R.F. Kuang’s Novel “Yellowface” Is a Brutal Satire of Publishing, and the Industry Loves It

Everything about RF Kuang’s novel “Yellowface” feels designed to make the reader uncomfortable. It has an awkward title to say aloud and a cover featuring flashy racial stereotypes of cartoon-like slanted eyes pressed against yellow blocks.

Then there’s the story itself. In the opening chapter, a white author steals a manuscript from the home of a Chinese-American novelist who died in a bizarre accident and plans to pass it off as his own. What follows is a twisting thriller and a poignant indictment of the whiteness and racial blindness that pervades the publishing industry.

If the literary community is outraged by Mr. Quang’s atrophied portrayal of the book industry, or cringes at the perception, that’s exactly what matters, she says.

“It shouldn’t be an experience where reading a book about racism makes you feel better,” she says. “I want people to feel uncomfortable with the way books are written, promoted, and pitched. Also, who is in the room and how are you talking about the people in the room?” I want you to feel uncomfortable.

“And for writers of color, thinking about how we move through these spaces and the traps that are set for us works on another level. ‘ she added.

Quan, a best-selling fantasy author and PhD student in East Asian languages ​​and literature at Yale University, said as he sat in the sunny office of the publisher’s HarperCollins headquarters. In late April, she had just signed 2,000 copies of 250 copies of Yellowface to be shipped to independent bookstores by HarperCollins publisher William Morrow on Tuesday. The location was oddly suited for a conversation contemplating how her novel would be received within an industry that Quan brutally satirized.

Judging by the near-enthusiastic early reaction to the novel, the literary world seems to enjoy being skewered. HarperCollins will purchase the book for a mid-six figure price and send Quan on a tour of 10 North American cities. Barnes & Noble will release a special edition of the novel that includes an essay by Quan on the representation of Asian Americans in literature. The independent bookstore chose this book as the top of his “Indie Next” for June.

The novel has garnered praise from industry press outlets such as: Booklist, Publishers Weekly and Kirks, praised Mr. Quang’s unflinching accuracy, stating: Finally someone wrote it up. ”

“I laughed and moaned a lot,” said Zakia Dalila Harris, whose novel The Other Black Girl describes her experience as a black woman working in the publishing industry. “It just felt so real and inspiring,” she said.

The book caused discomfort from the beginning. When Ms. Quan sent her first 100 pages to her literary agent Hannah Bowman, Bowman at first tried to dissuade her from pursuing the project by warning that no one would want to publish it. and

“We had conversations like, ‘I’m afraid there’s something here that might offend the people I work with,'” Bowman recalls.

After Mr. Quang insisted, Mr. Bowman sent it and was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiastic response. “For people in publishing, it’s just catnip and it’s very unfair to the industry,” Bowman said. “Everyone who has read this book has said, ‘This says what it has to say.'”

Within HarperCollins, there was a brief and awkward argument that some might see “yellowface” as a less subtle criticism of the company.

“On our part, we had a lot of conversations like, ‘Oh my god, she’s writing deleted articles for the publishing industry, is that going to be a problem for Harper?'” he said after obtaining the book. Edited by Mei Cheng, said: Parts of the story sounded painfully true to her as a Chinese-American publishing executive. “We’re like, ‘Wow, does she like us?'”

For Quan, 26, who has a loyal following for his deeply researched and thought-provoking fantasy novels, publishing a work that thoroughly satirizes the publishing industry is creatively and professionally risky. was accompanied by She’s keenly aware of how she’s benefited from the publishing industry’s hype machine with her marketing campaigns on social media and the industry’s breathtaking book deal announcement on her website. . At the same time, she’s starting to resent the way she and her work are promoted and sometimes labeled as “diverse.”

“I’ve been in all this and I’m starting to get very bored with it,” she said. “It’s not just the people who think you’re not worthy of a readership or a position in the publishing industry who say, ‘Well, you’re there because you’re a nominally diverse writer.’ Rhetoric also comes from people who seek to support marginalized voices,” she continued. “I hate feeling like I’m being read just because someone is trying to tick the diversity checkbox.”

