Babel, or how not to write yourself into your novel

In many ways, R.F. Kuang’s Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History seemed a novel written for me: nerdy, linguistic, political, with a dash of fantasy. Specifically it:

  • Is about the power, complexity and magic of languages and translation
  • Features a Cantonese-speaking protagonist raised in Western society
  • Deals with colonialism, violence and identity
  • Was written by a young female ABC (American Born Chinese) academic

For all these reasons, it resonated more with me than it would, perhaps, with other readers, even other Asian-Australian or Asian-American readers. I mean, I too have considered writing a work of fantasy fiction based on my thesis (ready-made world-building!).

Babel is ambitious and impressive. It lingered with me after I’d turned the final page, yet ironically the more I think about it, the more it loses its sheen. In reading and reflecting on the book, I’ve come to discover more about how fraught writing truth and writing yourself into your novel can be.


Image credit: Liv Cashman.

Set mostly in nineteenth-century Oxford, with a few key scenes in Canton and at sea, this dark academia/fantasy novel follows the journey of orphaned Robin Swift. As a young boy, Robin is “rescued” from an outbreak of cholera in China and raised as an Englishman by Professor Lovell. His destiny is to join the prestigious linguistics department at Oxford University, known as Babel.

In Kuang’s alternative universe, language is not only power, but magic. Multilingual individuals like Robin and the professor essentially use the art of translation to cast spells, with silver serving as a conduit for this magic. It is silver that fuels the British Empire and gives it the global supremacy it had historically. Babel unpacks the depth of injustice that underpins the Empire and one group’s attempts to challenge the hegemony.

One of the iconic Oxford spires that inspired the key locale in Babel. Photo credit: Leonardo Yip.

Beautifully written, and yet …

Babel left me both impressed and unsettled. I’m sure the novel’s ending was unsettling by design – but my unease went beyond what the message of the novel intended. There was something in the way that message had been conveyed that niggled at me.

The prose itself is quite wonderful, elegant and easy to read. Kuang’s writing has a striking quality of precision about it. She knows her stuff and I loved the ruminations on languages and etymology throughout. The footnotes, however, didn’t add much except for showing off how well the author knows her stuff – and to make snarky remarks about how evil colonialism is.*

Kuang also nails the classic Englishness of Dickensian narration, which is extra impressive given she’s American. Yet her characters were somehow very modern, as if as undergrads at Oxford in 1860, they had studied critical race theory ahead of their time.

This creates a sense of dissonance. It’s fine to be anti-colonialism. It’s fine to write an anti-colonialist work of fiction. I can respect the fact that, in the wake of anti-Asian hate in the US, Kuang had something to say about this.

Photo credit: Viviana Rishe.

But because the metaphors in Babel are so in your face, the novel would be almost satirical – if it didn’t take itself too seriously. The depiction of British colonialism as racist and brutal was heavy-handed in Babel and that, sadly, is what tarnished the novel for me.

Morality without the moralising

The best novels aren’t pure entertainment, they do have a message and this one sure did. But, as Anne Lamott has written, “a moral position is not a message.” Rather, “the core, ethical concepts in which you most passionately believe are the language in which you are writing.” I realised that Kuang was trying too hard to say something with her writing.

Seeing this tension at play in Babel has caused me to reflect on my own struggle with getting off and running with a novel. What do I want to say about the world? Does that come first or do the seed of the characters and the plot come first? As a committed Christian, I sometimes think it’s too easy for a fantasy story idea to feel lame if it has a Jesus character, or blasphemous if it doesn’t. Does that mean I should avoid the genre? Surely not.

Literature has to strike the tricky balance of suspending reality, while also reflecting it. So if all fiction is, ultimately, allegory, how do you make it compelling and not corny? How do you share a moral view of the world (we all have one) without being moralistic? How can an author use a fictional scenario, possibly in a fictional setting, to reflect things that are true about the real world, about our humanity, without lecturing the reader?

I don’t have a great answer for that. I can only point to a few novels that do this well:

  • The English Patient manages to be a meditation on war and love, without being blatantly anti-war or just a romance
  • The Left Side of Darkness explores gender identity and stereotypes without being anti-anything or very rainbow at all
  • Pride and Prejudice (and pretty much every Jane Austen novel) is a commentary on the foibles of English class society without being Marxist, anarchic or really even that feminist

It comes down to character

I suppose what I like about these three novels is that they are more like mirrors than caricatures. Perhaps that’s the point. Babel’s characters were caricatures and even the anti-hero Robin Swift, who was the most complex – and was, perhaps, supposed to represent a culturally divided person like me – felt like a shell of a human, a symbol or vessel for the author’s moral crusade.

Robin Swift fan art by Deej.

As for the key secondary characters, three random chapters late in the book covering the backstory of each indicates to me a flaw in character development. They were all archetypes and no intricacy of backstory told in a single chapter could remedy that.

When I think about character development, I circle back to this idea that every character is an expression of the author, without being a depiction of the author. And yet paradoxically, bringing a character to life requires me to imagine being someone other than myself, to put myself sufficiently in another’s shoes to write their story faithfully. A character is simultaneously me and not-me.

That exercise is both a literary and a moral challenge. I’m starting to see that that is the beauty and the high calling of writing fiction.

*For the record, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is, for me, the best example of how to rock footnotes in fiction.

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