Review of ‘Yellowface’ by Rebecca F. Kuang: a satirical exploration of the publishing industry and of friendship

This story of a literary heist covers several themes — from the machinations of the publishing industry to racism, tokenistic diversity, identity and friendship

July 06, 2023 08:52 am | Updated 08:52 am IST

June Hayward is a white American writer in her late 20s. Her debut novel tanks — her publisher shuts down, she doesn’t get blurbs from famous authors, nor does the anticipated second printing materialise. As her fledgling literary career runs into sand, she survives as a tutor at an SAT coaching institute. 

Meanwhile, Athena Liu, her Chinese-American frenemy, has already scaled the peaks of publishing stardom. She wins “a multi-book deal straight out of college at a major publishing house, an MFA from the one writing workshop everyone’s heard of, a resume of prestigious artist residencies, and a history of award nominations longer than my grocery list”. As June puts it, Athena “has everything” — everything that June wants but doesn’t have, and never will.

And then, one evening, as the two of them are celebrating Athena’s latest triumph — a lucrative Netflix deal — in the latter’s apartment, the young overachiever chokes to death on a pancake, right in front of her jealous friend. June makes off with Athena’s unpublished manuscript — an epic war novel “about the unsung contributions and experiences of the Chinese Labour Corps, the 140,000 Chinese workers who were recruited by the British Army and sent to the Allied Front during World War I”. 

After polishing it, June sells Athena’s manuscript under her own name. This time, she gets everything she has dreamed of: a humongous advance, an instantly responsive editor, a fawning but hardworking publicity team, a glowing review in The New York Times, months in the bestseller lists, an endless stream of media interviews and speaking engagements, and even interest from a Hollywood production house.

The unreliable narrator

There is, however, a fly in the soup of June’s success: she knows she did not write The Last Front — the title she gives to Athena’s novel. The question of whether June’s fraud will be exposed, and her machinations to prevent it, supplies the narrative energy for the book.

This literary heist becomes the perfect setup for a satirical exploration of several interlinked themes: the dark side of publishing; the disproportionate impact of social media on the fortunes, as well as the mental health, of writers; the interplay between racism, tokenistic diversity and how they determine editorial and marketing choices; how professional jealousy can masquerade as politically informed critique (especially on Twitter); and the very nature of authorship, fiction writing, identity, and friendship.

Author Rebecca F. Kuang.

Author Rebecca F. Kuang. | Photo Credit: John Packman

Rebecca F. Kuang’s decision to tell the story in first person in the present tense through an unreliable narrator works rather well. While the breezy present tense imbues the book with a compelling forward momentum, the device of an unreliable narrator — June must undermine the truth in order to make the world believe her lie — offers the leeway necessary to problematise truisms about creativity and racism without crossing the line of political correctness.

For instance, June argues that as a plain-looking white woman, it is she who is the real victim of a diversity-obsessed publishing industry — not an uncommon sentiment by any means. As she puts it, “Publishing picks a winner — someone attractive enough, someone cool and young, and oh, we’re all thinking it, let’s just say it, diverse enough — and lavishes all its money and resources on them.” This critique of publishing, though aired in the American context, has a ring of truth that will resonate anywhere, including India, where this reviewer has heard published authors complain that “publishing picks” the bestseller and that success often hinges, as June puts it, “on factors that have nothing to do with the strength of one’s prose”.

Contemporary realist fiction

While the novel’s critique of publishing is spot on, its exploration of creative ownership, plagiarism, and who has the right to tell what story, is discomfiting. If it is true that June stole Athena’s material, then what about the fact that Athena stole material from June’s life? A traumatic incident about which June had confided in Athena becomes fodder for a story Athena publishes. Don’t all fiction writers steal material from the lives of their friends and family anyway? Does that justify June’s revenge on Athena — if it is indeed revenge? At another level, does a white writer, by definition, have no right to tell the story of Chinese suffering at the hands of white colonisers?

These are all questions that Yellowface raises, though with a light touch — the tenor, all said and done, remains that of a thriller. Like the brilliant Athena, Kuang, too, is Chinese-American and only 27. She started out as a writer of historical fantasy. Yellowface, her fifth novel, is her first book of contemporary realist fiction. 

There’s no doubt this humdinger of a novel will win her thousands of new readers beyond the fantasy genre and spend an eternity on bestseller charts.

Rebecca F. Kuang 

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