This Peculiar Burden: Wesley Yang’s The Souls of Yellow Folk

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It is grueling and flagellating work to examine one’s self from the outside in, to vivisect that self before the operating theater of public opinion, especially when doing so in front of an unsympathetic audience bent on observing with pitying contempt. It was the work done famously by W.E.B. Du Bois one hundred and fifteen years ago in his seminal monograph, The Souls of Black Folk, and the work Wesley Yang aspires to accomplish in his essay collection The Souls of Yellow Folk.

At times, Yang holds forth, handing us his and the lives of other Asian-Americans with heartfelt delicacy and hard-won insight. “Paper Tigers,” an essay in response to the infamous book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua, “Eddie Huang Against the World,” a profile on the eponymous chef and media maverick, and “Inside the Box,” a reflection on the incipient internet, were three exemplars of Yang’s knack for structure, latent feeling, and vernacular precision. Whether Yang’s overall project reveals the inner life of an Asian-American man remains to be seen, but that is almost beside the point. Work of this kind is not born of idle fancy but of compulsion, of the dogged effort with which one tries to reconcile his interior self with the unbearable atmospheric pressures of a world looking on. As much can be seen in the collection’s introduction where Yang describes “the peculiar burden of nonrecognition, of invisibility, that is the condition of being an Asian-American man.” Yang, being a Korean-American essayist known for his work at New York Magazine, the New York Times, and Tablet Magazine, seems particularly attuned to the world’s perceptions, or lack thereof, in spite of his efforts to be a salient individual. 

As I read this collection, it became apparent that its overt homage to Du Bois was nominal, an attempt to imbue an otherwise anemic series of intellectual exercises reflecting on American pop culture with a gravity and urgency that just plainly were not present. When Yang does write on race it most often revolves around a preoccupation with the sexual frustration, loneliness, and longing that accompanies being racially different and decidedly male. Aside from the first three essays, the collection is thematically disjointed, less about the book’s titular subject matter and more an exhibition of Yang’s latest and greatest essays. The majority of the essays range from reflections on dating in the digital age to a profile on the political scientist Francis Fukuyama. Yang boasts an admirable track record in publishing on a variety of subjects, but a highlight reel does not a cohesive collection make. The collection’s eclecticism is itself neither good nor bad, but something of note nonetheless, especially since it advertises itself as a compendium reflecting on “the souls of yellow folk.”

On the level of prose, Yang most often writes terse and fluid sentences with considerable lucidity. The language is regular: no need for rhetorical acrobatics; no need to drag the sentences beyond their logical conclusions. It is an admirable style but not one without its inelegances. The writing never demands more than what exists within the paragraphs’ logical progressions, and consequently the essays never seem to gesture toward anything more significant than themselves. Each essay reads more like a discrete packet of information and less like an invitation for further inquiry. Each is a practicum suffused with memorable anecdotes and evidences that left my cup full but my fire unlit. At their worst, the essays can devolve into a sort of intellectual shell game where it seems Yang tries to outwit even his own emotions. As much is evident in the closing sentence of “Is It OK to Be White?” an essay ostensibly about the pitfalls of a hypersensitive crusade against white cultural hegemony:

The intricate system of racial casuistry, worthy of Jesuits, is a beguiling compound of insight, partial truths, circular reasoning, and dogmatism operating within a self-enclosed system of reference immunized against critique and optimized for virality.

The thinking is not overly complicated but seems to only signal toward its own intelligence. Throughout the collection, I found it hard to find the heart beating beneath the density of Yang’s ideas.

At times, Yang’s normative claims about being “Asian” seemed to paint the Asian-American community with such a broad brush, I felt it homogenized the more nuanced contributions of Asian-Americans coming from a variety of heritages, languages, and socioeconomic backgrounds. In his essay “Paper Tigers,” Yang writes:

I’ve always been of two minds about this sequence of stereotypes. On the one hand, it offends me greatly that anyone would think to apply them to me, or to anyone else, simply on the basis of facial characteristics. On the other hand, it also seems to me that there are a lot of Asian people to whom they apply.

Yang’s capitulation to the pervading ideas of Asian-Americans shows little effort to add further texture to their depiction. These and other normative claims about what is and is not Asian-American culture, or the lot of the Asian-American man, indicated a potentially problematic notion of who he wrote this book for and why. Let it be said that Du Bois, with his penchant for Victorian rhetorical flourishes and his acute awareness of fin de siécle social attitudes, wrote undoubtedly for that same audience, a seeming parlor filled with white faces; however, the questions Du Bois and Yang attempt to answer for this voyeuristic lot differentiate their projects. Du Bois wished to speak to the alienating sensation derived from the question, “[As a black man,] how does it feel to be a problem?” Yang’s collection wants to speak only to the more generalized question: How does it feel to be an Asian-American today? Herein lies what I perceive to be the central thematic failure of the book. Yang’s disparate essays do not harken to a central psychological complex, an angst about being an inconvenience or a threat to the dominant American identity. When they deal with race, they are more centrally concerned with what it means to not be a threat—to be, if anything, a disaffected accomplice to the reigning cultural power, to be, in his words, neither “loved [n]or feared.”

As a result, I came away feeling no argument had been made and that many of these essays lacked perspective and struggled to rise above the level of reportage. I will say that, in some ways, I was heartened to read Yang’s collection of essays for the promise it holds for the future of widely circulated Asian-American cultural commentary where such voices are sorely needed. I read Yang’s essays with the hope that its thematic lapses would encourage other Asian-American writers to first ask themselves, “How can I become a problem?,” so that they might get to the more necessary work of asking themselves “How does it feel to be a problem?”

Evan Coles graduated from Columbia University with his MFA in Poetry in the Fall of 2017. He has written and edited for BOMB Magazine, edited for Parnassus: Poetry in Review, and worked as an assistant at the Poetry Society of America. More from this author →