All Flowers Bloom is the story of two souls whose love survives war, famine, and even death, spanning the history of mankind and beyond. It imagines a place outside history, a great pleasure cruise where souls live in eternal satisfaction basking in saunas, tanning on sun decks, and exercising in gymnos centres while telling tales of their previous lives. The novel’s hero, named 871 after his stateroom, has one night to write down every memory of his past lives with his loved one, S, before they both take the sacred blue-rose tea, and their memories are forever erased.
Published 20 March 2020
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My first novel, Stamped: an anti-travel novel, was written in the heat of movement. I wrote it while in graduate school, when I spent my long summers wandering around Asia, living as cheaply as possible to keep from bursting my already-gargantuan student debt. Caught in that uneasy drift, I began to write about travellers I met; those who moved not out of wanderlust, but from a sense of dejection.
After I graduated in 2014, I spent five years in Asia, living first in Nanjing and then in Hong Kong. In China, I taught ten college courses a year, using every penny I made to pay off my student debt. I closely followed the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan, the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, and other protests in Asia, some that resulted in full government upheaval (as in South Korea). In the isolation of immigration, overwork, and political distress, fiction writing turned from introspection into a salve.
What came forth was a queer speculative novel called All Flowers Bloom, the story of two souls tethered together through cycles of rebirth, for 4,000 years. The novel treats the historian as our modern-day oracle keeping the memory of mankind, but a memory that can quickly turn on us.
Living in China helped me understand the strange relationship of myth and history. Slogans around my home proclaimed the promise of China’s imperial future (“China dream, my dream”). With internet censorship under Xi Jinping at an all-time high, history took the form of myth. China’s past became a story of humiliation at the hands of the West and Japan. “New China” became an underdog hero, one we could all root for.
At some point I decided the broad view of history wasn’t enough. I yearned for the galactic one.
All Flowers Bloom is an archive of politics as well as love, akin to Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse or Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. As 871’s lives flow through histories and cultures, their desire for S transforms through stages of romance: lust, adoration, languor, ecstasy, jealousy. Each life layers their relationship with new roles. They are sometimes the same gender, sometimes colonial adversaries, sometimes generations apart, sometimes bitter enemies.
The theme of reincarnation has become mainstream in the West. When I first tried to publish All Flowers Bloom, several editors compared it to novels like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which has become known as the novel about reincarnation. I was troubled that my story about reincarnation was immediately compared to traditions in western science fiction rather than to myths like Journey to the West, the Ramayana, or to contemporary Asian or Asian-American writers.
I am not opposed to writers taking elements of foreign cultures and placing them into imaginative science fiction. But I am disheartened by the way many of them do this as if they are merely adding an imaginative or innovative element, and how readers find themes like reincarnation cutting-edge when, for billions of people across the earth, rebirth is an everyday, mundane practice, filled with bowing, remembering, and worship.
When speculative fiction writers use the mythos of Eastern or African cultures as their inspiration, they often end up reducing “the East” to a grab-bag of spectacular ways of life. For some, the genre tag “speculative fiction” has become a convenient excuse to trod over real political histories, and to avoid the responsibility of depicting Asia as a real setting. Fortunately, there have been journals and anthologies from Southeast Asia that grasp all the region has to offer (Amok: An Anthology of Asia-Pacific Science Fiction, The Philippine Speculative Fiction series, LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction)
So, no, All Flowers Bloom is not a “cross between Cloud Atlas and The Wind-Up Girl,” as one editor encouraged me to describe it. It has a muddled-up foray of influences, from fiction writers like Maxine Hong Kingston, Virginia Woolf, Larissa Lai, Madeleine Thien, Octavia Butler and Ken Liu, to myths like Journey to the West, One Thousand and One Nights, and the Bible, to musicians like Faye Wang and The Magnetic Fields.
Like many on this planet, my connection to rebirth is terribly banal. In 2017, my partner gave birth to our son in Hong Kong. We named him after his maternal grandfather, Kai Troeung, a Chinese merchant with a titanic personality who lived and died in Laos and Cambodia. “Kai” proved more than a namesake. My son seemed to have the elder Kai’s personality and mannerisms. Many commented that he was an old soul, already familiar with the world and with others he had met from past lives. For us, his rebirth was no imaginative stretch, no post-cocktail palm reading. Reincarnation has become our daily grind.
What we call imaginative or even speculative is often the mundane and everyday to millions of people. And in the case of reincarnation, billions.
All Flowers Bloom is a story about rebirth. But rebirth is not a metaphor. It is the past never being past. It is the multitude of worlds within us. For many, it is as crucial and unavoidable as the alphabet. If rebirth is true, it means we were all once different genders. Different races. It means we are all migrants from self-to-self. We are all aliens, and yet we all belong together in the stream.
Kawika Guillermo’s debut novel, Stamped: An Anti-travel Novel, won the 2020 Association for Asian American Studies Creative Writing: Prose Book Award. His second novel, All Flowers Bloom (2020), is a queer speculative revision of histories and imagined futures. Under his legal name, Chris Patterson, he is an Assistant Professor in the Social Justice Institute at the University of British Columbia, and is the author of the non-fiction books Transitive Cultures: Anglophone Literature of the Transpacific (Rutgers University Press, 2018), and Open World Empire: Race, Erotics, and the Global Rise of Video Games (New York University Press, 2020).