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The Seductive Power Of Faith And Violence Are Beautifully Explored In ‘The Incendiaries’

Culture
PHOTO OF R.O. KWON BY SMEETA MAHANTI

Talking with R.O. Kwon about her debut novel

Every novel requires its reader to take a leap of faith; we are asked to engage with a world created for its pages, one which might feel strikingly similar to our own, but which is wholly the invention of its author. And when that faith is rewarded, when the world created is as devastating, entrancing, infuriating, and invigorating as the one that exists in real life, there's nothing quite like it.

Such is the case in R.O. Kwon's wonderful debut novel, The Incendiaries, which centers around the stories of three people brought together at a tiny liberal arts college in upstate New York. There is Will, a student whose loss of his fundamentalist Christian faith has left him feeling a level of grief he's trying to make sense of; Phoebe, whose struggle over her role in her mother's sudden death has left her searching for a sense of purpose; and John Leal, a charismatic cult leader who uses his experience in a North Korean prison to draw people into his inner circle. Will and Phoebe find some sense of relief from their respective traumas in the arms of one another, but their relationship is threatened by the sanctuary John Leal offers Phoebe. Kwon is adept and quietly stunning in her exploration of issues of belief, identity, and displacement. She makes clear the ways in which our search for answers to intractable problems can lead us to extreme places and to violent ends.

Recently, I spoke with Kwon over the phone about the genesis of this novel, what it was like to grapple with the difficult topic of faith, and how pain can bring people together, even as it tears them apart. Read our Q&A, below.

How did you know this was the story you wanted to tell?
I really wanted to write something that conveyed both how devastating it was to lose my faith—because I grew up deeply Christian—but also how wonderful it was to really fall into it. One of the hardest things about losing my faith was how alone I felt, both in terms of my family and my friends, who are all religious, and in terms of the books I was reading. As a bookish, introverted human, I was used to feeling at times misunderstood by my family and friends, but I could always find myself and my life reflected in books—and I couldn't in this one instance. Later, I was able to find a few more books that grappled with this [topic], but I really wanted to write this for the 17-year-old girl I was, who felt that she was alone. So that was the first genesis. 

A second came two years into the book, because for two years it was just a book about a woman, Phoebe, just sort of wandering around meditating on the nature of this absent God [laughs]. And then I sort of dropped all that, and I was very briefly volunteering at a Planned Parenthood, and it occurred to me that that's one of the ways in which division in faith and division in belief make themselves most visible, and in some cases devastatingly visible, and at that point that was when the cult and the abortion clinic aspects came into the book. 

There was a really interesting article in n+1 a while ago ["The Two Cultures of Life," by Kristin Dombek] that talked about how anti-abortion sentiments and veganism share a visceral connection, even though their adherents are usually thought to come from opposite sides of the philosophical spectrum. It's fascinating because of how it explores radicalism and extremism, and the internal consistencies and inconsistencies within certain philosophies, and what leads people down paths of fanaticism. This is kind of a digression, talking about this article, but I think it's also instructive to think about how seemingly regular people become extremists and what thought process they use to justify their actions.
I think that it's part of what's so hard about... I have my own political beliefs, which are firmly on the side of abortion as health care and as a right—outlawing it does absolutely nothing except hurt women, especially more marginalized women. But when I was deeply Christian, I was... I don't even like this term "pro-life," I was anti-abortion, and so I haven't forgotten what it used to feel like to believe that. On the other hand, something I do firmly believe is that if one believes so strongly that life begins at conception and that human life is so valuable that the fetus' life outweighs the life of the woman carrying the fetus, then I sure as fuck hope that that person is going to also have strong pro-life beliefs in terms of prenatal care, gun laws, capital punishment, health care for all, and Medicaid. And I think the ways in which abortion has been taken up as a central cause is clearly so skewed and so strange. 

