The following is from R. F. Kuang's Yellowface. Kuang is a Marshall Scholar, Chinese-English translator, and the Astounding Award-winning and the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Award nominated author of the Poppy War trilogy and Babel. Her work has won the Crawford Award and the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. She has an MPhil in Chinese Studies from Cambridge and an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies from Oxford; she is now pursuing a PhD in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale.
I attend Athena’s funeral, where Athena’s mother has invited me to speak. She called me a few days after the accident, and I nearly dropped the phone when she told me who she was; I had this sudden fear that she would interrogate me, or accuse me of killing her daughter—but instead she kept apologizing, as if Athena had been very rude to die in my presence.
The funeral is at a Korean church out in Rockville, which is strange to me because I thought Athena was Chinese, but whatever. I’m struck by how few people present are my age. It’s mostly old Asian people, probably friends of her mother. Not a single writer I recognize, nor anyone from college. Though maybe this funeral is just a community affair—probably Athena’s actual acquaintances went to the virtual service that the Asian American Writers’ Collective set up.
It’s closed casket, thank God.
A lot of the eulogies are in Chinese, so I sit there awkwardly, looking around for cues on when to laugh or shake my head and cry. When it’s my turn, Athena’s mother introduces me as one of her daughter’s closest friends.
“Junie was there the night my Athena died,” said Mrs. Liu. “She did her best to save her.”
That’s all it takes for my tears to start flowing. But that’s a good thing, says an awful, cynical voice in my mind. Crying makes my grief look genuine. It deflects from the fact that I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing here.
“Athena was dazzling,” I say, and I do mean it. “She was larger than life. Untouchable. Looking at her was like looking at the sun. She was so brilliant that it hurt to stare for too long.”
I suffer through half an hour of the wake before I make up an excuse to leave—I can only take so much pungent Chinese food and old people who can’t or won’t speak in English. Mrs. Liu presses against me, sniffling, as I say my goodbyes. She makes me promise to keep in touch, to let her know how I’m doing. Her tear-smudged mascara leaves clumpy stains on my velvet blouse that won’t come out, even after half a dozen washes, so eventually I throw the whole outfit away altogether.
I cancel my tutoring sessions for the rest of the month. (I work part-time at the Veritas College Institute, coaching the SAT test and ghostwriting common app essays, which is the default landing job for every Ivy League graduate without better prospects.) My boss is annoyed, and the parents who booked me are understandably pissed, but I cannot sit in a windowless room and go over multiple-choice reading comprehension answers with gum-chewing, braces-wearing brats right now. I simply cannot. “Last week I watched a friend thrash around on the ground until she died,” I snap when a student’s mother calls me to complain. “So I think I can take some bereavement leave, all right?”
I don’t go out those next few weeks. I stay in my apartment, wearing pajamas all day. I order Chipotle at least a dozen times. I watch old episodes of The Office until I can quote them word for word, just for something to calm my mind.
I also read. Athena was right to be excited. The Last Front, simply put, is a masterpiece.
I have to tunnel down a Wikipedia rabbit hole for a bit to situate myself. The novel is about the unsung contributions and experiences of the Chinese Labour Corps, the 140,000 Chinese workers who were recruited by the British Army and sent to the Allied Front during World War I. Many were killed by bombs, accidents, and diseases. Most were mistreated upon arrival in France, cheated out of their wages, assigned to dirty and cramped living quarters, denied interpreters, and attacked by other laborers. Many never made it back home.
It’s a running joke that every Serious Author at some point does a grand and ambitious war novel, and I suppose this one is Athena’s. She has the confidence, the understated and lyrical prose necessary to tell such a heavy story without coming across as pompous, juvenile, or sanctimonious. Most grand war epics by young writers tend to read like mere imitations of grand war epics; their authors come off as toddlers riding toy horses. But Athena’s war epic sounds like an echo from the battlefield. It rings true.
It’s clear what she meant when she called this an evolution in her craft. So far her novels had presented linear narratives, all told in the past tense from the third person perspective of a singular protagonist. But here Athena does something similar to what Christopher Nolan does in the movie Dunkirk: instead of following one particular story, she layers disparate narratives and perspectives together to form a moving mosaic, a crowd crying out in unison. It’s cinematic in effect; you can almost see it in your head, documentary style: a multiplicity of voices unburying the past.
A story with no proper protagonist shouldn’t be this compelling. But Athena’s sentences are so engaging, I keep getting lost in the story, reading ahead instead of transcribing it to my laptop. It’s a love story disguised as a war story, and the details are so shockingly vivid, so particular, it’s hard to believe it’s not a memoir, that she didn’t simply transcribe the words of ghosts speaking in her ear. I understand now why this took so very long to write—the painstaking research bleeds through in every paragraph, from the standard-issue fur-lined hats to the enamel mugs the laborers used to drink their watered-down tea.
