OF COURSE, I HAVE MY DETRACTORS. THE MORE POPULAR A BOOK becomes, the
more popular it becomes to hate on said book, which is why revulsion for Rupi Kaur’s poetry has become a millennial personality trait. The majority of my reviews on Goodreads are five stars, but the one-stars are vitriolic.
Uninspired colonizer trash, one reads. Another iteration of the white woman exploitation sob story formula: copy, paste, change the names, and voila, bestseller, reads another. And a third, which seems way too personal to be objective: What a stuck-up, obnoxious bitch. Brags too much about being a Yalie. I got this during a Kindle sale, and you can bet I made sure to get every one of the two hundred and ninety-nine cents I spent back.
The first time I get tagged in a bad review on Twitter (All the hype led me wrong, won’t be reading anything more from this author), I text Marnie Kimball and Jen Walker, my new friends from the BookCon after-party. They’d given me their numbers and insisted that I reach out if I was ever having a hard time navigating the industry. Since then our group chat, cheekily named “Eden’s Angels,” has been my go-to source of support and industry gossip.
How do you get over rude shit people say about you online? I ask. This is so demoralizing.
It’s like they have a personal vendetta. Like I, personally, once kicked their dog or something.
Rule one: Do Not Read Reviews. Marnie does that weird thing older women do where she uses extra spaces and capitalizations, though I can never tell if they’re intentional or typos. If they had anything good to say, they would have written their own books. They are Petty Little People.
Let them scream in their own echo chambers, writes Jen. Performing outrage is a bonding activity for them. Gives them serotonin hits, literally, there’s research on this. Don’t let it get to you. They’re sheep.
That’s good advice, if only I had the mental fortitude to not care so
much about what people think of me. I keep reading through Goodreads
tirades, vicious tweet threads, and condescending Reddit posts. I keep clicking on negative articles when they show up in my Google Alerts, even when the title promises nothing but self-righteous vehemence.
I can’t help it. I need to know what the world is saying about me. I need to sketch out the contours of my digitally perceived self, because at least if I know the extent of the damage then I’ll know how much I should be worried.
The most widely circulated hate piece is an essay review in the Los Angeles Review of Books by a critic named Adele Sparks-Sato, whose work I actually enjoy, because she’s good at pointing out that the novels everyone else touts as “the voice of a generation” are actually self-indulgent, narcissistic nonsense. She’s published some of the harshest criticisms of Athena’s work in the past (on Athena’s debut: “Here, Liu falls into the novice trap of mistaking a lyrical, self-othering sentence for a profound observation. Unfortunately, you can still be Orientalist even if you’re Asian. My read? Athena Liu needs to get over her own yellow fever.”). This time, she’s come after me:
“In The Last Front, Juniper Song misses an excellent opportunity to excavate a forgotten history and instead uses the suffering of thousands of Chinese laborers as a site for melodrama and white redemption,” she writes. “She could have, for instance, interrogated the use of Christian missionaries to convince young, illiterate Chinese men to work and die overseas, and who in France were largely recruited to keep the Chinese docile, tame, and cooperative. Instead she unabashedly praises the missionaries’ role in converting laborers. The Last Front hardly breaks new ground; instead, it joins novels like The Help and The Good Earth in a long line of what I dub historical exploitation novels: inauthentic stories that use troubled pasts as an entertaining set piece for white entertainment.”
Whatever. Who is Adele to tell me off about authenticity? Isn’t the name “Sato” Japanese? Isn’t there a whole discourse about how being Chinese and Japanese are totally different experiences?
Can this Adele bitch take a fucking chill pill? I text Eden’s Angels.
Marnie: With initials like ASS . . . no?
Jen: Critics build an audience by dragging others down. It’s the only way they can legitimize themselves. It’s a toxic culture. Don’t get pulled in. We’re better than that.
