Nebula Award-winning novelist Rebecca F. Kuang has been weaving social justice narratives into speculative fiction since bursting onto the scene with her 2018 historical fantasy debut, The Poppy War. Born in China and brought up in the U.S., her work is hailed for its immersive blend of history, mysticism, and diasporic identity.
Following the success of The Poppy War and its sequels, The Dragon Republic and The Burning God, Kuang released the dark academia tour de force, Babel, or the Necessity of Violence, in 2022. Set in an alternate-reality 1830s England, it grapples with student uprisings, post-colonial thought, and the wielding of language and translation as a weapon of oppression by the British Empire.
Kuang’s latest, 2023’s Yellowface, offers a scathing satire of tokenism and diversity in the publishing industry, and marks her first foray into the literary fiction genre. To celebrate its release, she sat down with Good Housekeeping to discuss her lifelong love of reading:
“This is impossible to overstate – books are everything to me. Books have made me constantly curious, hungry to learn and just full of wonder. They’re an endless source of delight.”
On the books that shaped her, Kuang recommended an absurdist classic by Vladimir Nabokov, alongside Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterful meditations on post-war guilt and Kim Kelly’s history of American labor movements. Explore her reading list below.
R.F. Kuang’s Reading List
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
“I loved Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book so much I actually copied out whole pages from the book and stapled them to my wall so I could read them over and over. It’s utterly transportive. When I was reading it I could really feel the chill of the graveyard and the whispers of the ghosts. It was one of the first books that made me really feel the sheer power of good storytelling. It takes you body and soul to a completely different world. I read it again earlier this year and it really holds up – it was just as magical to read as an adult.” -RFK
“Firstly, because it’s hilarious and second, because it tackles all these incredible technical challenges and carries it off beautifully. You can tell it’s written by someone who respects and has so much fun with English.” -RFK
“I think of them as counterparts to each other, dealing with the legacy of the Second World War, and they are just gorgeous. I’m influenced by the craft, the patience, the subtle handling of the themes – it’s one of the best treatments of post-war guilt.” -RFK
Fight Like Hell by Kim Kelly
“A history of labor movements in the US. We’re in an interesting period where pro-union sentiment is at a high and I’d like to see this momentum grow, especially among younger people.” -RFK
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
“I was going through some serious writer’s block last year, feeling so burnt out and stressed, and writing didn’t feel magical any more… Then I read Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. It’s playful and has this constant note of optimism and wonder about the world which encouraged me to start writing again.” -RFK
“My fiancé and I read these together during the pandemic. We would read a story a day, then we’d go on long walks and talk about it. It was like solving a puzzle together. Chiang’s style is very clean and simple and the prose doesn’t get in the way of the incredibly cool ideas he’s playing around with.” -RFK
(via Good Housekeeping; photo by John Packman)