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Necessary Discomfort: A Fable Reading Guide To R. F. Kuang's Babel

Babel by R. F. Kuang
Books connect readers to experiences outside of their own, it's one of reading's most important purposes. Through stories, people exercise empathy and learn others' perspectives. R. F. Kuang's "Babel" takes an intentional approach to dismantling racist ideas. You can read this fantasy novel by the award-winning author of the Poppy War trilogy with Fable founder Padma Warrior.
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What is the book Babel about?

"Babel" is about the magic of language and translation, with students attending the Oxford translation institute--an alternative version of Victorian England--where translators control the magic and foundation of the British empire. This book is a clever take (as well as criticism) on the dark academia genre. Kuang investigates the colonialism and inherent racism in academia, while emphasizing the power of words, learning, and the discovery of when and how meaning is created.Dark academia typically explores morality and meaning in the setting of an academic institution. Kuang takes this concept and expands it to uncover the political and academic corruption ingrained in these scholarly institutions. "Babel" encourages readers to question everything they know about knowledge and power. The magic in "Babel" is imbued with the darkness of greed and imperialism.

Why should you read the Babel book?

Despite being a fantastical novel set nearly two centuries ago, Babel's commentaries on race, power, politics, colonialism, education, and language are all still relevant today. "Babel" has captivated many readers as one of the highest-rated and most-reviewed books on Fable, but there are some readers who are not so happy with the book's message.A review of "Babel" by wayfarewithbooks went viral when people saw how critical this user was of the book and its message. To be clear, people were not upset about this person's opinion. They were upset that they seemed to miss the entire point of the book and used their white fragility to villainize the author.First, let's examine the review. A white European reviewer, Maggy, gave "Babel" 0 stars and stated "it made me question myself and my right to exist". Alone, that statement might not be a huge deal because sure, some books might be isolating and difficult to read and make the audience question their sense of self. But people were upset over this reviewer's audacity to make such a comment and critique the book for doing its job. The purpose of "Babel" is to examine racism and the power that white people have over people of color. Kuang created a story that was meant to make people confront their ignorance. It is not supposed to be a pleasant, or comfortable experience. Instead of sitting with their discomfort and trying to learn from it, this reviewer chose to weaponize their discomfort and use it against the author. In their review, they claimed that Kuang was perpetuating "reverse racism" with "Babel": "Sadly the book reaches its intent by promoting racism to fight racism and violence to obtain a positive social change, which I consider highly problematic and toxic." It is one thing to feel uncomfortable while reading a book, and it is another thing to paint the author as a harmful person for creating that necessary discomfort. For a white person to claim that they experienced racism through a book that is denouncing racism perpetuated by them is nonsensical. There are multiple parts to unpack with this review and the outrage it sparked. First, reverse racism is not a thing and white people cannot experience systemic racism. We also need to study white fragility and its power.

What is reverse racism?

Reverse racism is often brought up by white people when they are forced to confront uncomfortable, racially charged ideas and situations. The impulse behind the argument seems to be a desire to prove that people of color do not actually suffer that much. White people cannot experience racism. What white people can experience is racial prejudice, which is discriminatory and derogatory assumptions and stereotypes based on their race. Racism, however, is shaped around a systemic relationship to power, through which racial prejudices arise. White people are the ones who define these racialized terms, which give them power. Reverse racism ignores the power and privileges that white people have over people of color. The occasional mistreatment and discomfort of white people should not be conflated with the systemic and institutionalized abuse of people of color.

What is white fragility?

This white reviewer became uncomfortable and defensive when forced to confront their own ignorance. Discomfort is necessary when learning how to enact change and stay connected with ourselves. Rejecting discomfort or getting defensive closes you off from growing and evolving. This reviewer blatantly disregarded the main message of this book because it was too much for them to handle. It's fine to be uncomfortable--in fact, that discomfort means the message has reached its target audience.It's what a person does with their discomfort that matters most. One scene in "Babel" actually explores the phenomenon of white fragility with one of the prominent characters, Letty (who is a young white woman): "it would seem a great paradox, the fact that after everything they had told Letty, all the pain they had shared, she was the one who needed comfort."

Some Incredible Quotes from "Babel":

“Betrayal. Translation means doing violence upon the original, means warping and distorting it for foreign, unintended eyes. So then where does that leave us? How can we conclude, except by acknowledging that an act of translation is then necessarily always an act of betrayal?” ― R.F. Kuang

“English did not just borrow words from other languages; it was stuffed to the brim with foreign influences, a Frankenstein vernacular. And Robin found it incredible, how this country, whose citizens prided themselves so much on being better than the rest of the world, could not make it through an afternoon tea without borrowed goods.” ― R.F. Kuang

“That's just what translation is, I think. That's all speaking is. Listening to the other and trying to see past your own biases to glimpse what they're trying to say. Showing yourself to the world, and hoping someone else understands.” ― R.F. Kuang

“You have such a great fear of freedom, brother. It's shackling you. You've identified so hard with the colonizer, you think any threat to them is a threat to you. When are you going to realize you can't be one of them?” ― R.F. Kuang

“There are no kind masters, Letty,’ Anthony continued. ‘It doesn’t matter how lenient, how gracious, how invested in your education they make out to be. Masters are masters in the end.” ― R.F. Kuang

“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.” ― R.F. Kuang

“Why, he wondered, did white people get so very upset when anyone disagreed with them?” ― R.F. Kuang

“History isn't a premade tapestry that we've got to suffer, a closed world with no exit. We can form it. Make it. We just have to choose to make it.” ― R.F. Kuang

“So, you see, translators do not so much deliver a message as the rewrite the original. And herein lies the difficulty - rewriting is still writing, and writing always reflects the authors ideology and biases.” ― R.F. Kuang

“…there is no such thing as humane colonization.” ― R.F. Kuang

“This is how colonialism works. It convinces us that the fallout from resistance is entirely our fault, that the immoral choice is resistance itself rather than the circumstances that demanded it.” ― R.F. Kuang

You can read "Babel" on Fable HERE and if you want to read it with others, join the Read With Padma Book Club for FREE!

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