“It’s a good story because it’s a story of victory”
Talking with Kung Li Sun about an imagined history of this land where freedom and democracy are victorious
What would have happened if Indigenous resistance fighters and Black revolutionaries came together in the late 1790s in the U.S.? What alternative universe would have been created from their joined forces?
These are the questions that Kung Li Sun’s Begin the World Over seeks to answer. I read it on retreat, one of about a dozen books that I brought along for company and inspiration as I started work on my own novel. It turned out to be the perfect choice in both regards.
Kung Li (who uses all pronouns) imagines a history of this land, Turtle Island, where freedom and democracy are victorious. In this deeply researched book, they looked at the historical moment of global revolution and rebellion of the 1790s and ask “What if things had turned out differently? Given all the conditions and realities, what else could have happened?”
To play out this “what if,” Kung Li created some rules of engagement in which to write what they call a “counterfactual” novel. Anything supported by documentary evidence pre-1793 was not contradicted. But anywhere there was a blank space in the historic record pre-1793, he filled in with what was most likely, given what we do know.
Using these rules of engagement, Kung Li imagines the lives of people whose lives we know very little about, including real-life Black revolutionary leaders Denmark Vesey and Romaine the Prophetess; James Hemings, a remarkable cook enslaved by Thomas Jefferson; and Muskogee leader Red Eagle. Kung Li used the scraps of facts he uncovered to write into the “historically blank spaces” of their lives. One of the things that delighted me most was how he imagines all of these leaders of the revolution to be queer and trans (of course!).
When I finished the novel, I immediately wanted to know how Kung Li—a lawyer by training and whom I know as the convener of Queer Fit (a gathering for queer BIPOC folks to work out together)—managed to create a work that is at once adamantly political and a damn good, beautifully written story.
She answers some of the questions I had in this delightful conversation with organizer Mary Hooks. But I still wanted to know more, so I invited her to an interview, which we conducted over email and google docs. I hope you enjoy it, and that you go get Begin the World Over from your favorite indie bookstore. I think it will be good company and bright inspiration for you, wherever you are.
Tamiko Beyer: Writing a counterfactual novel, as you call it, and bringing to life stories of people who have been all but erased from history requires a kind of imaginative thinking that I believe we need in our movements today. We need to be doing this counterfactual thinking so that we can imagine—and then do—that “other thing” that might change the course of history. Can you talk about how you accessed what I am thinking of as revolutionary imagination to write this book, and if there are practices, approaches, or even rituals that you use to cultivate this kind of imagination?
Kung Li Sun: Great question. Three things helped open up space for this story. There was research, then clearing the deck, then typing what showed up.
For the research part, I had good habits from suing prisons at Southern Center for Human Rights, a public interest law office in Atlanta, where our investigators had to dig hard—through obfuscations, layers of secrecy, and straight up lies—to find the real story under the official story. I had an old stack of Smead pressboard folders (‘70’s light green, heavy duty, two prong) from those days and filled them with memos, family trees, court filings, maps, sketches, testimony. That was the first, familiar step.
The second step, clearing the decks, was the weirdest part of the process for me. It wasn’t just clearing a block of time every morning, but also clearing mindspace and heartspace. In curling, you know those two people out in front of the stone, frantically sweeping the ice with their little brooms? That’s what this second step felt like. Really silly and a little desperate. Eventually, sweeping the ice became a bit more deliberate—meditation really helps; heavy deadlifts and handstands help too—and at some point I understood oh, sweeping the ice is the whole thing. It’s what needs to happen so who/what wants to show up has the space to show up.
Which then got me to step three: making sure my hands were on the keyboard at the same time every morning, ready to type out whoever shows up, doing whatever they’re doing.
I’m laughing because writing it out like that makes it seem like I knew what I was doing—I didn’t at all! Writing fiction is new to me, so it’s taken a lot of trial and error, heavy on the error.
Tamiko: Well, that trial and error resulted in a pretty remarkable story!
You shared with me that AK Press committed to donate a book to a prison library for every preorder, so this revolutionary book is now in hundreds of prison libraries. I’m thinking about what possibilities this story might open up for folks on the inside as well as those on the outside working toward abolition. I see so much potential for this book to spark all sorts of conversations that might help organizers be more imaginative, more expansive in our approaches, strategies and tactics. At the same time, it’s just a really good, compelling story that kept me turning the pages. How do you think you were able to achieve both things? What was the writing and editing process like?
Kung Li: The only reason there’s a story in there is because I have a real hard ass of a writing coach, Karen Pittelman, who insisted on a story. The first draft I sent her was a litany of details about how the sails were rigged and long meditations on strategy. She sent it back with a note saying, essentially, sorry this is terrible, try again. So I tried, twice more, start to finish, before I found the right historical moment for the story to come together.
