Book Review: Yellowface by R.F. Kuang

Let me begin this post by saying that I broke my finger a week ago, so this review is really the product of janky one-handed typing, voice-to-text, and the energizing power of Vietnamese coffee. I’m also about to single handedly fight Google because the Instagram character limit is NOT 2,200 characters (as they would like you to believe) but 1,820 characters. ANYWAY, *pats self on back…clears voices* let’s begin!

YELLOWFACE by R.F. Kuang

PUBLISHED BY May 16, 2023

GENRE: Contemporary, Literary Fiction

PAGES: 350

ADD TO GOODREADS  

What’s the harm in a pseudonym? New York Times bestselling sensation Juniper Song is not who she says she is, she didn’t write the book she claims she wrote, and she is most certainly not Asian American–in this chilling and hilariously cutting novel from R. F. Kuang in the vein of White Ivy and The Other Black Girl.

Authors June Hayward and Athena Liu were supposed to be twin rising stars: same year at Yale, same debut year in publishing. But Athena’s a cross-genre literary darling, and June didn’t even get a paperback release. Nobody wants stories about basic white girls, June thinks.

So when June witnesses Athena’s death in a freak accident, she acts on impulse: she steals Athena’s just-finished masterpiece, an experimental novel about the unsung contributions of Chinese laborers to the British and French war efforts during World War I.

So what if June edits Athena’s novel and sends it to her agent as her own work? So what if she lets her new publisher rebrand her as Juniper Song–complete with an ambiguously ethnic author photo? Doesn’t this piece of history deserve to be told, whoever the teller? That’s what June claims, and the New York Times bestseller list seems to agree.

But June can’t get away from Athena’s shadow, and emerging evidence threatens to bring June’s (stolen) success down around her. As June races to protect her secret, she discovers exactly how far she will go to keep what she thinks she deserves.

With its totally immersive first-person voice, Yellowface takes on questions of diversity, racism, and cultural appropriation not only in the publishing industry but the persistent erasure of Asian-American voices and history by Western white society. R. F. Kuang’s novel is timely, razor-sharp, and eminently readable.

I’ve read a few books based on the publishing industry before, and they’re typically considered ‘love letters’. They’re dedications to the fans, editors, agents, reviewers, fellow authors…essentially everyone who keeps the industry alive and running.

And in many ways yes, this book IS dedicated to the literary world. There are countless of niche references and inside jokes that will probably go over the head of anyone who hasn’t been exposed to the industry. But we also get a unfiltered reality check of all the ugly truths: the double standards, microaggressions, hive mentality of Book Twitter, etc.

This book is further testament to the fact that R.F. Kuang excels at writing the antihero. Rin is a parallel to one of the most brutal dictators in history. Robin’s urgency to safeguard victims of an imperialist power overwhelms his rationality…

and June Hayward is a manipulative liar who profits off of an Asian author’s legacy.

June is insufferable. She bemoans that every thing she does is FOR furthering BIPOC representation because if she doesn’t tell these stories who will? You want to punch her and see her exposed as a fraud, yet at the same time, a tiny part of you doesn’t want to see the fragile house of cards June’s built to come crumbling down.

Yellowface examines the critical question: what makes someone qualified to tell a story? We’ve seen authors profit off Japanese-inspired fantasies while citing drinking sake and watching anime as research. We’ve seen a white woman hit the NYT Bestseller’s by writing about a Mexican mother and son migrating to the US and being targeted by the cartel. So, can June Hayward tell the untold story of Chinese laborers in WWI?

In all its witty glory, Yellowface confronts the harsh truth that publishing has been failing those from marginalized backgrounds, not only BIPOC authors. We explicitly acknowledge how the industry has many barriers to entry, most notably due to low starting salaries. In fact, the industry almost relies on these editors and publicists’ passion for literature to keep them trapped in a Catch 22.

As someone who’s been a book blogger for 7 years and is *unfortunately* chronically online, I couldn’t put this book down. It felt like a trip down memory lane, and trust me…when you’ve been in the book community (specifically Book Twitter) for so long, you’ve seen enough drama that could be its own book.

That fact though may be the reason why Yellowface may not appeal to Kuang’s existing readership.

The second half of the book dives into the intricacies and controversies of Book Twitter, but Book Twitter (and I guess Book Tok now) is a bubble. Your average reader likely will not be on Book Twitter watching stan accounts have a field day. When drama happens on the Internet, it can feel overwhelming, but most of the time, it’s very insular and really only reaching 15% of your total readership. All’s to say, the stan accounts who lovingly prop up Babel and The Poppy War may not understand the self-reflection this book is requiring, and the average Joe S’moe who picks up this book at an airport won’t grasp the magnitude of how devastating being the target of the Internet’s wrath may be.

My interpretation of this work is from the POV of a reader and ‘influencer’, and I only wish I could read this from the POV of an author, editor, or any other publishing professional as I’m sure my takeaways would be different. Thank goodness we’re already guaranteed more books by Kuang because I never want to stop reading her writing.

If you enjoyed this post, consider checking outā€¦

My author interview with R.F. Kuang:

Subtle Asian Book Club’s The Burning God interview with Rebecca:

Subtle Asian Book Club’s Babel interview with Rebecca:

My The Poppy War as Vines compilation:

Have you read Yellowface? What were your thoughts?

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