Novelist, translator and academic R.F. Kuang’s fiction has won and been nominated for numerous awards, including winning the Crawford Award and the Compton Crook Award and being nominated for Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy awards. In addition, she is a Marshall Scholar, holds an MPhil in Chinese Studies from Cambridge and an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies from Oxford, and is currently working on a Ph.D. in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale.
Her Poppy War trilogy (consisting of 2018’s The Poppy War, 2019’s The Dragon Republic, and 2020’s The Burning God) has been translated into more than a dozen languages and combines elements of the Sino-Japanese war and Mao Zedong’s rise to power with fantasy and grimdark elements. Kuang’s latest novel Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution, publishes this August. It is a dark academia fantasy set in the 1830s and is the subject of our interview.
In Babel, Robin is saved from the Asiatic cholera epidemic in Canton and taken to England by the seemingly benevolent Professor Lovell. Once there, he is prepared for a life in academia at Oxford University’s prestigious institute of translation, the Babel of the novel’s title. Here he encounters like-minded friends, rivals, and other intrigues. He is also immersed in the world of translation and magic: enchanted silver bars engraved in different languages, are the source of the empire’s power. Robin becomes disillusioned, realizing that Babel is linked with imperialist forces preparing to use Robin and his friends as pawns in their war against China.
The below conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
How did the idea for Babel germinate?
Like most of my ideas, it germinated slowly over time. It just happened to be at a point in my life when I felt like all the factors had aligned, and it crystallized in my head. I love campus novels, they’re my favorite genre of fiction. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is one of my favorite books. Much of my work concerns students and their relationships with teachers and the academy. The first half of The Poppy War is set at a military academy. They leave that setting pretty quickly, but those were some of the scenes that I enjoyed writing the most.
It’s partly because I’m in academia, and I’ve spent most of my life in a school setting that it’s the environment that I feel most comfortable writing about. I love thinking about interpersonal connections between young students who don’t understand the world yet but are ready to go out into it. Then there’s the disconnect between people in the ivory tower, the very real issues they’re studying and thinking about, and what that looks like on the ground.
It just so happened that when I wrapped up the trilogy, I was studying for my master’s at Oxford. Oxford is a magical place. It’s also a place with a rich yet troubling history, only a shred of which the university has acknowledged. So, I started thinking about what it means to be a student of color at a place like Oxford and to experience constantly the contradictions of wanting so badly to fit into this place, where everyone’s wearing these robes, drinking champagne, and having interesting conversations by candlelight in these gorgeous halls framed by portraits of old men – many of whom did terrible things.
To want that life, on one hand, to understand the history that made it possible, and to want to act on that history, on the other hand, was the contradiction that became the heart of my story. Once I had that locked down, it was pretty easy to put together the magic system, develop a central cast of characters, and pinpoint it all in a particular moment.
Tell us a bit more about the troubling aspects of Oxford’s history.
Well, this isn’t just Oxford’s troubling history. It’s just symptomatic of the troubling history of Great Britain and the British Empire. Similarly, it’s not just Oxford that is built on blood, coercion, and slave money. It’s all elite universities in the Western world. Cambridge recently appointed a researcher to look into the role that slavery played in its past. This was as recent as 2019, which is shocking to me. During my time as an undergraduate at Georgetown University, there were a lot of protests. The Jesuit priests who founded and ran Georgetown sold slaves to fund its building and maintenance.
I used a book called Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities by Craig Steven Wilder. It’s a history of the relationship between slave owners and the founding of America’s first universities: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and universities in Virginia. It’s not just that slavery funded these colleges, these colleges were built to maintain slave societies. Everything taught in these colleges, extending to how they approached languages, was done in the service of maintaining a slave economy and exerting control over Native Americans. You really can’t disentangle the history of elite universities from the history of settler colonialism and empire.
You begin Babel with preparatory material about the geography of Oxford and detail what is historically accurate in the story and what you changed. Then there’s this sudden cut to Canton in the first chapter. Were you doing something pointed with that transition?
When we think about the Victorians, we think of them as parochial, living in their cute little English cottages, and having their afternoon tea. The reality is that colonial England was extremely global, extremely cosmopolitan. You couldn’t get through an afternoon tea without using goods that were coercively extracted from other parts of the world.
