From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Interview: RF Kuang

RF Kuang is a Marshall Scholar, Chinese-English translator, and the Astounding Award-winning and the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Award nominated author of the Poppy War trilogy and the forthcoming Babel. Her work has won the Crawford Award and the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. She has an MPhil in Chinese Studies from Cambridge and an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies from Oxford; she is now pursuing a PhD in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale, where she studies diaspora, contemporary Chinese literature, and Asian American literature.

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Babel opens with a quote by Antonio de Nebrija about language. Can you talk a bit about the importance of language to the story of Babel?

I guess the title Babel really gives away how central language is to the story, doesn’t it? The magic system in this world is called silver-working—the art of capturing the meaning lost in translation from one language to another. That’s something I think about all the time, as someone who grew up bilingual and has worked as a translator—there’s never a perfect one-to-one correlation in meaning between any two languages. You always have to make choices about what you emphasize and what you leave out. I’ve always loved the saying that an act of translation is necessarily an act of betrayal. I think this fundamental impossibility of communication makes for great textual metaphors about coloniality, racialization, and a whole bunch of other axes of difference. We are all constantly translating ourselves to the world, and hoping someone will listen and understand us.

What did you learn in the process of writing the Poppy War series that you brought to writing this book?

There’s all the obvious technical stuff—pacing, structure, character development, and all that. But I think what made the biggest difference was developing a sense of project management. Babel is on a technical level much more difficult than any of the individual Poppy War novels—it’s a standalone that doesn’t have room to leave plotlines hanging, it uses a five-act structure rather than a simpler three-act structure, it juggles a larger cast of main characters, and it just needs to cover a lot more story in the same number of pages. It’s not a debut novel. But working on the trilogy for the whole previous four years taught me how to break a project into its component parts and plan accordingly. I’d learned a lot of things about my own process by the time The Burning God was in. For instance, I can never start with an outline. I need to write about 20,000 words of brainstorming to figure out the vibe of a story and where all its critical nodes lie. Then I’m able to go back and superimpose a structure over it all. Each successive book after the trilogy has felt easier and easier because I lean into the parts of the process that work for me and I cut out the parts that don’t. Character sheets, for instance, don’t help me at all. Characters come alive in the action, and I can’t get a sense of who they are until I’m watching them make critical decisions. Worldbuilding bibles don’t help either; I need to visualize things moving around in the world before I can sit back and impose some formal rules on the setting. Anyhow, by the time I got to Babel, I had good understand of how I tick as a writer and how to pace myself accordingly. Then a very structurally intricate book didn’t feel so hard. I like to think that the Poppy War trilogy was a nice set of training wheels to help me swing hard for what I really wanted to do.

One of the first things to happen in Babel is that a boy is given a new name and has to assimilate to a different set of cultural “norms.” It reminds me of Ellis Island, and the way that the people working there would give immigrants new names if they found their actual names to be “too difficult” for them. Then the boy is put in this precarious position between one of his countrymen and several white people, which kind-of stands with a number of uncomfortable things he has to do in order to protect himself, some subtle, and some less so. I think some readers place these sorts of events and experiences in the distant past—do you feel like a lot of the struggles Robin Swift faces are actually still common today?

Migration obviously is not a thing of the past; neither is Anglicization of names to fit in better with a society that isn’t too accommodating of “foreign” sounding names. My legal name is Rebecca, not my Chinese name; my parents put the Biblical name on my passport because they knew they were going to immigrate to the United States. Any reader who places these sorts of things and experience “in the distant past” probably . . . is used to environments where their names and identities are part of the dominant culture. Babel explores the lives of students navigating a world that clearly wasn’t designed for them, a world which they nevertheless badly want to become a part of. That’s not a unique aspect of Victorian history; it’s just being a BIPOC student at a predominantly white institution.

The book uses an interesting storytelling style, in terms of point of view, voice, and footnotes. I find it extremely engaging. Maybe engrossing is, in fact, a better word. Can you talk a bit about your decisions and goals in terms of these elements?

I’m glad you’re enjoying it! After I finished The Poppy War, I wanted to try on an entirely different creative voice. I was afraid that if I just dove in and wrote another epic fantasy novel with a gutsy, sharp narrative voice, I would end up producing an echo of what I’d just finished. So I backed off writing for a while and just read a lot of works that were as tonally different from The Poppy War as possible. I ended up falling in love with the Victorians—there was Dickens of course, and Austen and the Brontë sisters. William Makepeace Thackeray was also big for me. I was really fascinated by the pacing and language style—it is so intricate and observant and naughty on a sentence level, which was something I had tended to sacrifice in favor of moving the story along at breakneck speed. With the Poppy War trilogy, I was aiming for sleek, minimalist prose. With Babel, I’m exploring a maximalist style wherein every paragraph is just jam-packed with wordplay and footnotes and gossipy asides. It makes for a denser text, but all the reviews so far indicate that readers have really liked it, which is a relief!

This is also a deeply researched book. What are some of your favorite bits of research that went into it, and are there bits of research you found super interesting or compelling, but that didn’t make it into the book for one reason or another?

This time, thankfully, I got to include everything that I wanted to. That’s the beauty of a footnote—if it distracts from the main text, shove it in a footnote. Works well for academic papers, too! I’m just kidding.

I think what I struggled with is that the books I was reading about the Victorian area were mostly interested in the 1850s onward, which, to be fair, is what we usually think of when we think Victorian. (Babel sits in that bridge period of 1830-1840). So I was finding all this fascinating stuff about food and transportation and mechanical inventions I really wanted to cram into the book, but since the climax of Babel needed to happen by 1840 for important historical reasons, I had to leave out a lot of the later references. I think pop culture is obsessed with the late 1800s. But I think the very first years of the Victorian era are so critical for so many historical reasons, and I’d love to see more art examining the beginning phases of the Industrial Revolution, the ramping up of colonialism, etc.

