Very Little of This Book Is Made-up: Talking with R.F. Kuang about her Novel
R.F. Kuang’s latest novel, Yellowface (William Morrow, 2023), tells the story of two writers, June Hayward and Athena Liu, who are linked by a stolen manuscript. The death of one (Athena) fuels the rising ambition of the other (June), and the circumstances surrounding both bring this literary thriller to life. Kuang’s whip-smart prose, combined with her knowledge of the publishing industry, the book’s third and invisible character, exposes the realities and delusions of a competitive business.
This is R.F. Kuang’s fifth book, following her acclaimed fantasy novel, Babel (Harper Voyager, 2022), which debuted at the first spot of The New York Times Best Seller list, and Blackwell’s Books of the Year for Fiction. Kuang’s fantasy series, the Poppy War Trilogy (all Harper Voyager, 2018-2021), was a selection for the Washington Post’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels and a nominee of Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Awards. Her work has also won the Crawford Award and the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel.
I met with Kuang at a cafe in New Haven, Connecticut, where we discussed the characters and plot of Yellowface, the pressures to publish, and how recent scandals in the industry have been turned into fodder for entertainment rather than resolved.
The Rumpus: You write that the urge to write is a craving, and the act of writing can be more pleasurable than sex. What felt easier and more pleasurable, and what felt more difficult?
R.F. Kuang: To be clear, I don’t know if writing is more pleasurable than sex. I think they’re pleasures of different kinds, but like June, I write compulsively. It’s inevitable that I use narrative to make sense of the world. I was in a psychoanalysis seminar last semester and one of the big takeaways was that you need constant narrative-making, a myth to cling to, an ideology, or you literally can’t constitute yourself as a subject. I think we’re all telling stories about ourselves in order to exist, and I just happened to want to document what those stories are.
The process of writing Yellowface was very different from Babel, which was also very different from the Poppy War Trilogy. All of my projects feel very different because they are tackling a different set of creative challenges.
After wrapping up the Poppy War Trilogy, I thought: There’s no way I can ever do a series again. I just get so bored, working with the same characters and voices, same structure and plotlines, over years and years. At the end of the Poppy War Trilogy, I was trying to wrap up plotlines that a literal teenager had created. I really wanted a big gear-shift with Babel, and the most different thing in the world I could think of was to write in the style of Charles Dickens. I read a lot of Dickens, wrote like Dickens, and just had fun mucking around in that genre, exploring run-on sentences, and talking like a stodgy old Victorian gentleman.
Yellowface was another gearshift because I couldn’t stand writing like Dickens anymore. The voice most different from Dickens (the considerate, precise descriptions and maximalist paragraphs) is instead this loose, messy voice of the internet, [with] people pulling in metaphors and comparisons to make arguments, a constant, ballistic mingling of messages and memes. I had a lot of pleasure sitting with that voice, replicating it, describing it, and thinking of somebody who spends her whole life ingesting the world through that lack of precision.
The most fun and cathartic parts were venting about all the ridiculous things that have ever been said to me or to other BIPOC writers in the [publishing] industry. Very little of this book is made-up. I’d gotten so fed up dealing with it constantly that I wanted to say it all at once, and that felt wonderful.
There are several points in the novel that are very personal, especially June’s mental health struggles. That’s all coming from a place of truth. It was hard to go back and reckon with what I was feeling at the time, how detached from reality I had become when I was at my lowest, but it was also pleasurable. Fixing it to the page helped me make sense of it, and understand myself better, so I don’t fall into those spirals in the future.
Rumpus: Was there a June or Athena in your life that inspired these characters?
Kuang: I know a lot of Junes in publishing, and I know that voice very well. I’ve also been a June. The process of having your first book come out—if you’re not an instant, overnight bestseller, and very few of us are—is one of the most nerve-wracking, debilitating experiences in the world. It’s absolutely terrifying. The idea that something so personal and private for so long is suddenly public—and you have no control over how people are going to react to your work—has an impact on you. It’s like being an exposed live wire all the time. That was something I was not prepared for.
The experiences June has had make her embittered about the publishing industry and are faithful to how I felt about my role in publishing for a long time. The Poppy War Trilogy found a readership and has grown over the years—I’ve been very grateful and surprised that this has happened—but when the books were coming out, none of them hit any bestseller lists. I was just vomiting with anxiety all the time, thinking that the books had flopped, I’d never make back my advance, I’d squandered the only chance I’d gotten in publishing, nobody cared about my work, and I wasn’t worthy of being an author. The really humiliating experience June describes of going to a bookstore, having nobody show up, and sitting awkwardly with the bookseller for hours until they’re like, “Uh, maybe you should go home”—I have been through that.
