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'Yellowface' takes white privilege to a sinister level

William Morrow

Every once in a while there is a novel that enters the literary zeitgeist and requires discourse — but it feels like there is nothing that can be written or said that will ever do it justice. This is the feeling R.F. Kuang's new novel Yellowface evokes.

The highly immersive satirical novel takes us on a thrilling journey through the eyes of a writer who struggles to make her own way in the cut-throat world of publishing. In a climate where the publishing industry is being highly scrutinized for its gatekeeping, unfair treatment of marginalized writers and editors, its role in appropriation — we all remember the "Bad Art Friend" saga — and more, Kuang's novel is a strong commentary on the exploitation and rigors writers face under the pressure to be successful. What would you do for something you think you need badly? That promotion? That new shoes? That spot in an Ivy League college? That book deal? That next hit project? What happens when your entire identity becomes embroiled in your job — who is a writer if they're unable to write and publish? This is what Kuang's protagonist, June, faces in this novel.

Yellowface is about a young white author who steals the manuscript of her dead Asian friend, finishes it, and publishes it as her own. Throughout the novel, Juniper "June" Hayward, publishing as Juniper Song, works to maintain the lie that her first big hit novel The Last Front, a story about Chinese workers in the British Army during WWI, is indeed her work and her work only. "That's been the key to staying sane throughout all of this: holding the line, maintaining my innocence. In the face of it all, I've never once cracked, never admitted the theft to anyone. By now, I mostly believe the lie myself," June tries to convince herself more than halfway through the novel. Not only does she face accusations of theft and plagiarism, but the optics of a white woman possibly profiting off the work of an Asian woman also create a platform for accusations of racism and "yellowface."

The story is a multi-layer, complex conversation that tackles a few things about the publishing industry at once. The topic of cultural appropriation galvanizes the entire story and at various angles challenges the idea of what kind of stories writers are allowed to write given their race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. In one scene, June is challenged by a Chinese American reader on why she thinks it's okay to write and profit from painful Chinese history. She responds, "I think it's dangerous to start censoring what authors should and shouldn't write...I mean, turn what you're saying around and see how it sounds. Can a Black writer not write a novel with a white protagonist?"

The beauty and irony of this conversation is that Kuang herself is an Asian writer telling this story through the eyes of a white writer. As the public continues to challenge the authenticity of June's novel and June herself, she finds herself at the center of online harassment and death threats that sends her into a downward spiral. As June becomes more erratic and her life falls apart trying to maintain the lie, Kuang's writing becomes sharp and poignant, with quick, nail-biting pacing. Kuang's best writing is delivered in the tension-filled scenes when the protagonist is met with online vitriol and has to watch the live exposition of her life unfold on social media, as she is flailed in the public court of opinion with words and memes and half-truths.

By the end of the novel, more questions arise about the role social media plays in shaping an authors' career since, "reputations in publishing are built and destroyed, constantly, online." Yellowface also raises questions about desire and greed, and about privilege on both sides of the spectrum for white writers and diverse writers. As the protagonist says, "It all boils down to self-interest. Manipulating the story...If publishing is rigged, you might as well make sure it's rigged in your favor."

The one wrinkle in an otherwise intoxicating story is June's relationship with her family. There is room to flesh out that relationship and perhaps give a solid explanation for why her family, namely her mother, is so far removed from her world. It's most glaring that an explanation is needed for why June's facing that sordid world alone — going through online bullying and real-life torture on her own — when she has family.

Kuang's first foray outside of fantasy is a well-executed, gripping, fast-paced novel about the nuances of the publishing world when an author is desperate enough to do anything for success. I was consistently at the edge of my seat until the very last page. This type of interrogation of the coopting of culture and stories for capital gain is well-received.

Keishel Williams is a Trinidadian American book reviewer, arts & culture writer, and editor.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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