Dear Reader

What Does It Mean to Own or Steal a Story?

In Yellowface, R.F. Kuang uses satire and absurdity to reflect on the publishing industry.

Jul 5, 2023

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Dear reader,

I wrote Yellowface to explore two anxieties I have about the literary environment we live in.

First, I started drafting this story in early 2021, when many of us were still isolated from the friends and family we used to see on a regular basis. A lot of the writing community had moved online, and I’d noticed a lot of those online conversations had taken a strange, nasty turn. People seemed to take active glee in ripping others apart. I don’t know if the Internet became more toxic as a result of our isolation, but I do think that interacting with others purely through a screen often leads to downward spirals of paranoia, jealousies, resentments, and willful misinterpretations. And even when things are ostensibly just fun and games, being a writer online seems to generate anxiety more than anything else. I’ve spoken to so many early-career writers about the immense pressure they feel to constantly perform in comparison to their peers. I wonder what all this is doing to our heads. Maybe it was a better time when we all knew less about each other. I don’t know.

Second, as a scholar of Sinophone and Asian American literature, I am unavoidably concerned with problems regarding how authorial identity and textual interpretation intersect. Should the author’s background ever affect how we judge a novel? What does it mean to “own” or “steal” a story? What is authenticity? What do we owe the people we are writing about? What happens when we foreground authorial identity above all else–when we, for instance, pigeonhole Asian American writers as Asian before they are writers? For what it’s worth, I don’t think there are easy or obvious answers to these questions, and I remain suspicious of anyone who claims there are.

Yellowface similarly invites you to dig deep into some questions I think we’ve been skirting for a while. But if all it does is inspire you to put your phone away and take a nice long walk outdoors, I’ll consider that my job well done.



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