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Fantasy author R.F. Kuang’s new novel makes magic out of what is lost in translation

I was told that you can’t just name a novel “Babel” because then it would have to compete with the Bible for SEO results. I thought, “I think we can beat the Bible.”

Author Rebecca Kuang.Mike Styer

Rebecca F. Kuang doesn’t remember a time before she was in school. After undergrad at Georgetown, she completed two Master’s programs — Contemporary Chinese Studies at Oxford, Chinese Studies at Cambridge — and currently, she’s pursuing her PhD in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale.

The Hugo Award-winning author, who writes as R.F. Kuang, is known for the “Poppy War” trilogy, which is set in historical China and loosely based on 20th-century Chinese history. Her newest novel, “Babel,” was released this week and calls back to her roots, as a student and a Chinese-English translator. Set in a reimagined 1830s England, the historical fantasy novel follows a young boy named Robin Swift at Oxford. When he fulfills his calling to join a special program for translators, he learns the art of silver-working. In the world of “Babel,” silver-workers create magical effects by writing a word or phrase on a silver bar and the equivalent in a different language on the bar’s other side. The bar manifests what is lost in translation, maintaining the technology that powers normal life in England. But Robin soon learns that the work he’s trainingto pursue is a betrayal to his homeland.

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On Wednesday evening, Kuang will be at the Brattle Theatre in conversation with Harvard Book Store assistant manager Lily Rugo. We caught up with her over the phone ahead of the event to talk about the intellectual problems she wrestles with through her work, her next novel, and her current book’s lengthy subtitle.

Q. I saw a TikTok that you posted about racism you experienced during your time at Oxford as your “villain origin story.” What is it like writing about problems that are still pervasive in these spaces but setting them in the past?

A. I hesitate to argue that what’s going on 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’re linked history, but they’re not the same experience.

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When I started writing “Babel”, I was thinking about the ways that something as beautiful and romantic as Oxford could have so many skeletons in its closet. And I tried to think of ways to make the conversation larger than just my personal experience.

That TikTok is a little bit misleading because I think people have read it as, ‘this is an autobiographical novel about things I personally experienced,’ when really, the things that Robin and his cohort go through in the 1830s are extremely different from the ways that marginalized students are treated at Oxford now. It’s presenting a historical explanation of some of the systemic injustices at Oxford that have never really been dealt with and still exist in different forms.

Cover of "Babel"Harper Voyager

Q. What was the research process like for “Babel”?

A. I research for my creative projects the same way I do for term papers. I’ll start with reading research guides on topics I’m interested in and look up syllabi by people who teach courses in that field.

I started with “The Intimacies of Four Continents” by Lisa [A.] Lowe. That’s a more contemporary monograph that remixes a lot of interesting conversations about colonialism that have been going on in scholarly discourse for centuries. I always end up with a Zotero list of over 50 titles, some of which I was able to put into an annotated bibliography in one of the special editions for “Babel.”

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Q. I’ve been seeing buzz on social media about your new novel, “Yellowface,” which is about a white author who steals an unfinished manuscript written by a more successful Asian author and publishes as her own. Could you talk a little about the issues that inspired it?

A. “Yellowface” is about a lot of things. The most obvious reading is about racism in publishing.

Since the 1970s, the percentage of books that come out each year by non-white authors is distressingly small. This is a problem that pervades every aspect of publishing: from who owns the publishing companies, to who gets hired on the editorial level, who is able to work in New York on an intern salary without generational wealth, who becomes a gatekeeper, who decides what stories are worthy of being elevated.

And then this reverse illusion that because there are a few publishing imprints and editors actively interested in stories by BIPOC writers, suddenly, it’s impossible to be published as a white writer. Just by the numbers, this perception is hilariously wrong, but it’s shockingly pervasive.

Q. “Babel” has an intriguing subtitle: “Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution.” How did that come to be?

A. I always just wanted to title the book “Babel.” I was told that you can’t just name a novel “Babel” because then it would have to compete with the Bible for SEO results. I thought, “I think we can beat the Bible.”

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So then 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 wilding now. Can you please be serious?” And then I said, “OK, well, academic journal articles also have very long subtitles.”

As a result of this back and forth between me being ridiculous and my editors wanting to create a book that would actually sell, we ended up with three titles for the book: “Babel,” “Babel: An Arcane History” (printed on the US cover), and “Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution.”

I think that kind of maximalist messiness is a good metaphor for the entire process of editing and producing this book, and also just something that makes me very happy.

R.F. Kuang will be at the Brattle Theatre (40 Brattle St., Cambridge) on Aug. 24 at 6 p.m. in conversation with Lily Rugo. This event is now sold out. harvard.com/event/r.f._kuang_at_the_brattle_theatre

This interview was edited and condensed.


Serena Puang was a Globe intern in 2022. Follow her on Twitter @SerenaPuang.