R.F. Kuang On ‘Yellowface’ & The Publishing Industry Trap That Is #OwnVoices

Reading the first few pages of Yellowface, the latest transfixing novel by R.F. Kuang — the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of the Poppy Wars fantasy trilogy and the anti-imperialist, dark academia novel Babel — you might think the author had inserted herself into the narrative. It starts, after all, with an introduction to Athena Liu, a rising darling of the literary world whose accomplishments read like a list of any MFA student’s dreams. Yet, Kuang doesn’t relate to Athena at all. “In writing Athena, I tried really hard to play with versions of a successful Asian American writer that I hope never to become, and who is in fact my worst nightmare,” the author tells Bustle.

Kuang relates much more to June, the friend who watches Athena die in a bizarre accident and proceeds to steal her completed manuscript, eventually pretending to be of Asian descent in order to pass Athena’s book off as her own. “June’s voice came too easily,” Kuang says. “All those horrible feelings of worthlessness and depression and jealousy that June feels, I’ve felt them all.”

Kuang tells the story from June’s point of view, flipping the script on #OwnVoices — a term for books about characters from marginalized groups, written by authors who share the character’s identity. The term was created as a hashtag by author Corinne Duyvis in 2015 as a way to promote the work of marginalized authors, but it has been co-opted by publishers as a marketing tool: Rather than empowering authors and readers, it became another way by which the industry controlled those voices, elevating only a select few willing to mine their personal history and trauma, further othering themselves in the process. In Yellowface, Athena quickly realizes how #OwnVoices is a trap — as Kuang knows all too well. “Every time something good happens for me, every time I start to feel like my voice has value, I hear that voice in the back of my head: No, your writing isn’t good. No, you don’t deserve this. No, the only reason you’re here is because you’re a token Chinese American and you’re diverse and diversity is what’s selling at the moment but it’s all going to disappear tomorrow,” she says. “June is the voice of our deepest anxieties and paranoias and frustrations about being Asian American women in this industry.” Deep anxieties that, for the moment, Kuang has managed to quell with Yellowface. As she put it, “Writing anything down is a way to fix it and trap it, at least a little bit.”

Below, Kuang shares how she deals with internalized criticism, discusses highlander syndrome, and advocates for the stability of loving what you do in the face of unstable systems.

While June does some truly despicable things, I found it upsettingly impossible not to empathize with her. When you were writing, did you have an idea of who was a “good” or “bad” character? How do you personally feel about Junie?

I feel really bad for June. She is a product of a literary environment where it’s easy to believe that some people are getting book deals just because they’re diverse, and yes, she is a flaming racist and yes she has no genuine friends of color and yes she’s just in it for herself, but some of her attitudes are also a consequence of how dehumanizing and cruel the publishing industry can be and how the social economy of writers can be — and that’s really the target of critique, not this hypothetical person with all of June’s attributes. Even with a protagonist as ridiculous and warped and biased by privilege and jealousy, there’s so many parts of June that are really relatable. My closest friends who are also writers, and largely women of color, hated June so much but wondered why they were so sympathetic to her. That’s what I want to do with every character I write. I want to make them compelling even if they’re making horrible decisions.

At the heart of this novel is a complex female friendship, much like Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. We all have an Athena — a friend who’s perfect in our eyes. What are your personal experiences with jealousy?

I spent the first few years of my career having a really hard time dealing with jealousy of other writers who I thought were having better careers than I did, and I tried to articulate this in Yellowface. It’s not the kind of envy that’s represented in Hollywood… it’s more like terror at the idea that somebody else succeeding means that things are over for you. Something I’ve really always prized is solidarity and community support and being there for others, especially other women of color. I’ve had these principles from the start, so I wondered why it terrified me so much when another Asian American writer got a six-figure deal, when another Asian American writer was a NYT bestseller, when their book was doing better than mine. And it really bothered and frightened me.