It is so fascinating how it's sometimes the one issue where non-violence is preached by people who are fine with violence as performed by anyone other than women. Faith leads us to real logical inconsistencies. How did it feel to write about faith? Did writing this book make you think about aspects of your own experience that you hadn't really considered before?
In some ways, writing this book kept me so close to the God in whom I had completely stopped believing in and no longer believe in. I was reading the Bible so much. I was reading a lot of religious thinkers, reading books by saints. I actually played with the idea of going to divinity schools just because I wanted to read even more religious texts in a more structured way. And so I was extending my understanding of religion and of Christianity and what other people have said about Christianity. I think, in terms of my own relationship to my faith, that's gone, I don't think that changed very much. I think the only thing that did change is any hope that I'd had that I would just, like, feel better about it or that the grief would end at some point. I think that's gone. I think I just started to accept that that's going to stay with me.

One thing that was so interesting in the book was to see the ways in which a personal relationship, primarily a romantic one, can become its own intense type of devotion and almost its own little religion. How do you think personal relationships work in relation to religious devotion? I think it's an interesting thing, the way they can displace each other, or alternately, a shared devotion to something else can strengthen a personal bond. 
One way I was thinking about this is that people who have different faiths, or you know no real faith at all, we exist on such different... these are such different worldviews. Like the rest of my family quite literally believes that they'll live forever. A lot of Christians, including my family, quite literally believe that an all-powerful God knows everything that you do and talks directly to them. And even though I've lived on both sides of that spectrum, it's still almost inconceivable to me. That difference feels so huge in terms of how one goes about one's life, like how one thinks about one's mortality, how one thinks about love. And that was really interesting with this book, trying to show that divide and to show what one side can be to people who haven't experienced both. I think it can be really hard for... like when I was really Christian, a lot of pastors, and certainly priests, would put an emphasis on finding a partner who believes what you do because it's so difficult to be deeply Christian and to be partnered with somebody who's not. That's something that I heard a lot when I was growing up. 

Partnerships can be premised on other commonalities, though, like another thing that Will and Phoebe share is an understanding of loss, and of pain, which is also a specific kind of intimacy. And in sharing pain, that hurt becomes its own kind of bridge to communicate, which is something that I think is utilized in a place like a cult, where people who have been hurt can bond with one another. Is pain, maybe, the ultimate bridge in communication?
I'm not sure that I would say the ultimate bridge, but it can be a really powerful bridge. Because I do think that, sometimes, shared pain can really divide people, too. I think a lot about the statistic that parents who lose a child, more than 50 percent of them split up in the next few years after that. But, at least in my own experience, over the years, since I lost my faith, I do sometimes feel an instant rapport with people who've lost their faith, who used to really believe in something and then left it. It's meant so much to hear from people like that, from readers who've read early copies, to say that I've articulated something that they've been feeling. So, personally, that's meant a lot to me. But, I think, pain is a very powerful bridge; I don't know if it's always a successful bridge. 

I think that it's just an interesting way that people get close to each other sometimes, but it's not really the best ultimate foundation for intimacy. But, it's still definitely one shortcut. [laughsWhat were the most difficult parts of the book to write?
I felt very conscious writing the section that took place in North Korea. I felt very conscious of the fact that I've never been to North Korea, and that there's only so much I can learn about North Korea by reading books, by reading non-fiction about the place. Like people have asked, "How did you know you were getting it right?" I knew there was no getting it right. It feels that there's a real responsibility in trying to depict a place that almost no one can know very much about. It's different than if it were a more accessible place. So I really wanted to depict that, rather than trying to assert any kind of knowledge. So walking that line was something I was very conscious of.

Did you always know exactly how the narrative would play out? Were there any changes along the way? Or was it pretty much always leading to the same conclusion? 
After the first two years, once I restarted the novel and started reimagining what it could be, those first two pages of the novel and that scene it sets with the cult on a rooftop watching a bombed building fall, that was there. But other than that, almost everything came as a surprise to me. I really wish I could know a story ahead of time, but I'm not really a top-down writer. I sort of follow what feels right in the moment, and I just keep going through it until it feels more and more right to me. But, so much of it—almost all of it—came as a surprise. Whole characters came as surprises. I'm a very intuitive writer. I wish I was a little less intuitive. There seems to be no other way to work for me. 

