Search This Blog

Saturday, June 3, 2023

'Yellowface' by Rebecca F. Kuang


From the BLURB: 

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.

Yellowface is the new novel from American author R.F. Kuang – or, Rebecca F. Kuang – it is already a New York Times Bestseller and being touted as *the* book of the year. And for good reason. 

First and foremost – no, I don’t know how I was able to read this via an ebook loan from my library (and I happen to know one of my besties was listening to the audiobook last week!) so it looks like the electronic versions have been out in ANZ (Australia New Zealand) since May 16 – but the paperback is not out until June 7? Baffling! 

So why is this *THE* chosen novel of the year? Why are you going to keep seeing that instantly-iconic yellow cover with the cartoonish eyes everywhere – and even that title Yellowface (used to refer to the practice of wearing make-up to imitate the appearance of an East Asian person, typically as part of a performance. This practice is generally regarded as offensive) is pure genius at every story-level and for discoverability. 


Well. I first got wind of this novel coming, around the time last year of the Harper Collins union strike – when R.F. Kuang was one of the biggest-selling authors to come out in solidarity with the striking workers (against her own publisher, btw!), and it was alluded to that hers was a natural affiliation, given that her next novel would be a departure from her betselling-fantasy, to an epic contemporary take-down of the publishing industry. 


So my interest was piqued given that I am part of the book publishing industry, and everyone in my circle was gearing up for a spilling of tea. And now that I’ve had the privilege of reading ‘Yellowface’ I can confirm, the tea is piping hot … 

The actual plot is a clever conduit to discuss much larger issues. The idea of two writing friends – one successful, one considerably less so – and what happens when the bestseller dies, leaving behind her conveniently only written out on a typewriter; pages of her next sure-to-be smash-hit novel … ripe for the taking. It’s an idea that’s been explored (like in the 2012 Bradley Cooper movie The Words – and no doubt there are other examples) but Kuang brings an important layer to the ethical and moral dilemma, because the dead bestseller was of Asian background, and her fabulous idea was all about Chinese labour workers in World War I … and the thieving writer is white. So this isn’t just a plagiarism story for the ages – exploring intellectual property and copyright, but big-time cultural appropriation. 

Kuang’s nuances in this discussion are too numerous to list, and clever to do a summary injustice. But something I loved was the repeated instances when our white protagonist author (June Hayward … writing as Juniper Song – her full first-name, and the middle-name her once-hippie mother gave her) finds herself in book-promotion predicaments where she’s invited to speak to Asian-American readers or on diaspora panels … as a white woman, who wrote a historical fiction novel inspired by Chinese history. A white woman with a deliberately ethnically-ambiguous name, and new author photos that have also given her a slight tan – to aid the confusion. This is something so rarely discussed in matters of cultural appropriation in art. You may well have done the research and had a heart in the right place – but what happens when people from the minority background you mined and stepped into, come calling and want to hear you speak? Well; 

For the first time since I submitted the manuscript, I feel a deep wash of shame. This isn’t my history, my heritage. This isn’t my community. I am an outsider, basking in their love under false pretences. It should be Athena sitting here, smiling with these people, signing books and listening to the stories of her elders. 

Juniper is a deliciously awful character. Not so cartoonishly villainous throughout that your teeth are constantly grinding – but it’s a melting into awfulness, a slow oozing that starts to stick and gum up the page; making you feel faintly nauseous (like when she has a real “are we the bad-guys?” moment, upon discovering that right-wing media pundits are rallying behind her when she’s accused of cultural appropriation.) And how magnificent that as I was reading, I kept thinking how brilliantly Kuang gets into this white-woman’s head. She has us read to rights and filth; and I found that my instinct to guffaw and say “we’re not all that way though,” was part of the wonderful ploy at play. The moment you feel the urge to say; ‘not all white women,’ it’s a stark reminder, right? 

But as I was reading, I was really trying to think how others would read it. Particularly for the minutiae of publishing which Kuang also hits with an absolute bullseye. From capturing the neuroses of writers; 

People always describe jealousy as this sharp, green, venomous thing. Unfounded, vinegary, mean-spirited. But I’ve found that jealousy, to writers, feels more like fear. 

Jealousy is the spike in my heart rate when I glimpse news of Athena’s success on Twitter – another book contract, awards nominations, special editions, foreign rights delas. Jealousy is constantly comparing myself to her and coming up short; is panicking that I’m not writing well enough or fast enough, that I am not, and never will be, enough. Jealousy means that even just learning that Athena’s signing a six-figure option deal with Netflix means that I’ll be derailed for days, unable to focus on my own work, mired by shame and self-disgust every time I see one of her books in a bookstore display. 

Every writer I know feels this way about someone else. Writing is such a solitary activity. You have no assurance that what you’re creating has any value, and any indication that you’re behind in the rat race sends you spiralling into the pits of despair. ‘Keep your eyes on your own paper,’ they say. But that’s hard to do when everyone else’s papers are flapping constantly in your face. 