I spent a long time thinking about that jadedness and disappointment in publishing. I tried to pair that with the voice of certain Junes who have attitudes about who deserves to be published. It seems very logical to spin that narrative of personal resentment and disillusionment with a paranoid narrative about other people who are getting opportunities that you think should belong to you. I know lots of people like that.
Rumpus: How much do you think competition, as a driving force for writing, plagues writers today?
Kuang: I don’t know if this competition and desperation was around during Dickens’s time. Maybe [it’s] always been around, but I do think there’s something exceptional about our current literary environment.
What’s happened is that the process of publishing a book has become a lifestyle or gamified in the sense that there are clear milestones you’re supposed to hit. There are established online narratives about what those look like, how you’re supposed to perform, and what scripts you’re supposed to read as you move through the process: getting an agent, making your fancy Twitter announcement that you’ve signed with this agency, going into submission, tweeting certain cryptic things, getting a book deal, posting the screenshot of the Publisher’s Marketplace announcement. Then, once you have your galleys, you do your unboxing video.
It makes sense why the script exists. You should celebrate your successes, but this has created the illusion that there are certain objective markers that you have to hit. If you don’t, you’re doing something wrong. We’re all online. “How many followers do you have?” “How many Goodreads reviews do you have?” “Has your book been featured on your publisher’s Instagram account?” I was never in a Slack debut because I didn’t know what they were.
That’s another thing that exists: debut clubs with people whose books are coming out the same year. I have friends who’ve been in those groups, and they say that it’s a source of constant apprehension and terror. It has made it possible to compare yourselves and be hyper-competitive in a world where everybody can see what’s going on with everybody at once. People are only posting their victories.
I don’t think it’s all bad. Like anything, it’s neutral, and it depends on what you do with it. On the other hand, this is an era of unprecedented solidarity and information sharing between writers. People are talking about their advances and comparing their treatment at the same publisher. It’s empowering, and it’s nice to have community. Obviously, I’m on social media, and I really enjoy it, but it can also freak you out and make the process of writing difficult. Mostly because it creates all these distractions that take away from your alone time with your manuscript. This is the only thing that is stable and matters in publishing.
Rumpus: At first glance, Yellowface seems to have an unusual moral dilemma, with June clearly depicted as the cheat. And yet, with June’s first person point of view, I felt empathy for her. Do you expect some readers to identify with June?
Kuang: I hope [they do]. I’ve always had a lot of fun trying to accomplish the hat trick of having the protagonist do horrific things but for the reader to follow them every step of the way. Rin and Robin, the protagonists of the Poppy War Trilogy and Babel, have committed genocide and killed many people by the end of the books. You can argue that these are all more morally egregious than the things June has done, so why is it that we hate June most? The reason is that her worldview, and the way she rationalizes her actions, are more clearly unhinged and out of touch with the reality of structural dynamics of power than is the case for Rin and Robin.
But I don’t want you to hate her so much that you’re not interested in what she does. I was thrilled when my friends, most of whom are women of color who also write, read the book and were like, “I hate June, but I’ve been her, so I understand.” That means I’ve succeeded in making the main character somebody whom you’re tracking across the page. The way you’d track a train crash happening in slow motion. You still want to find out what happens to her.
Rumpus: How realistic is Yellowface? Could someone today do what June did and get away with it?
Kuang: Yeah! People do worse than what June did, all the time. That’s the hilarious thing about Yellowface. It’s being pitched as this absurdist satire, but everything that happens in the book is tamer than the shit that goes down in publishing on a daily basis. I didn’t invent the concept of literary yellowface. There have been plenty of white writers who adopted Asian-sounding pen names because they thought there might be some benefit in appearing like a minority.
I’m interested in why being a minority is appealing. If you read any reports about who’s getting book deals, who’s getting big advances, who’s getting published—we’ve barely made any progress since the seventies. Overwhelmingly, the number of novels put out every year are by white authors. Knowing these statistics, why would people think there’s some advantage to appearing racialized in a way they’re not?
I think this comes down to a weird commodification of the way we talk about race in publishing and marketing, a kind of detachment from race, marginalization, and diversity from lived experience, community, and culture. It creates a tokenism situation where it seems there are some golden opportunities that are only available to you if you present as diverse in some way.
Rumpus: In your mind, under different circumstances, did you think what happened to June or Athena could have happened to the other person?
Kuang: Probably not in this story. Athena thinks so poorly of June’s writing career and her skills that she would never think to steal her manuscript. Historically, have people tried to pass as white in order to access the benefits of whiteness? Absolutely. Is that the same as a white author pretending to be Asian? No. Obviously these situations involve different contexts of power and privilege. So it’s really not an easy answer, whether June and Athena could have switched their roles. There’s a long history of passing, assuming white identities in order to avoid discrimination, but that’s a very different conversation than Yellowface. I tried to undermine the idea that Athena is morally superior to June, especially in the second half of the novel, establishing Athena’s many flaws. Clearly, she’s not a perfect victim. I want to break apart the question of who gets to write about what and detach that from race. Who is a vulture about other people’s pain? Does that change our answer?
