It’s rare that I read a book immediately when it comes out. For super anticipated releases I’m either lucky enough to snag an ARC and thus read the book before publication, or when I don’t, I immediately buy the book but usually end up reading it some weeks or even months after it first came out. But with Yellowface, the first non-genre work by R. F. Kuang, I just couldn’t stay away. I thought I might not like it as much because it’s a contemporary novel with no SFF elements whatsoever, but I needn’t have worried. What a wild ride it was!
by R. F. Kuang
Published: William Morrow, 2023
Hardback: 323 pages
My rating: 9/10
Opening line: The night I watch Athena Liu die, we’re celebrating her TV deal with Netflix.
What’s the harm in a pseudonym? New York Times bestselling sensation Juniper Song is not who she says she is, she didn’t write the book she claims she wrote, and she is most certainly not Asian American–in this chilling and hilariously cutting novel from R. F. Kuang.
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.
With all the promotions, early reviews, sneak peeks, and what have you, I somehow still didn’t know what to expect from this first non-genre book by one of my favorite authors. I thought I’d read a little bit, just to get a taste, and when I looked up the next time, four chapters later, I knew that I had yet another favorite on my hands.
The story begins with a bang. After briefly introducing first-person narrator Juniper Song Hayward and her sort-of-but-not-really-friend Athena Liu, we immediately get to witness Athena’s gruesome death. Kuang doesn’t mess around. Although the book may not be about Athena dying, that scene was so well described that it followed me into my dreams far longer than it bothered June, who witnessed it firsthand. What also happens is that, while June is waiting for the EMTs to arrive, she steals Athena’s unpublished (and very secret) manuscript. Because you see, Athena has everything June wants. She is publishing’s darling, she gets great reviews, sells tons of books, and receives award nominations and recognition wherever she goes. Oh, and let’s not forget the Netflix deal! It’s not fair, is it? Especially because Athena has her flaws, too, and June is a good writer. It’s just that publishing doesn’t want to promote a boring young white cis woman from Philly. Or so June believes.
What follows is several layers of greatness. On the surface, you get the thrilling story of Juniper Hayward’s rise and fall in publishing, due to having stolen her friend’s work and selling it as her own. With that come the guilt (at least she knows what she’s doing isn’t right!), a fair amount of paranoia, and an ever-growing ruthlessness at the thought of getting caught. Honestly, the first person narration made this such an exciting read, because being right there in June’s mind lets us see not only how she tries to justify her misdeeds to herself, but also that she’s not the Pure Evil that Twitter makes her out to be. She’s petty and jealous, yes, but she’s also willing to work hard, and she’s not without talent. Did I condone what she did at any point? Hell, no. Was it fun to watch her succeed (for a while) – absolutely.
There’s also interesting and sometimes disturbing insight into the workings of publishing. Not that it’s a huge surprise, but having certain things spelled out clearly goes to show that publishing works just like the rest of the world. If it makes the people on top more money, then it’s good. If it loses them money, it’s bad. And that mindset trickles down all the way.
The probably most important and prominent layer of the book is the exploration of race and of who gets to tell which stories. It’s one thing that June’s publisher for her (stolen) book, The Last Front, decides to put a pseudonym on the cover that gives the impression of June being Asian when she’s clearly not. It leaves June plausible deniability because “Song” is her middle name and she wanted to have a fresh start with this book that is not only much better, but also very different in tone and subject matter, than her failed debut. But it’s another matter entirely when June gets invited to events meant to lift up and celebrate Asian voices, with mostly Asian people present. June has the decency to feel uncomfortable and misplaced, at least, and boy, was that cringey to read.
But Kuang doesn’t just present a simple answer to a very complex question. June, as wrong as it was to steal that manuscript, does put in the work. She researches the hell out of the novel’s themes, reads up on the period, goes through all of the sources that Athena has used, and clearly learns a lot through that. Now, ignoring that she edited an existing work, why should she not be allowed to write about Chinese people in WWI when she has studied hard and wants to tell about a forgotten chapter of history? Because she is not Chinese herself?
There is no quick and easy answer to this question in Yellowface, but through various characters, reviews, events, etc. we are presented a variety of opinions. Just like in real life, you’ll find people who are incredibly fixated that only #ownvoices stories should exist, and you have others who think that empathy and the willingness to learn should be enough to write about experiences different to your own. (In case you’re wondering, I belong in the second camp. Otherwise nobody would be allowed to write about anything other than themselves and that would not only be boring for us readers but also, I suspect, for the writers.)
Now to adress some of the concerns or points of critique I have come across in other reviews (yes, I did the “read only negative reviews” game with this book, too): it does feel a bit odd, reading about a character that sounds so much like Kuang herself. Athena Liu may be even more successful or have risen to great heights faster, but the parallels between the fictional Liu and the very real Kuang are… striking. Now, it’s up to us readers how to read and interpret that. Is Rebecca Kuang making fun of herself? Is she suggesting that she was simply one of the lucky “chosen ones” in publishing? That, though undoubtedly talented, her personal success story was due to similar reasons as Athena Liu’s, and she could have just as easily been stewing in obscurity? There’s no way to really know what the author intended, but I personally like the ambiguity and the fact that we, as the readers, have to make up our own minds about it.
If you decide to read Liu as a stand-in for Kuang, the descriptions of her physical perfection feel a bit weird (who would describe themselves as this gorgeous, after all, even if it’s true?), but in the end, no matter how I looked at it, Yellowface was still a highly entertaining, well-written book about topics that I find intriguing.
Another problem some readers seem to have had is the prominent feature of Twitter. I mean… it’s not like that’s particularly far-fetched, is it? Famous people of all professions have had their Twitter battles, been cancelled, doxxed, virtually beaten down by an angry mob, and so on. Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time on Book Twitter will know exactly how vicious people can get. It’s the internet, after all. Again, your mileage may vary, but I followed the Twitter conversations in this book as eagerly as Juniper does (maybe not with quite as much obsession). If you’re going to complain that a part of a novel “takes place” on Twitter, then maybe don’t pick up contemporary novels? It would have been weirder had this story pretended Twitter didn’t exist, not only because June gets harrassed there but also because authors simply do (or at least used to) a lot of promotional work on social media. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Goodreads, TikTok – sure, some of those may be on their way out while others are still going strong, but the fact that they are inextricable parts of our, and authors’ lives, is undeniable. To sum up: I liked how social media was incorporated in the story and found it quite believable.
There came a point when I got worried about the ending. How could this be resolved? June had to be caught, right? I mean, things have to be made right in the end, and June has to carry the consequences. But does that really have to happen? What if she just gets away with it? Will her guilt eat her up inside? Will somebody figure out her lies years later? Has she forgotten an important clue somewhere that could lead to the end of her publishing career? It’s another point for Kuang that she kept me guessing until the end. And even more points for me not knowing quite what I was hoping for. There is no way June’s behaviour can be excused, but she’s not an unlikeable protagonist. I did find myself wanting her to succeed in publishing, to fulfil her dreams, but on her own merit, not on a dead woman’s coattails. I found the ending that R. F. Kuang went with to be satisfying and the one that felt the most realistic.
One thing that Yellowface proved to me unequivocally is that Rebecca Kuang is a brilliant writer and I won’t have to think twice about picking up whatever she publishes next. A historical rom com? Gimme. A spy thriller? Alright. More fantasy? Space ships and aliens? I’ll take it all.
MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection