A fantasy novel about the British Empire, Babel should be taught in Universities.
The recently published Babel by R.F. Kuang, author of the notorious The Poppy War trilogy, is an absolute gem. Set in a fictitious, early 1800s Oxford, Babel is the name for the Royal Institute of Translation, a building which towers above the city, and the only Oxfordian institute that allows students of colour and female students into the university. The novel is historical low-fantasy, meaning that magic is key to the structure and plot (however Babel does not contain creatures that appear in the high fantasy, such as goblins, elves, or fairies). It follows Robin, a young boy from Canton, China, who is brought to England and the institute by his sponsor and guardian, Professor Lovell. Robin’s story explores the tensions of being Chinese in a fantasy Victorian England: his diverse group of friends – who come from Calcutta, Haiti, and Brighton – all have their own internal struggles with gender, race, and identity in a society that is steeped in prejudice and privilege, caused by the presence of the empire.
Kuang also delves deeply into the issues of Western knowledge production that have been perpetuated by Anglophone institutions, including the likes of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge (Kuang herself has two masters’ degrees one from each institution). Babel fictionalises academic discussions on colonial, post-colonial, and orientalist studies within the academy, and much of Kuang’s work echoes Edward Said’s infamous arguments in his 1982 book Orientalism. Said discusses how knowledge production in Western societies is and has been inevitably connected to Empire. In 2003, Said was quoted in the Los Angeles Times, and this quote sums up what Kuang has achieved with Babel: “Every empire … tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate.”
The book is powerful, heart-breaking, clever, and too good not to read. Babel should be added to reading lists for postcolonial modules at every university. Babel makes tangible what the whitewashed British literary canon would have us ignore, and reinforces the need for decolonisation across Arts and Humanities studies, if not in every department in UK universities.
Everyone should read Babel.