Stealing the show: Review of ‘Yellowface’ by Rebecca F. Kuang

Published : Aug 10, 2023 11:00 IST - 5 MINS READ

A satire about publishing, race, and social media, Yellowface is a disturbing and essential read.

Any FOMO, or fear of missing out, I might have suffered after I stepped off some of the shriller social media platforms three years ago has well and truly been shredded to nothingness by a single novel: Yellowface by Rebecca F. Kuang.

By Rebecca F. Kuang
The Borough Press
Pages: 336
Price: Rs 699

I found the book so disturbing that I did not so much read it as lurch through it, slamming the cover down on the pages every few chapters to let myself breathe, and side-eyeing it anxiously for long minutes before reopening it again.

Forget its effect on my FOMO, Yellowface had me looking up mountain caves to withdraw to since, clearly, life in the 21st century, like nature itself, is red in tooth and claw.

Supposedly a satire on the publishing industry of the West (“supposedly” because it seems all too real even if the point of satire is to seem real), Yellowface is about a white woman named June Hayward (full name Juniper Song Hayward—her mother was a hippy) who steals a manuscript from Athena Liu, a dead Asian woman, and publishes it as her own.

Cover of ‘Yellowface’ by Rebecca F. Kuang

Cover of ‘Yellowface’ by Rebecca F. Kuang | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

From literary darling to literary disgrace

Athena died by choking on a pancake from the stack she had cooked for June and herself after they had spent a long, drunken evening together after years, discussing, among other things, the first draft of Athena’s new novel. The two had been friends in their freshman year of college, but the friendship faded after Athena landed a book deal that made her the literary darling of the English-reading world. Meanwhile June’s first novel vanished, as though it had never been written at all, leaving her working for an organisation that writes college application letters for students.

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Jealousy is strong in June. While acknowledging Athena’s talent, she believes the Asian writer’s success was partly due to her race. The US publishing industry, like most industries in the Western world, has been ramping up its diversity initiatives, which makes white writers like June believe they are being sidelined. In the chaos of Athena’s freak death, June snatches up the first draft of the Asian writer’s latest manuscript, along with some other notebooks, and takes them home.

  • In Yellowface, a white woman (June Hayward) steals a manuscript from a dead Asian woman (Athena Liu) and publishes it as her own.
  • The book satirises the US publishing industry, which like most industries in the Western world, has been ramping up its “diversity” initiatives.
  • Kuang writes with such authority and precision, that every tiny hypocrisy and malicious action of her characters rings absolutely true.

Athena’s novel is about a band of Chinese labourers who were sent to the war front during the First World War by the British and treated horribly. The draft is sketchy, but the story stirs in June the need to write, to fill in the blanks in the manuscript, to create something amazing. By the time she does her research and completes the novel, she convinces herself that the amount of work she has put into it makes the book her own. When the manuscript goes up for auction, with top publishing houses bidding furiously for it, she claims authorship entirely.

When the book is finally available, June lives the life Athena had once led: she is America’s new literary darling, she is booked for speaking assignments, her readings are sold out, the book is on The New York Times bestseller list. But life and social media being what they are, this cannot last.

One evening, at an event where June is speaking, a woman who looks remarkably like Athena makes an appearance. It cannot be Athena. Athena is dead. June saw her die. But this woman—Athena’s ghost?— stands directly in June’s line of vision, taunting June just by being there. Meanwhile, on social media, a Twitter handle called @AthenaLiusGhost suddenly pops up, accusing June of stealing Athena’s draft. A social media storm breaks out. There is no evidence that June has stolen the manuscript, but who on social media ever needs facts? Within days, June is less famous than notorious. Less the literary darling than the literary disgrace. The only way out, June’s agent tells her, is for her to write another book. A new book will prove that June does write original stories. But try as she might, June cannot think of a thing. Then she remembers the notebooks she had also taken from Athena’s apartment. In one of those notebooks, a line sparks June’s imagination. And in that one line lies the downfall of June Hayward. Or does it?

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Laid out in this linear fashion (if I filled in even one of the twists, I would give the whole story away), Yellowface sounds reasonably interesting. Possibly even riveting. But hardly “red in tooth and claw”. That is because the devil is literally in the details. Kuang writes with such authority, such precision, that every nasty word, every vile thought, every tiny hypocrisy, every malicious action of her characters rings absolutely true, stabbing even the reader of the book with shards of glass. Not one character in the novel can be imagined as a nice person: not June, not Athena, not even the waitress at a Chinese restaurant. Everyone is self-serving. Everyone is bitter or angry or defensive. No one believes in truth; everyone makes narratives work for them. The effect is terrifying and there is no escape.

Even worse, this does not seem like fiction. This is real. We see it on Twitter; we see it on WhatsApp groups; we see it in our daily lives. It’s too much for me. Yellowface is genuinely a book of our times and I am genuinely seeking a mountain cave to withdraw to.

Kushalrani Gulab is a Mumbai-based freelance editor.

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