She has this sorcerous ability to keep your eyes riveted to the page. I have to know what happens to A Geng, the spindly student translator, and Xiao Li, the unwanted seventh son. I’m in tears at the end, when I find out that Liu Dong never made it back home to his waiting bride.
But it needs work. It’s far from a first draft—it’s not even a proper “draft,” really; it’s more like an amalgamation of startlingly beautiful sentences, bluntly stated themes, and the occasional “[and then they travel-complete later].” But she’s laid out enough breadcrumbs that I can follow the trail. I see where it’s all going, and it’s gorgeous. It’s simply, breathtakingly gorgeous.
So gorgeous I can’t help but give finishing it a try.
It’s just a lark at first. A writing exercise. I wasn’t rewriting the manuscript so much as seeing if I could fill in the blanks; if I had enough technical knowhow to shade, fine-tune, and extrapolate until the picture was complete. I was only going to play around with one of the middle chapters—one that had so many unfinished scenes that you could only tell what it was trying to say if you were intimately acquainted with the writing, and the writer.
But then I just kept going. I couldn’t stop. They say that editing a bad draft is far easier than composing on a blank page, and that’s true—I feel so confident in my writing just then. I keep finding turns of phrases that suit the text far better than Athena’s throwaway descriptions. I spot where the pacing sags, and I mercilessly cut out the meandering filler. I draw out the plot’s through line like a clear, powerful note. I tidy up; I trim and decorate; I make the text sing.
I know you won’t believe me, but there was never a moment when I thought to myself, I’m going to take this and make it mine. It’s not like I sat down and hatched up some evil plan to profit off my dead friend’s work. No, seriously—it felt natural, like this was my calling, like it was divinely ordained. Once I got started, it felt like it was the most obvious thing in the world that I should complete, then polish Athena’s story.
And then—who knows? Maybe I could get it published for her, too.
I work so damn hard on it. I write every day from dawn to past midnight. I’ve never worked so hard on any writing project before, not even my debut. The words burn like coals inside my chest, fueling me, and I must pour them all out at once before they consume me.
I complete the first draft in three weeks. I take a week off, during which all I do is take long walks and read books, just to gain a fresh set of eyes, and then I have the whole thing printed at Office Depot so I can go over it all with a red pen. I flip slowly through the pages, murmuring every sentence out loud to get a feel for the sound, the shape of the words. I stay up all night to incorporate the changes back into Word.
In the morning, I compose an email to my literary agent, Brett Adams, who I haven’t spoken to for months, since I’ve been deleting all his polite-but-urgent inquiries about how my second book is going:
I know you’re waiting to hear about my second book, but I’ve actually got
I pause for a moment, and then delete that last sentence.
How am I going to explain all this to Brett? If he knows Athena wrote the first draft, he’ll need to get in touch with Athena’s agent, Jared. There will be messy negotiations with her literary estate. I don’t have written evidence that Athena wanted me to finish the book—though I’m sure that’s what she would have preferred, since what writer wants their work to languish in obscurity? Without proof of permission, however, my version might never be authorized at all.
But then. No one knows Athena wrote the first draft, do they?
Does the way that it’s credited matter as much as the fact that, without me, the book might never see the light of day?
I can’t let Athena’s greatest work go to print in its shoddy, first-draft state. I can’t. What kind of friend would I be?
Here’s the manuscript. It’s a little different from the direction we’d discussed, but I’ve found a new voice, and I like it. What do you think?
Done; sent; woosh goes my mail app. I shut the lid and push my laptop across the desk, breathless at my own audacity.
Waiting is the hardest part. I send that email on Monday; Brett doesn’t get back to me until Thursday, when he lets me know he’s reserved the weekend for having a look. I can’t tell if he means it, or if he’s stalling so that I won’t bother him. By the time the next Monday rolls around, I’m a mass of anxiety. Every minute feels like an eternity. I’ve paced outside my apartment block a million times, and I’ve resorted to leaving my phone in my microwave so that I’m not tempted to check it all the time.
I first met Brett through a pitch event on Twitter. Several days a year, authors will write a tweet-length query about their book and add the event hashtag, so that agents can scroll through the hashtag liking tweets they’re intrigued by. I wrote:
Over the Sycamore: Sisters Janie and Rose are having the worst summer of their lives. Their father is dying. Their mother’s never around. All they have is each other—and a mysterious door in the backyard. A portal to another land. #Adult #ComingofAge #Litfic
Brett requested my manuscript, I sent it off, mentioned that I already had a publishing contract in hand, and he offered to chat on the phone with me a week later. He struck me as a little dude-bro-ey— his speech was peppered with words like “rad” and “super pumped,” and he seemed awfully young. He’d graduated two years ago from Hamilton with a master’s in publishing, and he hadn’t been at his agency for more than a few months. But the agency was reputable, and his client referrals seemed to really like him, so I agreed to sign with him. That, plus I didn’t have any better offers.
