|photo: Harvard Wang
Shelley Parker-Chan is an Asian Australian former diplomat who worked on human rights, gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights in Southeast Asia. She was raised on Greek myths, Arthurian legend and Chinese tales of suffering and tragic romance, and her writing owes more than a little to all three. Her debut novel, the Chinese historical fantasy She Who Became the Sun, was just published by Tor.
On your nightstand now:
Dial A for Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto, which is a super fun rom-com caper. The details of Chinese-Indonesian family dynamics are a delight--I've been howling in recognition and texting the best lines to all my friends. I've also just stolen back my early copy of Zen Cho's Black Water Sister from my book-thieving family. Nobody does a comedic-terrifying Chinese grandma as well as Zen.
Favorite book when you were a child:
Tamora Pierce's Tortall books! I was obsessed with fierce-tempered Alanna, who disguises herself as a boy to take her brother's place as a knight-in-training. I remember finishing Wild Magic, the first book in her next series, and discovering to my shock that the next one wasn't out yet. It was the first time that had ever happened to me. I was so desperate for it that I started to dream about finding it in random places. I was always pleased with the genius story that dream-me was reading, until I woke up and it was ridiculous.
Your top five authors:
As a proxy, I'll say my current fiction auto-buys are: Tana French, Nghi Vo, Madeline Miller, Naomi Novik and Tasha Suri.
Book you've faked reading:
Jin Yong is the granddaddy of the wuxia Chinese martial arts adventure genre, but for a long time his books weren't readily available in English. I read an incomplete fan translation of The Legend of the Condor Heroes back in the day, and I suppose I have some secondhand knowledge from TV dramas, but I generally just nod and sweat when people start talking about famous wuxia sects. Though now that there are new translations by Gigi Chang and Anna Holmwood, I no longer have an excuse.
Book you're an evangelist for:
Garth Greenwell's Cleanness. In particular the story "Gospodar," which is a single BDSM scene, is a revelation. It excavates that incommunicable interiority that gives rise to both the excitement and disappointment of (queer) sexual encounters with strangers. I've never read anything like it.
Book you've bought for the cover:
Who could pass over the strutting, butch, goth brilliance of Tommy Arnold's cover for Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir? The cherry on top is the Charles Stross blurb that was heard around the world: "Lesbian necromancers in space." I couldn't imagine a better cover for a book that begins, "Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth."
Book you hid from your parents:
My parents didn't mind what I read, but before discovering the romance genre, I did hide in the library stacks and surreptitiously re-read the spicy scenes in David Gemmell historical fantasy books. Good ancient Greek warrior content.
Book that changed your life:
Probably Roméo Dallaire's Shake Hands with the Devil. Dallaire commanded the UN's mission to Rwanda in 1993, and his book is a searing indictment of the international community's refusal to take action in the face of genocidal violence. I was a jaded cog in the international bureaucracy at the time, and I was very familiar with that brand of cowardly, self-serving pettiness. That book told me it was time to get out.
Favorite line from a book:
"The boy thought that there was something wrong with him. All through his life--even when he was a great man with the world at his feet--he was to feel this gap: something at the bottom of his heart of which he was aware, and ashamed, but which he did not understand." --T.H. White, The Once and Future King.
I've always loved this line about Lancelot, whose deepest desires were to be cruel, and because of that strove all the harder to be kind. I never knew, until I read Helen Macdonald's brilliant memoir of grief, H Is for Hawk, that White spent his whole life tormented by his (gay, sadistic, unspeakable) sexuality. It makes this line unbearably sad.
Five books you'll never part with:
Underland by Robert Macfarlane (brain-opening!), The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes (stunning work of art criticism), The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (brutal), Wintercombe by Pamela Belle (perfect high-stakes historical romance), House of Aunts by Zen Cho (absolute tearjerker).
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
When you have friends who are incredible writers, you have the privilege of seeing their books take shape. But it also means you'll never read those finished books for the first time; you'll never get that thrill of opening them and realising they're what you've been looking for. I wish I could experience C.S. Pacat's Kings Rising without knowing how it was going to end the Captive Prince series. I wish I could discover Vanessa Len's time-traveler London of Only a Monster for the first time.