Some undergraduate at UCLA named Kimberly Deng puts up a twelve-minute YouTube video titled “ALL THE CULTURAL MISTAKES IN THE LAST FRONT!!!” which racks up a hundred thousand views within a week. I watch for a bit out of curiosity, but I’m unimpressed more than I am insulted. It’s full of trivial stuff like “Chinese soldiers wouldn’t have eaten foods like mince pie for a holiday meal” (How would she know what they were eating, and when?) or ad hom details about naming conventions (“Ah Kay? Did she get this shit from a Hong Kong crime drama?”) that Athena herself wrote in. The comments are all shit like YAAAS KWEEN and OMG GO OFF KIMMY and LOLLLL THAT WHITE GIRL IS QUAKING.
Kimberly later has the nerve to DM me on Instagram asking if I’d like to be a guest on her channel, and I take some vindictive pleasure in instructing her to contact me through my publicist, Emily, and then instructing Emily to ghost her.
Another online firebrand, a guy named Xiao Chen, puts out a Substack essay arguing that The Last Front should never have been published. I’m actually quite familiar with Xiao Chen’s brand—Athena had complained about him viciously and often. Xiao Chen had gone viral the previous year for a piece in Vox titled “Enough with Diaspora Fiction,” which argued essentially that no one in the current wave of Chinese American novelists was producing anything of value, because none of them had lived through things like the Tiananmen Square massacre or the Cultural Revolution, and that spoiled Bay Area kids who couldn’t even speak Mandarin and who thought that Asian identification boiled down to being annoyingly obsessed with bubble tea and BTS were diluting the radical force of the diaspora canon. I’ve seen him getting in vicious spats with other writers on Twitter;
LEARN CHINESE, he would snap, or SHUT UP, BRAINWASHED WESTERN PUPPETS.
His modus operandi seems to be ascribing everything wrong with a text to some armchair-diagnosed psychological problem with the writer; in my case, Xiao Chen thinks I wrote The Last Front because I am “one of the many white women, like those who write queer fan fiction of The Untamed, who not only have an unexamined fetish for feminine-looking Asian men, but who think Chinese history is something to cherry-pick from in search of intriguing and shiny nuggets, like nice Ming vases to set in the corner.”
Honestly, his vitriol makes me laugh. Some critical pieces are cold and condescending enough to wound, but this one is so emotional, so angry, that it only reveals Xiao Chen’s own insecurities and bottomless, inexplicable
rage. I imagine him hunched over a laptop in his basement, snarling and spitting to an audience of none. I wonder what Xiao Chen would do if he ever saw me in person—punch me in the face, or utter some inane niceties and slink away. People like him are always braver online than they are in the flesh.
Jen: People like that just can’t stand to see women succeed.
Marnie: Misogynism at its worst. Also, what’s The Untamed?
There’s one scene, which occurs two hundred pages into the novel, that all the critics are obsessed with. Indeed, every negative review mentions it by at least the third paragraph. Annie Waters—a character I’d expanded from Athena’s draft, the seventeen-year-old daughter of YMCA missionaries—visits the laborers’ camp alone to hand out Bibles and Christmas biscuits. The men, who haven’t seen their wives or any women of their kind in months, understandably ogle over her. She’s blonde, slim, and pretty; of course they can’t get enough of her. One asks if he can kiss her on the cheek, and since it’s Christmastime, she bashfully permits it.
I thought the scene was touching. Here we have people divided by language and race, who are nonetheless able to share a tender moment in the middle of a war. The scene also fixed an earlier gripe Daniella had with the novel, which was that it centered almost entirely on men. The era of the macho war story is over, she’d written. We need to start elevating female perspectives.
Athena’s original draft didn’t include the kiss. In her version, Annie was a sheltered, fidgety girl who thought the laborers were dirty, frightening thugs. Athena’s Annie told the men a frigid “Merry Christmas” and left the biscuits at the edge of the barbed-wire enclosure, then skirted timidly away like the men were dogs that would break free of their leashes and maul her to death if given the chance.
It’s clear Athena was trying to point out all the racism the laborers suffered from people fighting on their own side. But there was already so much of that throughout the book. It was starting to feel heavy-handed, repetitive. Why not include a scene that showed the potential for interracial love, instead? Can’t we all get behind decrying antimiscegenation?
