I am very excited that Rebecca F. Kuang, author of the groundbreaking Poppy War series, has written this post to launch our blog. A bundle is available to buy the books she recommends, at a discount. Thanks for writing our first blog post, Rebecca! – Jimi Cullen, unireadinglists.com.
I’ve been addicted to novels about school life–campus novels, dark academia, whatever you want to call them–for as long as I can remember. I love The Secret History, with all of its characters’ dreary, ominous, narcissistic and myopic self-indulgence. I think David Lodge’s Changing Places, though dated, is hilarious. I devoured Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House before it even came out. I’ve never quite gotten into the “dark academia” aesthetic, however, because it’s always come off as so insufferably white. So too is the campus novel “canon.” A Lithub list of the “20 Best Campus Novels, Ranked,” for example, includes only one book by a writer of color–My Education by Susan Choi. But surely there’s more worth reading about than the white, middle-class college experience. Surely romantic, academic aesthetic does not begin and end with white English majors waxing bad poetry under the moonlight.
Here then is a list of campus novels by BIPOC writers I’ve enjoyed over the past year–some are horror novels, some are ‘dark academia’, some are slice-of-life stories, and some are coming of age tales. They’re all wonderful.
I picked up Transcendent Kingdom last week on the recommendation of a friend working on her master’s in experimental psychology. (It’s great, she texted. I love how she describes working with mice.) It’s excellent on the details of the main character’s research, which strikes me as particularly impressive given that Yaa Gyasi studied English, not neuroscience (her acknowledgments refer to lengthy conversations with a friend in the field), but the novel is more importantly about family, grief, addiction, and depression. It doesn’t romanticize life as a doctoral student, nor does it make it out to be as bleak and hopeless as one might expect. Instead, it’s an honest, truthful, and ultimately optimistic story about our work and the impact it might have on others.
The New Yorker called Real Life a “new kind of campus novel,” and it’s precisely the kind of campus novel I would love to see more of. Wallace–a gay, black biochemistry doctoral student–is navigating the trials of graduate life, including a racist and homophobic colleague trying to frame him for misogyny–on the heels of the death of his father. His experiments are failing. His friend group might mor might not be racist. His romantic life is complicated to the extreme. It’s both a unique and universally relatable story; it’s not about a fantasy constructed within the academy, or an imagined beast threatening the naïve lives sheltered within; it is, quite simply, about real life.
The Tenth Muse is a novel about a lot of things–mathematics, the legacies and traumas of war, family secrets, complicated relationships, and the coming of age tale of a mixed-race protagonist. Large chunks of the novel deal with the main character, mathematically gifted Katherine, as she grows up in the 1950s and enters the world of academia, which was of course even more rife with sexism and racism than it is today. Scenes from Katherine’s time at college and graduate school, mostly dealing with her white, male colleagues, had me on the edge of my seat, anxiety levels spiking on her behalf. Chung’s prose is gorgeous, and the plot is gripping from start to finish; The Tenth Muse manages somehow to be both a deeply compelling story of a single protagonist and a love letter to all of the forgotten or overshadowed women in science and mathematics across history. I loved it.
I admit the big sell of Catherine House for me was that it was a dark academia written by a Yalie, and as a Yalie-to-be I can’t get enough of stories about my future home. I hoped for something that might fuel my daydreams of Yale’s Gothic buildings, but Catherine House was something else entirely–it’s dark, foreboding, and it’s never precisely clear what’s going on. That’s intentional. The speculative elements of Catherine House–the experiments, the secrets, and something called plasm–are both fascinating and elusive, but it’s not important that you pin down exactly what they represent. Rather, they evoke a tension all too familiar for anyone who’s been to university likely remembers–do you buy into the campus ideal of insular, happy, well-adjusted, placidity? Are you better off forgetting the outside world? Why would it be so bad to just put a smile on your face and pretend everything is alright?
I first encountered Don Lee’s work in an undergraduate class on Asian American literature. We were assigned to read his short story collection Yellow, and I remember being astonished to find, for the first time, literary fiction that addressed many of the same difficult questions that I was constantly mulling over. What does it mean to be Asian American? Does that even make sense as a political category? What are the sexual politics of being Asian American–must we date within our own race, and are we race traitors if we do not? What are our obligations as Asian American creatives, and at what point does our work go from celebrating our heritage to deliberately emphasizing our otherness? When and how do we become caricatures of ourselves? The Collective follows three Asian American artists who meet in college–Eric Cho, Jessica Tsai, and Joshua Yoon–and their creative and personal endeavors thereafter. It’s an insightful, heart-breaking, funny, and for me, resonant examination of figuring out what it means not only to be an Asian in America, but an artist at that.
Rebecca F. Kuang is a Marshall Scholar, Chinese-English translator, and the Astounding Award-winning and Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Award nominated author of the Poppy War trilogy. Her work has won the Crawford Award and the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. She has an MPhil in Chinese Studies from Cambridge and an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies from Oxford; she is now pursuing a PhD in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale.