Chapter no 12



I have two prior commitments for the month—a library visit with students in DC, and a panel at a Virginia literary festival about writing East Asia–inspired stories. I’ve also been emailing back and forth with some woman from the French Embassy about a visit to the CLC memorial in Noyelles-sur-Mer next month to coincide with the release of the French edition of The Last Front. But she stopped answering my emails around the same time that the smear campaign went viral, which is fine with me; the last thing I want is to sit seven hours on a plane just for obnoxious French people to snub me on the other end. But neither the library nor the literary festival has sent me any updates since the news broke, which I take to mean they still want me to come. To cancel may as well be admitting guilt.

The library visit goes okay. The students turn out to be third graders, instead of the high schoolers I’d expected. They won’t be old enough to tackle The Last Front for years, and they certainly have no interest in Chinese laborers in World War I. Thankfully, this means that they’re too young to care about Twitter drama as well—though they’re not especially excited to see me, they don’t greet me with revulsion, either. They sit, fidgeting but silent, in the lobby of the MLK Jr. Memorial Library while I read for twenty minutes from the first chapter, and then they ask some cute, inane questions on what it’s like to be a published author (“Do you get to see the factories where the books are made?” “Do you get paid millions of dollars?”). I tell them some bland truisms about how literacy is important because it opens doors to other worlds, and how maybe they’ll want to become storytellers as well. Then their teacher thanks me, we take a group picture, and we all part ways without fuss.

The panel is a disaster.

I’ve already pissed everyone off by arriving late. I misread the schedule—my panel is in the Oak Room, not the Cedar Room, which means I have to haul ass all the way across the conference center. The room is packed by the time I arrive. All the other panelists are huddled at the far end of the table, talking to one another with their hands over their mics. They hush when I approach.

“I’m so sorry,” I pant as I find my seat. I’m nearly ten minutes late. “This place is so confusing, huh?”

No one responds. Two of them glance my way, and then at each other; the last one stares down at her phone. The hostility is adamant.

“All right!” Annie Brosch, our moderator, says cheerily. “Now we’re all here, so let’s begin—shall we do names first, and our most recent publications?”

We go down the table, left to right. There’s Diana Qiu, a poet and visual artist; Noor Rishi, a writer of young adult contemporaries who daylights as a civil rights lawyer; and Ailin Zhou, a critically acclaimed author of historical romances set in a “race-bended” (her words) Victorian England. Then there’s me. I lean toward my mic. “Um, hi, I’m June Hayward, also writing as Juniper Song. I wrote The Last Front.”

This gets bland stares, but no boos. Right now, that’s the best I can hope for.

“I’d love for everyone to discuss what inspired their books,” says Annie. “Juniper, why don’t you kick us off?”

My mouth has gone dry; my voice cracks, and I cough before I continue. “So I’m very inspired by history, like Ailing. I actually first learned about the CLC—”

Ailin interrupts me. “My name is pronounced ‘Ai-lin.’”

“Oh, Ailin, sorry.” I feel a twinge of irritation. I was copying Annie’s pronunciation, and Ailin hadn’t interrupted her.

“I just think it’s very important that we get our names right,” Ailin says to a smattering of applause. “I used to be afraid of telling people they’d gotten my name wrong, but I’ve now made it a part of my praxis. It matters that we defy white supremacy, every day, bit by bit. It matters that we demand respect.”

More applause. I lean back from my mic, cheeks red. Seriously?


“Of course,” Annie says smoothly. “Sorry about that, Ailin. I should have asked for pronunciation guides before the panel.”

“Ai-lin,” I say, slowly and correctly, since I feel obligated to say something. “Like you’re ailing, but in Texas.” I’m trying to be funny, but apparently this comes off the wrong way as well, because the audience visibly tenses.

Ailin says nothing. There’s a long, awkward pause, and then Annie asks, “And, um, Noor? What inspires your work?”

We go on like this for a while. Annie, at least, is good at keeping the conversation moving. She addresses questions to each one of us in turn, instead of letting the panelists lead the conversation, which means I can stay in my lane and avoid talking to Ailin directly for the entire hour. The other panelists cross-reference and riff off of one another’s answers often, but no one responds to what I’m saying. The audience doesn’t seem to care about me, either; I might as well be talking into thin air. But that’s fine. I just need to get through this hour.

Annie must notice that I’ve been giving rather curt answers, because she turns to me and asks, “And Juniper? Did you want to elaborate further on what narrative fiction can do for underrepresented groups?”

“Um, sure.” I clear my throat again. “Yeah. So, um, here’s an anecdote that always comes to mind when I think about why I wrote The Last Front. So in the early twentieth century, Canada was so hostile to Chinese immigrants that there was a five-hundred-dollar head tax imposed on every Chinese person to enter the country. When the CLC laborers were brought to Canada, the head tax for their immigration was waived since that was part of the war effort, but that meant that they weren’t allowed to get out of the trains during their trip, and that they were closely guarded the whole time they were in Canada.”

