From: “Rebecca F Kuang: ‘Who has the right to tell a story? It’s the wrong question to ask’”
“If I were a debut writer, I wouldn’t have dared to write this book,” Rebecca F Kuang says from her home in Boston. Then again, she wouldn’t have been able to. Her new thriller, Yellowface, could only have been written by an author familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the publishing industry: its petty politics, its bad faith, its best intentions gone hilariously awry.
In the novel, which tells the story of a white writer who claims a dead Chinese friend’s manuscript as her own, the industry’s dark side is satirised with delicious cynicism: how authors are questionably packaged and marketed; how bestsellers are often selected in advance and boosted with money long before they hit the shelves; and how marginalised authors and staff are ignored, belittled and underpaid.
An Instagram post earlier this year shows the 26-year-old author holding up an early copy of the book, showing its eye-catching lemon yellow cover; it is captioned “in 2023 we get mad spill the beans and don’t care”.
Kuang first made her name with the Poppy War trilogy, an award-winning fantasy series that explores the idea, as she puts it, “what if Mao had been a teenage girl?” . . . .
Kuang drafted Yellowface in the summer of 2021, a time of lockdown “when all the isolation and desperation and depression was reaching a peak”. Unlike her previous historical fantasies, it is strikingly topical: it includes sensitivity readers, Twitter pile-ons and professional jealousies thinly disguised as socially minded critique. . . .
“The dramas of the literary world seemed like a perfect fit. “Publishing, like many entertainment industries, is so full of drama,” she says. “I think writers are particularly good at taking small scandals and blowing them out of proportion.”
The industry at the time was coming to a reckoning with its track record on race, sparked by the global Black Lives Matter protests: online, there were discussions about which stories were being told, who was getting paid more, who was getting promoted.
Yellowface’s protagonist, who describes herself as a boring “brown-eyed, brown-haired June Hayward from Philly”, is viciously jealous of fellow writer Athena Liu, a “beautiful, Yale-educated, international, ambiguously queer woman of colour”, whose education in British boarding schools equips her with “a posh, unplaceable foreign accent”.
“Publishing picks a winner,” June thinks; Athena, with her string of bestsellers, is the anointed one. After Athena suddenly dies, June discovers a manuscript she had been working on, about the 95,000-strong Chinese Labour Corps who supported Britain in the first world war. It’s intimidatingly good. When June polishes it up and passes it off as her own, the book shoots her to literary stardom.
Reviewers then debate June’s right to tell the story, echoing familiar conversations on whether authors should write about characters and histories outside their own race or lived experiences. In Yellowface, that initial query spirals into increasingly outlandish backlashes, and everything that was once coherent and proportionate disappears under a mountain of tweets.
Kuang’s view, however, is clearer. “I really do not like this framework,” she says. Concerns about “who has permission to tell these stories, or who has the right, or who is qualified” seem like “the wrong questions to ask”.
“We’re storytellers, and the point of storytelling is, among other things, to imagine outside of your lived experience and empathise with people who are not you, and to ideally write truthfully, and with compassion, a whole range of characters,” she continues. “Otherwise all we could ever publish are memoirs and autobiographies and nobody wants that.”
For her, more interesting is how authors approach these stories: “Are they engaging critically with tropes and stereotypes that already exist in the genre? Or are they just replicating them? What is their relationship to the people who are being represented?”
And, “most importantly, does the work do something interesting? Is it good?”
While some concerns about the “permission to speak” come from desires to support underrepresented authors, Kuang thinks it “usually gets wielded as a double-edged sword against marginalised writers, to pigeonhole them into only writing about their marginalised experiences. And I hate this. It really functions as another form of gatekeeping.”
. . . “There is a fairly widespread sentiment by now that the most over-represented Asian Americans tend to be East Asians, light-skinned Chinese Americans whose parents are professors who went to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, et cetera,” [Kuang] says, before mentioning books in Asian American studies – Lisa Lowe’s Immigrant Acts and Kandice Chuh’s Imagine Otherwise – that instead recognise a multiplicity of experiences. “There is no singular Asian American experience, and studying Asian Americans just means studying all of those different waves of migration.”. . . .
Kuang remains cynical about the publishing industry, pointing to how pledges made in 2021 to support diversity have fallen through. “In the end, it was a lot of chatter, but no substantive support for those authors, no real commitment to diversify lists, or the faces of people working on the other side of publishing.” Staff at HarperCollins, her publisher, went on strike for better pay and working conditions while the novel was in production – Kuang has co-hosted strike rallies for the union. . . .