To saying the quiet part out loud; that (especially in America) 1% of authors get 99% of a publisher’s time, effort and budget – by design; 

… author efforts have nothing to do with a book’s success. Bestsellers are chosen. Nothing you do matters. You just get to enjoy the perks along the way. 

And then the occasional thought that feels *very* inside-jokey. Case-in-point, that I marked this line as getting a real laugh-out-loud moment from me (because it’s so true); 

We’ve sold rights in Germany, Spain, Poland, and Russia. ‘Not France, yet, but we’re working on it,’ says Brett. ‘But nobody sells well in France. If the French like you, then you’re doing something very wrong.’

… but I wondered; will regular people care? 

No. Sorry. When I say “regular people,” I don’t mean that like a bad thing. I mean people who are not close to book-publishing in any way, beyond enjoying what it produces. I wondered if Kuang’s book was too close to the bone, and regular readers wouldn’t be able to appreciate the forest for the trees? The literary equivalent of; we’re too online. I also wondered this because I have noticed that on BookTok (what did I just say about ‘too online’?) I did notice that criticism of the book is largely about slow-pacing, and it being boring? But I didn’t get that, at all. I found it to have a cracking pace and brilliant plotted set-up … much of which took place in corporate emails that gave me second-hand anxiety for the very realistic and awful conversations I know are being had behind closed doors, and they are alluding to. I wonder if these micro-aggressions and corporate blunders are too mired in the world of book-publishing to be of significance to people outside of it? 

But then I thought; I loved Gabrielle Zevin’s ‘Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow’ which is about developing video-games (which I know nothing about). Also that I loved TV show ‘Succession,’ and just nodded along whenever they spoke of corporate take-overs and what the stock-market was doing or whatever. I’d gloss over it as “business stuff,” and get the gist. Andrew Sean Greer’s ‘Less’ is also about the sad side to literary life, and that got a wonderful critical and commercial reception. For a few months there so many people were obsessed with Caroline Calloway and the ghost-writing friend who broke her silence; everyone got the broad brush-strokes of that scandal, and I am sure they will in ‘Yellowface’ too? They might come away thinking complaining about book-publishing is all a bit “my glass slippers are too tight,” bourgeois clap-trap and we are all chronically online, but … I mean; yeah. Kind of. Accurate. 

But to the online of it all – my other question was how future-proof Yellowface would prove to be? Already the novel delves deeply into Book Twitter fuelling scandals and gossip, and already it reads slightly outdated for the weight Juniper ascribes to “blue-check mark” Tweeters … which; Elon Musk has ruined. There’s lots of name-dropping of current social media apps and the indiscretions and pile-on’s they’ve fuelled; and as writers, we’re constantly told not to do that, because it will age a book. And I think that’s true here, but – does it matter? Kuang is commenting in a very zeitgeist-y way on art, culture, media, and illusions of community happening *right now* and the book being touted as The Read of the Year means it’ll be read in a timely it-just-hit-shelves-and-I-have-to-read-it fashion. It’s Kuang very much capturing ~a moment~ in time, and if it ends up reading more like a time-capsule that might be baffling to future-readers in a decade; is that a bad thing? Maybe not? 

But Twitter is real life; it realer than real life, because that is the realm that the social economy of publishing exists on, because the industry has no alternative. Offline, writers are all faceless, hypothetical creatures pounding our words in isolation from one another. You can’t peek over anyone’s shoulder. You can’t tell if everyone else is really doing as dandy as they pretend they are. But online, you can tune into all the hot gossip, even if you’re not nearly important enough to have a seat in the room where it happens. Online, you can tell Stephen King to go fuck himself. Online, you can discover that the current literary star of the moment is actually so problematic that all of her works should be cancelled, forever. Reputations in publishing are built and destroyed, constantly, online. 

I loved this book. I inhaled it – even as I squirmed, and it made me look uncomfortably inward at the gate-keeping role I play in the very industry Kuang is bemoaning, and beloved by. I honestly think it’s a very special book precisely because it feels like absolutely nobody else could have written it – and how ironic, given the plot! – but it feels like a right place, right time, right author type of deal … and it reads kismet and electric; you absolutely feel that pulse on the page of “ohhhhh, this is almost unbearably special.” I’ve never felt such second-hand, heart-palpitating anxiety while reading, or such painful self-reflection that it felt like a cleansing of sorts. 

I’m only still on-the-fence about how “outsiders” will perceive it, and how future-readers might be baffled by the weight we placed on an app that is currently being run into the ground by a maniacal Musk. 

But my gosh … what a feast of hot-tea. What a wake-up call that my industry needs, and only this author could deliver in such a decisive and well-packaged blow. What an ‘American Dirt’ meets John Hughes plagiarism, Caroline Calloway ghost-written, Mary Hallock Foote being stolen, James Frey, and ‘The Hand that Signed the Paper’ (I could go on) what a gem of a book. 


| More