Kuan, whose parents immigrated to Texas from Guangzhou, China, when she was four, began writing her first novel as a way to reconnect with her family’s culture and history.

While studying history at Georgetown University, Kuan took a year off to live in Beijing and began writing episodes of fantasy stories to send to his father. These chapters became her debut novel The Poppy War, a martial arts-infused Chinese military history about the Sino-Japanese War. She sold the book to Harper Voyager as part of her trilogy and was nominated for the 2019 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel.

As her novelist career took off, Ms. Kuan immersed herself in Chinese history and language, earning a master’s degree in Chinese Studies from Cambridge and Oxford. She loved her camaraderie and her erudite vibe, but she felt uncomfortable with the elitist culture of academia. This experience inspired her to write her fourth novel, Babel. The novel is a historical fantasy set in mid-1800s Oxford, about a powerful group of translators who have magical command of language.

Like the “Poppy War” trilogy, “Babel” uses fantasy tropes to explore complex themes such as the effects of colonialism and racism, and how elite organizations promote social inequality. verified. The book made the New York Times bestseller list and sold about 350,000 copies.

When Kuan came up with the idea for “Yellowface” in early 2021, he had just submitted a manuscript for “Babel.” Months after protests erupted in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, the publishing industry, like other industries, has been hit hard. It addresses issues of diversity and representation. Quang was skeptical that such conversations would lead to action. “Many promises have been made, many goals have been set, but I think very few of those promises have been kept,” she said.

For Ms. Quan, it was easy to recall narrator June Hayward’s harsh, flippantly racist voice. Hayward is a struggling novelist with a grudge against his former classmate Athena Liu and an industry favorite who has written best-selling novels about Chinese culture and culture. history. In June’s skewed view, Athena was successful only because the publisher wanted to add Asian-American authors to its list.

“I’ve had June’s voice in my head for a really long time,” said Quan. “I start to internalize a lot of insecurities and doubts about my position in the room. ?”

After Athena drunkenly choked on pancakes to celebrate her Netflix deal and died suddenly before June’s eyes, June was forced to leave Athena’s novel in the works, namely from England to the Allied Front during World War I. Steal a novel about dispatched Chinese workers. June won her six-figure prize and she feels she deserves to be on her list of bestsellers.

She is also reeling from accusations that she was guilty of cultural appropriation, which profited from the suffering of Chinese workers, leading to an anonymous account on Twitter accusing her of stealing Athena’s work. annoyed.

June’s publisher is trying to avoid a scandal. A spokesperson for the book gently urges her about her ethnic heritage. “Are you… nothing else?” she asked, after she clarified that June was not Asian. A Korean-American assistant editor suggested that June hire a sensitive reader so that her portrayal of Chinese workers would not be offensive. She rejects June, but she is accused by critics that she is “not real”.

Kuan drew on his fears and experience as an Asian-American writer in a predominantly white industry as he wrote the first draft in a feverish few months.

“Together with Athena, I’m going through my worst nightmare of what I would become,” she said. “She is a professed Asian author acclaimed for her ability as a cultural broker. Because it is based on it, it is also very intimidating by other Chinese-American writers who are present.”

Quan seems to revel in the irony of a major corporate publisher announcing such a ruthless industry-shattering move. In late February, she posted: video On TikTok and Instagram, she smiles innocently as she hugs her “Yellowface” book, writing, “HarperCollins: Sure, I’m going to publish the satire you wrote about the publishing industry. I’m sure you didn’t say anything.” ” captioned. It means us. ”

For Quan, who is under contract to publish three more novels with HarperCollins, writing about his greatest professional insecurity was a sort of exorcism.

“One of the reasons I wanted to write ‘Yellowface’ was that I finally had to confine it to the page,” she said. “Now all that pesky problem is between the covers.”

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