Yellowface is a novel by R.F. Kuang that centers a white woman who decides it is in her best interest to steal the work of an Asian woman and then transform her image and align her public persona to come off as Asian. She even changes her name to one that is more ethnically ambiguous, all for the opportunity to become a well-known author, to make her mark on the world.
As always for my book discussions, readers beware because there may be a spoiler here and there!
Juniper Hayward is a white woman. 100% European ancestry and somehow, she has convinced herself that her lack of "diversity points" is what has made her become a non-entity in the publishing world. Sure, her first book didn't do well. Sure, she hasn't really wrote much in a while. But that isn't the cause. It is her whiteness. And to make things worse, a college colleague named Athena Liu is a household name. Her debut sold for six figures and Juniper, aka June, feels as though she is living in her shadow. All well and good. But when Athena chokes to death, June decides that this is an opportunity. ANd what does she do?
She steals from a dead woman. An entire manuscript and a few notebooks in which Athena jotted novel ideas. Kuang has this way of making perfectly deplorable characters and that is a skill that I appreciate. There is nothing redeemable about June and the fact that she sees herself as a victim makes you loathe her more and more. You continue to turn the page because you want to see her downfall, not because you hope that she will change.
As Juniper Hayward transforms into Juniper Song, as she tans more and squints, as she attends Asian events and lectures....of course people call her out. People call her out also because her new novel, now a bestseller, is nothing like her flop of a debut. And it sounds eerily like the voice of the dead colleague that June is now pretending was her best friend. But as June's popularity grows, her shame lessens. She feels no guilt about stealing a novel and hacking it away until it is nothing like the original and scathing look at the treatment of Chinese laborers in Canada, but a sympathetic look at how well whites treated their Chinese laborers during WWI. Perhaps it is because it is not her work that she is fine with such major changes being made? After all, she doesn't care about Chinese immigrants in any way, shape or form.
June's detractors become a roaring voice that stay in her head and wracked with guilt, she now begins to see the dead face of Athena everywhere, haunting her. And with a plagiarism scandal, the only way she can think of coming out clean is writing another book. But June doesn't want to use any of her old ideas, they don't fit her new voice. And she has a good idea, but it would involve researching more minority populations and since she's already had to do so much for Athena's manuscript, she thinks researching history is too much work. Can you see why I said June is unredeemable?
But less talk of June, and more talk of Kuang. This entire novel takes a look at the shallowness and evils of the publishing industry (for lack of a better turn of phrase) and places them front and center. She discusses the hardships of being a token and yet playing into them, as Athena did. She discusses how disheartening it is not to get heard or seen because the publisher or agent or editor already has a "diverse" author. The juxtaposition of this and how June fails to see any of it is really remarkable. And all the while, June is feeling as though she has a right to steal because as a white woman the publishing industry and everyone who has belittled her on social media are just being reverse racists. She can't even acknowledge her wrong. And in fact, she goes out of her way to prove that she is right, to prove that her actions are justified.
I honestly believe that this book lives up to the expectations readers made after Babel. Kuang gives you flawed characters and white tears, she gives you words and dialogue that cut and bite and she does so in a way that makes you reflective, especially for those familiar with the publishing industry.
Have you read Yellowface? What were your thoughts? Let me know in the comments. I have many more books to read, but until then...