“Twitter makes unqualified yet eager judges of us all.”
Yellowface by R. F. Kuang (Harper Collins, 2023) is worth reading on many levels. It takes on complicated friendships, guilt, cultural appropriation, racism, diversity in publishing and the effects of social media, all while remaining compulsively readable.
The story is told by June Hayward, a self-described “basic white girl” whose writing career foundered after a lacklustre response to her debut novel. Her disappointment over the fact that finding a literary agent and a publisher didn’t automatically bring stardom is sharpened by the outsized success of her college frenemy, Athena Liu.
In the opening pages of the book, June visits Athena’s envy-inducing apartment for a chat and a snack after an evening of celebrating Athena’s latest triumph, only to watch helplessly as her friend chokes on her food and dies. Although her shock and grief are real, June pull herself together enough to walk off with an unfinished manuscript from Athena’s desk. Of course, she can’t resist the temptation to fill in and rewrite parts of the story about the WWI Chinese Labour Corps, then seek to publish it as her own.
Her agent gets her a deal with a prestigious boutique publisher, who decides to rebrand her as Juniper Song (her full first and real middle names), a move June justifies as simply “nudging” readers to think she has Chinese heritage. After that the literary success she craves, and thought was out of reach due to what she sees as the publishing industry’s unfair focus on diverse authors, arrives like a freight train.
When the inevitable cultural appropriation and plagiarism backlash starts, June embarks on a series of bad decisions. She makes an enemy of a junior editorial assistant by resisting the idea of a sensitivity reader, and “borrows” another piece of Athena’s work for a new project. Although she is haunted by her fear of being found out—and sometimes by random visions of Athena—she digs in and doubles down. This just eggs on the online mob, which won’t stop seeking justice for Athena and trying to end June’s career.
Yellowface manages to tackle a bunch of culturally relevant topics while remaining fun and easy to read. June blamed the publishing industry for her decisions, thinking that she had no choice because nobody wants to read stories by straight white women. Although she lies through the entire book, blames everybody else, and is oblivious to her own casual racism, it’s hard not to feel sorry for her when she’s viciously attacked from so many sides. She’s fascinating because she’s both sympathetic and horrible—the perfect frenemy.
The book is also highly entertaining at a meta level, featuring a white narrator–written by a Chinese-American author–who is pretending to be a Chinese-American writer. A lot of the skepticism about June’s work come from the fact that it’s such a departure from her first book, and R.F. Kuang’s previous works have all been in the fantasy genre. Although I’m not much of a fantasy reader, and am not familiar with any of her other highly-acclaimed books, Goodreads tells me that some of the criticisms aimed at both June and Athena’s fictitious works have also been lobbed at Kuang. She has also gone on record to complain about the idea that the only thing she’s capable of writing is “an Asian-American trauma story.”
It all adds up to a fast and clever read that will appeal to anyone interested in publishing, especially anybody who likes gossip, literary controversies and Twitter scandals—which is probably a lot of us.