what could happen if they existed in our world.
KAR: Oh god, if they lived in our world they would just be sick of everything.
G: They would be so done.
KAR: Oh, so done. So completely done, but I feel like Shefali would have a couple of very straightforward solutions to everything and would be able to talk Shizuka through actually implementing them. Eventually they’d work it out and they’d be fine. As long as Shizuka didn’t start drinking again…
G: Absolutely. So, that’s all I have. Thank you so much for talking; this was lovely!
KAR: Yeah, thank you for having me!
About K Arsenault Rivera
K and her family moved to New York City from Puerto Rico when she was three. They landed in the middle of a blizzard, and K’s been complaining about the snow ever since.
At a compact four foot nine, K is a concentrated dose of geekery. She’s happy to ramble about everything from Gothic Literature to Revolutionary Girl Utena, with detours into Magic the Gathering and Star Wars. Her two best friend groups are her coven and her tabletop gaming group.
She is almost too queer to function.
She lives in Brooklyn with her hipster photographer partner, their robot queen roommate, and a two foot tall statue of Wonder Woman.
The Tiger’s Daughter and The Phoenix Empress are available for purchase online or in any major brick-and-mortar bookstore. Make sure you check out K Arsenault Rivera on Twitter or her website to stay up to date on her, her work, and forthcoming stories in the Ascendant universe.