June Hayward is a struggling writer whose debut book did not sell enough to even get a paperback release. Celebrating her frenemy Athena Liu’s yet another success, things take a violent turn as she witnesses the latter choking to death before help arrives. Visibly shaken, she returns to her apartment but not without Athena’s recently finished manuscript she swiped without anyone detecting. An epic novel about the unsung contributions of Chinese labourers in World War I.
She proceeds to polish the manuscript and publishes it under her name. Rebranding herself as Juniper Song with an equally tweaked author photo to go. It takes the publishing industry by storm, racing into the bestsellers list. June soon becomes a media darling.
But success comes at a price. The racist questions. The doubts. The anxiety of dealing with her actions and being haunted by the ghost of Athena. The pressure to write another bestseller. Emboldened with her success, June dips into Athena’s notes again. This time being a bit too obvious. And that is when all hell breaks loose.
How far will an author go for success? Yellowface by R. F. Kuang was one of my highly anticipated reads this year. When the audiobook dropped at Storytel, I picked it up immediately.
The witty yet simplistic cover sets the tone for the book. The fast-paced read will have you turning the pages. Or as in my case, glued to the audio narration. Written in first-person from June’s point-of-view, none of the characters are likable. Be it June herself, her agent, the publishing team, or even Athena for that matter.
At its heart, Yellowface is a story about plagiarism. But it is a lot more than that. It is a dark satire about the publishing industry, racism, white privilege, social media takedowns, and the cancel culture. It also questions reverse racism. And if there is a place for a straight, non-diverse woman writer.
“Do you know what it’s like to pitch a book and be told they already have an Asian writer? That they can’t put out two minority stories in the same season? That Athena Liu already exists, so you’re redundant?”
The book spares no one. It is critical of the publishing industry with cultural appropriation being a central theme. How diverse voices and diverse writers are exploited and tokenized. How rules are easily bent when it comes to authenticity. How best sellers are decided long before the book has even been published?
It is a conversation about the publishing industry in the social media era. The online bullying writers face no thanks to the anonymity of Twitter. I have been a part of Book Twitter long enough and have seen quite a few dramas unfold, only to die down without a whimper the next week, if not in a couple of days. It questions the readers and the social media that is quick to jump into the controversy with their hot takes. Why a non-diverse writer writing about a diverse character is unacceptable. Who has the right to tell the story and who doesn’t. How Goodreads has been commodified. How success can be bought and everything now has a price tag.
Reputations in publishing are built and destroyed, constantly, online.
It makes you question your own self as a writer too. Writing about what sells instead of what you want to write. Playing it to the gallery. We all struggle to find a balance there.
The writing is lucid. The masterstroke is an Asian writer Kuang sharing the story through the eyes of a white writer protagonist. You can’t help but compare her to Athena’s character whose journey as a writer is similar.
June is an unreliable narrator who justifies her actions and takes pleasure in the critique the next minute since it is Athena’s story. You know you have got a good book in your hands when you almost root for the plagiarizer to get away with it.
“It all boils down to self-interest. Manipulating the story… If publishing is rigged, you might as well make sure it’s rigged in your favor.”
That said, the book is not perfect. No book is. Some roadblocks are resolved a bit too easily and some characters do an absolute u-turn to fit the narrative. But the ending is perfect going with the tone of the book.
This is a book that makes you introspect. Although it is easy to judge the publishing industry, as a business owner, I can understand where they are coming from. I work across industries including some equally cutthroat such as the New York fashion industry. At times saleability has been prioritized. It is not about creativity but what sells.
Do I recommend the book? Most definitely. Irrespective of the issues, it is a 5-star pick for me. An important read if you are an author or a reader, particularly in the current times. It is Kuang’s first foray outside fantasy fiction and is equally engaging. I leave you with this final quote.
“Publishing picks a winner, someone attractive enough, someone cool and young and oh, we’re all thinking it, let’s just say it, diverse enough- and lavishes all its money and resources on them. It’s so fucking arbitrary. Or-perhaps not arbitrary, but it hinges on factors that have nothing to do with the strength of one’s prose.“
Trigger warnings: racism, cyber-bullying, anxiety, misogyny
About R.F. Kuang
Rebecca F. Kuang is a Marshall Scholar, translator, and award-winning, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Poppy War trilogy and Babel: An Arcane History, among others. She has an MPhil in Chinese Studies from Cambridge and an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies from Oxford; she is now pursuing a PhD in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale.Yellowface by R. F. Kuang Book Review @kuangrf #Yellowface #BookReview #BlogaberryDazzle #BohoPonderings Click To Tweet