Once I pulled together a group of people who in real life had been intentionally and violently kept apart (Black revolutionaries and Indigenous resistance fighters), my job was to get out of the way and let them do their thing. I was repeatedly surprised by what came up, and by how things moved forward. Turns out, it’s a good story because it’s a story of victory.
Tamiko: For sure. Knowing that the revolution was coming—but not knowing how it would come together—was part of what had me turning the pages. But there also were many sensual, pleasurable moments throughout, including tantalizing descriptions of food and cooking, which were a delight to read.
In this novel, food—and embodied pleasure and joy in general—are posited as necessary components of organizing and revolution. And I was thinking about how I know you as the person who encourages me to do deeper pushups. Which makes me wonder how you think about embodiment—the pleasures and rigors of being in our human bodies—as it relates to revolutionary imagination and organizing.
Kung Li: As a matter of daily material conditions, I understand embodiment as an invitation to do the thing, rather than just think the thing. As a writer, that meant trying out recipes from 18th century cookbooks, walking around as many of the places as I could get to, spending time on ships and in the woods, that sort of thing. As an organizer, an embodied attempt to change our material conditions means running campaigns that are in the muck of the current political reality. So, after the hashtags and memes on Instagram, sitting your embodied butt down across the table from somebody with the power to change material conditions and negotiating that change.
As a spiritual matter, I understand embodiment as the attempt to get this human body into the flow of the universe. It’s connecting self to non-self, as Buddhists might say, which may be more about enlightenment than embodiment, but it seems there’s no harm in overshooting the target a bit here.
Tamiko: Yes! I really appreciate this articulation of embodiment as a way of materially being in the flow of the universe. It really resonates—I’m going to be sitting with that for a while.
Another thing that I’ve been sitting with is what we can learn about solidarity from this novel. There’s the core alliance between the Muskogee people and enslaved and formerly enslaved people. There’s also a secondary character, Captain Mai, who supports this alliance in key moments. She’s a bad-ass Chinese merchant who leverages the mechanisms of capitalism to support Denmark Vesey in his preparation for revolution, as well as for her own wealth. How did you discover this person in your research, and why did you decide to include her? And also, what we might learn from your counterfactual imaginings about Black, Indigenous, and Asian American solidarity in this moment?
Kung Li: Oh Captain Mai! She was built up from the wispiest, most tantalizing of documentary evidence. Mai turns up when you take a close look at Denmark Vesey’s manumission papers. In this universe (the one you and I are occupying), Denmark famously won the lottery in 1800 and bought his own freedom from Captain Joseph Vesey. Or so we’ve been told. Turns out, the signature on Denmark’s manumission papers is not Joseph Vesey, but rather a woman named Mary Clodner. The only bits of information about Clodner is a description of her as a free East Indian woman, and property records of her owning Lowndes Grove on the Ashley River.
Trying to figure out where in “East India” (meaning all of Asia) she was from, and how she had enough wealth to buy a riverfront mansion, led me down the rabbit hole of US-China trade. The rules of engagement in writing this book was I could fill in any blank spaces in the historical record. So Mai’s backstory as a Chinese merchant is all fictional.
As for Black, Indigenous, and Asian American solidarity at our current moment, I was chastened by what I learned writing out Mai as a character and really trying to understand her (deeply capitalistic) motivations. In the book, the relationship between Romaine the Prophetess and Sehoy is one of true solidarity. Their interests match up on a spiritual level. The relationship between Mai and Denmark, by contrast, is not one of solidarity. Mai’s interests are, for a short while, aligned with Denmark’s, but for the sake of profit and personal gain. These are very different relationships. The lesson I’ve taken for our current moment is that Asian Americans should not mistake a shared interest in rights-based racial justice for true solidarity.
Tamiko: Thank you for that. This is asking me to think about solidarity as spiritual work, not just political, and how the struggle for liberation is both material and spiritual. What does it look like to align politically and spiritually in doing the deep work of liberation? How does that inform my own actions, relationships, and alliances, and how I think about accountability?
It also reminds me of something you said in your conversation with Mary Hooks: “the universe wants liberation … on some level we are all already free”—and what we need to do is to remove what’s in the way of that freedom. Part of what we need to remove, I think, is our attachment to the comforts and privileges that come with living inside empire—comforts that are hard to imagine doing away with. You said that writing this novel helped you imagine how you could live outside of capitalism. Can you talk more about that?
Kung Li: The United States in its current form was not inevitable—writing this book convinced me it wasn’t even all that probable. And so there was nothing inevitable about extractive capitalism taking root and flourishing on this land. Just that. But that’s everything, I suppose.