There’s an interesting essay by Edward Said called “Jane Austen and Empire”, where he looks at Austen’s novels and pays special attention to the “exotic” locations that her characters always mention visiting. It’s implied that they’re traveling to the West Indies because they own slave plantations there. That’s a detail in Austen – and other writers of the era – that readers often skim over.
Babel is a global novel in terms of the languages it touches and the set pieces. The narrative flips back and forth between Canton, London, and Oxford quite a lot. I wanted to expand the scope a little of the 19th-century story to include the colonies in which the characters are acting and to emphasize the fact that the Victorians weren’t just staying in England, innocently living their lives there. They were going all over the world, interacting with other peoples and doing very violent things. Your average Victorian was aware of this; they knew exactly where their spices, teas, and fabrics were coming from.
Some remarkable passages in Babel detail Robin’s growing awareness of language: he’s learning cockney rhyming slang, and his mind is preoccupied with all these etymologies. But he’s also forgetting Cantonese. His identity is changing, but it’s in the context of language.
I’m glad you enjoyed those scenes. I’ve always been bilingual. I’m not sure if I learned Chinese or English first. But I was much more fluent in Chinese for the first few years of my life. We moved to the US when I was small, and at that time, I spoke English with quite a heavy Chinese accent. English quickly became my dominant language, and I forgot most of the Chinese I knew.
Robin’s experiences: being startled by how easy it is to forget a language if you’re not constantly using it, and how easy it is to stop dreaming in a language, are things I’m intimately familiar with. When Robin is sounding out English, learning to read it, learning etymologies, learning funny phrases – those things mirror my experiences. Growing up, I mispronounced so many things because I learned most of my English by reading it. It wasn’t until the sixth grade that I stopped pronouncing the ‘s’ in debris. There are all these other turns of phrases and metaphors and similes that I still mispronounce and mix up because my English is cobbled together from reading a lot.
Robin gets to know London by learning its language. For him, language and place are tied together. It’s one and the same. I think this process comes from my experience of moving to the UK after college and learning to speak British English for the first time. I was stunned when I realized that when British people ask, “are you alright?” they’re not demonstrating concern. It just means it’s the equivalent of “how are you doing?” You’re not supposed to answer truthfully. It was nice to have this kind of narrative excuse to explain all of my confusion about language.
I’m sure many people will be curious about Babel’s magic system and basing it on translation and match pairs. Where did that come from?
I love it when magic systems function well to integrate with the critique of the rest of the novel. I’ve learned so much about translation as a tool of power. The fact that translation is never neutral, but it’s always biased and always ideologically motivated, means that a magic system that takes advantage of the fact that translation can never be perfect, made perfect sense for this novel.
Since I’m a translator myself – I’m constantly working back and forth, primarily between English and Chinese, and I’m also studying other languages – I’m always noting small distinctions in how certain cognitive tasks are defined and how different grammar structures lead us to think differently. I’m always thinking about what’s lost in translation between one language to another. It seemed very natural to develop a magic system in Babel that manifests what is lost in translation as an actual physical effect on the world.
It was also a chance for me to show off my etymological nerdiness, and to show off some facts about random words to people who might not know them. But more broadly, translation in Babel functions as a metaphor for simple differences between people, countries, and cultures. Robin and Ramy often have conversations about how everybody is constantly translating themselves to the world; even people who are only operating within English, you’re still trying to express everything that’s going on in the primordial mess of your brain to people around you. Translation is easier for some people because it also depends on who is paying attention to us: who is willing to listen, and if they are willing to listen with an open mind and heart.
Robin talks about that more open version of translation late in Babel. But much of the paratextual material – like the book’s back cover _ leads with that Latin phrase about translation and betrayal.
Traduttore, traditore: an act of translation is always an act of betrayal. It’s such a nice pun in romance languages. I agree with the basic sentiment that any translation involves warping the original a little bit and reshaping it for unintended eyes. I don’t think that translation always has to be an act of violence, or it’s something that always functions to bring people apart. Translation has brought us closer together and made things possible. I mean, just consider the movement of stories between language to language and country to country. Translation can be beautiful if you’re paying attention and making sure you’re deliberate and compassionate about the contexts in which you’re translating.
One thing that comes across in all your work is a strong sense of character growth and development. Where Rin, the protagonist of The Poppy War books, and Robin begin, is completely different from where they end up. Are the two characters similar?