This is, apparently, the most racist artistic choice I could have made.
From Adele Sparks-Sato: “Song, rather than exploring the kind of real challenges posed against interracial romances between French women and
Chinese laborers, decides instead to portray Chinese workers as animalistic creatures who cannot control their lust for the white woman.”
From Xiao Chen: Do all white women think we’re obsessed with fucking them???
Imagine the arrogance. Trust me, Juniper, you’re not that hot.
“For my next video,” drawls Kimberly Deng, “I will be doing an Annie Waters makeup tutorial, featuring a turmeric face mask and white tears.”
The whole conversation sparks the creation of the “Annie Waters meme,” which involves pictures of bland and mediocre-looking white women paired with the caption, taken from the book, “She was a lithe young thing, with hair the color of the rising sun and eyes like the ocean, and the men could not keep their eyes off her as she floated past.” Quite a lot of these memes employ the least flattering photographs of me my haters can find online.
I want to point out how outrageously cruel and sexist this is, but the Eden’s Angels assure me that silence is my best defense. When you let trolls know they’ve hurt you, they win, says Jen. You can’t let them think they’re getting to you.
Since I can’t issue any takedowns in person, I often rehearse pretend arguments in the shower.
“Actually,” I tell my shampoo bottle, “just because Chinese people were being discriminated against doesn’t mean that they couldn’t be racist as well. And actually, it’s well documented that the Chinese laborers did not get along with Arabs and Moroccans—according to one of my sources, the Chinese would call them ‘black devils.’ Interethnic conflicts are a thing, you know.”
In response to accusations that I glorified Western missionaries, I would say, “It’s just as essentialist to claim broadly that not a single Chinese soldier found comfort in Christianity. The missionaries were often discriminatory and patronizing, yes, but we know from reports and memoirs that there were true converts, and it seems racist in turn to argue that conversion was impossible just because they were Chinese.”
And in response to Kimberly Deng’s idiotic clickbait, I would say, “Actually, it does fucking make sense that there are scenes set in Canada, because the laborers were first shipped to Canada, and then to France. You could have learned that from Wikipedia.”
I bask in imagining my critics’ crestfallen faces as they realize that simply being Asian doesn’t make them historical experts, that
consanguinity doesn’t translate into unique epistemological insight, that their exclusive cultural snobbishness and authenticity testing are only a form of gatekeeping, and that when it all comes down to it, they haven’t a fucking clue what they’re talking about.
I’ve gotten so good at having these arguments in my head that I am, in fact, extremely well prepared when one of my detractors confronts me in person. That night, I’m at a historical fiction speaker series hosted by an indie bookstore in Cambridge. The audience has been polite so far, if a little challenging with their questions. It’s mostly Harvard and MIT students, and I remember well from my time at Yale that undergraduates at elite universities always think they know more than they do, and that they consider it their greatest achievement to take down a public intellectual. So far I’ve fielded off questions about my name change (“As I’ve said before, I chose to write under my middle name to signify a fresh start”), my research process (I have a standard bibliography that I rattle off now), and my engagement with the Chinese American community (here, I trot out the Athena Liu Scholarship I fund at the Asian American Writers’ Collective’s summer workshop).
Then a girl in the front row takes the mic. I know before she opens her mouth that this will go badly. She’s dressed like a right-wing meme of a social justice warrior—dyed purple hair buzzed into an undercut; floppy beanie, knit arm warmers, and a dozen pins and badges on her vest proclaiming her loyalty to BLM, BDS, and AOC. (Look, we’re all liberals here. But come on.) She’s got this breathless, wild-eyed look on her face, like she’s been waiting her entire life for this chance to take me down.
“Hi,” she says, and her voice wavers for a moment. She’s not used to picking fights in front of a live audience. “I’m Chinese American, and when I read The Last Front, I thought . . . I mean, I found a lot of deeply painful histories. And I wanted to ask you, why do you think it’s okay for a white author—I mean, an author who isn’t Chinese—to write, and profit from, this kind of story? Why do you think you’re the right person to tell it?”
