Mystery and Mockery

My European-born mother was given to making pronouncements about life in the U.S. that were halfway between a judgment and an epigram. One of my favorites: “There is no such thing as enough in America.”

I thought of that while reading  the entertaining Yellowface, in which a struggling author, June Hayward, steals a manuscript from her famous, best-selling Chinese-American friend after she dies.  June fills in gaps, polishes it extensively, and gets it published as her original work.  She becomes a huge success, but every thing she gains makes her hungry for more.

It’s initially great fun to watch her first rave about the stolen manuscript, then slowly find fault with it, then fix the problems she sees and tone down the excesses, and finally claim that’s it’s undeniably hers because it’s so much better.  And isn’t she doing her friend a great service in making it a better book?

Selling the novel turns her world upside down and June is overwhelmed by her good fortune: a vast amount of money, a publishing house that really cares about her, headlines everywhere she turns, best-seller status, great reviews, profiles in prestigious magazines and newspapers, strangers recognizing her.  She becomes a celebrity author, though she knows that it could just as easily have been someone else who was picked to be turned into a star. 

The downside is her incredibly masochistic addiction to reading everything she can about herself in print and on social media, which can either be a serotonin boost (as she’s overly fond of saying) or infuriating when she’s accused of cultural appropriation because she’s white and the book is primarily about Chinese laborers in France during WWI.

Kuang certainly knows how to mock the publishing world as well as Robert Harris does in The Ghost Writer, and she takes special aim at complaints of cultural appropriation that will remind you of the controversy over American Dirt.  She also eviscerates what Joni Mitchell called “the star-making machinery” that elevates certain writers for other reasons than the quality of their books.

Yellowface can be read as a sort of mystery-thriller because as soon as June steals the manuscript and decides to publish it, you feel a clock ticking: won’t someone discover her fraud and shame her–or worse?  Of course, it doesn’t take long for the predictable Twitter mobs to attack her, and the waves of Twitter warfare in this book are exhausting.

You may be wondering if the book ever explains why June steals Athena’s work, and the real answer goes beyond jealousy in a devastating set of revelations. 

Given that Kuang is the kind of megastar author who dies in this book, is her satire of the struggling friend empathetic or cruel?  That’s one question.  Another is the revised, stolen novel itself.  When June shares some sections of the book that she actually wrote (bragging about their brilliance), the writing doesn’t seem stellar, yet she claims the audience is under her spell.  Why didn’t Kuang’s editor pay special attention to those passages to make them more convincing? 

As reported in The Washington Post, this novel “is now at the center of a real-life publicity frenzy, its cover gracing tote bags, railway ads and a giant mural at the London Book Fair.”  That’s the kind of PR that June gets in the novel for her book.

Yellowface interrogates friendship, jealousy, the randomness of fame, and the truly bizarre realities of publishing today.  The last half really gathers steam and elevates the book above satire.  After you finish, you might well decide to cut Twitter loose and give up doom-scrolling forever.  If you can. . .  ★★★★

Lev Raphael has reviewed books for The Detroit Press and many other publications.


Language Bigots Don’t Understand America

A New York lawyer’s rant about Spanish-speaking workers at a Fresh Kitchen recently went viral, and rightfully so.

The lawyer was infuriated to hear Spanish, which the counter workers were speaking to each other, and to some customers.  He’s not only intolerant, he’s ignorant.  Since the time when it was still called New Amsterdam,  New York City has welcomed people seeking freedom and opportunity, whether they spoke Portuguese, Dutch, German, Italian, Polish, Yiddish, Vietnamese or any other language.  Hundreds of languages are currently spoken in New York.

Many immigrants might not know English when they get here and perhaps may struggle with it all their lives.  But if they don’t learn it or learn it fluently, their children do.  It’s a pattern that’s been repeating itself one generation after another and has helped us become ever more diverse.

When my parents came here in 1950 from Eastern Europe via Belgium, my mother spoke English, but my father didn’t and he had to learn it at his place of work.  Between them, they spoke close to a dozen European languages.  While Yiddish was their everyday choice, they often switched to Russian because they wanted privacy from me and my brother.  But they could speak it in public, too, and they did.

I heard several languages in my apartment building and grew up in a neighborhood where you could hear German on the streets, and then later Spanish.  I never felt threatened.  I felt the opposite.  These other languages were siren calls for me to make myself fluent in a second language at the very least.  And something more: they fueled my desire to travel outside of the country and experience other cultures as authentically as I could.

I teach on a campus with several thousand Chinese students.  They don’t frighten or enrage me.  I find the experience fascinating since Mandarin, Cantonese, and other languages spoken in China aren’t like any language I know or have studied.  Hearing spoken Chinese, I feel connected to the world outside my small Michigan college town, even if I don’t know what’s being said.  And I’m reminded how connected we all are, which makes me want to re-double my efforts in learning Dutch, my latest challenge after having spent two amazing weeks in Flanders.

As for hearing employees speaking to customers in something other than English, my mother spoke Polish with the butcher she frequented, and Russian whenever she realized a store employee was from somewhere in Russia.  I envied her knowledge, flexibility, and fluency.  And if a guy like the lawyer at Fresh Kitchen had gone postal about her not speaking English, I’m sure she would have had a wide range of terms to put him in his place.  But politely, because she was always dignified, and her English had a British tinge to it.

Lev Raphael is the best-selling author of a guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  You can study creative writing with him online at