I think they’re quite different. This is intentional. After I finished The Poppy War trilogy, I was very careful about what type of project I chose to do next, because whatever it was, it would be the next stage of my career. I didn’t want to do anything that resembled The Poppy War too much, because people would always compare them. If you’re not careful, you’ll find echoes of old characters recurring on the page, and possibly the same structural elements too.
I wanted to change things up, not just in the setting and theme but in the main character. Rin and Robin are opposites in many ways: Rin is impulsive, rash, and angry, and she just explodes on the page. Every interaction with her was so entertaining to write about. Robin, in comparison, is very introspective. He’s gone through almost as much as Rin, but he rarely verbalizes it. He isn’t anywhere close to this degree of self-understanding or self-expression until everything bubbles up and then explodes in a crucial scene onto the page. I had to do a lot of psychoanalytical research to nail the progression of Robin’s interior journey. In the first few drafts that my editors saw, they couldn’t quite understand where Robin was coming from, because he has a very self-contradictory character.
What psychoanalytic research did you do?
One example is the book Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation: On the Social and Psychic Lives of Asian Americans by David L. Eng and Shinhee Han. It’s inspired by Freud and Lacan but studies certain common mental health problems among Asian American subjects. Robin isn’t Asian American, but he experiences themes of displacement and identity and not knowing what you are and where you belong. Reading some of those case studies and understanding the language with which those authors were describing their subjects helped in describing what Robin was going through. The dominant thing is that Robin has a very split subjectivity, which is why he’s constantly back and forth. When people read Babel, they’ll see that this all comes to a head in a critical chapter.
Another part of Babel that seemed to have psychoanalytic, perhaps even Oedipal overtones, is the relationship between Robin and his mentor Professor Lovell. The Professor saves Robin from a cholera epidemic, takes him to the UK, and arranges for Robin to study at Oxford’s Babel Institute. But this intense, paternalistic relationship also has a sinister side.
Oedipal isn’t the right word for it. I think the relationship reflects a story structure much older than Oedipus, which is just the father-son story. There’s also a very easy reading of this relationship as a metaphor for the broader paternalistic relationship between the colonial center and the colonies. It was fun to think about this deep, complicated relationship between two men for the first time because The Poppy War trilogy was from the perspective of a female main character, who also has issues with authority and father figures.
Fighting against colonialism in Babel is The Hermes Society, which is kind of like a shadow to the official university, and which, in one memorable phrase, “live on the margins of bureaucracy.” What was the inspiration for this secret society?
I just love secret societies! I’ve always wanted to write about them – not just secret societies, but student groups. I’m in that generation that is deeply affected by the release of the Les Miserables (Tom Hooper, 2012) film adaptation. I wanted to do something like that: a tight-knit group of student revolutionaries trying their best to fight against empire. The Hermes society mustn’t be especially good at what it does. Its members are decentralized and unorganized. They come through a lot of the time, but this isn’t a trained army or a proper bureaucracy at the end of the day. It’s a hodgepodge of students and ex-students who have come together and are trying to find any angle they can to chip away at the massive institution that is Empire and the academic institution. They’re young, they’re inexperienced, and they’re just doing their best – but they’re in no way a trained elite.
Babel is peppered with footnotes, some that deal with etymology, some that give background information on the fictional characters, and others that give further details on real historical events. Were these partly inspired by the story’s academic setting?
Certainly, a large part of it is that it’s an academic way to inject more facts for the reader. But I also appreciate the narrative freedom that footnotes give you because it lets you add another point of view: a character removed from the immediate events of the plot, situated differently in time. The voice of the footnotes has the advantage of hindsight and can contextualize historical events to the reader and make comments on colonialism, racism, and slavery in a way that the characters in the text proper aren’t even aware of. There’s a voice functioning on two levels, which I found a really interesting and fun technical challenge.
What are you working on now?
I have two projects in the works. The first is a literary fiction novel called Yellowface that’s coming out in the summer of 2023. It deals with a white author who steals an unpublished manuscript from an Asian American novelist. The next project, which has not yet been announced, is a fantasy novel. The only thing I can say about it so far is that it’s Dante meets Lewis Carroll, and it’s been really fun to work on. I will go back to drafting it after this conversation is wrapped up.