The Incendiaries is available for purchase here.

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Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue

"I am honored to share this bonding experience with my own daughter"

In a heart-warming Instagram photo, Serena Williams shares the history of hair braiding and the importance of the tradition. The tennis player shared a photo of herself braiding her daughter Olympia Ohanian's hair and spoke about how "honored" she was to be able to "add another generation" to the tradition of the practice.

The photo shows Williams attentively braiding her daughter's hair while Olympia smiles, obviously loving the experience. Williams noted that hair braiding was created by the Himba people in Namibia, Africa, and that "we have been braiding our hair for centuries." "In many African tribes braided hairstyles were a unique way to identify each tribe," she continued.

Williams pointed out that braiding is a bonding experience. "People would often take the time to socialize," she wrote. "It began with the elders braiding their children, then the children would watch and learn from them. The tradition of bonding was carried on for generations, and quickly made its way across the world."

Williams closed her post with a sweet message about her daughter, saying that she's "honored to share this bonding experience" with her.

See the post, below.

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FROM THE WORLD WIDE WEB
Courtesy of Adidas

The Stan Smiths are a must-have

Adidas just shared its capsule of sneakers paying tribute to Keith Haring, and TBH I can already feel my wallet emptying (and they're not even on sale yet). The new collection features three shoe silhouettes, all including the late artist's iconic imagery as embroidered designs.

The standout style of the collection is the Rivalry hi-top; with bright blue and orange stripes and piping along the edges, Haring's stars and cartoon bodies, in black thread, pop right off. If you're looking for something less over-the-top, the quirky white Nizza Hi RF sneakers show a snake wrapping around the back of the shoe and chasing one of Haring's cartoon bodies toward the toe. There's also a minimal embroidered design on the toe of a classic Stan Smith pair. Look a little more closely at the tongue though, and you'll notice the traditional image has been swapped with a caricature of Haring himself.

Peep the three silhouettes, below, and set your calendar for the official drop at the end of the month.

Adidas, Rivalry Hi Keith Haring Shoes, $120, available at Adidas starting at 10am EST on June 30.

Adidas, Nizza Hi RF Haring Shoes, $120, available at Adidas starting at 10am EST on June 30.

Adidas, Stan Smith Keith Haring Shoes, $120, available at Adidas starting at 10am EST on June 30.

NYLON uses affiliate links and may earn a commission if you purchase something through those links, but every product chosen is selected independently.


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Photos by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images, Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Hopefully this one will be typo-free

In an Instagram Live on Thursday, Taylor Swift announced that she would be creating a collaboration with fashion designer Stella McCartney inspired by her upcoming Lover album. Although she kept it vague, we can only assume that the two are working on a collection of luxe merch.

Swift noted in the announcement that she has been friends with McCartney "for a really long time," and that the designer already heard the new album. "I respect what she creates, how she creates it," Swift continued. "There's so much whimsy and imagination and romance to the clothing that she designs." Swift has been wearing McCartney's designs "a lot recently," so maybe we should have seen the collab coming.

One eagle-eyed fan pointed out that Swift wore Stella McCartney rainbow-hued shoes during her Wango Tango set. If the collab is anything like these shoes, you can bet I'll be copping it as quick as I can.

Swift detailed in her Instagram Live that the album Lover would be all about romance, which makes McCartney and her feminine designs perfect for the collaboration. We just hope that this collection doesn't have any typos, like some of Swift's "ME!" merch did.

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Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

And spreads the message that "we all got crowns"

Late on Thursday, Taylor Swift dropped a new single, "You Need To Calm Down," and announced her forthcoming studio album, Lover, out this August. Following her lead single "ME!" Swift continues to spread her message of self-love and call out haters—particularly the homophobic ones—in this latest song.

