Yes, every once in a while I manage to snag a book that isn’t an ARC soon after its release (and actually read it)—all of this helped by my lovely public library, for they had a copy but of course there are holds on it, so I have to read it right away! Yellowface is quite the departure from Babel, the only other R.F. Kuang book I’ve read to date. But my understanding, from what I have read about her work and the book, is that this is on purpose; she likes to change up genre and try something new all the time. Neat. As far as how this works as a novel: it’s a bit inside baseball, but otherwise it is a very fun and frustrating read.
June Hayward watches her not-particularly-close friend die and then takes her friend’s just completed first-draft manuscript. She polishes it up, submits it under her own name, and ends up publishing her second novel under the more ethnically ambiguous name of Juniper Song. This sprawling epic about the unsung history of Chinese labourers in World War I nets June the praise and recognition she has always craved. But as suspicions and accusations over the true authorship of the novel mount, June finds her own mental health deteriorating. The publishing industry is not a healthy or friendly one in this novel, as it is likely not in real life.
While this novel lacks the epic scope or fantastical elements of Babel, there are still so many layers to unpack here. I’m going to do my best, with the caveats that I am white, Canadian, and in no way a part of the publishing industry. Most of what I know about publishing I glean from the tweets of authors, agents, and industry professionals.
First let’s talk about the obvious (and perhaps most controversial) layer: the central question of who is allowed to tell a story? This conversation continually arises like a phoenix from its own, smoldering embers. The #OwnVoices label is a part of it but also problematic in the way it can reduce authors to their identities and also even pressure authors to come out. Kuang cuts straight to the heart of the matter by asking us what informs an author’s identity. Is it just heritage? Athena Liu was ethnically Chinese, but she didn’t speak Mandarin and wasn’t particularly connected to the story she was telling about Chinese labourers a century ago. Neither is June—but by the time she is done massaging Athena’s manuscript, she has done just as much, if not more, research than Athena herself. Does that make June the more qualified voice for this story? Do either of them have the right to tell this story, or is it nearly as ghoulish as Athena’s reported behaviour with Korean veterans?
If you’re expecting Yellowface to give you an answer, don’t hold your breath. The whole point is that there isn’t an easy answer. Indeed, the “right” answer tends to vacillate depending on the calculus of optimizing publisher profit and reputation. June, for a time at least, manages to ride that curve quite well—until she doesn’t.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I predict that June Hayward will go down in the history of famous unsympathetic and unreliable narrators, right alongside stinkers like Humbert Humbert. This is the second layer to Yellowface. Indeed, given how much of the book is June talking directly at the reader (often justifying her current flavour of feelings), you need to want to read a book with this kind of protagonist. This is not an action thriller, nor is it a story about personal growth. This is not a novel about redemption or even about receiving comeuppance. This is a novel about justifying one’s selfishness in the name of restoring a shattered American Dream.
Kuang brings a darkly incisive flavour of humour to her commentary on racism within publishing. June is constantly spouting racist observations to the reader in a way that confirms she is utterly ignorant of her racism. Her comment, “Candice exists entirely to complain about microaggressions,” and later the way she describes an event attendee who challenges her as “dressed like a right-wing meme of a social justice warrior…. Look, we’re all liberals here. But come on,” made me laugh out loud. June is peak white woman throughout most of this book, and it is wonderful as it is terrifying. See, June knows that what she did with Athena’s manuscript is unethical. She knows enough to lie about it, to hide it, and to feel a modicum of shame. But she also thinks she deserves success, that her personal allocation of success was unfairly reallocated to minority voices, and therefore, her actions are just a levelling of the scale. Kuang perfectly encapsulates the way that internalized white supremacy teaches white people who have experienced hardship to project their dissatisfaction with the system onto racialized people and groups who are themselves also targets of oppression.
Look, as a white woman reading this, I definitely felt uncomfortable, and I hope that is the point. June is constantly able to brush away and evade consequences for her bad behaviour—the chapter where she’s teaching at a writer’s retreat is a great example. I keep thinking, “this is it, this is where someone will finally hold her accountable” only for it not to happen in that moment, because of course why would it. It feels unrealistic only because that’s the closure we’re conditioned by stories to expect whereas in the real world that Kuang emulates here such closure seldom occurs. White women get away with a lot.
I do wish Yellowface had explored the unreliability angle of June’s narration a bit more. There are tantalizing hints here and there that maybe June isn’t telling us everything the way it actually happened. Nevertheless, Kuang largely leaves it up to the reader to fill in the blanks on that score. I personally think the ending is meant to suggest that June is more adept at controlling the narrative than we might have credited her throughout the novel—it is almost enough to kind of beg a second reading, just to see if knowing the ending makes a difference in how we interpret what came before. Clever, that.
Some parts of this book are intensely of-the-moment, and I’m curious to see how well they age as the years pass. I’m thinking, in particular, of the role of social media. Almost all of the negative publicity June receives comes from social media, or from social media posts that amplify a few critical articles. As someone who (still) spends way too much time on Twitter, so much of this was familiar, and everything that happens here felt realistic and awful. But I will be curious to see how we look back on this period. A part of me hopes that we will find a better successor to social media and that this will be one of the least relatable aspects of the book.
The final layer I want to discuss is simply the way Kuang addresses the intersection of creative arts and business. Publishing is a mechanism for writers to share their ideas with the world. It’s also a commercial industry. June, like many authors, faces the pressure to keep writing and publishing new material. She also struggles with coming up with ideas—a very common issue that, in and of itself, does not make one a bad writer. June herself is obviously not a victim of racism, but she is a victim of capitalism. The pressures of making a living, not having affordable healthcare, etc.—these are all relatable issues that many Americans (and Canadians) face these days. They don’t excuse June’s behaviour, but they do help us make sense of it. In addition to chronicling racism in the industry and the toxic nature of social media, Kuang reminds us that people seldom become villains on purpose but rather because it feels like the best way out of their bad situation.
Yellowface is a solid, entertaining, and thoughtful story. I’m not sure how much interest it will hold for readers who aren’t as into books about books and publishing as I happen to be. Then again, I think a lot of avid readers are interested in those things, so maybe it’s a nonissue. All I can really say is that I’ll keep my eye on whatever Kuang comes out with next. She demonstrates versatility and creativity but, above all, she is always willing to shine a light on the parts of our society we’d rather not critique.