Yellowface – by Rebecca F. Kuang

As a longtime fan of Kuang’s fantasy works, I definitely had some expectations on her newest book. I ended up reading it much faster than expected, and I definitely enjoyed the experience. However, I have more thoughts that I need to articulate. Where should I start?

Title: Yellowface

Author: Rebecca F. Kuang

Publication Date: 25 May 2023

Genre: Satire – Thriller

Pages: 329

Standalone or Series: Standalone

Representation: Asian-American major & secondary characters

Content Warning: Racism – Cultural appropriation – Bullying – Death – Rape – Suicide – Toxic friendships and relationships

Synopsis

Authors June Hayward and Athena Liu were supposed to be twin rising stars: same year at Yale, same debut year in publishing. But Athena’s a cross-genre literary darling, and June didn’t even get a paperback release. Nobody wants stories about basic white girls, June thinks.

So when June witnesses Athena’s death in a freak accident, she acts on impulse: she steals Athena’s just-finished masterpiece, an experimental novel about the unsung contributions of Chinese laborers to the British and French war efforts during World War I.

So what if June edits Athena’s novel and sends it to her agent as her own work? So what if she lets her new publisher rebrand her as Juniper Song—complete with an ambiguously ethnic author photo? Doesn’t this piece of history deserve to be told, whoever the teller? That’s what June claims, and the New York Times bestseller list seems to agree.

But June can’t get away from Athena’s shadow, and emerging evidence threatens to bring June’s (stolen) success down around her. As June races to protect her secret, she discovers exactly how far she will go to keep what she thinks she deserves.

With its totally immersive first-person voice, Yellowface takes on questions of diversity, racism, and cultural appropriation not only in the publishing industry but the persistent erasure of Asian-American voices and history by Western white society. R. F. Kuang’s novel is timely, razor-sharp, and eminently readable.

Analysis

Form & Style: Written entirely in first person, Yellowface throws us inside the head of our very unlikable protagonist. As befits the unfiltered inner voice of a chronically online young person, here Kuang adopts a casual writing style, full to the brim with references to popular culture, political cliches, easily recognisable talking points. There’s no lack of literary allusions – the main character is a writer, after all – but much more dominant are the quotes from Twitter, Goodreads, the ruthless social media circus functioning as a perpetual counterpoint to the narration.

Setting: Yellowface is set in nowadays America, and more specifically in the cutthroat world of the publishing industry. Since so much of the communication between characters, as well as all the scandals, flame wars, and debacles, happen online, physical spaces are often less important than virtual ones; if anything, no material place can be ever perceived as secure, because there is no sheltering yourself from the ongoing debates of the online community.

Characters: If there’s one thing Kuang excels at, is writing morally hideous people in an enjoyable and compelling way. If in her previous works characters were at least endowed with some sympathetic motivation for their reprehensible choices, here June Hayward appears to have no redeeming quality whatsoever: she’s dishonest, unaware of her shortcomings, and more than casually racist. Not only she’s a plagiariser, she insists she’s justified in her actions because, bear with me, she’s white, and therefore discriminated, unlike all of you, lucky ‘diverse’ people. She’s a bad person, and at times really infuriatingly stupid. And yes, I realise I just said she’s less sympathetic than genocidal maniacs, terrorists and warmongers from Kuang’s other books, but that’s actually how she comes across in context.

This is not to say that other characters are much better: every single person in this book seems to be driven by the meanest and most selfish motivations – which is why, in some cases, they fall for June’s manipulative moves. Even Athena, who we get to know posthumously through June’s flashbacks and memories, isn’t exactly upright; quite the opposite, she repeatedly exploited the suffering of those around her under the guise of ‘inspiration’, and her own views were heavily tinged by intellectual snobbery and personal arrogance. Given how Athena is a very obvious clone of the author, I wonder if her characterisation counts as a form of merciless self-reflection, or as a preemptive dismissal of any accuse of self-glorification? Whatever the case, some of the criticism June wields towards her memory might even have got some merit – hadn’t it come from June, one the least likeable and reliable narrator I can think of.

Now, filling your book with a bunch of unpleasant, irredeemable people is usually a quick way to lose your readers’ investment in the story – and yet, Kuang manages to pull it off: even though I didn’t particularly cheer for anyone, I still needed to see what was going to happened next; I was morbidly fascinated by June’s devious schemes and faulty arguments, and perpetually curious to see the next inevitable disaster unfold.

Plot: The very moment we see June cheat her way to success, the question that comes to mind is: What could possibly go wrong? Of course, what follows is the story of many things falling apart, and of June playing each and every card in her hand to stay afloat. The story takes the shape of a thriller, sometimes even flirting with the tropes and moods of a gothic horror story. There’s no lack of reflective interludes, largely devoted to June’s bad faith arguments and problematic social commentary, however all in all the narrative is gripping and suspenseful, impossible to put down until the end. The conclusion is open-ended, and perhaps not entirely fulfilling – but what else did you expect from such a gaggle of vicious people and their toxic interactions?

Themes & Overall Thoughts: Yellowface isn’t just a sharp and entertaining book, it’s an ambitious one as well. It tackles hot, topical themes such as racism and its influence in the publishing industry, the debate over cultural appropriation, as well as the perverse dynamics of social media. Now, as an outsider, I can’t really speak for how realistic or insightful is Kuang’s depiction of the cultural market in its many facets, I can only take her word on that. What I can’t help but point out, however, is how her masterful work at building detestable characters is both the main strength and the biggest weakness of the novel.

Ok, let me elaborate a bit better. Yellowface deals with topics that aren’t just urgent, but that come with some nuance as well. Sure, we all (hopefully) agree that racism is unquestionably and universally bad, and that profiting from an oppressed culture you not even so secretly despise is a repulsive move. However, not all issues are that clear-cut: what’s the impact of other causes of both privilege and oppression? Does it count as #ownvoice if you share your character’s ethnicity, but none of their historical and material struggles? Who has the right to tell what stories? The novel touches upon all such topics, but ultimately the debate is all flattened by the blatant unreliability and plain utter wrongness of our narrator. Who has the right to tell what stories? Well, obviously not June Hayward; because she’s a plagiarist and because she sucks. You aren’t being oppressed for being white, you idiot.

Besides, while Kuang does a good job at endowing her own self-insert with a sizeable serving of moral sketchiness, I still can’t unsee how some of the criticism she received in real life is here repeated word by word by a character who is immediately perceived as inherently wrong. As a result, Yellowface ends up feeling less like an investigation of racism in cultural circles, and more like a really epic diss against some irksome people Kuang had the misfortune to meet online. There are, here and there, several hints at the possibility of a deeper, more complex exploration – such as the final speech about the commodification of authenticity and the restrictive “brands” that are imposed on artists, but they’re given little space in comparison to everything else. Still, they’re there: you can pick up the clue and do your own thinking – or, well, you could just enjoy this captivating story of terrible people.

Comments

Leave a Reply

%d