Swift "ended homophobic locals," as one fan put it on Twitter, with one particular lyric: "'Cause shade never made anybody less gay."

Along with the song, Swift shared a lyric video via YouTube which made her sentiments even clearer. With her lyric, "Why are you made?/ When you could be glad?" she spelled "glad" as "GLAAD," referencing the queer media advocacy organization.

Swift sings of homophobic protestors in the second verse: "Sunshine on the street at the parade/ But you would rather be in the dark ages/ Makin' that sign must've taken all night." In the pre-chorus, she adds, "You just need to take several seats and then try to restore the peace/ And control your urges to scream about all the people you hate."

Swift additionally comments on women being pitted against each other—"We see you over there on the internet comparing all the girls who are killin' it"—asserting that "we all got crowns." There's nothing trolls can do to rain on her parade anymore.

One fan pointed out the possible symbolism of the crown lyric. In "Call It What You Want," track 14 on Reputation, she sings "They took the crown but it's alright." Now on "You Need To Calm Down," track 14 of Lover, she sings that there's not just one crown—we all have them.

Some fans are pointing to the double meaning of the track title. If I had a dollar for every time someone said those words to me in a totally condescending way, I'd probably be richer than her! What woman hasn't been told to calm down about an entirely not-calm situation or while expressing their distaste?

During Swift's live stream for the release of the song, she also announced a fashion collaboration with designer Stella McCartney, a peek of which we got during the singer's WangoTango performance.

Lover is set for August 23 release.

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Credit: Frederick Elmes/ Focus Features

"I was like, 'Did I sleep with this critic's girlfriend, or what?'"

The day I meet Jim Jarmusch, the sun hangs so bright and hot and yellow and solid in the sky that it's hard to believe that it will actually set at night. It's one of those New York June days that suggests we might be in permanent daylight; it's got a completely different feeling than the crepuscular atmosphere of Jarmusch's latest film, The Dead Don't Die, which takes place in a small town in what feels like one long twilight, maybe the last one.

But for today, Jarmusch and I are sitting at a table in a sun-filled restaurant, though we're in the shade. We're in a part of the city that used to be very punk rock, and is now very NYU, yet being there with Jarmusch, who looks so at home, like he's holding court in the booth (it helps that Larry Fessenden, an old friend of Jarmusch's and a writer/director/producer/actor, who appears in The Dead Don't Die, happens by the table to say hi), makes the area feel a little punk rock again, even with all the sun.

The Dead Don't Die is a very punk rock zombie movie, by which I mean: It's not very scary, but it is very cool, and even when it's sneering, it's a little bit tender. Starring Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloë Sevigny as a trio of small-town cops who fight back against a nascent zombie apocalypse caused by fracking, the film is cast with a who's who of Jarmusch regulars, like Steve Buscemi, Tilda Swinton, Iggy Pop, and Fessenden, to name a few; but it also features younger stars like Caleb Landry Jones, Selena Gomez, and Luka Sabbat—and there's a real earworm of a theme song, courtesy of Sturgill Simpson.

Below, I speak with Jarmusch about the movie, being a dilettante, and why he only reads his negative reviews—which is definitely one of the most punk rock things I've ever heard.

Photo by Gareth Cattermole/ Getty Images

This was filmed on a pretty condensed shooting schedule, right?
It was a very rough schedule. A very difficult one, actually.

We only had seven weeks to shoot, and we had to shoot Adam Driver out in three weeks because he had to be delivered to Star Wars, and the financing of the film was incredibly grueling and took a long time, so we were pushed so far that we had about one month of prep, and then three weeks with Adam. And then all these different actors coming in and out; I don't know how Carter and Josh, the two producers, organized it all. And then we'd shoot 15-hour days, and halfway through, I had walking pneumonia; I had two coats; it was 95 out; I was shaking. You know, just weird stuff like that. But it's all okay because we had such great people—our crew—everybody. And then, the visual effects were very taxing and complicated.

