Who has the right?

Excerpt from Yellowface by R.F. Kuang

Photo by Nick Night on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book Yellowface by R.F. Kuang.


I once went to a Korean War exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History with Athena, back when I was still fooling myself that we could be good friends. I’d just moved to DC after my stint with Teach for America, and I knew Athena had moved there a few months prior for her fellowship at Georgetown, so I’d reached out breezily to see what she was up to. She responded that she was working in the morning, but doing a museum visit in the afternoon, and would love if I came along.

Wandering about an exhibit on the Korean War wasn’t my first choice for how to spend a Friday afternoon, but Athena wanted to hang out with me, and back then I still felt a little thrill every time I received any shred of Athena’s attention, so I met her at the front doors at three.

“I’m so glad you’re in town!” 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. “Shall we go in?”

“Oh—yeah, sure.” That was it; no small talk, no how have you been? Just a brief hug before we walked straight into the museum’s temporary showcase of the experiences of American POWs in North Korea.

I thought this was a joke at first. Oh, silly, you didn’t think I’d want to stroll a stuffy old museum instead of catching up with you, did you? Or that perhaps, hopefully, we’d spend a few minutes here while she saw whatever she wanted to see and then remove ourselves to a cool, air-conditioned bar where we could sip fruity drinks and talk about, you know, life and publishing. But it was quickly apparent Athena wanted to linger here all afternoon. She would stand for ten minutes or longer in front of each life-size, black-and-white cutout, whispering under her breath as she read about the subject’s life story. Then she would touch her fingers to her lips, sigh, and shake her head. Once I even saw her wipe a tear from her eye.

“Imagine,” she kept murmuring. “All those lives lost. All that suffering for a cause that they didn’t even know if they believed in, just because their government was convinced domino theory was true. My God.”

And the whole thing would start again as we moved on to the next. Here we could read the last known letter from nineteen-year-old draftee Ricky Barnes, who’d asked his friend to bring his dog tags back to his mother when he caught diphtheria along the Yalu River.

Athena could not stop talking. At first I thought that maybe she was incredibly sensitive, that she couldn’t hear about someone else’s suffering without experiencing it acutely as her own. Fucking saint. But as we moved through the exhibit, I noticed she was scribbling things into a Moleskine. This was all research for some writing project.

“Just awful,” she whispered. “His widow was only seventeen—only a girl still. And she was pregnant already with his daughter, who would never know her father’s face.” And on and on. We inched down the exhibit while Athena examined every placard and cutout, announcing every so often what it was that made this particular story so very tragic.

At last I couldn’t take the sound of her voice anymore, so I wandered off to get a closer look at the uniform displays. I couldn’t find Athena when I exited the exhibit, and for a moment I thought she’d ditched me before I saw her sitting on a bench next to an old man in a wheelchair, jotting things into her notebook while he talked at her boobs.

“And do you remember how that felt?” she asked him. “Can you describe it for me? Everything you can remember?”

Jesus Christ, I thought. She’s a vampire.

Athena had a magpie’s eye for suffering. This skill united all her best-received works. She could see through the grime and sludge of facts and details to the part of the story that bled. She collected true narratives like seashells, polished them off, and presented them, sharp and gleaming, to horrified and entranced readers.

That museum visit was disturbing, but it didn’t surprise me.

I’d seen Athena steal before.

She probably didn’t even think of it as theft. The way she described it, this process wasn’t exploitative, but something mythical and profound. “I try to make sense of the chaos,” she told the New Yorker once. “I think the way we learn about history in classrooms is so antiseptic. It makes those struggles feel so far away, like they could never happen to us, like we would never make the same decisions that the people in those textbooks did. I want to bring those bloody histories to the fore. I want to make the reader confront how close to the present those histories still are.”

Elegantly put. Noble, even. When you phrase it like that, it’s not exploitation, it’s a service.

But tell me, really, what more right did Athena have to tell those stories than anyone else did? She never lived in China for more than a few months at a time. She was never in a war zone. She grew up attending private schools in England paid for by her parents’ tech jobs, summered on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, and spent her adult life between New Haven, NYC, and DC. She doesn’t even speak Chinese fluently—she’s admitted in interviews that she “spoke only English at home in an attempt to better assimilate.”

Athena would go on Twitter and talk about the importance of Asian American representation, about how the model minority myth was false because Asians were overrepresented at both the low and high ends of the income spectrum, how Asian women continued to be fetishized and made victims of hate crimes, and how Asians were silently suffering because they did not exist as a voting category to white American politicians. And then she’d go home to that Dupont Circle apartment and settle down to write on a thousand-dollar antique typewriter while sipping a bottle of expensive Riesling her publisher had sent her for earning out her advance.

Athena never personally experienced suffering. She just got rich from it. She wrote an award-winning short story based on what she saw at that exhibit, titled “Whispers along the Yalu.” And she wasn’t even Korean.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

Yellowface – Summary

Authors June Hayward and Athena Liu were supposed to be twin rising stars: same year at Yale, same debut year in publishing. But Athena’s a cross-genre literary darling, and June didn’t even get a paperback release. Nobody wants stories about basic white girls, June thinks.

So when June witnesses Athena’s death in a freak accident, she acts on impulse: she steals Athena’s just-finished masterpiece, an experimental novel about the unsung contributions of Chinese laborers to the British and French war efforts during World War I.

With its totally immersive first-person voice, Yellowface takes on questions of diversity, racism, and cultural appropriation not only in the publishing industry but the persistent erasure of Asian-American voices and history by Western white society. R. F. Kuang’s novel is timely, razor-sharp, and eminently readable.

Copyright © 2023 by R.F. Kuang.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

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