Fantasy Author RF Kuang’s New Novel Makes Magic What’s Lost in Translation
Rebecca F. Kuang doesn’t remember any time before she was in school. After undergrad at Georgetown, she completed two MA programs – Contemporary Chinese Studies at Oxford, Chinese Studies at Cambridge – and is currently completing her PhD in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale.
The Hugo Award-winning author, who writes as RF Kuang, is known for the “Poppy War” trilogy, which is set in historic China and loosely draws inspiration from 20th-century Chinese history. Her latest novel, “Babel,” came out this week and recalls her roots as a Chinese-English student and translator. Set in a reimagined 1830s England, the historical fantasy novel follows a young boy named Robin Swift in Oxford. When he fulfills his vocation to join a special program for translators, he learns the art of goldsmithing. In the world of “Babel”, silversmiths create magical effects by writing a word or phrase on a silver bar and the equivalent in another language on the other side of the bar. The bar manifests what is lost in translation, maintaining the technology that powers normal life in England. But Robin soon learns that the job he is training for is a betrayal of his homeland.
On Wednesday evening, Kuang will be at the Brattle Theater to chat with Lily Rugo, assistant manager of the Harvard Bookstore. We caught up with her on the phone before the event to talk about the intellectual issues she struggles with through her work, the magic of translation, and the long subtitle of her book.
Q I saw a ICT Tac that you posted about the racism you experienced while at Oxford as a “bad guy origin story”. How does it feel to write about issues that are still pervasive in these spaces but place them in the past?
A. I hesitate to claim that what happens in “Babel” is the same as my experience [as a student] at Oxford in 2020. Because it really wasn’t. Colonialism acted very differently; Empire acted very differently there. They are related stories, but they are not the same experiences.
When I started writing “Babel” I was thinking about how something as beautiful and romantic as Oxford could have so many skeletons in its closet. And I tried to think of ways to expand the conversation beyond my personal experience.
This TikTok is a bit misleading because I think people read it like “it’s an autobiographical novel about things that I’ve personally experienced” when in reality the things that Robin and his cohort go through in the 1830s are vastly different from the ways marginalized students are now treated at Oxford. It presents a historical explanation of some of the systemic injustices in Oxford that have never really been addressed and still exist in different forms.
Q How was the research process for “Babel”?
A. I research for my creative projects the same way I do for term papers. I’ll start by reading research guides on topics that interest me and look for programs written by people who teach courses in that area.
I started with “The intimacies of the four continents” by Lisa [A.] Lowe. It’s a more contemporary monograph that remixes a lot of the interesting conversations about colonialism that have been going on in scholarly discourse for centuries. I still end up with a Zotero list of over 50 titles, some of which I was able to put in an annotated bibliography in one of the special editions of “Babel”.
Q I saw a buzz on social media about your new novel, “Yellowface”, which is about a white author who steals an unfinished manuscript written by a more famous Asian author and publishes as his own. Could you tell us a bit about the issues that inspired it?
A. “Yellowface” is about a lot of things. The most obvious read is about racism in publishing.
Since the 1970s, the percentage of books released each year by non-white authors has been woefully low. It’s an issue that permeates all aspects of publishing: who owns the publishing houses, who gets hired at the editorial level, who is able to work in New York on an intern’s salary without generational wealth, who becomes a keeper, who decides which stories are worthy of being brought up.
And then this inverted illusion that because there are a few editors and editors actively interested in the stories of BIPOC writers, suddenly it’s impossible to get published as a white writer. By the numbers alone, this perception is hilarious and wrong, but it is shockingly widespread.
Q “Babel” has an intriguing subtitle: “Or the necessity of violence: an obscure history of the Oxford translators’ revolution”. How did it happen?
A. I always wanted to call the book “Babel”. I’ve been told that you can’t just name a novel “Babel” because then it would have to rival the Bible for SEO results. I thought, “I think we can beat the Bible.”
So I said, “Well, Victorian novels have these really long, wonderful subtitles. Can I have like a paragraph long subtitle? And they said, “Rebecca, you’re just crazy now.” Can you please be serious? And then I said, “OK, well, academic journal articles have really long subtitles, too.”
As a result of this back and forth between me being ridiculous and my publishers wanting to create a book that would actually sell, we ended up with three titles for the book: “Babel”, “Babel: An Arcane History” (print on the US cover) and “Babel: or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution”.
I think that sort of maximalist mess is a good metaphor for the whole process of editing and producing this book, and also just something that makes me very happy.
RF Kuang will be at the Brattle Theater (40 Brattle St., Cambridge) on August 24 at 6 p.m. in conversation with Lily Rugo. This event is now full. harvard.com/event/rf_kuang_at_the_brattle_theatre
This interview has been edited and condensed.