There are some authors who treat the whole world as data for scenarios to write about. I don’t know where I fall, but the waters are a lot muddier than one end of the spectrum that says you can only write about something that happened to you personally. On the other hand, you get to write about whatever you want, like fuck the living subjects, you get to write fiction inspired by whatever. Stories like “Who Is the Bad Art Friend” are so compelling, because they raise these questions. I don’t think there are easy answers. Should we make judgments about rudeness when we talk about artistic freedom? Athena has done plenty of morally wrong things, so she’s definitely not on higher ground than June.
Rumpus: In writing Yellowface, did you get closer to answering the question of what you owe to people whose stories you’re telling?
Kuang: The line gets blurred when you’re thinking about certain turns of phrase or general plot ideas. Authors are always accusing each other of stealing plots or general scenarios, and it’s troubled by the fact that there are no new stories. We are retelling all the same stories. I’m hesitant to impose very clear moral standards on what our obligations to other people are.
Rumpus: I noticed that writing from Juniper’s perspective provided space for comedic liberties. There is one chapter where June reads how Asian people culturally allow each other to save face, which she uses to her own advantage. How did it feel writing from the perspective of someone outside your culture, looking in?
Kuang: It was a question of thinking hard about stereotypes and leaning into them. I’ve talked about Tina Chen’s Double Agency in various essays that I’ve written about [the cultural practice of] yellowface. It’s one of those monographs that has had a strong impact on how I think about literary representation. She has a section about how it’s worth leaning into stereotypes and studying tropes that seem outlandishly cruel, like Fu Manchu and villain tropes of Asian Americans. If we can get past the initial knee-jerk reaction of “this stereotype is racist,” if we sit with it, we might be able to learn more about the people who have constructed it. What paranoias does it reveal? What assumptions, beliefs, desires do those stereotypes belie?
In the case of June thinking that Asian people love to save face, I took that line from a propaganda document written in the 1950s from the United States Information Agency (USIA). During the Cold War, the US had propaganda offices in critical territories across the world. They were looking at novels written in English that they could translate into Chinese to reach readers in Taiwan and Hong Kong and convince them that American democracy was the way to go. One of the internal documents, a briefing on the people this branch was going to deal with, was a whole psychological profile of the Asian subject: they’re docile, they’re polite, they care a lot about their family and about saving face. All these generalized psychological traits. I was fascinated by these original documents. I kept wondering what fantasies about Asia motivated this, what kind of observations or collected evidence led the writer to produce this brief. It all says more about the writer of the brief than it does the people described in the brief.
That’s the same way I think about writing June’s very racist generalizations about Asians. It was a fun exercise.
Rumpus: Did you ever doubt you represented her character well?
Kuang: I was only ever having fun with it. There wasn’t a lot of doubt. I think you can tell it’s the kind of novel where you hold your nose and jump into the deep end of the pool, because if you second-guess yourself at any point the novel never gets written.
Rumpus: The novel June tries to write at the end of Yellowface is very meta. How did you know this was the right ending?
Kuang: I always knew that I could not end [the book] by positing some radical change in publishing. That would feel more absurd and ridiculous than anything else in the novel. Publishing has been rocked by scandal after scandal, Twitter meltdown after Twitter meltdown. If you look at the overall pattern of things, everything is still the same. All that’s happened is a lot of ugly words have been tossed around. The people who were in power remain in power.
I wanted to think about the cyclical nature of publishing blow-ups and drive home the fact that the way we deal with it now provides fodder for collecting those scandals and turning them into further entertainment. We all know influencers whose whole thing is saying controversial things and getting into trouble because that then turns into clickbait and generates headlines and keeps them relevant. That’s exactly June’s game. It’s all a question of who controls the narrative and what story she gets to tell. Even if everything blows up in her face, even if everybody hates her, even if all this comes out, and it’s clear she’s in the wrong, she still feels convinced that she can take that, profit off it, and spin the story back into her favor.
Here’s where my deep pessimism about publishing really comes out. I believe that is just what happens to bad actors in publishing. They can take those blow-ups and turn them into narratives that serve them. Maybe it takes time for the pendulum to swing the other way, but the scales always rebalance in favor of who had the advantage in the first place.
Rumpus: Do you think you’ll continue writing in the style of literary realism?
Kuang: We’ll see. Certainly not in the next three planned projects, but maybe afterwards. There are a lot of fun storytelling styles to try out. I want to grow with every next project. I’m looking at different things for now, but maybe I’ll come back.
Author photo by John Packman