How did that all work together? Because there's more than one decapitated head.
Yeah, it's a mixture. First of all, we mixed prosthetics with makeup with masks for some of the zombie stuff, but all of those effects with the decapitations, we had to just imagine. So we had to choreograph everything and then only imagine kind of what it would be like, which was, for me, very abstract because I'm not very versed in visual effects. You know, you had to really kind of trust your instincts, because Adam Driver's chopping away with a machete with no blade.

It could've been a machete, it could've been a lightsaber, who knows? So, to what degree is this a sequel of Paterson with Adam Driver's character's last name being Peterson?
Well, I just do these things to amuse myself while writing, you know? Bill Murray in Broken Flowers was named Don Johnson, and in this, I gave him the name Cliff Robertson. Tilda Swinton's character is Zelda Winston. Rosie Perez is named Posie Juarez. You know, I'm just kind of amusing myself.

And Peterson, Paterson. While we were filming Paterson I was always teasing Adam that the next one, we would make was gonna be a sequel about a psychopathic murderous bus driver named Peterson. Tag line: "Get the fuck off my bus!" Or "Next Stop Hell!" You know, stuff like that. It's just to make them... I love trying to make Adam Driver laugh, because he has a very odd and wonderful sense of humor, but it's on the dry side, so I'm always joking around with him between work to try and see what makes him laugh.

But yeah, there's no sequel of any kind, and I don't think that way, and I don't plan, and I don't see my films from the past ever again. I just look toward the next thing.

Credit: Frederick Elmes/ Focus Features

What was the original concept for this? When did you start coalescing all of these different elements into knowing that you wanted it to be your next film?
Some years ago after Only Lovers Left Alive, Tilda kept teasing me, calling me, saying, "When do we do the zombies? When are we doing the zombies?" And in between I made Paterson and Gimme Danger, but then after those I started writing the zombie one, and my original conception was: I wanna make a film that's really funny and silly like Coffee and Cigarettes, where people talk about whatever nonsense I want them to, and I want to get actors I love, you know? So I thought, okay, if I make a zombie film, I can have a structure where different groups are cordoned off against the zombies, and the zombie attacks will be intermittent and not very long, so I'll have long lags where they're just stuck there, like in the house of The Night of the Living Dead, where they can talk about any kind of nonsense. So that was my first idea, and then when I started writing it, for some reason, I wanted to have a small town, Centerville, and I just followed my intuition, and it became this, I don't really know why beyond that.

What is it about small towns that make them the perfect setting for existential terror?
They're insular. They're kind of… everyone kind of knows each other. It's controllable by the characters. It's believable that everyone kind of know each other. I don't know. I'm not very good at analyzing that. And also, this is not a horror film because horror films use devices that are necessary to frighten people, like suspense, and then you get scared. We have no interest whatsoever in that. This is more of a metaphorical zombie film, but I would not call it a horror movie. It's a comedy with zombies with a kind of sad ending. Beyond that, I don't know what it is.

And horror nerds may not like it if they're expecting creepy, creepy, scary thing! They're not gonna get it. They're not gonna get that delivered to them.

What's interesting about it is seeing who fights back against this existential dread. Or, like, Chloë Sevigny's character, Mindy, doesn't fight, she is on her own separate trip, avoiding the end till she embraces it.
It's a character film. It's not even a plot film, really, although critics say that about all my films. But Chloë… it's a complicated thing, because when I first called Chloë, I told her... I wrote her a letter, and then she said, "Yeah, yeah I'd like to do this." And I said, obviously, this is not a feminist character. She's reactive. She's our sort of "Scream Queen." She screams like six times. But Chloë is the master of reaction, and I love watching her react.

She definitely feels like a stand-in for what a normal person would feel during these absurdist experiences, which is nice to have. It's not necessarily that you need a relatable character in a movie like this, but...
Yeah, but she's an empathetic human that's in a job with some authority, but in a small town where that means taking care of whatever, you know, as a police officer, pretty minimal [stuff]. There's not a lot of rampant crime or anything going on… or anything at all, really.

