I’m hitting some excellent books this year. I don’t know if it’s the bounty after a long period of being unable to read (due to mental health issues). Or if better books are just swimming my way. But I’m hungry for it all. Race issues, feminist tangles, narrator you love to hate – it’s all badass women. From STEMinism to Greek mythology retellings to ‘Yellowface’, my library is having it all and enjoying it. I think the last time I felt this kind of literary exhilaration was with Gone Girl (mind you, the book first and then the movie only).
I think the best books are the ones that make us feel realised. Not necessarily understood because how boring would that be, right? Realised as in seen, responded to, felt about. That’s the only mark we leave in life, don’t we? That others’ lives were impacted in different ways – good, bad and everything in between. Our obituaries are literally curations of these impacts.
I’m coming to believe that feminist literature has to encompass all of these. I don’t want stories of brave heroines, I know the burdens of fame and ‘respect’. I don’t need to hear fantasies of perfect women; that’s just cis het male fantasy. I don’t want to be treated ‘the same’ by my oppressors; it always means that I have to shoulder their punishments along with my own wounds. I also do not want to be pedestalised because it relegates me to an object. A worship object rather than a sex object; still an object.
So give me
the narcissistic Scarlett O’Haras (Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell),
the murderous Klytemnestras (Daughters of Sparta – Claire Heywood),
the sociopathic Amazing Amys (Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn),
the passive-aggressive Asyas (The Bastard of Istanbul – Elif Shafak),
the scandalous ‘Ailment’ Aliyas (Salt Saffron – Kamila Shamsie)
the desperate Shah Rukh seekers (Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh – Shrayana Bhattacharya)
the angry Misses Militancy (Miss Militancy – Meena Kandasamy)
I hate them, I fear them, I mistrust them and I want them all. Patriarchy won’t let me express those feelings for human beings; literature is a good stand-in. I thoroughly enjoyed that ‘Yellowface’ became a woman-eat-woman saga (in a violent way, not a sexual one). It exposes the shallowness of truisms like ‘women should hold up women’ and explores the more nuanced complexities we face in navigating each other.
I suppose ‘Yellowface’ went down easier for me since I’m neither Chinese nor American/white. So I can see the parallels in my own colonial-occupied legacy without much of the painful emotion blurring my eyes while reading. I can read it. The writing is also very entertaining, which is practically a necessity now for awareness and sensitivity. Nobody wants to hear lectures about slavery and misogyny. It’s just too hard. But serve it up threaded artfully through a fast-paced story and the thoughts will come seeping into minds along with the superficial heady chase of the plot.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I wasn’t sure how to feel throughout most of this book. And yet (or maybe because of that) I was riveted. Every chapter made me feel differently. My feelings flip-flop began with the main character June. She is so jealousy-ridden and petty! I wanted to slap her yelling, “Nobody is interested in your stupid feelings!”. It’s rather hard to proceed with a story when you loathe the first-person narrator so much. I had plenty of reflections on the nature of jealousy and self-loathing. Even inside her own head, June Hayward is deeply unlikeable and unremarkable, a diabolic combination.
So why did I continue reading? Even well-crafted prose is revolting when it’s bilge (ahem Atlas Shrugged). I was interested in how the Chinese-origin R.F Kuang depicted the inner life of her oppressors. I wanted to see just how far the simmering rage could go, in terms of designing a character epitomising the things that so hurt one. Yes, I’ll admit it. This book takes me right to my basest impulses. And the author delivered and how.
I never once liked June. Yet, I found myself bizarrely pulled along with her journey. I savoured her wins with a nasty sneering, you bitch you got away with it. I hoped for the worst to happen to her when she hit dark patches. This was extremely uncomfortable since these dark patches include serious trauma and nobody wants to admit to wishing rape or anxiety on anybody. Still, like I said, this book takes me to the worst.
It’s an easy cop-out to blame it all on a book. After all, it’s just words between pages, right? Yet, the central themes of Yellowface are how powerful words are and just how easily humans closest to them – writers, editors, publishers, readers, and social commenters can be in their thrall. And that’s why even an unlikeable set of characters like June, Athena and the others feel sympathetic. They remind us of our most shameful selves.
I rather admired the author for creating that degree of sympathy for June. Just for her writing ability and not getting carried away with emotion. It was also an interesting choice to create unlikeable Asian-American characters. To me, it reads as a criticism of the pedestals that oppressor groups put marginalised communities on, in hopes of easy redemption. Perhaps Kuang may be seen as disloyal to her Chinese origins and as a white apologist. Interestingly, the central Chinese-American character also navigates the very same issues of the privileged diaspora.
People are complex and driven by very personal feelings, rather than grand causes. It’s hard to be a hero. It’s hard to be a flagbearer. And nobody wants to be the token anybody. That’s a fair stance but doesn’t sell books or popularity.
I saw some reviews that had a problem with the ending. But I finished in a kind of grim, ugly-smiling satisfaction. It was the same kind of feeling I had after Gone Girl, another unreliable narrator-protagonist. Go on, you bitches, games well played!
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