Yellowface by Rebecca F. Kuang

The theme is: a woman unhinged.

Yellowface is an incisively written, clever critique of the publishing industry and lens into racism in a professional and public space. Athena Liu and June Hayward were supposed to be twin rising stars, graduating together from Yale and debuting in the same year too. But, Athena is the literary world’s shining star and June’s debut didn’t even get opted for a paperback release. When June is the sole witness of Athena’s death-by-freak-accident, she steals Athena’s secret manuscript on impulse – a novel about the unsung contributions of Chinese laborers to the British and French war efforts during World War I.

Told in a first-person narrative, you live in June Hayward’s head from the start. I’m usually not a huge fan of this style, because it feels like you’re forced to be in their shoes rather than unravelling the story from the outside. Here? It works surprisingly well in different ways: we become the hugely unlikeable protagonist, a rarity.

Angry, bitter, apathetic, entitled and jealous, June is difficult to like and I think that’s purposeful on the author’s part. We’re forced to confront the realities of where jealousy can lead a person. Kuang intentionally takes us as readers to new heights of depravity and racism: the incidents, phrases and exchanges that are highlighted throughout are searingly real and honest. Kuang paints an unflinchingly raw picture of what it feels like to be an invisible East Asian woman in the professional world. When June, as Juniper Song, fails to see . I’ve seen some readers down-vote the book because of the uncomfortable reading of racism – I think it worked well to underscore how it feels to experience racism. Like a punch in the gut.

Of course, an overarching theme is cultural appropriation via plagiarism, which I found fascinating. Who is allowed to write stories about other cultures? Is it better for June to have surfaced the novel at all, albeit via plagiarism?

I LOVED that both main characters were, ultimately, deeply unlikeable. Athena isn’t the archetypical Asian woman: June paints her to fit perfectly in the model minority myth corner, but Kuang undoes all of this and I am living for it. We assume – even I did! – that Athena is quiet, hard-working, smart, likeable (beloved, even) and successful, and it’s thrown out of the water. Nobody is perfect, and certainly not in Yellowface. Through these subtle character explorations across the story, Kuang cleverly criticises the expectations and assumptions that non-White writers are ‘given’ a platform and ‘allowed’ to finally share their stories. Dang, this is just a really smart and insightful, satirical novel.

I also enjoyed the deep-dive into the concept of plagiarism, and of social media and cancel culture. On a personal level, going viral on X (formerly Twitter) a handful of times made me shy away from ever publishing anything too close to me again. Sharing personal anecdotes about life as a British-Chinese woman to be met with criticism about ‘how bad was it actually though?’ by White people was… a time. Yellowface interrogates the pile-on culture on social media, although I do think a little heavy-handedly – it appears a lot and the novel could’ve been just as strong without.

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