INTERVIEW: R.F. Kuang on White Paranoia and the Pitfalls of Identity Politic

May 11, 2023
Dimitris Passas

NOTE: This interview is a republication- Source: Interview Magazine (by Zakiya Dalila Harris).

Rebecca F. Kuang had never spoken to writer Zakiya Dalila Harris before this interview, but the best-selling novelists—who have both written about the publishing industry’s thirst to capitalize off of race and identity—were ready to get into it. Yellowface, R.F. Kuang’s latest novel, follows a young white woman, June, as her life blossoms—then unravels—after plagiarizing a book written by her Asian-American “bestie,” Athena. It’s a satirical story about the pitfalls of identity politics that for both writers, is a little too familiar.


ZAKIYA DALILA HARRIS: It’s so nice to meet you.

R.F. KUANG: You too! Oh my gosh. I need to get all my fangirling out of the way before we start. One of my closest friends and I started reading The Other Black Girl the moment it came out in 2021, and we screamed and chatted about it for weeks. When I told my friend I was going to talk to you, she didn’t believe it. We’re both huge fans!

HARRIS: Thank you so much. I feel like our books are related, like sisters. I loved your book, and for me the biggest indicator of when I’m reading or watching something compelling is, I keep telling my husband every single thing that’s happening. This character, June, is so complicated, and I don’t like her, but I really like her, and I love reading about this journey that she’s falling down. I know this isn’t your first novel. You’ve written fantasy in the past. How did this come about?

KUANG: Yellowface is a big gear shift for me. I’d never really written literary fiction before. I don’t think it’s the kind of book I could have written as a debut novel either, because I hadn’t worked in a publishing house, and it took those five years of frustration, toil, and a lot of tears in the publishing industry on the author’s side to accumulate the experiences that when into it. But yeah, I mostly published fantasy novels before I started writing Yellowface. My first trilogy, The Poppy War trilogy, was inspired heavily by my parents and grandparents’ experiences over the very tumultuous period of 20th-century Chinese history. I started writing that as an undergrad, just starting to reconnect with my extended family for the first time, learning Chinese history, and learning to speak Chinese. So it’s that classic story of wanting to represent everything about me, my heritage, my culture, my history, in a novel. But really, Yellowface is my pandemic novel. You can always tell when a book is someone’s pandemic novel. There’s something weirdly psychological going on. Like, “Oh, you were lonely, you were depressed, you were not talking to your friends. You hated everything. You put that all into this book.” It explains it all.

HARRIS: You got the publishing world so spot-on in the book, like the details of sensitivity reads and what it’s like to be an assistant of color working on a book. What was the experience like for you?

KUANG: Let me abstract a bit at the risk of turning this into a drag-a-bitch, tag-a-bitch game. I think a lot of writers of color, or marginalized writers in general, are struggling with what to do with the process of taking something intensely personal—oftentimes writing about personal trauma, family trauma, a lot of pain that’s tied to our identity—and turning that into a story that then, because of the nature of publishing, has to be commercialized, commodified, and marketed. So many things that are deeply complicated, nuanced, personal, and important, get turned into these zippy little buzzwords. For example, when six Asian women were murdered in Georgia two years ago by a shooter, immediately what happened were all these lists that circulated: “Here are the Asian women that you ought to read.” Editors hit me up in my inbox. “I want to see your think pieces on how traumatic it is to be an Asian woman. Your group has suffered and your pain is the only interesting thing about you. So now your work is timely.” And then having all of your work be published and promoted through that lens. It was true even with the promotional campaigns for my fantasy novels. People would ask me, “What’s the most painful thing your family has ever suffered?” And it’s like, “This is a fantasy novel. I didn’t live through that. It’s not a family autobiography. It’s loosely inspired by my family’s stories, but I’m not here to just sit on a stage and tell you sob stories so you can give me money. That’s not how this works. I want you to take me seriously as a storyteller.” The assumption is, since the only interesting thing about you is your pain, everything must be autobiographical, everything must be transparent and delivered up on a platter for pitying white readers. That’s the really icky commodification of race and identity.

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