Religious fundamentalism explored in ‘The Incendiaries’: NPR



Boy transferred from Bible college. A boy meets a girl. Girl joins a sect. The boy tries to save the girl. NPR’s Renee Montagne talks to RO Kwon about her debut novel, The arsonists.


Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet at a prestigious East Coast college and start dating. Will has just transferred from a Bible college. Phoebe gave up the music career she dreamed of. Will lost her religion, while Phoebe lost her mother. Hovering over their grief and guilt is a violent religious cult that seems to offer Phoebe a way out. The novel “Les Incendiaries” begins with an explosion. A building falls and people die. This is RO Kwon’s first novel. She joined me from our studios in San Francisco to talk about it. Welcome.

RO KWON: Thank you. Thank you for hosting me. I’m so excited.

MOUNTAIN: This story is told from three angles. There is Will. There is Phoebe. And there is another character, John Leal, who is the leader of this Christian cult that Phoebe joins. Explain it to us – Phoebe starts off as a young lady drinking and having fun at parties, but there’s obviously something missing. And there is this pain of the death of his mother. Tell us more about it.

KWON: That’s right. She doesn’t really have a sense of purpose. Not only did she lose her mother, but shortly before entering college, she gave up the piano. And she really believed that she was going to become a professional pianist. And so she is and was a very ambitious woman, a very motivated woman, a very disciplined woman who has none of that to structure her life anymore. And so she’s attracted to both Will and John Leal for different reasons. But they both offer – them – John Leal and Will lack discipline, structure, and a sense of purpose.

MOUNTAIN: But as she is drawn into this cult, Will begins to want to save her. But can he? Can he save Phoebe?

KWON: Will has a desire to save people in general. It was part of what made him such an effective Christian and such an effective evangelist. And so I think it definitely bleeds in his relationship with Phoebe. And no, he doesn’t seem likely to be successful.

MOUNTAIN: And then there’s John Leal, who’s a little shady …

KWON: (Laughs).

MOUNTAIN: …. Fascinating, though. But you never get into him. And you are never even sure his story is true.

KWON: John Leal – he tells fascinating stories about himself, about volunteering on the North Korea-China border, about staying in a North Korean gulag. And in many ways, it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not.

MONTAGNE: And is it also perhaps correct to say for a creator and cult leader that it is quite difficult to get into your head?

KWON: I guess I should say yes so as not to worry my family and parents. But in some ways John Leal was the easiest for me to write.


KWON: Yeah (laughs).

MOUNTAIN: What would worry your parents about this?

KWON: I think John Leal – well, a lot of his appeal depends on the language, the stories he can tell. And so I think – I’ve never been in a cult. But, at one point, I got involved with a youth group that was so absorbing that many of our parents feared it was a cult. This was not the case. But I have had my own experiences with charismatic preachers, with young charismatic leaders. And I think I was accessing a part of me that not only liked it and was drawn to it, but could channel it.

MOUNTAIN: You write beautifully about the loss of Will’s religion. Read for us a small section on his inner thoughts on this subject.

KWON: Okay. (Reading) I tried not to quit the faith. I had had such a purpose of living in stubborn pursuit of the God I loved until the afternoon when I knelt in my room to ask for a sign one last time. White gauze curtains waved. I waited. But I didn’t hear anything else. Muscles stiff, I stood up. I should have, I think, told Phoebe how open I had felt ever since with a god-shaped hole that I didn’t know how to fill. If I was fed up with Christ, it was because I couldn’t stop loving him, this invented ghost that I was still crying as if he had been real.

MOUNTAIN: I understand that you yourself have had a difficult separation from religion.

KWON: Yeah, I did. I did. It was extremely painful.

MOUNTAIN: Were you brought up as a Catholic?

KWON: Yes. I was brought up as a Catholic. But at my most religious level, I spent a lot of time attending various – the Protestant churches of my friends. I grew up in a predominantly Asian-American city and school in Los Angeles. And it’s also, in addition, mostly Korean-American, who I am. And the churches that I went to were very devout. There were a lot of people falling to the ground, a lot of people speaking in tongues. It was a very charismatic kind of Christianity. And I loved him so much. It was so wonderful. And for me, it wasn’t just so painful to leave the faith. It remains painful. I am still in mourning. I still love God – this is what I have achieved over time. It’s just that I don’t think he’s real. Augustine has a phrase that I like that – to say I love you is to say I want you to be. And I think that’s how I feel about the Christian God.

MOUNTAIN: All your characters are in pain. They are in their own world of pain. So how does this question of God and religion and belief and something to heal the pain I guess you would say – how does that bring them together and also put them at odds?

KWON: I think when people are hurt – I think when people are grieving and in pain – or at least I know I have. I tend to avoid generalizations. I know that when it hurts and when it hurts, I open up more to an elsewhere. And so I think for my characters too, they’re open to other types of responses than the ones they used. They have that in common. But of course they eventually come to different answers.

MOUNTAIN: RO Kwon’s first novel is “Les Incendiaries”. Thank you very much for joining us.

KWON: Thanks. Thank you for hosting me.

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