Culture Writer Abigail Fitton explains how author Rebecca F Kuang writes about fundamental issues of the Asian academic sphere within her fantastical fiction
Amongst the fantastical literary world there is a continuous stream of new authors, and yet one young author’s name has emerged at the forefront of modern releases. ‘A punch to the gut fantasy has needed for a long time,’ is how Peter v. Brett introduces Rebecca F Kuang.
In her young 26 years, Kuang has an achievements list crowded with publications, awards, and degrees. A Marshall scholar with an MPhil in Chinese Studies from Cambridge and an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies from Oxford, currently undergoing a PhD at Yale, Kuang does not hold back her scholarly knowledge in her range of publications. Her first novel, The Poppy War (2018), was published when Kuang was just 22 years old, followed by The Dragon Republic (2019), and The Burning God (2020). The trilogy was joined shortly after by Babel, published August this year, and another novel soon to join Kuang’s repertoire, Yellowface, is set to be published in 2023.
Her plethora of works have seen her to a multitude of award nominations and wins; the Crawford Award, Compton Crook award and the British Fantasy Award for best newcomer all under her nominations belt for just her debut novel alone. And through the windows of high fantasy, historical fiction, and gridmark fantasy, she challenges issues of racism, colonialism, sexism, and the foundational pitfalls of modern-day approaches to academia.
Kuang puts her academic material to good use, exploring Chinese history, culture, and characters amongst a multitude of contexts. For example, within The Poppy War trilogy Kuang is inspired by mid-20th century China in a fantasy realm set apart from reality. Despite it being her debut novel, Kuang expertly navigates the story, continuously keeping readers on their toes, never knowing when the next betrayal, battle or brawl could jump out of the page. Meanwhile, readers follow the key characters throughout their academic journeys in company with typical physical and emotional tales.
Kuang marches these discussions into Babel, a piece of speculative fiction set in Oxford University during the 1830s. Dismantling ‘dark academia’ from its comfortable role in aesthetics, shifting to a critical focus on the ‘academia,’ Kuang chips away at academic foundations within Oxford and Babel’s fictional counterpart. Through a protagonist who experiences colonial impacts within the institution he is enrolled, the entanglement of academics and colonial ideology come to a head in a shrieking cacophony of violence, war, and secret societies.
Daniel and Shazzie in the Fantasy Book Critic blog coin Babel as ‘an evocative call to arms, and examination of a broken system.’ This examination continues within a story of appropriation and academic rivalry simmering within Kuang’s soon to be published satirical thriller, Yellowface. Each of Kuang’s works, it is to be noted, cover some incredibly disturbing topics, and I urge caution when reading for potentially triggering themes including sexual assault, racism, and graphic depictions of war.
Kuang, hidden within the mass of fantastical adventure or magic dusted worlds, keeps academia at the heart of her stories. In particular, the experiences of Asian characters within the academic sphere, mirroring her own life story. Kuang, amongst her abundance of lectures, speaks about the issues surrounding Asian written works within ‘The Poppy War in Context: Asian American Speculative Fiction,’ a lecture given in 2020 at the University of Manitoba, free to view on YouTube.
Kuang discusses issues of Asian writers consistently being tied to their ethnicity, and how categorising books as ‘Asian’ is reductive for diversity within the writing world. ‘Asian writers are always presumed to be writing autobiographically’ (15:24), is how Kuang describes racialised expectations around Asian authors, and this analysis can be seen within her fantastical written works which both subtly weave and boisterously shout the fundamental issues within approaches to Asian written works in academics.
Kuang’s gorgeous manipulation of language and storytelling is not confined to one literary category or genre, and with her accrescent knowledge and essential critiques of today’s academic fields, Kuang’s name remains one to search for within bookstores as she continues her writing journey.
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