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She wants fiction writers to step outside their experiences. Even if it's messy

The cover of <em>Yellowface.</em>
William Morrow
The cover of Yellowface.

R.F. Kuang's novel offers a literary exploration of cultural appropriation taken to a new degree.

Who is she? R.F. Kuang is an award-winning Chinese American author, known for her best-selling fantasy novels in The Poppy War trilogy.

  • Yellowface, her latest work, focuses on a writer and thief named June Hayward, who finds herself stumped with little professional success.
  • Athena Liu, however, is her extremely successful, sort-of friend and peer from Yale. After Athena chokes to death on a pancake with June watching on, the fate of her unfinished manuscript, and the aspects of her identity woven in, are taken into June's hands.
  • What's the big deal?

  • The story then follows June as she steals Athena's manuscript, and attempts to pass it off as her own, falling down a rabbit hole of intentionally misrepresenting her own racial identity.
  • What follows is an exploration of identity à la Rachel Dolezal, cultural ownership, and a searing commentary on absurdities within the publishing industry.
  • The book has generated plenty of buzz, with reviewers landing on all sides of the spectrum, and some predicting it to be the next Big Discourse Book.
  • What is she saying? Kuang spoke with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly about the book, and the process behind it.

    On the ouroboros of identity with an Asian author writing from the perspective of a white woman who is doing the inverse:

    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 perspective, 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.

    Want more on books? Listen to Consider This speak with Dolly Parton on her new kid's book that tackles bullying.

    On writing an unlikeable character:

    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 the protagonist, 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 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.

    So, what now?

  • Yellowface officially released this week. Let the online discourse begin.
  • Learn More:

  • Book review: 'Yellowface' takes white privilege to a sinister level
  • In 'Quietly Hostile,' Samantha Irby trains a cynical eye inwar
  • Victor LaValle's novel 'Lone Women' is infused with dread and horror — and more
  • Books We Love: Tales From Around The World
  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.