mood music: t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l – willow smith
This book was a wild ride. I had a very love-hate relationship with it, and it took time to finish because of this. A social commentary about the literary publishing world, it tackles issues with diversity and inclusivity and how minority writers are boxed into specific genres by their publishing companies in service of diversifying the signed authors.
The story follows June Haywayd, a young white woman who published one book that received minimal fanfare and sales. She is friends (or frenemies) with Athena Liu, a classmate from Yale who is the current literary darling. With three published works under her belt, all receiving critical acclaim, Athena embodies everything June covets. She craves Athena’s success, popularity, and creative ability. While together one evening during their monthly catchup, June witnesses Athena’s death when she unceremoniously chokes on a pancake. Although she tried to perform the Heimlich maneuver on her and called emergency services for help, Athena was declared dead upon EMS’ arrival.
After attending the funeral service, June reveals that like any sane person, she took the opportunity to steal one of Athena’s unpublished manuscripts before leaving her apartment. She does some rewrites on it and submits it to her agent as her original work. Not only is it a total deviation from her first novel, as it covers the abuse of Chinese laborers during WWI, but June takes it upon herself with creative liberty to make changes that in many ways negate the point of the book.
The book is quickly picked up by a very prestigious publisher, and they begin workshopping June’s image in preparation for its release. The PR team decides that June should change her pen name, so it’s decided that she will go by Juniper Song, as her full name is ethnically ambiguous enough to negate accusations of cultural appropriation. June begins following several Asian cultural institutions and retweeting posts about BTS and boba tea. She even dedicates the book, The Last Front, to Athena to shield herself from plagiarism claims. The book is an immediate success; June goes on a multicity book tour and speaks at several panels for prominent, young literary authors. But her success does not come without criticism. Very quickly, the online community begins attacking June; they call her a racist, a white woman passing herself off as Asian, taking a story that is not hers to tell, and profiting off the suffering contained in its pages.
And here’s the thing…June is a horrible person. She is as bad as the online detractors claim. The way she twists herself into a pretzel to justify what she did takes an ungodly amount of delusion and entitlement. She can’t decide if she and Athena are friends, best friends or acquaintances, as it changes at any moment to suit the story she’s telling. She gets an Asian American publishing assistant fired because she dared to question the ethics behind June writing this book. June also calls her naysayers “reverse racists” because she believes they are coming at her with undeserved prejudice. By the end of the story, I was rooting for her downfall, and thankfully she’s enough of a narcissist to continue digging deeper into the mess. I also had to remind myself several times that the author is Asian, and this book was likely based on her experience in the publishing world.