I had bought into this thing called the Highlander Syndrome. It’s this weird dynamic that’s created by tokenization: If you’re not the only Asian American in the room, the special and unique one, anybody else in the room is a threat to you. It’s this constructed scarcity mindset that’s really brought about by all kinds of exclusionary biases. It took a while to realize that somebody else doing well didn’t mean a door was being slammed in front of me — this pervasive belief that only so many people are going to get in through this diversity window and once it closes, it’s over. I don’t think that fear is ungrounded either. Once I realized that was at the root of my terror, I worked really hard to let that go and just be happy for other people, be excited about what they’re doing, and falling in love with their writing. Now I’m in a space where I can just enjoy other people’s work and be delighted when somebody else succeeds, because that means opportunities are opening up for all of us.

Whether June faces Twitterati cancelation or industry exaltation, she’s left feeling helpless. What are your own thoughts on the publishing industry and its reliance on BookTok and other forms of social media?

There were a few golden years where Twitter was a really interesting democratizing force in publishing. You could use it to find community, to enter pitch contests that were specifically for diverse authors. It was a place where you could have interesting conversations about writing and identity and literature. I got onto Twitter at the very tail end of that time and it quickly spiraled into the Twitter we know now. Publishers are always like, be active on social media. Make a TikTok. Make an Instagram. The reality is that social media marketing doesn’t really move the needle on sales and people have known this for a long time. It’s not true that you need a social media account in order to get published and it’s also not true that you need to be on social media in order for a book to take off. I don’t recall Sally Rooney having an Instagram account.

On the other hand, I also think the literary world was better when we didn’t know so much about each other. We’re at this weird space where the distance has shrunk between authors and readers. I’m not sure this is a good thing for literature. You get all this instant feedback — if you want, you can go to Goodreads and see what thousands of people think of your work. I haven’t been on Goodreads in a long time because I find all of that noise terribly distracting. It’s all getting in the way of the only thing that matters, which is the work, being able to create something you believe in.

You skewer the publishing industry with Yellowface, and I loved seeing your support and involvement in the HarperCollins strike. How much of the inspiration for the novel came from what you witnessed firsthand about how people are treated in this industry?

The strike didn’t affect what was in the novel but my relationship with the people who were striking did. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been at the same publishing house [HarperCollins] for my entire career, which means that I’ve been able to form pretty strong relationships and develop a trust with my editors, publicists, the people on my marketing team, and I have a deep love for them. When Yellowface got in their hands, I had people basically whispering over my shoulder: “Here are ways we could make this book so much more scathing in its description of how publishing operates behind the scenes.” Because the contradiction is that the vast majority of people you’ll ever encounter in publishing are there for the love of the books and writers. And it’s really because of the way [the publishers are] structured and because of very, I think, bad decisions made up top that you have editors and marketing teams and publicists who are overworked, underpaid, and exhausted. And when several of my team members were on strike and I didn’t get to work with them for a few months, it seemed like the most natural decision in the world to support the strike.

Without spoiling too much, I found the end fantastically dark and all too accurate in its portrayal of the lack of accountability for certain people. Were there any other endings you considered? Are there possible reparations for June or for the publishing companies that are complicit?

I don’t know that there are any possible reparations for somebody like Junie because the way publishing is structured just means it gets to feed off its own scandals. Like American Dirt. Publishing absorbs criticism of itself and turns it into another story it can capitalize on. Yellowface participates in this cycle. This book is going to make HarperCollins a lot of money and that is kind of the deal you have to strike if you’re operating within Big Five publishing, because indie publishing is not feasible for me as an alternative. What am I supposed to do? Should I not write the novel? I would always prefer a world in which I can get the story out there. But I’m very bothered by the fact that there is no critique of publishing that can come from inside publishing. Yellowface is not going to make HarperCollins change the way it does anything. It’s just going to be one of those scandal novels that’s really good for the bottom line. The more important thing is that people are able to read Yellowface, and the people who are going to work in publishing, the editors and agents… That’s the level at which change starts to happen.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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