Usually when I tell this story, I get riveted stares. But maybe this audience has simply decided to hate me, or maybe they’re overheated and tired and bored of my moralizing, because people keep fidgeting, glancing around, or checking their phones. No one looks at my face.

There’s nothing I can do but soldier on. “They stayed in those railway cars for days in the heat. They couldn’t get medical treatment, even when some fainted from dehydration. They couldn’t speak to a single person on the outside, because the Canadian government had issued a total press blackout on the presence of the Chinese laborers. And I think that’s a good

metaphor for the central argument of the book, which is that Chinese labor was used, then hidden and discredited like it was something shameful.”

“Oh, really?” Diana Qiu cuts in suddenly. “So you have a problem with unacknowledged Asian labor?”

I’m so startled by this interruption that for a moment I just stare at her. Diana Qiu is a lean, artsy type with sharp, dark eyes, finely plucked brows, and red lipstick so boldly scarlet it looks like an open scar in her face. Her edgy-chic aesthetic reminds me a bit of Athena, actually, and the resemblance makes me shiver.

From the corner of my eye, I see a flash. Someone’s taken a photo. Several audience members lift their phones—they’re recording this exchange.

“What kind of question is that?” I know I shouldn’t escalate, but the indignance slips out before I can stop it. “I mean, obviously that’s wrong; that’s the whole point—”

“So is stealing words from a dead woman,” Diana says. Several audience members literally gasp.

“Let’s keep the discussion to the prepared questions,” Annie says ineffectually. “Noor, what do you think about—”

“Someone has to say it.” Diana raises her voice. “There’s good evidence now that June Hayward did not write The Last Front. We’ve all seen the allegations. Let’s not pretend. And I’m sorry, but I’m not going to sit around on this panel and pretend like she’s a colleague who deserves my respect, when Athena’s legacy is at stake—”

“Please,” Annie says, more loudly this time. “This is not an appropriate venue for that discussion, and we need to respect all of our invited panelists.”

Diana looks like she wants to say something more. But then Noor touches her on the arm, and Diana leans back from her mic, arms crossed.

I say nothing. I don’t know what I could say. Diana and the audience have already judged my guilt, and nothing I utter could redeem me in their eyes. I can only sit there, heart racing, awash in the humiliation.

“All right?” Annie asks. “Please. Could we move on?” “All right,” Diana says curtly.

Annie, audibly relieved, goes on to ask Ailin for her thoughts on


It’s too late. There’s no salvaging this panel. We continue to the end of the hour, but no one cares anymore about Annie’s prepared questions. The audience members that haven’t left the room are typing furiously into their phones, no doubt recapping the whole thing for their followers. Noor and Ailin valiantly play along with Annie’s prompts, as if anyone is still remotely interested in prehistoric Chinese writing systems or Islamic mysticism. Diana doesn’t speak for the rest of the hour, and neither do I. I sit as still as I can, cheeks flaming, chin wobbling, trying my hardest to keep from breaking into tears. I’m sure that people are already creating memes using photos of my stunned face as we speak.

When we’re finally free, I gather my things and walk out as quickly as I can without breaking into a full sprint. Annie calls after me, perhaps trying to offer an apology, but I don’t stop until I’ve turned the corner. Right then, all I want is to disappear from sight.


Jen: Is she ill? Like, is she mentally ill?

Marnie: I mean, it doesn’t matter what she thinks she knows. Confronting you like that in public is the Opposite of Classy. She clearly wasn’t looking for a resolution, she just wanted Attention.

Jen: RIGHT. Exactly. This performative outrage is disgusting. It’s such a clear ploy for self-enrichment. She’s probably trying to hawk some art deals out of this.

Marnie: If you can call that art . . .

I chuckle. I’m curled up in bed, my covers pulled up to my chin. God bless the Eden’s Angels, I think. Elsewhere on the internet, Diana’s rant is circulating among gleeful mobs of Juniper Song haters, but for now, I’m happy to watch Jen and Marnie shit all over Diana’s portfolio.

Marnie: Maybe I don’t get performance art

Marnie: But in this video she’s just giving herself a haircut

Marnie: It’s not even a good haircut

Marnie: Also her nose ring is ugly

Jen: Since when did we start calling psychotic breakdowns visual art lmao this girl needs help

Marnie: Omg you can’t say that

Marnie: Lmao

I snort. I switch screens back to Diana Qiu’s website, where her latest exhibit, titled Mukbang, features her chewing hard-boiled eggs painted to look like Asian faces for thirteen minutes straight while staring into the camera wearing an unchanging, deadpan expression.

The Eden’s Angels are right. As I take in Diana’s face—her flat, angry eyes; the bits of yolk dribbling from her thin-lipped mouth—I can’t believe I ever let this small, petty person with her cringey, try-hard art bring me down. She’s jealous. They’re all just jealous; that’s where this vitriol is coming from. And maybe I’ve taken some hits, but I will not let deranged, vicious internet celebrity wannabes like Diana destroy my career.

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