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'Yellowface' explores cultural appropriation in publishing via an unlikeable narrator

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The novel "Yellowface" is about a thief - namely, June Hayward, a writer - not a particularly successful writer. The other key character is Athena Liu, a spectacularly successful writer. Well, these two went to Yale together. They are friends - kind of - until Athena dies by choking on a pancake, with June watching, and with the manuscript of her next book, a masterpiece that no one - not even her editor - has seen yet, typed and neatly stacked in the next room. I spoke with the author of "Yellowface," R.F. Kuang in May and asked her to walk us through what happens next.

R F KUANG: Well, June decides to steal Athena's unpublished manuscript and pass it off as her own, all the while passing herself off as Chinese American when she's not. And then we get into a roller coaster of all the absurdities about publishing, all the scandals, all the lies people tell and the online pile-ons that happens when people are found to be guilty of wrongdoing.

KELLY: You nodded to something there - that she tries to pass herself off as Chinese American. She changes her name, which was June Hayward. She publishes the book as Juniper Song, which could, you know, maybe be Asian. She gets this new author glamour shot, where she looks really tan - like, maybe racially ambiguous. Does she know what she's doing?

KUANG: She's extremely aware of what she's doing, and she's doing it deliberately. I think there is this strange myth that diversity is what's selling, and that, in order to get opportunities, especially in hypercompetitive industries like publishing, you have to get your way through the door by pretending to be an ethnic identity that you don't have. Now, where this myth came from is puzzling to me because we know from industry reports every year it's still overwhelmingly in your advantage to be white in publishing. But we see over and over again white writers adopting monikers that make them sound Asian or make them sound non-white or have different backgrounds. That makes me wonder - what is it about a different racial identity that can be commodified and turned into something that makes you exotic and special and marketable?

KELLY: Mmm. I mean, she has, by the time the book is published, rewritten significant portions of it, created wholly original new portions of it. She's done the research. She's added so much, she starts to forget which words actually she wrote and which words were originally Athena's. On a certain level, is she the author, or does she deserve at least co-billing?

KUANG: June feels strongly that she should be able to publish this book under her own name because she's the one who got it into publication shape. And on some level, she's right. The original manuscript was messy. It was incomplete. So the final product isn't Athena's alone. It would have been fair for them to share credit. June isn't being completely delusional when she thinks the final product is something that she gets to claim.

KELLY: People may be gathering June is not the most likable (laughter) character. She's not the most likable narrator. Why did you want to write her?

KUANG: I love writing unlikable narrators. But the trick here is it's much more fun to follow a character that does have a sympathetic background, that does think reasonable thoughts about half the time because then you're compelled to follow their logic to the horrible decisions they are making. I'm also thinking a lot about a very common voice in female-led psychological thrillers because I always really love reading widely around the genre that I'm trying to make an intervention in. And I noticed there's this voice that comes up over and over again, and it's a very nasty, condescending protagonist that you see repeated across works. And I'm thinking of protagonists like the main character of "Gone Girl," the main character of "The Girl In The Window." I am trying to take all those tropes and inject them all into, again, a singular white female protagonist who is deeply unlikable and try to crack the code of what makes her so interesting to listen to regardless.

KELLY: Yeah. Athena is not the most likable character either. Aside from the fact that she dies pretty early in the book, we glimpse a lot of who she was through kind of flashbacks. I saw where you said she's your worst nightmare - that she's all the things you hope will never be true of yourself. How so?

KUANG: Athena's kind of a brat. She's also a terrible friend. I really wanted to subvert the idea of a perfect, innocent victim. I wanted to turn the question around and ask - can we talk about appropriation and stealing stories when we remove it from the question of race? And Athena has done quite a lot of stealing each other's stories. She did something very cruel to June when they were undergrads that really has no ethical excuse.

Now, the part of her that I'm terrified of becoming is the part that is so isolated and narcissistic about her own success that she loses any touch with her community. Almost every other Asian American character in the novel does not have very nice things to say about Athena either, and...

KELLY: Yeah.

KUANG: ...It's because she had this "Cinderella" story of overnight celebrity. And it's messed with her head a bit. And she's used to being the only Asian American in the room. She's used to being the special token, and she views anyone else as a threat. She doesn't want to be a supportive member of her own community, and that's horrifying to me. I hope that never becomes true of me.

KELLY: The sly, winked-at, never-quite-said-out-loud joke here is you have written a novel about a white woman who writes about Chinese people and gets slammed for cultural appropriation. It does not escape my notice that you are an Asian woman who is writing a main character who is white. Were you deliberately stirring the pot - like, trying to invert all the questions about appropriation and racism and who gets to write which stories?

KUANG: Oh, yeah. I think it's hilarious that all of our assumptions about who gets to do cultural appropriation or when something counts as cultural appropriation kind of go away when you invert who is of what identity. And I think that a lot of our standards about cultural appropriation are language about - don't write outside of your own lane. You can only write about this experience if you've had that experience. I don't think they make a lot of sense. I think they're actually quite limiting and harmful and backfire more often on marginalized writers than they push forward conversations about widening opportunities. You would see Asian American writers being told that you can't write anything except about immigrant trauma or the difficulties of being Asian American in the U.S.

And I think that's anathema to what fiction should be. I think fiction should be about imagining outside our own perspectives, stepping into other people's shoes and empathizing with the other. So I really don't love arguments that reduce people to their identities or set strict permissions of what you can and can't write about. And I'm playing with that argument by doing the exact thing that June is accused of - writing about an experience that isn't hers.

KELLY: We've been speaking with R.F. Kuang. Her new novel is "Yellowface." Thank you.

KUANG: Thank you so much for having me. This was a delight.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
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