R.F. Kuang’s YELLOWFACE is a weird atom bomb of a book, one that’s difficult to talk about because its themes are both convoluted and incendiary. I… liked it? I think. For its provocative themes alone, I found it a powerful work of literature.
The story is told by unreliable narrator June, a struggling novelist who happens to be best friends with Athena, a very successful Chinese-American writer. When Athena dies, June steals her latest manuscript and passes it off as her own, realizing all her dreams and leading to a writer’s worst nightmare.
As a professional writer, I was curious about the book, as it touches on so many things relevant in the publishing world. Writer’s block, getting published, expectations meeting reality in terms of what publishers do for you, internet witch burning complete with bandwagon virtue signaling, and sensitivity readers. This constant thread in YELLOWFACE was for me a lot of fun to read.
June rationalizes everything she does, and she’s fairly despicable if at times sympathetic–if she hadn’t stolen the manuscript, after all, it’s an entirely different book with different themes. Thematically, reviewers have found cultural appropriation and white privilege, though I personally didn’t get that out of it. There is certainly privilege here, one shared by both Athena and June, which is money. Both go to an ivy league school with plenty of connections, and while Athena’s career takes off to the stars, June’s doesn’t suffer as much as she thinks. Her first novel gets a $20,000 advance from a medium-sized press with a book tour, which had me laughing–there are hardworking and hungry writers who, how do I put this, WOULD NUKE ENTIRE CITIES FOR THAT KIND OF OPPORTUNITY.
Another theme I found in the book, which one reviewer nailed, is people being publicly performative. It’s speculated that Athena’s privilege is in part due to a hyperfocus on diversity, resulting in tokenization. Her legacy is attacked by other Chinese-Americans as not being authentically Chinese enough. When someone speculates June stole the manuscript from Athena, June is thoroughly roasted in the kind of bandwagon witch hunt that occupies writers’ nightmares. (I was once accused of being racist on Facebook for the crime of writing a review of BLACK PANTHER in which I called the movie kind of boring.) One might argue that even some of the reviews on the back cover of YELLOWFACE are performative, which would weirdly prove Kuang’s point if that is indeed what she intended. Then there are the bizarre negative reviews, full of kneejerk accusations that Kuang is a Chinese supremacist and the true racist! Either way, arguably, book publishing is more diverse than it’s ever been, which I personally think is wonderful–but is that itself performative (by readers and publishers alike) or simply the result of creating a fair playing field that recognizes good work? Personally, I’m optimistic rather than cynical; in the end, I think the latter is true.
So holy crap, yes, there is a lot to admire about YELLOWFACE in how explosive and layered it is thematically, how it makes you think, and how that easy, simple point you think it’s making is not easy or simple at all, making you think and then think again. It hits a lot of buttons glowing red in today’s internet age, and for that alone, there’s much to admire, even if the story itself often dragged for me. If you’re a writer, I highly recommend giving it a read.
(On a final side note, a word about sensitivity readers: If you’re a writer and the publisher offers one, I suggest taking it. I feel like addressing this because I see a lot of posts on social media about how they’re censorship or something. First off, any time your book is published by a company, that company will edit your work for market, which is “censorship.” If you can’t abide a single word of your work being changed, then you should self-publish. Me, I see value in a good editor. All the sensitivity reading does is employ an additional informed editing resource to ensure you represent other races and so on accurately and without negative stereotyping. As they cost money, they typically aren’t offered unless your editor feels there is a risk of you ruining your own success by stepping in a cowpie and unintentionally offending a portion of your readers (and their company’s customers). For my books, I’ve never needed a sensitivity reading, though my normal editing process does include sensitivity edits. Some made me go huh, a few were very helpful, and none of them harmed my work and in fact either had no artistic effect or improved it. Maybe other authors have horror stories about sensitivity readings, I don’t know, but speaking from my own experience, it’s nothing to be afraid of and can in fact help you.)
Back to YELLOWFACE to wrap up, I didn’t quite love it as a story, but I certainly enjoyed its themes, which offered plenty to think about. I did find the author intriguing enough I picked up her novel BABEL, which I’m quite enjoying.