Tamiko: Yes. It is everything.
I have one last question: is there anything else you want readers to know that I didn’t ask about?
Kung Li: Just this: writing the sequel—imagining how things would have played out if the universe had turned left rather than right at this juncture in 1794—has me appreciating just how important Sehoy is to this better path forward. So…don’t sleep on Sehoy.
Tamiko: Oooh, I’m so excited that there is a sequel coming! Well, now that you’ve brought up Sehoy, I have to ask you about the Red Eagle/Sehoy character! I looked him up on Wikipedia, and I’m interested in how you imagined this character and his gender from the historical info.
Kung Li: There’s no documentary evidence that Red Eagle was trans or intersex, but there was also no documentary evidence saying he wasn’t. (I took that liberty with Denmark as well—there’s no evidence saying he had male lovers, but in the 20-year gap where the record is silent, if Denmark had been a sailor, it’s just as likely as not that he would have had male lovers).
In this time period, a deep split was developing between Muskogee-Creeks on how to deal with American encroachment. The book oversimplifies the conflict as being between the young men (recruited through official U.S. policy to embrace slaver and individual farming/land ownership) and the grandmothers (holding firm to traditional communitarian and matriarchal society).
The historical Red Eagle was a complicated person, pulled in both directions and trying to bridge the two, all the way through the Red Stick Muskogee-Creek civil war when these two positions broke out into open, armed conflict. The historical Red Eagle went the “civilized” route of accepting slavery and land ownership after the Red Sticks were destroyed by Andrew Jackson in 1814.
In Begin the World Over, by sharp contrast, Red Eagle’s mother Sehoy’s alliance with Romaine the Prophetess allows Red Eagle to choose a different route. Having Red Eagle/Sehoy be intersex/trans allows this conflict between the young men and the grandmothers to be resolved and integrated into one body.
Tamiko: That’s brilliant. I’m so glad I asked. Thank you, Kung Li, so much for being in conversation with me about all of these things, and for writing this deeply important book for our times.
Ritual for embodiment, solidarity, and liberation
Inspired by the conversation above, with a high-five to Queer Fit
Begin with five shoulder rolls to the front, and five to the back.
Do five, 10, or 15 squats.
Do five, 10, or 15 jumping jacks.
Do five, 10, or 15 crunches.
Do five, 10, or 15 pushups.
Sit in meditation for five, 10, or 15 minutes. Perhaps you meditate on entering the flow of the universe. Perhaps you simply follow your breath, which might be the same thing.
If you have a Tarot or oracle deck, pull cards to answer any of all of the following questions. If you don’t use a deck, you can journal on the questions that call most to you.
To whom am I most accountable?
What does solidarity feel like in my body?
What does liberation feel like in my body?
What is in the way of my own liberation?
What is in the way of the liberation of the people I am in solidarity with?
What support do I have to clear what’s in the way of my own liberation?
How can I support and take part in the liberation of those I am in solidarity with?
Journal, write a poem, dance, or speak out loud what the flow of the universe brings to you.
I’m deeply curious about how to exercise the kind of imagination needed to live differently from how capitalism and white supremacy tell us we need to live. This thoughtful and tender conversation between Prentis Hemphill and Sonya Renee Taylor on Hemphill’s Finding Our Way podcast gave me some ideas and ways to practice exactly that kind of imagination.
Another novel that kept me good company on my retreat last month was the An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon. It also engages with a reimagining of the U.S. culture of slavery and oppression, and how revolution can emerge from queerness in its broadest form.
I shared this song by local Boston artist Oompa with some of my colleagues, and it was a big hit. So I thought y’all might want to check it out as well. The whole album is great. I saw Oompa perform a few years ago, and I very much admire both her artistry and work in the community.
You’ll hear much more about this book in the coming months, but for now, I’m excited to let you know that Poetry as Spellcasting: Poems, Essays, and Prompts for Manifesting Liberation and Reclaiming Power is available for preorder. I’ve been working on this book, which is part anthology, part spellbook, part writing guide, for more than two years with fellow poets Destiny Hemphill and Lisbeth White, and I’m so proud of it! It’s coming out in May 2023 and I’m excited to share more about it with you in the coming months. In the meantime, we’ll be looking for reviewers, events to be part of, etc., so let me know if you have any ideas or want to collaborate!
I’m also excited about this anthology-in-the-works about menopause by and for queer BIPOC people. Check out their call for submissions!
In August, I did my first in-person reading at the Brookline Booksmith, and they put it up on YouTube.
Thank you for reading to the end! I’ll be back in your inbox on the next full moon—November 8! 🌕