She lowers the mic. Her cheeks are flushed. She’s gotten a big rush from this. No doubt she thinks that this is some grand public callout, that this is the first time I’ve ever heard this objection. No doubt everyone’s riveted, glancing between her and me as if expecting us to go to blows.
But I’ve prepared this answer. I’ve been preparing this answer ever since I started writing the book.
“I think it’s very dangerous to start censoring what authors should and shouldn’t write.” I open strong, and this gets some approving murmurs from the crowd. But I still see some skeptical faces, especially from the other Asians present, so I continue. “I’d hate to live in a world where we tell people what they should and shouldn’t write based on the color of their skin. I mean, turn what you’re saying around and see how it sounds. Can a Black writer not write a novel with a white protagonist? What about everyone who has written about World War Two, and never lived through it? You can critique a work on the grounds of literary quality, and its representations of history—sure. But I see no reason why I shouldn’t tackle this subject if I’m willing to do the work. And as you can tell by the text, I did do the work. You can look up my bibliographies. You can do the fact-checking yourself. Meanwhile, I think writing is fundamentally an exercise in empathy. Reading lets us live in someone else’s shoes. Literature builds bridges; it makes our world larger, not smaller. And as for the question of profit—I mean, should every writer who writes about dark things feel guilty about it? Should creatives not be paid for their work?”
Profiting from someone else’s suffering. God, what a cruel way to put it. Athena used to struggle with this, publicly, performatively.
“I am ethically troubled by the fact that I can only tell this story because my parents and grandparents lived through it,” she once told Publishers Weekly. “And sometimes it does feel like I’m exploiting their pain for my profit. I try to write in a way that is honoring them. But I remain aware that I can only do this because I am the privileged, lucky generation. I have the indulgence to look back, to be a storyteller.”
Please. I’ve always found that line to be a cop-out. There’s no need to dress it up. We are all vultures, and some of us—and I mean Athena, here— are simply better at finding the juiciest morsels of a story, at ripping through bone and gristle to the tender bleeding heart and putting all the gore on display.
Of course I feel somewhat icky when I inform a captivated audience that British officers were told they could quell disturbances by shooting those laborers responsible. It feels both thrilling and wrong to recount this, the same way racking up likes for my thread about Athena’s death felt wrong. But that’s the fate of a storyteller. We become nodal points for the grotesque. We are the ones who say, “Look!” while everyone peeks through
their eyes, unable to confront darkness in full force. We articulate what no one else can even parse. We give a name to the unthinkable.
“I think this discomfort with my writing about tragedy speaks to our larger discomfort with acknowledging it happened at all,” I conclude. “And that is, unfortunately, the lot of anyone who writes a war novel. But I won’t let that stop me from telling untold histories. Someone has to do it.”
Smattered applause. Not everyone agrees with me, but that’s fine—at least I haven’t gotten any boos. With questions like this, that in itself is a victory. The SJW girl looks like she wants to say more, but the bookstore staff have already passed the mic on to the next audience member, who wants to know about where and how I get my inspiration. I smile, touch my fist to my chin, and launch into another perfectly rehearsed answer.
WHO HAS THE RIGHT TO WRITE ABOUT SUFFERING?
I once went to a Korean War exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History with Athena, back when I was still fooling myself that we could be good friends. I’d just moved to DC after my stint with Teach for America, and I knew Athena had moved there a few months prior for her fellowship at Georgetown, so I’d reached out breezily to see what she was up to. She responded that she was working in the morning, but doing a museum visit in the afternoon, and would love if I came along.
Wandering about an exhibit on the Korean War wasn’t my first choice for how to spend a Friday afternoon, but Athena wanted to hang out with me, and back then I still felt a little thrill every time I received any shred of Athena’s attention, so I met her at the front doors at three.
“I’m so glad you’re in town!” She hugged me in that light, detached way of hers, the way that made it seem like she was a supermodel who’d hugged a line of a hundred fans and now no longer knew how to put real emphasis into this action, hugging. “Shall we go in?”