He’s done okay for me over the years. I’ve always felt like a bit of a lower priority for him, especially since I don’t make him that much money, but he at least answers all my emails within the week and hasn’t lied to me about my royalties or the state of my rights, which you hear horror stories about all the time. Sure, I feel awkward and embarrassed reading curt, impersonal emails like Hi June, so the publisher won’t be taking your book to paperback because they aren’t sure it’ll keep selling, or Hey June, so no one’s biting on the audio rights front, so I’m going to take it off submission for now; just wanted to keep you updated. And sure, I’d thought occasionally about leaving Brett and querying again for an agent who might make me feel like more of a person. But it would have been terrifying to be out on my own again, without a single advocate in the industry.
I think Brett was expecting I’d quietly give up on writing on my own. I’d give anything to have seen his face when I dropped that bomb in his inbox.
He finally emails me back around midnight on Tuesday. It’s short.
Wow, this is really special. I don’t blame you for dropping everything to work on this project. It’s a little different from your range, but this could be a great opportunity for you to grow. I don’t think Garrett is right for this book—we should definitely take it out on wider submission. I’ll handle that on my end.
I only have a few editorial suggestions. See attached.
Brett’s edits are light, noninvasive. Aside from line edits, they’re mostly cuts for pacing (Athena could get so wrapped up in the sound of her own prose), moving some flashback scenes around so the narrative is more linear, and reemphasizing certain themes at the end. I sit down with some canned espressos and do them all over seventy-two hours. The words come easily to me—revisions are usually like pulling teeth, but I’m having fun with this. I’m having more fun with writing than I have in years. Maybe because it’s someone else’s words I’m chopping, so I don’t feel like I’m killing my darlings. Maybe because the raw material is so good, and I feel like I’m sharpening gems, trimming away the rough patches to let them shine.
Then I send it back off to Brett, who submits it first to Garrett, since he’s technically allowed the right of first refusal. Garrett passes, just as we’d hoped. I don’t think he even bothered to open the file. Brett then immediately sends the novel to a half-dozen editors, all senior decision-makers at powerhouse publishers. (“Our reach list,” he calls it, as if these are college applications. He’s never submitted any of my work to a “reach list” before.) And then we wait.
Three weeks later, an editor at HarperCollins takes my book to acquisitions—the meeting where all the important people sit around a desk and decide whether to buy a book. They phone Brett with an offer that afternoon, and the number makes my jaw drop. I didn’t know people paid that much money for books. But then Simon & Schuster wants in; then Penguin Random House, too, then Amazon (nobody in their right mind goes with Amazon, Brett assures me; they’re here just to drive price up), and then all the smaller, prestigious independent houses that somehow still exist. We go to auction. The number keeps going up. They’re talking about payment schedules, earn-out bonuses, world rights versus North American rights, audio rights, all these things that weren’t even part of the conversation for my debut sale. Then at the end of it all, The Last Front sells to Eden Press, a midsize indie publisher that has a reputation for cranking out award-winning prestige fiction, for more money than I’d dreamed I would make in a lifetime.
When Brett calls to tell me the news, I lie down on my floor and don’t get up until the ceiling stops spinning.
I get a huge, splashy deal announcement in Publishers Weekly. Brett starts talking about interest for foreign rights, film rights, mixed media rights, and I don’t even know what any of that means except that there’s more money coming through the pipeline.
I call my mother and sister to brag, and though they don’t really know what this news means, they’re glad that I have some stable income for the next few years.
I call the Veritas College Institute and let them know I’m quitting for good.
Writing friends I catch up with about twice a year text me CONGRATULATIONS, messages I just know are dripping in jealousy. Eden’s official Twitter account blasts the news, and I get several hundred new followers. I go out for drinks with colleagues from Veritas, friends I don’t even like that much and who clearly aren’t interested in hearing more about the book, but after three shots it doesn’t matter because we’re drinking to me.
The whole time I’m thinking, I’ve made it. I’ve fucking made it. I’m living Athena’s life. I’m experiencing publishing the way it’s supposed to work. I’ve broken through that glass ceiling. I have everything I ever wanted—and it tastes just as delicious as I always imagined.
From Yellowface by R. F. Kuang, published by William Morrow. Copyright © 2023 by R.F. Kuang. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollinsPublishers.