I always tell people my favorite season is the start of fall semester, which is true, but the start of the spring semester takes a close second. We’re all back from break, juggling textbooks and coffees, running around campus trying to figure out where our classes are, and always arriving five minutes late and out of breath. It’s snowing, and watching the snow fall in thick fat flakes out my window makes my fresh-brewed cup of tea taste so much better. My mind is a spinning raffle drum of ideas to chase down rabbit holes; nothing is settled, and everything seems possible.
This newsletter is just a scattered list of things I’m thinking about, reading, and working on as we dive into this semester.
Quick update: I had this newsletter all ready to go when my marketing team told me B&N is having a 25% off sale on preorders today. This includes Yellowface! Go have a look around, get yourself a surprise treat for later in the year.
Thinking about: student activism. Since Babel came out, I often get the question, “So why are you still in a PhD program?” Meaning: what good comes from continuing to participate in the academy? I’ve given several different answers – change from within, the value of the classroom – but I’m still struggling to articulate my position in the academy and what I want to do with it. Happily, I’m in the first cohort of Yale’s Ethnicity, Race & Migration certificate program, and our proseminar this semester tackles many of these same questions of revolution within the academy, scholarship that serves the community, and breaking down the scholar/activist divide. I still don’t have the answers, but I am at least deepening my understanding of institutional reform in this country, and of student movements of the past. Some readings that struck me:
From Audre Lorde’s “Learning from the 60s”: “And in the university, that is certainly no easy task, for each one of you by virtue of your being here will be deluged by opportunities to misname yourselves, to forget who you are, to forget where your real interests lie. Make no mistake, you will be courted; and nothing neutralizes creativity quicker than tokenism, that false sense of security fed by a myth of individual solutions.” I wish I’d read this before I wrote Babel.
From the B.S.C.-M.A.Y.A. Demands for Lumumba-Zapata College: “Together with our American brothers in struggle — on the campuses and in the streets — and with our comrades throughout the Third World who are involved in wars of liberation, we reject a system which thrives on military technology and imperialist profit. At the University of California, San Diego, we will no longer insure the undisturbed existence of a false institution which consistently fails to respond to the needs of our people.” Where can we find this same bravery in campus activism today? Campus activism today gets so quickly maligned as mere whining by unhappy snowflakes; we forget that many departments (including my own!) only exist because of student demands.
Reading: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke - my fiance’s department are conveniently doing this for their reading group this month. It’s been on my list since I finished Jonathan Strange, so I cracked open the paperback while I was in Marseille and I am so glad I did. It is a perfect book. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter - feels like one of those books everyone is always telling me to read, and I finally comitted this month to getting through it all. Forty pages in I have discovered many overlaps with this logic-magic-Hell book I’m drafting right now–namely, Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, the Liar’s Paradox, Grelling’s Paradox, and Russel’s paradox…Hofstadter seems to think they are all just different versions of the same “strange loop”! (If this is nonsense to you then get excited because I’m about to put out a whole novel of such nonsense.) And a reread of In The Woods by Tana French–I got a friend hooked on the Dublin Murder Squad books a few weeks ago, and ended up binge-reading The Likeness on a flight home. It’s a dangerous recommendation - now I’m back in Cassie Maddox’s world again and I’m afraid I’m addicted.
Working on: My advisor is leading a massive introductory “China in Six Keys” class this term, and I’m teaching one of the discussion sections. It’s my first semester TFing! Suddenly so much of my time is taken up with drafting lesson plans, planning sections, and grading papers – I’m still in the honeymoon phase where all teaching is fun, and I hope the other shoe never drops. Other than that I’m also working on a translation of a Chinese science fiction short story about the capitalist accumulation of time (hoping to place this for publication in the next few months), summer travel grant applications, and Yellowface launch materials. And of course…Katabasis.
Some housekeeping notes: I’ll tour the US, UK, and (likely) Canada throughout May for Yellowface. All ticket links will be announced first through this newsletter in late February or March. This will be my largest US tour to date - they’re finally sending me to the West Coast. More soon, California! I’m also visiting Toronto, Warsaw, Prague, and likely Munich for book events at various points this year…I can’t wait.
Thanks for reading R.F. Kuang! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
I'm almost done with Babel now, and the thing that keeps striking me over and over again—as someone who did a graduate certificate in Gender, Race, and Identity, which included postcolonial studies—is how little the academy has changed over the decades. I've been to four universities at this point, two of which are Ivy-pluses, and the academy STILL, still, supports empire in a new name, and still maligns marginalized students, and still claims that academia is above all that. Scholar-activism is so appealing to me, but doing activism on campus burnt me out. I had no support from my department, no support from faculty throughout my MFA whenever I would stir the pot to try and better things for other marginalized students. A big part of me wants to go back to do a PhD, but so much more of me is like, why? Why bother? So I feel for you having those discussions and figuring that out.
Also, as a sidebar, I hope you continue to love teaching! I loved teaching, but I got very tired of how much work I had to put into it as opposed to my actual studies and writing. (Grading, lesson plans, more grading, trying to help students when they didn't want to be helped... granted, I was teaching comp. When I taught science, it was a bit better.)
Hi Rebecca! This was such a fun read. I wanted to let you know that I'm a comparative literature student at Berkeley currently taking an East Asian sci fi class. (Actually, the short blurb about June and wanting to peel off Athena's skin like an orange kind of reminds me of some of the texts we've read in this class, like Membranes by Chi Ta-wei). Also, my professor told me that you almost came here for your PhD! Ah. A missed opportunity for sure! But I'm glad that you'll be touring in the west coast, finally!
Regarding the translation of a Chinese story about the capitalist accumulation of time, I hope you can tell us about it when it is published. Aside from the East Asian Sci-Fi class that I'm taking right now, in second semester of college, I took a class called "Premodern Chinese Novels". In this class I learned about how eastern cultures, specifically China/ancient China, conceive of time. (The short, and shallow, and very incomplete answer is: non-linearly! As you may know) I hope you can tell us where to find your paper when it comes out because I'd love to read it, and temporality fascinates me even now!