Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Food as metaphor in R.F. Kuang's YELLOWFACE

 So I just read YELLOWFACE by R.F. Kuang and it was the type of book that you can't stop thinking about once you put it down. And one of the things that I found most fascinating about it, that I didn't see too many people talking about, is the theme of metaphorical and literal consumption, specifically revolving around food.

Just in case you don't know what YELLOWFACE is about, I'll fill you in. YELLOWFACE is about a white woman who steals her dead Asian friend's manuscript for a book about Chinese laborers in World War I and then passes it off as her own. She "edits" the work (making it more palatable for the largely white publishing community and high profile reviewing community), and basically devours it, turning it into a product that she considers more "hers" than Athena's.

She consumes this untold story about Asian suffering and pain and, in turn, makes it easy to consume for her (white) audience. It becomes a best-seller because stories about minority pain that uphold and uplift the (white) status quo almost always do well. But what is really interesting while all of this is going on is how this woman reacts in every scene where she is presented with Chinese food.

Food is often how someone is introduced to a new culture. Food is prepared in the home and passed down from generations. Food is tied with family, home, tradition, and love. And Chinese food has a very rich and storied history, especially American Chinese food (check out Jennifer 8 Lee's THE FORTUNE COOKIE CHRONICLES, if you want to learn about the history of some popular American Chinese dishes). And June, the antiheroine of this book, cannot stomach Chinese food.

On an Asian panel she is invited to, that's devoted to Asian excellence and showcasing diversity, it makes her nauseous. When she goes to a hole in the wall Chinese restaurant run by two Chinese immigrants supporting their family, June once again feels ill. And when she goes to her mother's house, and her mother tries to feed her takeout, once again, June balks. To me, I feel like this is supposed to symbolize that June is only willing to accept the parts of Chinese culture that she can profit from (pain, specifically), but the parts of it that are tied into actual tradition, excellence, and joy, she has no interest in and literally recoils from.

Food, in YELLOWFACE, is the symbolic manifestation of June's unwillingness to look at or confront her own secret disdain for Chinese people and their culture, even as she profits from it by consuming the other parts.

At least that's how I interpreted it.

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