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  • Ella Wu

Justinian Huang: Breaking barriers with queer-led romance novel

The Universal Asian got to speak with Justinian Huang, author of "The Emperor and the Endless Palace."


Lockdown in 2020 was a massive change for all of us, and we had to find our own ways to cope with the isolation. Many people used the now-empty slots in the day for reading books, finally crossing titles off of lists that had been abandoned for years, maybe decades. Some people might have even tried their hand at writing a book. That’s what newly-published author Justinian Huang did. 


And he didn’t just write a book. Inspired by personal heartbreak, he wrote a breathtakingly large, unapologetically spicy queer Asian love story that spans three lives and a total of two thousand years. 



Justinian Huang didn’t start out as a writer. Before publishing “The Emperor and the Endless Palace,” he was a career film executive. “To be honest,” he admits, “I really miss being a film exec.”


(His most recent position in the film industry was VP of Creative at Sony Pictures Animation, citing the wonderful team there as his main reason.)


“Being in that seat as an executive, being a gatekeeper, you can really enact a lot of change,” he continues. “When it comes to my projects, I need to make sure that at least one of the directors in every project is a woman, is a person of color, or is queer. And that was my directive.”


Before Sony, Huang worked as the head of development at Dreamworks Pearl in Shanghai. It was there that the first sparks of what would become “The Emperor and the Endless Palace” were lit. “When I was young and I came out to my family, I was told by other Asian folks that me being queer doesn’t work because Asian people aren’t gay,” he says. “That’s not a thing for us. So when I heard about this Ancient Chinese emperor and his lover, Dong Xian, and how their epic love story brought down the first Han dynasty, I was just like, holy shit. We queer Asians have been fucking up shit for a while. And not just that; it means that, as a queer Asian person, I’m descended from the most noble of lineages.”


“I knew then,” he continues. “I was like, I need to write something about these two boys—because they were boys. They were 19 and 20 when they met. It’s just so epic. It’s the greatest love story never told.”


It wasn’t just their love story in Huang’s mind when he wrote the book. It was also his own. “During that time [in Shanghai], I fell in love with two men. One of them was born in China, the other one was born in Taipei. And when I came back home because of the pandemic in 2020, I wasn’t thinking about my career. I was thinking about them. And I realized, what if they are the inspiration, finally, for this book? I want to write about this emperor and his lover. What if I can put their personalities into this?”


Dong Xian and Emperor Ai are among the most notable queer figures in history (at least in Asia) despite the lack of records about the details of their individual lives. “There’s not much known,” Huang says. “The most famous story is called ‘The Passion of the Cut Sleeve,’ in which the emperor and his lover were taking a nap. The lover was asleep on the emperor’s shoulder, and instead of waking his lover up, the emperor cut off his own sleeve.”


Ultimately, in blending the emperor’s love story with his own, Justinian Huang was able to put the major pieces together for his book. “When [I’m] writing historical fiction, I focus more on the fiction and less on the historical,” he says. “What will create the most compelling story for my reader is what I focus on.”


“I wrote the first draft in two months during the pandemic lockdown of summer 2020, and it just spilled out,” he recalls. “I didn’t sleep for like four weeks. My mom came to visit me at one point, and she thought I was dying because I was so thin and haggard. It [was] just one of those things where you wait and wait and wait, and it just explodes out of you.”


Now, after publishing “The Emperor and the Endless Palace,” Justinian Huang is still processing what it means to have broken that glass ceiling in publishing a romance novel with two queer Asians as the leads. Being a queer Asian himself, he’s also stepping into the spotlight as an identifiable voice in both the queer and romantic literature spaces.


It can be rewarding: “I’ve been getting complaints that people have been losing sleep,” he laughs. “Three times, I’ve gotten messages on Instagram from people, at 4 a.m. in their region, being like ‘damn you, I didn’t sleep last night because of your book.’ And that’s such a great compliment! I also get so many messages from queer Asian folks saying that they felt so seen by this book and that they’re so happy it’s out there.”


It can also mean more challenges to overcome: “In the book community, there is a lot of gatekeeping that happens. There’s been some resistance to my book by people who, for whatever reason, don’t think it’s valid and don’t think that it deserves to be stacked alongside other romance books.” 


However, that’s about to put Huang off. “I worked in the film industry a long time,” he shrugs. “I like shepherding projects of huge scopes and then seeing how people respond to it. I’m actually well-trained in it, and it’s easy for me to sort of dust it off my shoulder. Ultimately, when I think about the last couple of weeks since my book came out, I just have enormous gratitude.”


“[The experience] has been very humbling, and I’m very proud,” he finishes. “When I first started writing this book and I told people I was writing a book about queer Asian folks—a romance between queer Asian folks, I was told all the time that none of the big publishers will ever touch this book because [it’s] way too niche. But we got a deal with HarperCollins, and they really believe in this book. And so I’m just very appreciative that the people that matter are embracing this book.”


The Emperor and the Endless Palace” is Justinian Huang’s debut novel. It will not be his last. “Similar to how my first novel is about the Eastern concept of reincarnation, my second book is about the Eastern concept of superstition, but told in the context of an epic family drama,” he shares. “So I’m very excited. I’m working on that right now. I like to call the tone of ‘Endless Palace’ romantic anguish. The tone of my second book is bitchy gay brunch.”


 

About the Book:

“A sweeping triumph in queer romance.” - Booklist


“What if I told you that the feeling we call love is actually the feeling of metaphysical recognition, when your soul remembers someone from a previous life?”


In the year 4 BCE, an ambitious courtier is called upon to seduce the young emperor—but quickly discovers they are both ruled by blood, sex, and intrigue.


In 1740, a lonely innkeeper agrees to help a mysterious visitor procure a rare medicine, only to unleash an otherworldly terror instead.


And in present-day Los Angeles, a college student meets a beautiful stranger and cannot shake the feeling they’ve met before.


Across these seemingly unrelated timelines woven together only by the twists and turns of fate, two men are reborn, lifetime after lifetime. Within the treacherous walls of an ancient palace and the boundless forests of the Asian wilderness to the heart-pounding cement floors of underground rave scenes, our lovers are inexplicably drawn to each other, constantly tested by the worlds around them.


As their many lives intertwine, they begin to realize the power of their undying love—a power that transcends time itself…but one that might consume them both.


An unpredictable roller coaster of a debut novel, “The Emperor and the Endless Palace” is a genre-bending spicy romantasy that challenges everything we think we know about true love.


Author’s Note: “The Emperor and the Endless Palace” is a heart-pounding romantasy, full of shocking twists, morally shifty characters, and erotic thrills. When it comes to the romance within this novel, you can expect equal parts mess and swoon, but its central thread is an epic tale of true love against all the odds.



About the Author:

Born to immigrants in Monterey Park, California, Justinian Huang studied English at Pomona College and screenwriting at Oxford. He now lives in Los Angeles with Swagger, a Shanghainese rescue dog he adopted during his five years living in China. “The Emperor and the Endless Palace” is his debut novel. Before becoming a novelist, Huang was a career film executive, most currently as the VP of Creative at Sony Pictures Animation. Prior to Sony, Huang was the head of development at Dreamworks Pearl in Shanghai where he worked on “Kung Fu Panda 3,” “Abominable,” and Academy Award–nominated “Over the Moon.”

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