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The White Privilege of ‘Yellowface’ and the Endless Room for Failure

The White Privilege of ‘Yellowface’ and the Endless Room for Failure

  • R.F. Kuang’s latest novel also exposes the complicated world of publishing — the condescension, the elitist attitude towards obscure writers and editors.

Poignant memory of sharing metaphors and turn of a phrase brings effervescence among students of literature. No one minds when someone’s  last line becomes the other student’s introduction. But things change in the cut throat world  of professional writing, where no one shares their ideas, let alone the  creative process.

My recent visit to Victoria, British Columbia, brought me to the gate of probably the very first Chinatown in North America founded in the mid 1800s, even before the Chinese settlement in San Francisco in 1848. This immigration was part of the Gold Rush. Browsing through books at a local bookstore, I came across “Yellowface.” I was impressed by R.F. Kuang who is a New York Times Best selling author of the “Poppy Wars and Babel.” Kuang has an M.Phil in Chinese Studies and an M.Sc. in Contemporary Chinese Studies from Cambridge. 

I picked up “Yellowface” at the wonderfully remodeled Barnes & Noble bookstore in Walnut Creek, California. I finished it in two sittings. The novel is interesting in many ways. The main narrative is  about two friends from disparate backgrounds who graduate from the same creative writing program, and develop a friendship of sorts that spills into their professional careers. 

June Song Hayward is a white woman  who steals her friend Athena’s (Chinese American) manuscript under bizarre circumstances. She doctors it up and submits the novel titled ‘The Last Front’ about the life of Chinese workers in the British Army in World War I. The book is a flyaway success, very different from her own first novel. Publishers go all out to support ‘Junie’ and her bank account and  calendar is overflowing with literary bonhomie.  

The author basks in the success of her friend’s written word and has no qualms about marketing the book under her middle name Song! She shrugs off any pangs of guilt by believing in her “white privilege” to be successful and brushing of the memory of her friend Athena in soft black curls, in leather boots and a fringed emerald shawl draped on her shoulders to bestow a sense of vulnerability and elegance. 

She grates even at her moleskin writing diaries, the insincere voice and how everyone offers to buy Athena a drink at bars. Until June  starts seeing an apparition of Athena in her book readings, online and too close to comfort. Challenging her, bullying her, threatening her to admit wrongdoing and give the proceeds of the book to Athena’s mother. June is also pressured to produce other books by her editor/agent. 

I know of several Indian novelists who have become successful with their debut novels like Salaman Rushdie, Jhuma Lahiri, Chitra Divakaruni, and now Alka Joshi.

I know of several Indian novelists who have become successful with their debut novels like Salaman Rushdie, Jhuma Lahiri, Chitra Divakaruni, and now Alka Joshi. All of them take a long time to write their first novels, like “Midnight’s Children,” “Interpreter of Maladies,” “The Mistress of Spices” and “The Henna Artist.”  

After reading “Yellowface,” I can imagine the pressure authors  face after accepting an advance for the second book. Book tours, book signings, endless public appearances they have to make to stay popular online and on the bookshelves. They have to write the next book, the next and the next. How do they feel when they cannot come up with subject matter, genre, plots, words? What happens when their entire identity becomes embroiled in the work of writing more than several  thousand words everyday. Are those who write a single piece of fiction or nonfiction forgotten? But how can we forget Anna Sewell’s “Black Beauty,” Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago” or  Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights”? 

Meanwhile, what does Kuang’s protagonist, June, do? How does she confront her guilty conscience, and the social media trolls who find it hard to believe that she wrote a historical fiction from a different culture! How does she plagiarize ideas for her second and third novels?  Does  she readily give up the money, the fame, the taste of expensive whiskey, health insurance, a checking account and the name June Song? 

Kuang exposes the complicated world of publishing, i.e,  the condescension, the elitist attitude towards  obscure writers and editors. Now when the world is becoming smaller and white readers are curious to read about other unfamiliar worlds, the issue of cultural appropriation and jealous white privilege comes up. 

I am a freelance  writer but I have experienced this unsettling censure myself. Some of my  own book club members were encouraging when I read my rough drafts to them but once I started publishing my stories, they circulated my work among writing groups to pull it apart. My only modicum of gratification was that they found me less threatening because I was not getting paid (much) for my efforts. 

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Kuang explores and challenges the concept  of what kind of stories writers are allowed to write given their race, gender or sexual orientation. June is challenged by a Chinese American reader: “Why she thinks it’s okay to write and profit from painful Chinese history. She responds, “I think it’s dangerous to start censoring what authors should and shouldn’t write…I mean, turn what you’re saying around and see how it sounds. Can a Black writer not write a novel with a white protagonist?”  

On the flip side when every commercial enterprise is profiting from Eastern ideas (like yoga, tai chi,  henna tattoos, turmeric lattes, golden ice creams, Ayurvedic facials, sari bedspreads, mirrored purses, Malabar curtains, Cashmere shawls, Indian Gods on slippers, shorts and doormats, jade jewelry, Maneki-neko (beckoning) chinese cats, foo dogs or Imperial Guardian Lions, why should white writers not appropriate Eastern history and culture narrative. Has that not been the accepted norm of the colonial Raj?

To give June Song some credit she does feel a punch in the gut when a man whose uncle who died in Tiananmen square holds her hands and thanks her for giving his personal tragedy a voice. Kuang emphasizes how every written word evokes a myriad of reactions by people on social media. Some fueled by interest, admiration to vitriol to downright death threats as our society is divided by tribalism and divergent points of view.

Everyone and anyone can have a platform on the internet and make or break the career of new authors. Opinions shift and almost every loyalty is fluid. Everyone brandishes the sword of their “own truth” till it serves a purpose, and then moves on to the next shiny object. An important take-home message as a professional woman was the point Kuang makes about how cishet white men have endless room for failure compared to anyone else. “Yellow Face” is meaningful because Kuang herself is an Asian writer telling this story through the eyes of a white writer who dismisses her as a Yellow Face.

With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. She has published hundreds of poems, movie reviews, book critiques, essays and contributed to combined literary works. Her two books are My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.

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