“Oh—yeah, sure.” That was it; no small talk, no how have you been? Just a brief hug before we walked straight into the museum’s temporary showcase of the experiences of American POWs in North Korea.
I thought this was a joke at first. Oh, silly, you didn’t think I’d want to stroll a stuffy old museum instead of catching up with you, did you? Or that perhaps, hopefully, we’d spend a few minutes here while she saw whatever she wanted to see and then remove ourselves to a cool, air-conditioned bar where we could sip fruity drinks and talk about, you know, life and
publishing. But it was quickly apparent Athena wanted to linger here all afternoon. She would stand for ten minutes or longer in front of each life-size, black-and-white cutout, whispering under her breath as she read about the subject’s life story. Then she would touch her fingers to her lips, sigh, and shake her head. Once I even saw her wipe a tear from her eye.
“Imagine,” she kept murmuring. “All those lives lost. All that suffering for a cause that they didn’t even know if they believed in, just because their government was convinced domino theory was true. My God.”
And the whole thing would start again as we moved on to the next. Here we could read the last known letter from nineteen-year-old draftee Ricky Barnes, who’d asked his friend to bring his dog tags back to his mother when he caught diphtheria along the Yalu River.
Athena could not stop talking. At first I thought that maybe she was incredibly sensitive, that she couldn’t hear about someone else’s suffering without experiencing it acutely as her own. Fucking saint. But as we moved through the exhibit, I noticed she was scribbling things into a Moleskine. This was all research for some writing project.
“Just awful,” she whispered. “His widow was only seventeen—only a girl still. And she was pregnant already with his daughter, who would never know her father’s face.” And on and on. We inched down the exhibit while Athena examined every placard and cutout, announcing every so often what it was that made this particular story so very tragic.
At last I couldn’t take the sound of her voice anymore, so I wandered off to get a closer look at the uniform displays. I couldn’t find Athena when I exited the exhibit, and for a moment I thought she’d ditched me before I saw her sitting on a bench next to an old man in a wheelchair, jotting things into her notebook while he talked at her boobs.
“And do you remember how that felt?” she asked him. “Can you describe it for me? Everything you can remember?”
Jesus Christ, I thought. She’s a vampire.
Athena had a magpie’s eye for suffering. This skill united all her best-received works. She could see through the grime and sludge of facts and details to the part of the story that bled. She collected true narratives like seashells, polished them off, and presented them, sharp and gleaming, to horrified and entranced readers.
That museum visit was disturbing, but it didn’t surprise me. I’d seen Athena steal before.
She probably didn’t even think of it as theft. The way she described it, this process wasn’t exploitative, but something mythical and profound. “I try to make sense of the chaos,” she told the New Yorker once. “I think the way we learn about history in classrooms is so antiseptic. It makes those struggles feel so far away, like they could never happen to us, like we would never make the same decisions that the people in those textbooks did. I want to bring those bloody histories to the fore. I want to make the reader confront how close to the present those histories still are.”
Elegantly put. Noble, even. When you phrase it like that, it’s not exploitation, it’s a service.
But tell me, really, what more right did Athena have to tell those stories than anyone else did? She never lived in China for more than a few months at a time. She was never in a war zone. She grew up attending private schools in England paid for by her parents’ tech jobs, summered on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, and spent her adult life between New Haven, NYC, and DC. She doesn’t even speak Chinese fluently—she’s admitted in interviews that she “spoke only English at home in an attempt to better assimilate.”
Athena would go on Twitter and talk about the importance of Asian American representation, about how the model minority myth was false because Asians were overrepresented at both the low and high ends of the income spectrum, how Asian women continued to be fetishized and made victims of hate crimes, and how Asians were silently suffering because they did not exist as a voting category to white American politicians. And then she’d go home to that Dupont Circle apartment and settle down to write on a thousand-dollar antique typewriter while sipping a bottle of expensive Riesling her publisher had sent her for earning out her advance.
Athena never personally experienced suffering. She just got rich from it. She wrote an award-winning short story based on what she saw at that exhibit, titled “Whispers along the Yalu.” And she wasn’t even Korean.