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Author R. F. Kuang spoke at the Brattle Theatre on Nov. 12 to support the paperback release of her 2022 historical fantasy novel “Babel.” In a world where translation magic and silver bars are the basis of the British Empire, four students are invited to Oxford University to learn magic at colonialism’s center in order to serve the empire. They also learn about companionship, complicity, and the power of collective action in resistance. The conversation, which was moderated by soon-to-be-published author Aube Rey Lescure, delved into the power of friendship, deeply researching her writing, and her inspirations for “Babel.”
Kuang received an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies from Oxford University in 2019 and described being inspired to write a story set there, considering Oxford’s gnarled colonial history.
“Oxford has this magical ability to seem like it could be positioned anywhere in time, 2023 or 1823,” she said.
Kuang described an evening of delirious fun with her fellow graduate students and finding a sense of belonging together through friendship. That moment sparked a scene of the four main characters in “Babel” playing cards and abandoning the game to be ridiculous together for a while, which was the genesis for the novel.
“I felt like I was walking on air and I got home, pulled out my laptop, and I wrote that scene. I didn’t know anyone’s names yet, but I knew exactly that feeling of deep, deep friendship that I wanted to capture,” Kuang said. “That’s been in the novel since, and everything else is really structured around that moment.”
She also talked about the ironic success of “Babel” last year, and the power of social media and BookTok.
“For instance, during the HarperCollins union strike, [BookTok was] making this strike far more popular and far reaching and devastating to HarperCollins’s PR than anybody ever anticipated,” Kuang said. “So it was very nice to be able to go out on the picket line with ‘Babel’ and make the point that HarperCollins’s biggest fiction book of the year had been a novel about the power of collective action and strikes.”
Kuang went on to discuss her decision to write a historical fantasy novel, and how she approaches worldbuilding with purpose and meaning.
“The way I think about magic systems for my fantasy novels is always that the metaphor has to be so appropriate that it’s not like I’m coming up with something or constructing a magic system, but just writing the truth of what is already there, recounting a memory,” Kuang said.
“When I was working on ‘The Poppy War’ trilogy, it seemed so obvious to center the whole thing about opium because it’s literally called the Opium Wars, and opium offers a really good metaphor for all sorts of intersections of social movements and mass organizations. And that’s where I got the drug based magic system of shamanism for Rin’s story. When I was thinking about “Babel,” what came before translation theory, or the silver bars, is actually silver capitalism.”
Kuang published her debut trilogy, “The Poppy War,” a fantasy retelling of 20th-century Chinese military history, from 2018 until the series finished in 2020. She is interested in challenging herself to move between genres, something she has continued to do with her most recent novel, “Yellowface” — a contemporary novel about cultural appropriation and the modern publishing industry. Kuang went on to discuss her newest upcoming book, “Katabasis.”
“I am getting close to the end of a draft of ‘Katabasis,’ which comes out in 2025. It’s another fantasy novel. It’s about two graduate students who study magic, who go to hell to rescue the soul of their advisor who died in a freak magic accident and bring him back so he can write them recommendation letters,” Kuang said. “And it started as this cute, silly adventure novel about like, ‘Haha, academia is hell.’ And then I was writing it and I was like, ‘Oh, no, academia is hell.’”
Kuang described how the way she thinks about magic and crafting new novels has changed since her debut trilogy.
“By the time I finished ‘The Burning God,’ I actually ran towards the Victorians, because the Victorians and their stilted formalism and their tea and their suits and petticoats seemed as different from the worlds of ‘The Poppy War’ as I could get. And then it turned out that Victorians are much more similar to the wars in ancient China than I anticipated. So I was thinking about points of difference,” Kuang said. “Even just in the cadence of a single sentence, I was thinking about writing like Dickens instead of writing in the voice of contemporary epic fantasy, which I learned from like George R. R. Martin.”
This wasn’t without noticing some funnier threads, as Kuang described.
“That being said, I’m human, and I guess I have psychoanalytic baggage that follows me from book to book. One thing that people have pointed out is I love tragic hot older brother characters,” Kuang added.
She became interested in the 1830s because so much of Victorian literature and interest seems to revolve around the end of the century rather than its earlier decades.
“That period is so fascinating to me, because a lot was happening,” Kuang said. “We had the first major inventions of the Industrial Revolution, so the whole world is becoming faster and smaller. And it’s because of those gains of the Industrial Revolution, and really the reversal in the silver deficit between the British Empire and China, that funded the next great major wave of colonialism. So, so much is happening in the 1830s, and it all revolves around silver.”
Kuang later expanded these ideas about silver into a meaningful magic system to represent problems of colonialism, violence, and translation.
“I discovered that when silver was being smelted, it smelted with mercury, which is the Roman name for the Greek god, Hermes. And Hermes is the god of travel and messages and translation. And Hermes is where we get the word hermeneutics from and hermeneutics is just about the creation of meaning. So there are all these concepts swirling, and they all are linked so tightly. And then it seemed obvious that silver bars would sit at the nexus of all of these conceptual webs,” she said. “It felt like this truth was already out there and just conveniently waiting for me to write about it.”
—Staff writer Millie Mae Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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