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.
'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.