Credit : Frederick Elmes / Focus Features

A lot of people are going to be projecting tons of different meanings onto this film, like with all your films. To what level do you participate in that or pay attention to that? Or, once you're done making a film, is it just out there, and you just let people project onto it whatever they will?
I've always felt that anyone's interpretation of a film that I write and direct is probably more valid than my own. Because it's a funny thing, the beauty of films is going into a world—or a book or whatever—but going into a world that you don't know, and you are entering a world, and it takes you. And if you wrote it, and you were there filming it, and you're in the editing room every day for six months, the mix, and all that... I can never possibly see it. I like hearing what friends or people I know... I like Q and As after screenings because they have no agenda except their interest. I like that a lot, and I value that. I don't really like to read a lot of reviews unless they're really negative. I love the negative ones.

You do?
Yeah, because they must be very far from me in their perception of the world, and that is interesting to me. But I try not to read a lot...

I think you're probably the first person who I've ever spoken to who says they like to read the negative reviews.
I really like them. The worst one I ever got in my life, I laminated and used to carry in my wallet. It was a brief thing from a right-wing French [paper], maybe Le Figaro or something, of a film called Dead Man that we made, and they said—this is the English translation—"The French intelligence celebrates Jarmusch in the way death and blind parents would celebrate their retarded child. Jarmusch is 33 years old, the same age as Christ when he was crucified. We can only hope the same for his film career." I was like, Whoa! That is harsh! I'm keeping that one!

It gets personal.
But that was vicious. I was like, Did I sleep with this critic's girlfriend, or what? What happened? It was really... the knife was sharpened, you know.

That speaks to a very specific kind of agenda for sure.
A friend of mine Amos Poe, he's sort of a mentor of mine, a punk filmmaker, whatever, and when we were young when he made, in the late-'70s, one of his films—The Foreigner or Unmade Beds—the New York Times called it "the cinematic equivalent of kindergarten scribbling," and he put that on his posters and put "New York Times" and we were like punks, we were like, "Yes! Amos! That's great!"

I mean, it genuinely is a pretty great pull quote, and I think also a little bit oblivious to the charms of a kindergartener's scribbles and what the value is in that anyway.
Yeah, it was kind of accurate in a positive way, and they intended it as very negative.

In this film, there are so many actors who are veteran actors, but there are also a lot of younger actors. What do you like about the combination of that dynamic?
I just like the variety of sort of world perceptions—indicated in a very minor way when Bill Murray's character says, "I've known Hermit Bob since we were in junior high," and Adam's character says, "Oh, wow! That must've been like 50 years ago!" And Bill says, "Yeah. It was." But just the kind of difference of perception of age I find as I get older really interesting. And I'm very interested in young people, especially teenagers, because I think they form our sense of style, of music, of so many things, and yet they're kind of pushed around and treated badly and constantly told, "You don't know how the world really works! You're just a teenager!" But they gave us poetry. They gave us Mary Shelley and Rimbaud and chess masters, and all the great music comes a lot from teenagers. So I tried to keep a pulse, that's why the three teenagers, I would not let them turn into zombies. There are only four people [who don't get turned by zombies]: those three that are delinquents, and the Tom Waits character, who's already removed himself from the social order long before.

When the zombies become zombies, they all have one inciting thing that they're still pursuing in the real world. Do you have one thing that you think you would pursue if you were a zombie?
You know, it's hard because I'm a self-proclaimed dilettante. I'm interested in so many things, I don't know if I would be breaking into a bookstore, or if I would be in the alley outside of a movie theater, or if I would be trying to get into a guitar shop. I'm not sure. I have a lot of interests.

I mean there's a way in which it's a really tender portrayal of the human impulse to just seek out these things that they love.
It's not totally a critique; it's their vestigial memory of some things that they were drawn toward, whether it was power tools or oxycontin.

The Dead Don't Die is in theaters now.

Credit: Frederick Elmes/ Focus Features