R.F. Kuang’s dark thriller Yellowface deftly paints the worst of the publishing industry and literary community and tackles questions of cultural appropriation, exploitation, and dispossession with a stunning wit.
June Hayward is out celebrating with her friend Athena Liu at a rooftop bar in Washington DC. Both were rising literary stars when they graduated from Yale University, but for the moment, Athena’s career has shined quite a bit brighter—with three bestselling novels, high-profile success, and a newly signed Netflix deal. Meanwhile, June’s debut has fallen to the wayside, leaving her with a small release and a literary agent who doesn’t care for her future work. After witnessing Athena’s death in a freak accident, June comes across Athena’s latest manuscript—an unfinished book exploring the unsung contributions of Chinese laborers during World War I. In a frenzy, June submits the manuscript as her own, arguing her extensive edits saved the novel and placed her in the moral right. Rebranding herself as Juniper Song (her full first and middle name left over from her parents’ hippy pasts) with an ethnically ambiguous author photo, June finds great success selling her stolen novel—skyrocketing to the top of bestseller lists and Asian American representation events. Still, her past threatens to catch up with her. Haunted by the specter of Athena, her carefully constructed persona begins to unravel.
Yellowface is Kuang’s first non-fantasy book, and it could not be more different from her previous work. The Poppy War trilogy is a grimdark military fantasy inspired by twentieth-century Chinese history. Each of its three books is a doorstopper. Babel: An Arcane History sets its translator protagonists off in magical Victorian-era Oxford where the pursuit of knowledge always happens at the service of empire. Meanwhile, Yellowface is a different beast entirely. Most novels are lying when they say they can be read in a single sitting, but Yellowface reads quickly and much faster than anything she has ever written. Its yellow-washed cover holds eyes that won’t look directly at you—their inked-in pupils glance sideways, either frightened, guilty, or contemptuous. Yellowface is first-person prose that spills forward, flying fast and furious, like a fuming friend who has gotten too deep into a rant before realizing they may be in the wrong.
June is not the most reliable narrator, and her high-minded aspirations for Athena’s novel fall apart after not much poking. June likens comparisons to Rachel Dolezal, Jessica Krug, Raquel Saraswati, or anyone on the growing list of white women who claim BIPOC heritage to take up opportunities or professionally advance in their fields only to have their identity publicly revealed. Convinced that nobody is interested in “stories about boring white girls,” she searches for stories outside her ethnicity and culture. At the same time, she presents casual racism with liberal pretenses—becoming incredibly dismissive of Asian critics or peer authors that question her authority, deeply uncomfortable with the communities that welcome her in, and almost cartoonishly repulsed by Chinese food. Changing her name to Juniper Song is initiated by her publisher, leaving her ethnically ambiguous enough for them to avoid accusations of cultural appropriation but with enough plausible deniability to say she has never claimed to be Chinese American. Watching her make her way through Yellowface is like watching a long and drawn-out train crash, and just when you think you just can’t take it anymore, it reverses in slow motion. There were times when I’d simply place the book in another room and walk away because, frankly, I couldn’t have June in my head for any longer. These are all positive attributes.
If June is a villain protagonist, she is a tragic yet bumbling one. The stolen novel in question becomes a patchwork mess as June actively censors Athena in death through her edits. She is enabled by a literary agency and publishing firm, which are all too willing to erase and commodify the politics of Athena’s work—sometimes to the point that gives even June pause. R.F. Kuang satirically paints a menagerie of characters—elitist agents and publishing institutions looking for authenticity and completely willing to fabricate it. June is lauded at literary festivals for Asian American representation while simultaneously scratching out anything too critical of European powers during the World Wars and adding in scenes of white saviors wherever possible. Altogether, they boil down her perspective to an ambiguously ethnic name, a niche historical interest, and a new voice in the field. The forces that led Athena to rising stardom become the same that lead June to cultural exploitation of the highest degree.
It is hard to ignore how Yellowface has come to life in the midst of a Harper Collins strike earlier this year with R.F. Kuang as an ardent supporter. With her latest writing comes a book exhausted and embarrassed by the publishing industry and fascinated with the internet afterlife of books. The lifecycle does not stop there, going through to the reviewers, book critics, and social media users at the edge of its deluge. Yellowface feels more concerned with the chaos of authenticity and performance in online interactions—and sometimes gets lost in it. June spends much of her time doomscrolling, obsessing over her Goodreads reviews, and constantly asking for advice from her writing friends. Athena gets canceled in death for engaging too much in diaspora nostalgia and writing for a Western gaze. Justice is not so much served but endlessly “discoursed” about online, and readers and writers are all the worse for it.
It is also impossible to miss the ways in which Kuang’s writing has become more and more metafictional. Yellowface is a book that is technically impossible to write without going through the process of publishing itself. Athena’s stardom feels superficially reminiscent of Kuang’s own—a young, successful Asian American author writing with a historical lens. Yellowface has a tricky point to it—Kuang metaphorically kills herself in its first chapter. The ghost of Athena Liu haunts her book launch and social media accounts. Athena is a specter you see in smoke and shadow. It is a friendship shaped by writing animosity—sketched at a distance in the unreliability of June’s voice. By June’s own admission, they are either close friends, or both could barely stand one another. Athena is celebrated in her life, but she is also incredibly alone—trapped by her rapid success and hostile to younger Asian American writers who could take her place. A savvy reader can probably guess its plot twists without much difficulty. June’s downward spiral is not surprising but inevitable. Yellowface has two missions—pushing cultural exploitation to its fictional limits and satirizing the state of the publishing industry in an internet era. Sometimes, the novel sacrifices the first mission for the second and becomes too obsessed with the online lives of books and authordom. But where it shines is Kuang’s darkly witty tone, critiques of publishing and cultural exploitation, and the all-consuming nature of internet personas.
By R.F. Kuang
William Morrow & Company
Published May 16, 2023
Reema Saleh is a writer and journalist based in Chicago. She is a graduate student at the University of Chicago studying public policy, and when she's not doing that, her face is buried in whichever fantasy book has caught her eye. She can be followed on Twitter or Instagram at @reemasabrina.