The text is rich in information, yet interesting and emotionally effective. We get so much about so many things, and yet we’re also completely invested in the character. What is your strategy or technique to making this work?

I think the secret to introducing a whole lot of worldbuilding without bogging down the story is to filter it all through the perspective of a character—usually an outsider, who is as new to this world as the reader is. In this case Robin Swift was a very convenient vessel, because he explains why you’re getting the version of Victorian England you’re getting. I’m not British, which is a big impediment to convincingly writing a novel that is British to its bones. I spent time at Oxford, but the strange and exciting things I noticed about Oxford are not necessarily the same things that someone who’d grown up in London would notice. So when the world in all its details feels overwhelming to the reader, that’s because it feels overwhelming to Robin as well. When the reader is learning and attending lectures, Robin is, too. I wanted to write a dark academia in which the characters actually learn (I have a big axe to grind about supposedly dark academia novels in which the characters show zero interest in their studies), so the reader gets to come on Robin’s journey through his four years of undergraduate work. One book I think has done this particularly well is Vita Nostra by Sergey and Marina Dyachenko. By the end, you’re as wrung out and ready for it all to be over as Sasha is.

What, for you, is really important about Babel? What stands out for you as central to this book?

Babel is about a lot of things, but its beating heart is the relationships between the four members of the cohort—Robin, Ramy, Victoire, and Letty. I think what makes the dark academia genre tick is those nebulous, tricky interpersonal relationships between friends; people you meet at a crucial point in your life, when you’re still trying to figure out who you are. There’s nothing quite like the intensity and tenderness of a friend group where everyone is a little in love with one another, and where everyone hates one another because of it. And there’s nothing more devastating than watching the group identify an outsider and push them away. This is why The Secret History succeeds. Richard and Camilla and Charles and Francis and Henry are all so messy. And Bunny. It is devastating to see when a friend group has a Bunny. Robin, Ramy, Victoire, and Letty’s relationships are underwritten (though not overdetermined) by their socioeconomic positions and colonial situation, and playing with that web of love and hate was tremendously fun. I’ll let you figure out who the Bunny is.

What were the biggest challenges for you in writing Babel?

The fact that I was writing it during the first and scariest phase of a global pandemic. I didn’t find anything about the book technically difficult—I really enjoy doing research, and crafting intricate plotlines feels like second nature now, after putting out a trilogy. But the bulk of Babel was written between the spring of 2020 and the spring of 2021, during which time I was isolating with my partner in Florida. I couldn’t see any of my friends or family. I wasn’t in school that year—I deferred the start of my PhD until I could attend classes in person—and being out of the academic environment, when I didn’t get to go to seminars and talk about readings with my classmates, was very hard on me. I get a lot of energy from bouncing ideas off of others. I don’t like writing full time and I hate being alone with my thoughts. So naturally I was frustrated and less than mentally well, and every paragraph I extracted from myself during that time feels like a miracle. I’m still kind of stunned that the book is finished. I was depressed most of the time that I was writing it. Now that I’ve read the finished version with fresher eyes I’m really quite proud of it, but I don’t remember a single day in 2020 during which I looked at my work and felt happy about it.

When Robin meets Ramy, it’s so heartwarming, so touching; really, brilliantly written. What are your favorite things about Robin Swift, and about Ramiz Rafi Mirza? What was the best part about writing these characters, and what were the most significant challenges?

The friendship between Robin and Ramy is based on my relationship with one of my closest friends, so it was easy to write all of that from the heart. We also met at the beginning of a program where we were the only two BIPOC students, so we were outsiders together. This was five years ago; now they’re going to be in my wedding. And we also felt that wonderful chemistry right upon meeting—we also sat on the floor for hours and chatted about everything we could think of. Nothing was off limits; nothing was too personal. I wanted to capture that lightning-in-a-bottle feeling of meeting a kindred spirit and knowing, immediately, you would be best friends. That feeling is so rare, and it’s marvelous when it happens.

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about Babel?

I just hope you all enjoy it 🙂 Stylistically it’s a bit different from the Poppy War trilogy—it’s slower and more introspective, and it employs a slow burn to devastation rather than the high-octane constant action you might be used to from me. I’m excited to be stretching my story-telling abilities and try out new forms and genres; I hope you’ll come along with me on the ride.

What else do you have coming up that you’d like readers to know about?

Yellowface, my literary fiction debut, comes out in the summer of 2023.

Arley Sorg

Arley Sorg is a 2021 and a 2022 World Fantasy Award Finalist as well as a 2022 Locus Award Finalist for his work as co-Editor-in-Chief at Fantasy Magazine. Arley is a 2022 recipient of SFWA’s Kate Wilhelm Solstice Award. He is also a finalist for two 2022 Ignyte Awards: for his work as a critic as well as for his creative nonfiction. Arley is a senior editor at Locus Magazine, associate editor at both Lightspeed & Nightmare, and a columnist for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He takes on multiple roles, including slush reader, movie reviewer, and book reviewer, and conducts interviews for multiple venues, including Clarkesworld Magazine and his own site: arleysorg.com. He has taught classes, run workshops, and been a guest for Clarion West, the Odyssey Writing Workshop, Cascade Writers, Augur Magazine, and more. Arley grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado, and studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in the SF Bay Area and writes in local coffee shops when he can. Find him on Twitter @arleysorg. Arley is a 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate.