Title: Yellowface

Author: R. F. Kuang

Read In: 2023


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People always describe jealousy as this sharp, green, venomous thing. Unfounded, vinegary, mean-spirited. But I’ve found that jealousy, to writers, feels more like fear. Jealousy is the spike in my heart rate when I glimpse news of Athena’s success on Twitter—another book contract, awards nominations, special editions, foreign rights deals. Jealousy is constantly comparing myself to her and coming up short; is panicking that I’m not writing well enough or fast enough, that I am not, and never will be, enough. Jealousy means that even just learning that Athena’s signing a six-figure option deal with Netflix means that I’ll be derailed for days, unable to focus on my own work, mired by shame and self-disgust every time I see one of her books in a bookstore display.

Every writer I know feels this way about someone else. Writing is such a solitary activity. You have no assurance that what you’re creating has any value, and any indication that you’re behind in the rat race sends you spiraling into the pits of despair. Keep your eyes on your own paper, they say. But that’s hard to do when everyone else’s papers are flapping constantly in your face.

Athena uses a typewriter. No Word backups, no Google Docs, no Scrivener: just scribbles in Moleskine notebooks that become outlines on sticky notes that become fully formed drafts on her Remington. It forces her to focus on the sentence level, or so she claims. (She’s given this interview response so many times I’ve nearly memorized it.) Otherwise, she digests entire paragraphs at a time, and she loses the trees for the forest.

Honestly. Who talks like that? Who thinks like that?

They make these ugly and overpriced electronic typewriters, for authors who can’t string together more than a paragraph without losing focus and hopping over to Twitter. But Athena hates those; she uses a vintage typewriter, a clunky thing that requires her to buy special ink ribbons and thick, sturdy pages for her manuscripts. “I just can’t write on a screen, , she’s told me. “I have to see it printed. Something about the reassuring solidity of the word. It feels permanent, like everything I compose has weight. It ties me down; it clarifies my thoughts and forces me to be specific.”

Athena is famously cagey about her projects until they’re finished. No beta readers. No interviews, no sharing snippets on social media. Even her agents and editors don’t get to see so much as an outline until she’s finished the whole thing. “It has to gestate inside me until it’s viable,” she told me once. “If I expose it to the world before it’s fully formed, it dies.”

“I think it’s very dangerous to start censoring what authors should and shouldn’t write.” I open strong, and this gets some approving murmurs from the crowd. But I still see some skeptical faces, especially from the other Asians present, so I continue. Td hate to live in a world where we tell people what they should and shouldn’t write based on the color of their skin. 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? What about everyone who has written about World War Two, and never lived through it? You can critique a work on the grounds of literary quality, and its representations of history—sure. But I see no reason why I shouldn’t tackle this subject if I’m willing to do the work. And as you can tell by the text, I did do the work. You can look up my bibliographies. You can do the fact-checking yourself. Meanwhile, I think writing is fundamentally an exercise in empathy. Reading lets us live in someone else’s shoes. Literature builds bridges; it makes our world larger, not smaller. And as for the question of profit—I mean, should every writer who writes about dark things feel guilty about it? Should creatives not be paid for their work?”

She hugged me in that light, detached way of hers, the way that made it seem like she was a supermodel who’d hugged a line of a hundred fans and now no longer knew how to put real emphasis into this action, hugging.

Rory and I aren’t terribly close, but we have the easy intimacy of two sisters who can’t fathom what the other finds attractive about their lifestyle, and have long given up trying to convert them.

Every time I see Tom, I wonder what it would be like to go through life with the easy contentment of a rock.

I’m not opposed to children in theory, but I think I would have liked Allie better if she were a shy, bookish type I could have taken on shopping sprees at indie bookstores instead of an iPhone-addicted, TikTok-obsessed basic bitch in training.

He’s one of those assholes who leaves read receipts on. He sees it right away. He doesn’t answer.

I felt a wonderful, mysterious alchemy during those fevered weeks, when I conjured her writing voice from beyond the grave and harmonized my own against it.

When you’re in the zone, drafting doesn’t feel like an effortful artifice. It feels like remembering, like putting down in written form something that has been locked inside you all along.

“Hey, Juniper?” Athena stopped me one afternoon on my way back from the dining hall. Back then, Athena was the only one who used my full name, which was a habit she would sustain through adulthood, calling Tashas “Natasha” and Bills “William” as if this insistence on formality would elevate everyone in the conversation. (It did.)

Writing is the closest thing we have to real magic. Writing is creating something out of nothing, is opening doors to other lands. Writing gives you power to shape your own world when the real one hurts too much. To stop writing would kill me. I’d never be able to walk through a bookstore without fingering the spines with longing, wondering at the lengthy editorial process that got these titles on shelves and reminiscing about my own.

I once met a poet who carried a tiny notebook everywhere she went and wrote down at least one quippy observation about every encounter she had throughout the day. The barista’s hair was a desperate shade of purple. The woman at the table beside her drew out the word “yes” like a stalling tactic. The boss’s name slid off the doorman’s tongue like rusty pennies.

“I don’t create so much as I collect, explained the poet. “The world is already so rich. All I do is distill the messiness of human life into a concentrated reading experience.”

That night I scarf down a salad from the dining hall, then head to the nearest coffee shop and scribble out a half-dozen story ideas—descriptive paragraphs, experimental structures, crucial bits of dialogue, whatever comes to mind. I write so fast my hand cramps. I’m buzzing with creative energy. My students made stories seem so rich, elastic, full of infinite varia-tions. Maybe my gears aren’t irreparably jammed. Maybe I only needed to remember how good it feels to create.

“Writing isn’t the whole world, Junie. And there’s plenty of careers that won’t give you such constant heartbreak. That’s all I’m saying.”

But writing is the whole world. How can I explain this to her? Stopping isn’t an option. I need to create. It is a physical urge, a craving, like breathing, like eating; when it’s going well, it’s better than sex, and when it’s not, I can’t take pleasure in any thing else.

Dad played the guitar during his off time; he understood. A musician needs to be heard; a writer needs to be read. I want to move people’s hearts. I want my books in stores all over the world. I couldn’t stand to be like Mom and Rory, living their little and self-contained lives, with no great projects or prospects to propel them from one chapter to the next. I want the world to wait with bated breath for what I will say next. I want my words to last forever. I want to be eternal, permanent; when I’m gone, I want to leave behind a mountain of pages that scream, Juniper Song was here, and she told us what was on her mind.

Athena always thought that what she did was a gift. A distillation of trauma into something eternal. Give me your bruises and hurts, she told us, and I will return to you a diamond. Only she never cared that once the art was made, once the personal became spectacle, the pain was still there.

Perhaps, if I can capture all my fears and constrain them safely on the page, this will rob them of their power.