R. O. Kwon was born in Seoul, South Korea, and moved to the USA with her family at the age of three. She grew up in Los Angeles in a Christian environment, but at the age of seventeen she experienced a crisis of faith and distanced herself from the devoutness of her family. After studying at Yale University, she wrote for several newspapers, including »The New York Times«, »The Guardian«, and the media platform »BuzzFeed«.
Her début novel »The Incendiaries« was published in 2018. Kwon spent circa ten years writing this text about a woman who becomes entangled with a Christian cult: After entering the prestigious Edwards University, Will meets popular Phoebe at a party. Although Phoebe, who is of Korean descent, makes a carefree impression, she is still mourning the death of her mother, for which she blames herself. She finds comfort in the campus prayer group Jejah (Korean for submission). Will witnesses how Phoebe is drawn deeper and deeper into the spell of the group’s eccentric leader John Leal, who claims to have survived a stay in a North Korean gulag. When five people eventually die in bomb attacks, suspicions arise that it was a religiously motivated attack. Phoebe has disappeared. Will tries to understand how the woman he loved could have been capable of such violence. Kwon mentioned in an interview that the inspiration for this book was her own loss of faith: »It’s like what people say about going bankrupt. It happens gradually and then all at once. That was my experience as well. After all these years it’s still so hard for me to tell how shattering that moment was. That was one of the first reasons I set out to write this book, to try to convey the magnitude of this loss that I had, and still have, a lot of trouble talking about.« Her book is not only about the loss of faith, but is also an insightful study of class hierarchies. The scene of the plot, an elite university, is revealed as an incubator for the children of the ruling class that turns less wealthy students like Will into outsiders – he owes his enrollment to a scholarship that in no way puts him on an equal level with his privileged peers.
»The Incendiaries« was a 2018 bestseller in the USA and was regarded by many critics as one of the best books of the year. The novel was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Carnegie Medal, among others. Kwon has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Yaddo, and MacDowell. She lives in San Francisco.