... stylish and frequently revelatory ... As a writer Yang is often described as a master of empathy, and this new collection bears plentiful witness to his talent for imaginatively identifying with his subjects. Nothing is more characteristic of his essays, however, than this gesture of turning away, or refusal, in the name of his defiant inner self or 'soul' ... Yang is not a political philosopher, and it is possible to interpret his (so far) fragmentary brief for such categories as a matter more of literary sensibility than political sense ... if Yang’s tenacious individuality marks some of his meditations as untimely, it is also what invests them with a unique necessity. Especially when there are persuasive reasons to get with a program, we need critics who are willing to keep speaking in a voice of their obdurate own.
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 ... Whether the book’s title is false advertising or self-sabotage, the result is frustrating to read ... 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 ... [Yang] 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.
On the face of it—a loaded phrase in this context—what I most enjoy is Yang’s lovely python style of writing and thinking. He seems to have imbibed everything related to his topics at the cost of great effort. But his prose unfurls in a mode of languorous deliberation ... Another overlap between Yang and [Norman] Mailer is that they are both excellent reporters who nevertheless find the most compelling evidence for their ideas in the mirror ... Though Yang pumps the iron of reporting, his pieces have a bit of dream state about them. I find the self-conflicted elegance of his prose to be a delight. We have heard so much about the incursions of the essay into fiction, but here we have the opposite, reported essays that often levitate into that fiction feeling on the strength of the author’s voice and their sharply observed character studies.
You want to see the corners that such a provocation might illuminate. Then the collection veers off into an array of profiles and, after that, some musings on modern courtship ... in his more recent writings, much of it ’splaining the campus and online culture wars, he keeps himself above the fray, and sometimes you sense that he’s gone stiff trying to hold that position. His prose becomes calcified ... By the end of the book’s final quarter, which dissects leftist vocab concerning 'whiteness,' we’ve been shanghaied into duller and more familiar territory than was promised ... The collection’s center of gravity isn’t yellowness, and it isn’t folk, a word conveying more easy, warm regard for humans in the plural than he can really muster. The female folk are conspicuously missing, to start with, a gap that goes unminded and unmentioned. Asian men are best understood in relation to white men, and never to the Asian women who might be their friends, comrades, and competitors ... With his title, Yang leaves an open contradiction almost trollishly unaddressed: If to be yellow is to be dismissed as inscrutable because no one’s bothered to look at you, why does his gaze also flick away?
'The Face of Seung-Hui Cho,' Yang’s 2008 essay on the mass shooter of Virginia Tech, is a remarkable attempt to trace the author’s kinship with a young man who, one year earlier, had killed thirty-two people and then killed himself...Like his subject, Yang makes himself known by an act of radical, desperate self-exposure. What he possesses that Cho doesn’t is elegance and distinction of expression. He channels the extremity of his subject matter into a marvelous style, a fluency and clarity that refuse to renounce their ruinous origins ... The Souls of Yellow Folk’s comprehensive title suggests a will to rectify these omissions. But besides a fig leaf introduction and a first section comprising 'The Face of Seung-Hui Cho,' 'Paper Tigers,' and a profile of the chef and author Eddie Huang, the articles collected here, all previously published elsewhere, address the nature of East Asians in America only in passing, and frequently not at all. One of the drawbacks of assembling a book from a haphazard pile of articles is the difficulty of establishing a central theme from the assortment of scattered elements: Yang’s book, a crisply sorted stack of application essays and homework assignments fobbed off as a master’s thesis, is no exception in this regard ... An impressionable reader could easily exit it assuming East Asians will develop souls only through unconditional adherence to white American mores ... behind the balanced sentences and mots justes Yang’s sensibility cuts itself down to a tiny set of facile precepts.
There is something extreme in Yang’s characterization of the Asian American’s plight, a bottomless self-loathing that is as repellent as it is fascinating. But for the most part it rings true ... Yang makes for a curious critic of woke culture ... There is a point in The Souls of Yellow Folk where you can see Yang poised uneasily on the fence ... And yet he cannot quite get on board: The idea that we really can be equal 'still seems to me an impossible wish, and, like all impossible wishes, one that is charged with authoritarian potential.' The book concludes with a couple of essays that explore this potential. It is perhaps no coincidence, though it is a shame nevertheless, that Yang’s normally lucid prose gives way in these later essays to a hectoring tone, full of opaque jargon ... The individual, in the form of Yang himself, is the hero of 'Paper Tigers'—the person who becomes a writer so he can be 'his own law'; who rejects both the fetters of a self-destructive Asian American culture and a hegemonic white culture that demands his fealty; who is determined to express his 'obdurate singularity at any cost.' I can recognize the appeal of this creed. Yet where does it leave everyone else? To repurpose a criticism of V.S. Naipaul, the implication of Wesley Yang’s work is that the only way to transcend America’s various racial traps is to become Wesley Yang.