Yellowface artwork by RF Kuang

Yellowface is a satirical literary novel that features an unlikeable lead. June Hayward is not the novelist she feels she deserves to be. Her dissatisfaction with her lack of book sales, interviews, and popularity are emphasized (in her own mind) when in the presence of her friend Athena Liu; an Asian-American “literary darling” that June met while attending Yale.

The book opens with Athena’s death. She asphyxiates on pancakes while the pair are celebrating Athena’s most recent success. Following this, June appropriates “The Last Front” the (only) typewritten drafted copy of Athena’s latest novel, with the intention of editing and finalizing it for Athena. However, June conceals the existence of the manuscript until it is complete, and then passes it off as her own work to her editor.

What follows is blatant plagiarism, cultural appropriation, racism, lies, harassment, and Twitter.

After reading Babel, I had to check out Yellowface. I really like Kuang’s quick and clean writing style. I’m able to immerse myself in her writing easily, and that makes for faster reading. The release of Yellowface lined up conveniently with my foray into book reviewing and my desire to read more literary fiction, so I picked up a copy during one my visits to Chapters.

Likes / Dislikes

As a person, in real life, I do not enjoy experiencing or hearing about racism. I hate explaining cultural appropriation while simultaneously hating commercially produced products that make it necessary for me to explain cultural appropriation. That said, I love when June experiences backlash as a result of her own shitty decisions.

June is no hero. It is very evident from the first few pages that the audience is not supposed to like this flawed character. Her frenemy duality is indicated in her judgemental stream-of-consciousness narration versus her timid and detached remarks toward Athena.

Deep down, I’ve always suspected Athena likes my company precisely because I can’t rival her. I understand her world, but I’m not a threat, and her achievements are so far out of my reach that she doesn’t feel bad squealing to my face about her wins. Don’t we all want a friend who won’t ever challenge our superiority, because they already know it’s a lost cause? Don’t we all need someone we can treat as a punching bag?

Jealousy and rivalry among creatives… What would the arts industry even be without pettiness and judgement? Sure, no one vocalizes how they compare their own work to others (especially more popular works), but we all do it. Every time I read a book I’m criticizing my own writing ability at the same time.

This is where my ability to relate to June begins and ends.

After June returns home from the scene of Athena’s untimely death, the reader learns that June took “The Last Front” manuscript. This is simply stated, and it really made my imagination erupt with questions regarding the timeline of events leading up to this theft.

  • Did she take it before the EMTs arrived?
  • Was she still on the phone with 911 as she put it in a bag?
  • Did she find some way to excuse herself from the EMTs presence and take it while they were looking after Athena’s body?
  • Did she grab it along with her other things when the police offered her a ride back to her apartment?

I think this lack of clear description is very clever. It’s like “if a tree falls in the woods” but instead “if a character steals directly from the hands of her dead friend, and the author doesn’t explicitly call it ‘theft’, can we still play up empathy?” Except we know it’s theft, and we know it’s plagiarism, so by that point in the story I am reading it solely for guilty pleasure / chaos entertainment.

I read this book in two days and was delighted every time June suffered.

Too Much / Not Enough

There’s a lot of repetition in the story… The progression of events relies heavily on clipped conversations from social media and emails. While it’s a great look at the way social media forces performative behaviour and toxic connectivity, it’s also kind of like cheating.

A few days after the news breaks, I write a long Twitter thread about what happened… I use phrases like “tragic accident” and “hasn’t sunk in” and “still feels unreal to me.” I don’t delve into the details — that’s vile. I write about how shaken I am, what Athena means to me, and how I’ll miss her.

…My tweet racks up thirty thousand likes in one day. It’s the most attention I’ve ever gotten on Twitter, much of it from literary luminaries and internet personalities with verified checkmarks. It all makes me feel strangely excited, watching my follower count tick up by the second. But then that makes me feel gross…

I like the story, but I go back and forth about whether or not I like how it is formatted and delivered to the reader. On the one hand, the copy/paste style of including information from tweets and emails makes the writing feel very intimate (because I also screenshot and copy/paste messages to friends for insight, feedback, understanding, affirmation, etc). But the other side of that is, it forces speculation instead of providing insight, which (in a first-person narrative) is isolating, and a little disappointing.

Should there be fewer tweets and more story? Coin toss. Months after reading this book, I am still undecided. I like the story the way it is, but I still wonder how it might benefit from a closer consideration of June’s character.

Repetition occurs when June continuously insists that Athena’s manuscript is her own work to the world at large, but (internally) diminishes Athena’s contributions to the book when its praised, and (also, internally) blames Athena for everything lacking in the book when it is criticized. June is not outwardly arrogant, so this ongoing inner monologue where she condemns Athena is interesting to parse, but also a little odd.

Athena’s original text is almost embarrassingly biased; the French and British soldiers are cartoonishly racist. I get she’s trying to make a point about discrimination with the Allied front, but these scenes are so hackneyed that they defy belief. It throws the reader out of the story…

…The original draft made you feel dumb, alienated at times, and frustrated with the self-righteousness of it all. It stank of all the most annoying things about Athena. The new version is a universally relatable story, a story that anyone can see themselves in.

The whole process takes three editorial rounds over four months. By the end, I’ve become so familiar with the project that I can’t tell where Athena ends and I begin, or which words belong to whom. I’ve done the research. I’ve read a dozen books now on Asian racial politics and the history of Chinese labor at the front. I’ve lingered over every word, every sentence, and every paragraph so many times that I nearly know them by heart – hell, I’ve probably been over this novel more times than Athena herself.

Athena is dead. June is profiting in the wake of Athena’s death. Yet she constantly references Athena (monologue, flashbacks, interviews, etc.). So it isn’t surprising that June reacts badly when she starts being harassed by a Twitter user posing as Athena’s ghost.

I cannot say too much more without spoiling the story, so I’ll close by saying that even though this online harassment helps to build suspense and intrigue in the story, it too, is repetitious… because this happens twice in the novel (as in two different user accounts).

Rate / Recommend

Unfortunately, with Twitter’s recent rebrand to X, Yellowface is already dated. At the time of writing, tweets are now referred to as “x’s.” Personally, I don’t know why editors, agents, authors and other members of the publishing industry are so heavily affiliated with X (previously Twitter). From my technical standpoint (website developer), reliance on external systems always ends badly. Currently, X remains the primary communication tool for the publishing industry, but that may soon change, and then Yellowface will only be relatable in the minds of those who were already familiar with the system as it is now. So if you’re thinking about reading this book, you should do so immediately!

I’ve seen a lot of reviews that say Yellowface is a peek inside the publishing industry, but I don’t agree. June goes through the publishing process (roughly two years) in twenty pages. She communicates with her team at “Eden Press” for two chapters, has a book launch, and goes to panels. For fuck’s sake, her publishing team helps rebrand June as racially ambiguous “Juniper Song.”

Whereas lack of representation, diversity, inclusion, and cultural sensitivity are problems in most industries, I struggle to accept how cultural appropriation is portrayed in this book. Maybe because I’m terrified it could be that easy in real life. It’s like the Stanford Prison Experiment, or the Milgram Experiment; no one steps back and says “this is wrong.” Everyone goes along without acknowledging the significant contribution of their own apathy.

In hindsight, I hate how much I enjoyed reading this book, but I do love it. Give me chaos, drama, and unlikeable leads. Any day.

Rating: 5 out of 5.