Review of Yellowface by R. F. Kuang
This darkly funny story made me cringe while staying riveted by the main protagonist's deeply faulted reasoning, criminal actions, and bumbling through the publishing industry of Kuang's Yellowface.
Juniper Song is a bestselling author. But she isn't simply a hardworking writer overcoming sluggish first-book attention and sales, emerging with an enormous hit (and new pen name) overnight, as she would have others believe.
The key is that Juniper, formerly known and published under the name June Hayward, is a longtime Yale acquaintance of Athena Liu--the Athena Liu, publishing's darling, with multiple critically acclaimed and celebrated titles--and the focus of June's years-long envy.
When June witnesses Athena's death and then mysteriously comes up with a story about Chinese laborers during World War I, she covers her tracks to avoid anyone's asking: But wasn't Athena working on a similar story before her untimely end?
As June navigates the cutthroat, sometimes superficial, often silly publishing world Kuang puts forth here, she wavers between attempting to justify her compounded, ethically devastating actions to Yellowface readers and panicking at the idea that the origins of and true credit for the story (Athena) will become clear.
June isn't worried about being found out because she feels she's in the wrong, however. She fears that all that she's taken will be taken from her, and because she's a petty, narcissistic, selfish, greedy young woman, staggeringly unaware of her faults and lacking perspective or understanding of cultural appropriation, she builds elaborate justifications for her increasingly complicated lies, theft, and the fictional version of her past and her false inspirations.
June creates horrifying, cringe-inducing, deliberately gray areas related to race. Her new pen name is meant to be ambiguously Asian American, but to her utter annoyance, she is white. Her inner thoughts and secretly shared feelings concerning the ways in which her whiteness is holding her back from telling diverse stories offers dark humor that made me cringe cringe cringe.
The reader is also party to the fully racist thoughts and assertions June holds. All of this satire was darkly funny and horrifying to read, and Kuang is relentless in putting forth the insufferable, ignorant, resentful June as increasingly all of these things as the book progresses.
Much of the book is about June's writing, her vicious drive, her belief in her talent, and the various accolades that she is desperate for and feels she deserves. The reader understands what June does not: that she is decimating Athena's work by inserting tired tropes, racist elements, unsettlingly silly romantic moments, and more faults, and we grasp from reviewers' comments that despite June's belief that Athena merely laid the groundwork and June secretly pushed the book to excellence, June's contributions are the schizophrenic weak links throughout.
I listened to R. F. Kuang's Yellowface as an audiobook.
Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?
R. F. Kuang is also the author of Babel and The Poppy War trilogy.