A novel by R.F. Kuang
Harper Collins, 2023
By Julie Kish
Yellowface is the Goodreads Choice for best fiction of 2023 and was Reese’s Book Club pick for July 2023, so I wasn’t surprised to find it my most compelling and thought-provoking read of the year. It’s safe to say I’ve never read anything like Yellowface before, and I’m surprised the author, R. F. Kuang, was able to find a mainstream publisher brave enough to put it out in the world.
Yellowface is a scathing satire about the publishing industry’s idea of what kind of stories writers are allowed to write, given their race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. The author takes a real-life scandal, such as the controversy caused by American Dirt, a novel about Mexican migrants written by a non-Mexican author, and uses her fictional story to point out the hypocrisy of the publishing industry.
Yellowface is about June, a young white author who steals the manuscript of her dead Asian friend, finishes it and publishes it as her own. June is a woman who will do anything to achieve her goal of literary success. However, it isn’t a simple story of an evil white woman stealing from her poor Asian friend. Both women are equally unlikeable and are guilty of exploiting each other.
The stolen novel is about the Chinese Labour Corps during World War I and is a huge literary success. In order to make the book more culturally authentic, June’s publisher decides to publish the book under the pen name “Juniper Song,” a combination of June’s given name and her middle name. The publisher also uses an ethically ambiguous author photo on the back cover.
Eventually, people discover that Juniper Song is a white woman, and they use social media to broadcast all the cultural flaws in the book, which they believe would never have occurred if the book had been written by a Chinese writer. Of course, this is ironic since the story was actually written by a Chinese writer.
Angry social media influencers launch a campaign to destroy June, and the book’s publishers launch a counter-attack of fraudulent information designed to save June’s reputation.
Yellowface is written from June’s perspective, which is an interesting approach, especially when you consider that the author of Yellowface is Chinese-American and she’s writing from the perspective of a white woman. The layers of irony appear to be purposely created by the author.
Yellowface gives readers a multi-layered, intelligent perspective on racism, cultural appropriation and the power of social media. The author has such a wise and profound perspective on these topics that I was surprised to discover she is only 27 years old.
Rebecca F. Kuang is an Asian-American author who immigrated to the U.S. from China with her parents when she was four. She has received multiple academic awards and has earned Master’s Degrees in Philosophy and Chinese studies. Despite her young age, she has also published four best-selling Fantasy novels. Yellowface is her first work of literary fiction. She is currently working on her doctoral degree at Yale while writing her sixth novel.