Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Wesley Yang and the Search for Asian-American Visibility

Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses Wesley Yang’s collection of essays, The Souls of Yellow Folk, for the New York Times Book Review. 

By Wesley Yang
215 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $24.95.

My disappointment with Wesley Yang’s collection of essays, “The Souls of Yellow Folk,” stems from the difference between what it is and what it could have been: a necessary, uncomfortable, possibly even great book. In the opening essay, on Seung-Hui Cho, the shooter who killed more than two dozen people at Virginia Tech in 2007, and the closing one, on white supremacy, Yang exhibits his talents as an essayist willing to risk confrontation, with his own preconceptions and with the orthodoxies of the liberal-to-left political spectrum. Many of the essays that lie in between these two, however, read exactly like what they were originally: magazine profiles and short takes on difficult racial subjects that require longer exploration and which here have a random feel.

One expects the book to be about “yellow folk,” or Asian-Americans. As it turns out, only three of its 13 essays address issues related to Asian-Americans. (A fourth brief one, originally published in The Guardian, discusses the political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s ideas but not whether or how they may be relevant to his Asian ancestry.) Three other essays talk about race and whiteness. The remaining ones profile the historian Tony Judt, the internet activist Aaron Swartz, the “terrorist search engine” designer Evan François Kohlmann, the music-video show “The Box,” an anonymous New Yorker’s sex diary and an assortment of male pickup artists. Whether the book’s title is false advertising or self-sabotage, the result is frustrating to read.

The title, which alludes to W. E. B. Du Bois’s landmark 1903 book, “The Souls of Black Folk,” is a bold and ambitious gesture, especially since Du Bois’s notion of double consciousness has influenced so many of us who have written on Asian-Americans. The Negro inevitably feels his own twoness, Du Bois wrote, seeing himself through his own eyes and through those of others, namely white people. Du Bois’s prophecy that the “problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color-line” is still accurate in the 21st, as Yang shows. There the similarity between Du Bois and Yang ends. Du Bois’s approach to solving the color problem encompassed not only cultural analysis and writing, but also radical political activism that sought to empower African-Americans and other people of color in the United States and abroad. Yang does not believe in such a radical, global politics of decolonization and solidarity, or at least does not say so.

He prefers to focus on the dilemmas, successes and struggles of particular Asian-Americans, including Cho; Eddie Huang, the rebel celebrity chef; and Amy Chua, the notorious tiger mom. While he admires Huang more than Chua, he considers both to be resolute individualists who refuse to back down when faced with the disapproval of Asian-Americans or Americans as a whole. They know who they are, even if who they are happens to be contradictory and provocative. This self-assertion — or brashness — makes them characteristically American.

Cho represents the flip side of their success, and Yang’s essay on the shooter, which was first published in n + 1 in 2008 and established Yang as a writer to reckon with, remains his best work, probably because here he comes face to face with himself most vividly. Cho was an Asian-American man whose depression and rage appeared to be tied to his misogyny and his experience of being rejected by women. Contemplating Cho, Yang says: “The Asian man knows something of the resentment of the embattled white man … and something of the resentments of the rising social-justice warrior. … Tasting of the frustrations of both, he is denied the entitlements of either.”

Cho was an extreme manifestation of this resentful, racialized masculinity, and Yang confesses an ambivalent kinship with him as an “unlovable” man himself. Looking at Cho’s face, Yang feels “a very personal revulsion. … Those lugubrious eyes, that elongated face behind wire-frame glasses: He looks like me.” This is the emotional crux of the book, one Yang barely pursues beyond this essay. If Yang had pressed further in examining himself or other Asian-Americans, he might have been able to develop a new approach to the Asian-American condition, one that addressed the hatreds and self-hatreds born from racism and internalized racism.

The older approach to this problem emerged after 1968, when radical college students coined the term “Asian-American.” Being “Asian-American” meant being anti-imperialist, antiwar, antiracist and anticapitalist. If racism harmed you as an individual, the solution was both to change yourself, by developing a political consciousness, and to undertake collective action, by attacking racism and everything related to it. That legacy of merging individual and collective transformation still exists today in nonprofit organizations, grass-roots activism, some campus student groups and even among some elected politicians, including Jane Kim, who serves on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, and the California congresswoman Judy Chu.

This Asian-American legacy in politics and art is invisible to Yang, who does not even mention Frank Chin, the writer who most forcefully dealt with the agonies of Asian-American manhood. Chin, who connected racial emasculation to the treatment of Asian-Americans as objects of “racist love” (as opposed to the “racist hate” directed against African-Americans), argued that Asian-American writing had to be a form of fighting. Yang flails rather than fights, which suggests that there is something inadequate about the Asian-American legacy for him. He may not be alone. His neglect of historical forebears and his almost exclusive focus on the personal is indicative of a generational shift in Asian-American thinking; revolution is not very fashionable today.

Yang’s politics are instead concerned with “the peculiar burden of nonrecognition, of invisibility, that is a condition of being an Asian man in America.” But divorced from the seemingly outdated idea of mass political mobilization, which registers only as a demeaned “identity politics” for Yang, where does a politics of visibility and recognition lead us? He doesn’t say, except to point out how “Asian-American identity” is “the most lukewarm of all personal conundrums … the racial grievance least likely to receive, or to deserve, any public recognition, the most readily treated with ironic ridicule.” He’s right. But he fails either to consider what sort of defiant political struggle would force recognition or what an individual solution might look like. Yang thus leaves the reader stranded with him in his ambivalence about what it means, if anything, to be “yellow.” His book, which calls out and to yellow folks but is only partially concerned with us, is as lukewarm as the racial grievance he senses and feels.


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