#DecolonizeReading2023 Adult Award-Winning Books Features Genre Lifespan of a Reader Literary Fiction Reading Themes Saturday Reads Speculative Fiction, Scifi, Fantasy

[Saturday Reads] Displacement and the Inevitable Revolt of the Colonized in RF Kuang’s “Babel”

She learned revolution is, in fact, always unimaginable. It shatters the world you know. The future is unwritten, brimming with potential. The colonizers have no idea what is coming, and that makes them panic. It terrifies them. Good. It should. - Babel, R. F. Kuang


Myra here.

Every Saturday we hope to share with you our thoughts on reading and books. We thought that it would be good practice to reflect on our reading lives and our thoughts about reading in general. While on occasion, we would feature a few books in keeping with this, there would be a few posts where we will just write about our thoughts on read-alouds, libraries, reading journals, upcoming literary conferences, books that we are excited about, and just book love miscellany in general.

This year, we hope to feature books that fit any of the following criteria:

  1. Postcolonial literature and/or [pre/post] revolutionary stories
  2. Stories by indigenous / first-nation peoples / people of colour
  3. Narratives of survival and healing, exile and migration, displacement and dispossession
  4. Books written or illustrated by people who have been colonized, oppressed, marginalized
  5. Translated or international literature

Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution [Amazon]

Written by R. F. Kuang Published by Harper Voyager (2022) ISBN: 9780063021426 (ISBN10: 0063021420) Literary Awards: Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novel (2022), British Book Award Nominee for Fiction (2023), ALA Alex Award (2023), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fantasy (2022), RUSA CODES Reading List Nominee for Fantasy (2023). Bought a copy of the book. Bought quote layouts courtesy of Canva.

As I create my own Decolonize Your Bookshelf list, this is, hands down, going on the top of my list. I read this early this year and had no words to describe everything I read and opted instead to read The Poppy Wars trilogy immediately right after.

Here were my earlier thoughts posted on Litsy:

The above captured my thoughts completely as I geeked out on the scholarly parts of this sci-fi novel, even as I was taken completely into RF Kuang’s gradual world-building of silversmithing with paired-words that can alter the nature of reality with international translators/linguists exploited for their facility with their ‘mother-tongue’ and multiple languages. I felt like I was auditing a post-graduate-level class on linguistics and translation.

The myth-crafting was entirely credible, and I was left in awe as to how Kuang managed to skilfully weave anti-colonial sentiments into a world so unlike our own, yet strikingly so similar with all the oppressive hierarchical elements in place whereby one civilization claims dominance over another – simply because it can.

Displacement is also a recurrent theme in this novel (also in The Poppy Wars trilogy). Kuang is not only familiar with the perils and intense preparation required in high-stakes testing (I feel so seen), she is also viscerally aware of what it’s like to not belong – not anywhere – not even in one’s birth place or home country.

The novel also unflinchingly portrays what it’s like for the oppressed to identify so absolutely (and resolutely) with the oppressor to the point of self-annihilation:

The conversations between Griffin and Robin are fascinating – even more so than the discussions among the four friends who are the main characters in the story. Griffin’s inexhaustible rage and sense of righteousness demonstrate the inevitability of revolution and the necessity of violence as the only way to truly be ‘decolonized’ in the real sense of the word. Here’s another quote from Griffin:

This choice is not an easy one to make, particularly if one’s identity and self-worth are tied to the comforts of a world that provides a semblance of security and the illusion of acceptance. The sense of gratitude is wrapped up in unarticulated self-loathing and the primal need to survive at all costs.

Yet, this sense of ‘belonging’ is always transactional, contingent on the ‘foreigner’ being able to pull her own weight or assimilate or provide services deemed essential by society. And there is always a ceiling that one bumps up against: be it access to privileges afforded ‘natural-born’ citizens, status, esteem. But then again, what interactions are not considered transactional nowadays: foreigner or otherwise?

RF Kuang is a brilliant novelist. I read a few other reviews that indicated their distaste for her so-called proselytizing against colonizers, etc. I found it refreshing, bold, and defiant. She bares her teeth as she writes, mouth bloodied by centuries of constantly being ‘put in one’s place’ and made to feel inferior. She writes book after book after book declaring ‘I am here. I exist. I refuse to be silenced.’

#DecolonizeReading2023 Update: 33 out of target 100

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

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