At two different points during a 20-minute phone interview, R.F. Kuang used the word “annoying” to describe herself. First, the fantasy writer said, “I’m one of those annoying people who’s deeply influenced by the 2012 film adaptation of ‘Les Miz’”; later, she admitted that she was “the annoying friend who read a history of Marseille” on the way to a writing retreat in France.
“And then when we landed, I was like, ‘You guys know that it was the first Greek outpost in France?” Kuang laughed. “I’m unbearable.”
But she doesn’t come across as annoying or unbearable, just inquisitive. That spirit spills into her latest best-selling novel, “Babel,” which grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance and, as Kuang puts it, the ways in which “translation and the acquisition of knowledge about various languages served as a tool of empire.” She went on, “When we think about the technologies of empire and colonialism, we usually think of guns and ships. But in what ways has the understanding of knowledge — or the knowledge of languages of people that are in colonized territories — enhanced or exacerbated the brutalities of colonial rule?”
Hearing this, it makes perfect sense that Kuang was an insatiable bookworm when she was growing up in Dallas. “I was really addicted to reading,” she said. “I had to read while I was eating or I would get bored. Even when I was in the bathroom I would reach for the shampoo bottles and read the back label just to have something to process.”
After her tour for “Babel,” Kuang returned to her second year as a Ph.D. student in the department of East Asian languages and literature at Yale. Now she’s gearing up for her next novel, “Yellowface,” which comes out in May. “Not to give away the plot twist,” Kuang said, “but it does deal a lot with underpaid, undervalued, entry-level employees in publishing, and how high the barrier of entry is for diverse editors, people in marketing and people in sales, to get through the door.”
She turned in a draft to HarperCollins before its union members went on strike in November. But in the lead-up to the dispute, Kuang said, she had many conversations with her publishing team, “especially the junior-level folk who were working on the book.” She heard “horror stories about how they’d been treated, about how they were paid, about how they’d been discriminated against, and all of that went into the book.” Kuang, who co-hosted a rally in support of the union, said it’s “ironic and sad” that “Yellowface” is teed up to enter the world while the strike is ongoing.
Elisabeth Egan is an editor at the Book Review and the author of “A Window Opens.”