Welcome to #ReadWithMC—Marie Claire's virtual book club. It's nice to have you! In June, we're reading R.F. Kuang's Yellowface, a cutting story about a struggling white writer who steals her dead Asian friend's manuscript, publishes it as her own, and grapples with the repercussions. Read an excerpt from the book below, then find out how to participate. (You really don't have to leave your couch!)
I know what you’re thinking. thief. plagiarizer. and perhaps, because all bad things must be racially motivated, Racist. Hear me out.
It’s not so awful as it sounds.
Plagiarism is an easy way out, the way you cheat when you can’t string words together on your own. But what I did was not easy. I did rewrite most of the book. Athena’s early drafts are chaotic, primordial, with half-finished sentences littered all over the place. Sometimes I couldn’t even tell where she was going with a paragraph, so I excised it completely. It’s not like I took a painting and passed it off as my own. I inherited a sketch, with colors added only in uneven patches, and finished it according to the style of the original. Imagine if Michelangelo left huge chunks of the Sistine Chapel unfinished. Imagine if Raphael had to step in and do the rest.
This whole project is beautiful, in a way. A never-before-seen kind of literary collaboration.
And so what if it was stolen? So what if I lifted it wholesale?
Athena died before anyone knew the manuscript existed. It would never have been published, or if it had, in its current state, it would always have been known as Athena’s half-finished manuscript, as overhyped and disappointing as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon. I gave it a chance to go out into the world without the judgment that multiple authorship always entails. And for all the work I put into it, all those hours of effort—why shouldn’t it be my name on the title?
Athena is, after all, thanked in the acknowledgments. My treasured friend. My greatest inspiration.
And maybe Athena would have even wanted this. She was always into trippy literary hoaxes like this. She loved talking about how James Tiptree Jr. had fooled people into thinking she was a man, or how so many readers still think Evelyn Waugh was a woman. “People come to a text with so many prejudices formed by what they think they know about the author,” she’s said before. “I sometimes wonder how my work would be received if I pretended to be a man, or a white woman. The text could be exactly the same, but one might be a critical bomb and the other a resounding success. Why is that?”
So perhaps we can view this as Athena’s great literary prank, as my complicating the reader-author relationship in a way that will provide juicy fodder for scholars for decades to come.
Okay—perhaps that last one is a bit of a stretch. And if this sounds like me assuaging my own conscience—fine. I’m sure you’d rather believe I spent those few weeks tortured, that I struggled constantly with my guilt.
But the truth is, I was too excited.
For the first time in months, I was happy about writing again. I felt like I’d been given a second chance. I was starting to believe in the dream again—that if you hone your craft and tell a good story, the industry will take care of the rest. That all you have to do is put a pen to paper, that if you work hard enough and write well enough, the Powers That Be will transform you overnight into a literary star.
I’d even begun toying around with some of my old ideas. They felt fresh now, vivid, and I could think of a dozen new directions in which to take them. The possibilities felt endless. It was like driving a new car or working on a new laptop. I’d somehow absorbed all the directness and verve of Athena’s writing. I felt, as Kanye put it, harder, better, faster, and stronger. I felt like the kind of person who now listened to Kanye.
I once went to a talk by a successful fantasy writer where she claimed her fail-safe for getting over writer’s block was to read a hundred or so pages of very good prose. “It makes my fingers itch to see a good sentence,” she’d said. “It makes me want to imitate the same.”
That’s precisely how I felt about editing Athena’s work. She made me a better writer. It was eerie, how quickly I absorbed her skill; as if upon death, all that talent needed to go somewhere, and ended up right inside me.
I felt like now I was writing for both of us. I felt like I was carrying on the torch.
Is that justification enough for you? Or are you still convinced that I’m some racist thief?
Fine. Here’s how I really felt, when things came down to it.
At Yale, I once dated a graduate student in the philosophy department who did population ethics. He wrote papers on thought experiments so implausible that I often thought he would have been better off writing science fiction—whether we have obligations to future, unborn peoples, for example, or whether you can desecrate bodies if it will cause no harm to the living. Some of his arguments were a little extreme—he didn’t think, for instance, that there is any moral obligation to follow wills of the deceased if there is an overriding interest in redistributing wealth elsewhere, or that there are strong moral objections to using cemetery grounds for, say, housing for the poor. The general theme of his research was under what circumstances someone counts as a moral agent that deserves consideration. I didn’t understand much of his work, but his central argument was quite compelling: we owe nothing to the dead.
Especially when the dead are thieves and liars, too.
And fuck it, I’ll just say it: taking Athena’s manuscript felt like reparations, payback for the things that Athena took from me.
From YELLOWFACE by R.F. KUANG, published by William Morrow. Copyright © 2023 by R.F. Kuang. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollinsPublishers
Brooke Knappenberger is the Editorial Fellow at Marie Claire, where she writes across the board from fashion and beauty to books and celebrities. As a pop culture junkie, Brooke obsessively consumes and writes about the latest movie releases, streaming TV shows, and celebrity scandals. She has over three years of experience writing on fashion, beauty, and entertainment and her work has appeared on Looper, NickiSwift, The Sun US, and Vox Magazine of Columbia, Missouri. Brooke obtained her Bachelor's Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism with an emphasis on Magazine Editing and has a minor in Textile and Apparel Management.
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