An Interview with Rosalie M. Lin

Last Updated on June 26, 2024

With Daughter of Calamity, Rosalie M. Lin has written one of the most interesting debuts of the year (see our review here). Her work is nuanced and far darker than the cover would suggest. Whisking the reader away to the Shanghai of the 1930s, she introduces us to organised crime, body parts as a commodity and cultural appropriation. It was great to catch up with her ahead of publication and we’re already keen for her next book.

Cover of Daughter of Calamity[GdM] Can you introduce Daughter of Calamity in one or two sentences for our readers?

[RML] Daughter of Calamity is a historical fantasy set in 1930s Shanghai about a cabaret dancer named Jingwen who discovers a secret trade of dancers’ faces and decides to fight back. The story has silver-armed gangsters, petty showgirls with hearts of gold, and ancient gods that can be worn and traded like furs.

[GdM] I loved the book’s setting. What inspired you to set the story in the glittering Shanghai of the 1930s?

[RML] 1930s Shanghai was an era of great opportunity, incredible glamor, and lots of dancing. But underneath that opportunity and glamor lay a certain darkness, because all these things were made possible by the city’s forced globalization following the First Opium War, so there was simultaneously a lot of exploitation going on. The idea of a glittering façade and the darkness behind it intrigued me to explore all the layers and intricacies of the time.

[GdM] Medicine and the power granted to those who practice it plays a crucial role in Daughter of Calamity. I was fascinated by the way the story melds science with magic. Can you talk a bit about your creative process and idea development for this aspect?

[RML] I love that you asked this question! In fantasy, science and magic are often placed at odds with each other, with science often portrayed as a negative force that is trying to destroy magic. However, as a scientist myself in my day job, I think the reality is more nuanced than that. For example, the globalization of Shanghai was accompanied by a destruction or diminishing of culture, however we can’t deny it brought technological advancement that allowed the city to mature into the global superpower it is today. In Daughter of Calamity, Jingwen’s grandmother is a morally gray surgeon who makes silver arms out of ancient, melted swords for the city’s most powerful gang. Although this gives the gangsters an advantage in battle, it makes Jingwen’s grandmother a disproportionately powerful figure in Shanghai society and also contributes to the underground trade of human body parts. Many characters in Daughter of Calamity struggle to reconcile both the destructive but also uplifting aspects of medicine and science.

[GdM] The story mirrors itself across its different aspects, from setting to characters to cover, hiding a complex nature behind a veneer of opulence. To what extent was this intentional?

[RML] A central question I hoped to explore in Daughter of Calamity is the masks we wear due to social (whether it be familial or peer) pressure and expectation—so it most certainly was all intentional! Shanghai society in Daughter of Calamity is vain and materialistic—Jingwen, the main character, has learned to “perform” multiple versions of herself in different circumstances—dancing with foreign patrons in the nightclub, making peace with her gangster grandmother, showing off in front of her friends—so much that she doesn’t know which version of herself is the real Jingwen. I hope the book offers some insightful food for thought regarding this question, which many readers might find relatable.

Through the mirroring, I also wanted to examine the issue of cultural appropriation and exoticization. In recent years, there has been considerable discourse about the appropriation of minority culture in Western society. A central plotline in Daughter of Calamity is the mass-marketization of deeply personal aspects of Chinese culture, such as the sale of Chinese women’s faces (literally) and access to revered, ancient gods. The cheapening of these very personal things out of their original context to an audience that does not understand their significance at all feels very violating. Furthermore, in an environment like that, can a cabaret girl such as Jingwen, who is seen as nameless and replaceable, have an identity of her own?

[GdM] Liqing, the main character’s grandmother, is such a captivating and multi-faceted character. I’d love to know more about her, and how she thinks about her role in the world of the story.

[RML] I think the word that comes to mind when I think of Jingwen’s grandmother is “unapologetic.” Having come of age in a different era than Jingwen and her dancer friends, Liqing does not feel bound to the same social pressures of materialism and wealth chased by the younger generation of women in 1930s Shanghai—pursuits she considers futile and shallow. Rather, Liqing found success via a route that is traditionally masculine—as the surgeon of Shanghai’s most powerful gang. She takes lots of pride in this. However, like many people who are enamored of their own power, Liqing is somewhat of a hypocrite. Although her particular “flavor” of social validation is a more traditional form of power rather than sex appeal, she is just as prone to being blinded by the pursuit of validation as Jingwen. It is hard to say if Liqing is a hero or a villain, or whether she actually genuinely cares about Jingwen or not—the reality is not black or white, but gray. Liqing is driven by her craft and legacy, which perhaps changed the world for good, but simultaneously, she has harmed a lot of people along the way.

[GdM] Romantasy is all the rage right now. Daughter of Calamity very much is not part of that genre – it puts Jingwen’s self-determination above romantic partnership. How do you feel about this evolution of the publishing industry, and was distancing yourself from that a conscious choice?

[RML] That is an interesting question! When I wrote Daughter of Calamity, I chose to center the book on the relationships between the women—everything from frenemy-ship to complicated familial loyalty. In terms of whether it was a conscious decision, I was blessed (or cursed) at the time I wrote Daughter of Calamity to have understood nothing about writing to the market. I truly, simply wrote whatever my heart desired, something I am now too self-conscious to do (ignorance is bliss!). I think it’s very exciting that publishing on the whole is pivoting towards romantasy, and I very much enjoy reading it. Will I ever write it? This is a question I pondered deeply as I brainstormed my next book, however I can only conclude that I am a jaded Millennial with avoidant attachment who has yet to believe in happily ever after enough to write a convincing romance. But I would love to someday!

[GdM] The corruption of power is core to Daughter of Calamity. Are there ways that power can be navigated well in your world?

[RML] Inspired by history, in Daughter of Calamity, power is a corrupting force, especially when it is held by any one individual. Thus, the only way to navigate power well is when multiple powerful entities hold each other in check. Jingwen realizes that there is no “solution” to the effects of colonialism in Shanghai. She can only protect the ones she loves by claiming a slice of power herself, although it makes her a villain in the process.

[GdM] What has perhaps taken you by surprise during the publishing process?

[RML] There are long stretches of the publishing process where things move very slowly, and then suddenly they move so fast you feel wholly unprepared. It is both thrilling and scary!

[GdM] What books or other media would you recommend to the readers impatiently awaiting Daughter of Calamity?

[RML] Books – Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Siren Queen by Nghi Vo, Jade City by Fonda Lee

2024 debuts – Road to Ruin by Hana Lee, Dragonfruit by Makiia Lucier, The Eyes are the Best Part by Monika Kim

TV series – The Man in the High Castle

[GdM] Can you tell us anything about what you’re currently working on?

[RML] My next book is likely a historical fantasy set in ancient Dunhuang about a girl raised in a cult of assassins. That’s all I’ll say for now!

Read Daughter of Calamity by Rosalie M. Lin

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Fabienne Schwizer

Fabienne Schwizer

Fabienne can usually be found with her nose in a book or two. Most of her life revolves around words, be that reading, writing, or editing. You can find more of her ramblings over on www.libridraconis.com, where she also reviews YA books and more lighthearted Fantasy and Science Fiction, as @FLSchwizer on Twitter, and @libri_draconis on Instagram. If you're curious about what she is currently reading, check out www.goodreads.com/libridraconis.

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