One of literature’s many roles is to call attention to issues about which mainstream society (no matter how that’s defined) may be blissfully and complacently unaware. Reading is, therefore, a great way of expanding our awareness and empathy about the world. (That’s probably why book banning sadly remains a beloved tactic of those who don’t want to have the bubble of their complacency burst.) And one of my favorite things about being a reader is seeing how different authors can take different approaches this task, to different effect. Today I’d like to look at one instance of this that recently came my way: R.F. Kuang’s Babel and Eli Brown’s Cinnamon & Gunpowder.
R.F. Kuang’s Babel was one of last year’s biggest books. While it’s a kind of steam-punk, dark-academia, magical fantasy, the story it tells is a scalding indictment of nineteenth-century European imperialism. Specifically, it calls attention to the British Empire’s machinations surrounding the opium trade, in which it rectified a trade deficit with China by getting China’s population hooked on narcotics, then using Chinese attempts to stop them as a pretense for invasion. I really enjoyed Babel when I read it earlier this year, but felt it undermined the effectiveness of its story by stopping to rant about imperialism. These felt simultaneously unnecessary, since the book’s narrative was itself a strong indictment of the policies and attitudes in question; undermining, since it seemed like the author did not trust her narrative enough to let it do its job; and insulting, since really, nobody likes to be harangued and most readers would probably already be sympathetic to the book’s message. It wasn’t just preaching to the choir, but yelling at the choir. In my review, I tried to toe a delicate line of sharing my frustration with this aspect of the book, while also recognizing the validity of rage as a literary device and that it is far from my role — especially as an ethnically English White man — to police the tone of a book like this.
Then, recently I had Eli Brown’s Cinnamon & Gunpowder recommended to me as a fun pirate adventure. I was surprised to discover that the opium trade played a major role in this narrative too. It tells the story of a chef who is kidnapped by pirates after they kill his boss, a magnate of British trade with the East. Over the course of the novel, which is as promised, a fun and action-filled romp, the main character has his eyes opened to what his boss was really up to, and how his comfortable life (even as someone working in service) was supported. Cinnamon & Gunpowder does not preach or engage in diatribe, but yet was just as effective — and perhaps more, for its subtlety — in calling attention to this deplorable chapter in history. While ‘fun’ and ‘adventurous,’ it demonstrates the violence by which European wealth was won and maintained, and just how thin the line between navy, privateer, and pirate was. And by having a point-of-view character who was being exposed to harsh truths about the world and having to examine his complicity in them, even as someone with no power or influence, it invites the reader to explore the ways their own lives are caught up in and may benefit from unjust systems.
So we have two books taking very different approaches to the same subject matter. One is intentionally ‘literary’, the other intentionally more ‘popular’. One is angry, the other fun. One rages, the other invites. One is vinegar, the other is honey. Again, this is not really intended as a criticism of Babel; it is an excellent book and it’s unquestionably a ‘better’ book than Cinnamon & Gunpowder and I think I ultimately still enjoyed it more, despite my frustrations with it. But, there are different ways of telling stories, depending on what an author aims to do. And while Babel is most effective in expressing rage at Western economic policy, Cinnamon & Gunpowder is probably more effective in changing hearts and minds. I’m glad the literary world has room for both.
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